Most high school students have questions about AP Classes. If you’re one of them, you’re in luck. In this post, we’ll address some of the most frequently asked questions and share the answers and inside info that will help put you on a path to AP success.
What are AP classes? What is the history behind them?
Advanced Placement or AP classes began in the 1950’s as a way for high school students to show college readiness. The College Board, which also offers the SAT exams, creates the curriculum and exams in conjunction with HS teachers across the country. The classes are typically taken in Junior and Senior year in HS with a big test in May/June to show proficiency in the material. Tests are based on multiple choice questions, short answer statements, and essays. Exams are graded on a 1-5 system with 3 being passing and a 4 or 5 showing mastery of the material. Each test costs as much as $100 to take. Many colleges will offer college level credit for a score of 4 or 5 on an AP exam. The College Board now offers almost 40 AP subject areas each year. High schools determine how many AP classes to offer based on their school budgets and staffing. Data about AP exams is listed online at the College Board.
Why are colleges looking at them? What do they hope to see?
Admissions officers look at your classes to learn about your interests and skills. Taking AP classes is a great way to show additional interest in a subject and explore further while developing key skills. Furthermore, colleges know that the transcripts are the best determination of student success. Success is not simply based on the overall GPA, but instead on the types of classes taken each year and the grades earned in each class. Admissions officers expect students to challenge themselves by taking harder classes as the years go on so that they will be ready for college level material. The strength of a transcript is determined by the rigor or challenge of each class. Rigor is usually based on whether the student has taken a regular, honors, accelerated, advanced, or college class. Each HS and even each teacher will teach a bit differently and grade differently. So, the College Board AP tests are a way to standardize the curriculum. At the end of the year, the AP exam is the same regardless of what HS you attend, which means a final exam score helps admissions officers more easily compare students from different high schools with various curriculums, grading systems, and teaching styles.
Why are you taking the classes? What do you hope to gain? What type of student are you?
The question you should ask yourself as you are choosing your classes each year is “Why am I taking these classes?” But there are plenty of follow-up questions that are important, too: What are you most excited about taking? What classes do you need for HS graduation requirements? What would you like to learn more about? What classes are easy for you and why? What classes are harder for you and why? What skills do you hope to gain by taking these classes? Or are you merely taking them to fulfill requirements and impress colleges? What happens when you are not motivated or interested in a class? Can you still do well? These are personal questions that require reflection and introspection. Great students take challenging courses for their love of learning and not merely to get a good grade or impress someone else. Their motivations are internal rather than external, which is why they stay motivated and persist even when things get hard. Students who take challenging classes because they think that is the only way of getting ahead often feel burnt out and negative about subject areas they are not interested in learning. Students should also consider if they are good test takers because the final exam is often particularly rigorous.
What else are you doing? How are you balancing your time?
Many students do multiple activities outside of class. Those extracurricular activities can be deeply fulfilling and take up a great deal of time. It is important for every student to find balance with both their time and energy. It is especially important for HS students to find time to eat, sleep, spend time with family, and develop friendships so they grow physically, mentally, and emotionally. Many students also have additional responsibilities such as a job or family obligations. Advanced classes can and will take up more time and energy than regular classes. AP classes should be chosen with the whole picture in mind so that each student feels balanced.
Is it better to get an A in the regular class or a B in an AP class?
To be quite honest, most admissions officers will tell you it is best to get an A in the AP class, especially if they work for a highly selective college. If an A in an AP class is not possible, it is still better to get the B in an AP class rather than an A in a regular class. Some high schools will give extra weight to Honors and AP classes given that they are more challenging. Many colleges will re-compute HS GPAs without giving weight to any classes. Keep in mind, most students who are challenged will learn more and do better than the student who is bored and thus unengaged in class. Basically, if you can do the work and do well in an AP class, you should take it.
What types of colleges are you hoping to attend? Will those schools accept AP scores?
Highly selective schools will expect to see more rigorous classes, which usually means more honors, accelerated, IB, and AP classes. Those highly selective schools also do not often give credit towards college graduation requirements with high AP test scores, but they may let students place out of introductory classes with their high AP scores. So basically, highly selective schools are expecting to see many AP classes and high AP exam scores for admissions purposes but may not offer much in the way of credits for that work. Less selective colleges may not expect to see as many AP classes, but may reward students who have them with college credits. These credits may be used towards college graduation in some cases, which means students can receive advanced standing with additional perks like having priority during registration periods or less time in college (which can save thousands in tuition). You should know what type of college you are shooting for and what their policies and expectations are for both admission and college graduation.
How many AP classes does your high school offer? Why does this matter? What if my high school does not have AP classes?
While AP classes are supposed to be a way to level the academic field, this is not actually the case. Some high schools offer no AP classes while others offer 20 or more. This is due to high school resources such as budgets and staffing. If your school does not have any (or very few) AP classes, you will not be penalized by college admissions officers. They will see your high school profile, which will show them what types of classes are offered. Your transcript will be reviewed in context with what is offered. If your high school offers many AP classes, no college admissions officer is expecting you to take every single one. Again, be strategic about taking the classes that will be at the right level of challenge and interest for you so that you stay motivated during the class and do well while juggling other parts of your life.
What happens if I take an AP class without taking the test?
There are students who take AP classes without taking the final test. This is sometimes due to the costly nature of the exams, because a student is not ready for the test, because the student is not physically well on the day of the test, or because of the way the pandemic changed the ways in which the tests were administered. Some colleges say that taking the class is the real measure of challenge, and that can help a student’s chances of admissions. Some colleges will wonder why the test was not taken, so you might use the additional area of the Common Application to explain what happened. Most colleges assume that if the class was taken, then the student was planning on taking the test. However, in most cases the AP classes help determine admissions decisions and the final exam scores are used to determine credit or placement once the student enters college.
Should I take an AP test even without taking the class, meaning should I self-study?
This heavily depends on where you plan to attend college. Most schools do not care to see AP exam final scores without the class. Doing that tells them you are self-motivated and a good test taker, but they do not necessarily see on-going class rigor and challenge during the school year. They may think you are merely trying to impress them (which never works) or that you are trying to get ahead with credits, which means less time in college (they do not like that much either). Basically, taking the test without the class probably will not help in the admissions process, especially for highly selective schools that already know you can do the work. More tests will not make you stand out in the process. Students are better off showing their skills and interests in extracurricular activities and projects rather than more testing. Students who want to graduate from college early can take more AP exams and get credits that way. Look carefully at the college’s website to determine what they give credit for and if there are maximums.
Is it better to take a dual enrollment class or an AP class?
This seems tangential to our topic, but it often comes up in our discussions with students when planning coursework. Most of the highly selective schools seem to prefer AP classes because they are considered a more standard measurement than a dual enrollment class. AP classes cover and test for the same topics regardless of the school. Dual enrollment classes can vary depending on where the class is taken and who is teaching it. However, others argue that dual enrollment might be a cheaper option than AP and since there is no test at the end of the year, it may be a better way to get credit. Some colleges, especially many of the highly selective ones, will not accept any classes taken at community college, so look carefully at the college you are attending when possible before you make your final decision. For more advice, check out this page.
Is there such a thing as too few or too many AP classes?
This must be taken in context. If your school does not offer classes, then you will not be penalized for not taking them. However, if your school offers many AP classes, then a college admissions officer might compare what you have taken with what is offered. With that said, no college expects you to take every AP class offered at your school, especially if your grades suffer as a result. You need to think about what classes you took the previous year, how you did, and what your stress level was. If all was good, then it makes sense to take a harder load in the coming year. However, if you did not do well, then it might be time to take a step back and take less rigorous classes while you work on time management, your skills, and your own personal health.
Our best, most practical advice is to take the hardest classes you can while still doing well academically, physically, and emotionally. Do not stretch yourself too thin. At the same time, do not take it easy either because being unchallenged never helps any of us grow. We have no magic number of AP classes you should take (we know that is frustrating!) but we hope you consider talking with us about your transcript and application plans as you make these class choices.
Do you need help preparing for an AP exam?
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