While in high school, you make a lot of decisions that impact your future college career. It’s no different when it comes to AP® classes. You have to decide whether to take advanced courses offered by your school and then whether to sit for AP exams.
You may have wondered, “Should I take AP classes?” or “Is it worth it to take AP classes?” If you have already decided to take AP classes, then you may ask yourself, “How many AP classes should I take?” and “Which AP courses should I take?”
It’s a lot to sort through and can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to be strategic in planning your high school course schedule. We know that AP classes matter to colleges. Competitive schools want you to take the most advanced curriculum available to you. Let’s break down everything you need to know about advanced courses and how they can help you stand out in the college admissions process.
What is an AP class?
Advanced Placement (AP) classes are college-level courses offered by the College Board at many high schools. Each course has a corresponding exam that you can choose to take to earn college credit.
AP vs. Pre-AP vs. Honors vs. Dual Credit vs. IB
You have options when it comes to advanced classes. Many high schools offer a variety of courses designed to challenge students and prepare them for higher education. Remember to explore how a course can benefit you before putting it on your schedule.
Types of courses vary from school to school, and colleges know that not every high school has the resources to teach these advanced courses. The most important thing is to challenge yourself and make the most of what’s available to you.
While these types of high school courses are quite similar, there are a few important differences to consider. Below is a breakdown of what to expect from each type of course.
There are 38 AP courses in various subject areas: art, English, history, social science, math, computer science, the physical sciences, and world languages. You get to decide which AP classes to take, but keep in mind that most high schools won’t offer all 38 AP courses.
All of these classes involve an advanced curriculum designed to challenge you. These courses have a weighted GPA, meaning you receive more points for taking them than your typical high school course. After completing the class, you can choose to take a national exam covering the course material. Many colleges will award full or partial course credit for high scores on specific AP exams. However, it’s important to check with the college first to determine how much credit you will receive.
“Pre-AP” is a label that many high schools have used to indicate that the class prepares students for future AP classes. In previous years, there were official and unofficial pre-AP classes. The official pre-AP classes would follow a curriculum approved by College Board. Unofficial pre-AP classes were not approved by College Board, and they were quite similar to honors classes.
Starting in fall of 2022, all classes labeled as “pre-AP” are required to have approval from College Board. All students will have access to these approved courses if they meet certain grade level requirements.
Honors courses are more challenging than general high school classes. Teachers design these courses to help prepare gifted and advanced students for higher education. However, these courses are not standardized like AP classes, meaning each school creates its own curriculum. Students do not receive college credit for honors courses, but they might receive weighted GPA for the course.
The dual credit system exists so that eligible high school students can enroll in a college course(s) and obtain both high school and college credit by passing the course(s). The student only has to pass the class to receive the credit. They don’t have to take an exam after completing the class. Students may receive more GPA points depending on their high school.
Colleges vary on whether they accept dual credit courses. For example, Texas law requires all public colleges in the state to accept dual credit core classes. However, this requirement does not apply to private and out-of-state colleges. For example, Rice University doesn’t accept dual credit courses.
Before enrolling in dual credit, contact the Registrar’s Office of the college(s) you are planning to apply to and verify if they will accept dual credit courses from your high school as transfer credits.
International Baccalaureate (IB)
The IB program challenges students to develop a global focus while strengthening their academic skills across subject areas. The program is designed for 11th and 12th graders and offers an IB diploma based on the student’s performance on IB exams and completion of additional program requirements. Participants receive more GPA points since the classes are advanced. Students can earn college credit if they score high enough on the IB exams, but colleges vary in whether they will award credit.
Benefits of Taking AP Courses
Prepare for College
The AP program is designed to prepare you for college. That’s why the courses are rigorous and designed to make you work hard.
Don’t let the challenge scare you away. Taking an AP class in a subject area that aligns with your skills and interests will help strengthen your transcript. These classes will better prepare you for college, and it can be helpful to enter college with a handful of your general education requirements already finished. These courses will also help you develop the reading, writing, testing, critical thinking, and studying skills necessary to succeed in college-level courses.
Looks Good for Admissions
As we’ve mentioned before, colleges want you to take the most advanced curriculum available to you. They’re looking for students who are willing to challenge themselves and can handle a rigorous workload. And remember, your transcript is an important piece of your college application. Succeeding in advanced courses can help you show that you’re ready to take on the college experience at your dream college.
Earn College Credit
You have the opportunity to save time and money by sitting for your AP exams. Many colleges will award credit for high AP scores. College courses can be expensive, and lightening your future workload could free up time in the future to focus on more challenging aspects of your college experience (like internships, extracurriculars, and upper-level courses).
Remember that each college differs in which classes they offer credit for and the score that they’ll accept. The College Board has an AP Credit Policy search tool you can use to look up specific colleges’ policies regarding AP credit. You can search by an individual college or by the AP course.
Boost Your GPA
Typically, unweighted GPAs are on a 4.0 scale, with an “A” equaling a 4.0 and F equaling a 0. With a weighted GPA, students are given an extra point for advanced classes, such as AP, Honors, and IB classes. For example, an “A” in AP English would be a 5.0 instead of a 4.0. Weighted GPAs are given to prevent students from getting a higher class ranking when taking only easy classes.
Having a weighted GPA will matter more with regards to your class rank as opposed to the GPA that colleges look at for admissions. Colleges typically look at your unweighted GPA and whether you took advantage of the advanced classes available to you. Keep in mind that students at schools with more AP classes will not be given an advantage over students at schools with only one AP class available.
AP exam scores range from one to five with five being the highest score.
● 5 = Extremely well qualified
● 4 = Well qualified
● 3 = Qualified
● 2 = Possibly qualified
● 1 = No recommendation
The College Board does not require you to take the exams for the AP classes you complete. However, some high schools require that you sit for the exams of any AP classes you take. Talk to your campus AP coordinator or guidance counselor to find out your high school’s requirements.
The College Board also allows students to sit for exams even if they have not taken the course. Although they don’t recommend this, it does give students the option to take exams of AP classes not offered by their high school.
During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the College Board made changes to their testing and score reporting process. As of 2022, they have gone back to their original process of a fall deadline for test registration, May exam dates, and summer score release dates.
When to Report Your AP Scores
If you have a strong score of a 4 or 5, it’s generally a good idea to report your exam score to your college. Some schools will even award credit for 3’s. Look up what scores your chosen college accepts for course credit. For example, Harvard only awards course credit for 5’s, whereas Dartmouth awards credit for 4’s in certain subjects. When applying to Harvard, you wouldn’t need to send your scores if you received a 4 or lower, but you’d want to send your 4’s to Dartmouth if they were in subject areas that accepted 4’s.
Some colleges have also implemented policies that allow applicants to submit AP exam scores instead of taking the SAT® test. For example, NYU will accept at least three AP scores instead of an SAT test score. If you decide on this option, you will need to request an official AP score report be sent to the college of your choice.
If you received a low score on an exam, don’t feel pressured to send that score to the college you’re applying to. The College Board provides students the option to withhold certain scores from the official score report sent to colleges.
Which AP Classes Should You Take?
There are several factors to consider when determining which AP classes to take. You’ll need to find out information from your high school and your top college choices, and you’ll need to do some self-reflection on what you can fit into your school schedule.
It’s best to start thinking about course selection as early as 8th and 9th grade. Sit down with your parents or guidance counselor to evaluate your goals and build a plan. It can also help to discuss your options with an admissions expert. Our college counseling team can help your student with course selection, as well as several other aspects of the college prep journey.
Identify AP Class Availability
The first step is to find out what AP classes are offered at your high school. Most schools will offer somewhere around eight AP courses. Talk to your guidance counselor to get a full list of the AP classes available to you.
If a particular class is not available, do not worry. Colleges will receive a school profile along with your transcript that provides an overview of a school’s details, such as class size, class ranking policy, and a list of available AP and honors classes. Admissions officers will review your transcript with the understanding that your high school only offers the specific AP courses listed in the school profile.
Take Your Strengths and Weaknesses Into Account
As you work with your guidance counselor to select classes, think about your academic strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you excel in science, think about taking AP Chemistry, AP Environmental Science, or AP Biology. If you struggle in science, you’d probably be better off taking AP classes surrounding a subject area in which you perform best.
Be a Competitive Applicant
There is no exact number of AP classes that you should take. However, the more selective the college, the more AP classes they expect students to have taken for general admission. Below are some general suggestions based on your school of choice.
- Ivy League/Elite Schools – Minimum of 8 AP classes
- Top Schools/Honor Programs at State Schools – Minimum of 6 AP classes
- Schools with Moderate to Low Competition – Varies by college and degree program
Identify Your Passions and Interests
Next, think about what you’re passionate about. If you already have a major or career path in mind, select AP classes that interest you and align with your anticipated major or career. The College Board has another helpful tool that allows you to connect AP classes to majors and careers.
Review Your Workload and Time Commitments
Take into account what your workload will look like when selecting which classes to take. If you have a lot of extracurricular activities and work outside of school, it’s a good idea to talk to your guidance counselor about how to best organize your schedule to reduce the risk of you getting too overwhelmed. You want to take as many AP classes as you can handle because colleges want to see you taking the most rigorous courses available to you, but not at the expense of your mental health and GPA.
A little stress can challenge you, but too much stress can negatively impact your overall academic performance. Think about how many AP classes are feasible for you to take with your current extracurriculars and commitments while still maintaining your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
Verify Your Top Choice College’s Credit Policies
Lastly, if you already know which college you want to attend, go through the AP Credit Policy search tool to identify which AP classes that college offers credit for and what scores you will need to make on those AP exams. Once you’ve set your benchmark, you’ll be able to build a study plan that will help you reach those goals.
Need Help Aligning Your AP Classes with Your Chosen College and Major?
KD College Prep offers numerous college counseling programs to help you learn how to stand out. We help students navigate the entire college admissions process through planning seminars, test prep courses, boot camps, and one-on-one sessions. Find out more about our programs by scheduling a free consultation with a member of our team today.