You don’t have to look too far at any particular high school to find students who are stressed or even obsessed with how many AP courses they’re taking. Worry not. We’ll attempt to answer your top 5 questions about AP classes and exams.
1. What are the benefits of taking AP courses?
First, a few words about Advanced Placement courses. AP courses are a product of the College Board – you know, the people who make the SAT. There are over 30 AP courses, though the number of courses available can vary greatly from school to school. AP courses adhere to a standardized curriculum. The exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest passing grade and 1 and 2 are failing grades. Doing well on an AP exam often means you can bypass introductory courses and move directly into higher level classes at college. Some schools also allow you to earn college credit for the AP courses, saving you time and even money. Be sure to look at universities’ websites for the specifics – policies vary from school to school.
2. What if my high school doesn’t offer AP classes?
Good question! Be assured that colleges know your choices may be limited depending on your high school. Perhaps you go to a high school in rural Maine and your school only offers one Advanced Placement course. Are you going to be passed over during the admissions process if you only took 1 AP class versus a student from a large suburban high school who took 7 AP classes? Admissions committees are generally comprised of reasonable people. Yale’s website addresses this issue: “We know you did not design your school’s curriculum, and we only expect you to take advantage of such courses if your high school provides them. Different schools have different requirements that may restrict what courses you can take. Again, we only expect that you will excel in the opportunities to which you have access.” That’s reassuring, right?
That said, if your goal is to attend a top notch, highly selective school and your high school doesn’t offer many AP courses, there are other options. The College Board says, “There may be opportunities to take AP courses outside of your high school. Talk to your counselor about taking a course online through an approved provider.” Colleges will be impressed at your initiative to go beyond your high school’s offerings to take courses that are more challenging.
3. Should I take an AP class even if I earn a B in it instead of an A in an easier course?
Generally, it’s better to challenge yourself and take more rigorous courses, even if it means getting B’s instead of A’s. Princeton University says, “We consider it a promising sign when students challenge themselves with advanced courses in high school.” UCLA says, “If you have the opportunity to take advanced courses, take them.” UCLA weights grades that are received in AP courses to account for the level of difficulty.
Be careful not to overstretch yourself with too many AP courses. If you aren’t able to get at least a B in an AP course, then you’re better off taking a less rigorous course in which you can score a higher grade. Despite the AP designation, if you typically score A’s and B’s on your report card, a C in an AP course can stick out like a sore thumb. Not only that, the low grade can pull down your GPA and your class rank, which are also important factors colleges consider when making admissions decisions.
4. How many AP courses should I take?
Before signing up for every AP course your school offers, carefully consider the impact it will have on things like your GPA, your free time and your extracurricular activities. Speak with your parents, your guidance counselor, and admissions officers at colleges in which you’re interested to get sound advice on your course load. Some schools may emphasize AP courses more than others. Stanford states, “AP scores that are reported are acknowledged but rarely play a significant role in the evaluation of an application. Grades earned over the course of a term, or a year, and evaluations from instructors who can comment on classroom engagement provide us with the most detailed insight into a student’s readiness for the academic rigors of Stanford.” If you already have a good idea of your top choice schools, find out their view on AP courses.
If you want to attend a highly selective school, then you should probably take several AP courses – it’s not uncommon for students who attend the top colleges in the country to have taken 7 or more AP courses! Try to spread them out over your high school career, instead of taking the bulk of them senior year. Take into consideration how much time will be required for the courses. Some are more difficult than others. For example, the AP Calculus BC course is considered one of the more difficult AP courses. It’s more challenging than AP Statistics. But, it may be a more impressive accomplishment on your transcript. And, if you intend to go into a STEM field, colleges will be impressed with a 5 on AP Calculus BC.
If you’re aiming for a selective school, but perhaps not one of the top 10, then taking a few AP courses would be a good goal. If you’re aiming for a school that’s less selective, then it’s up to you. Regardless of admissions decisions, AP courses will go a long way toward preparing you for the demands of a college course. Doing well on the exam can also free up some time at college to take electives. You won’t have to spend as much time taking core courses.
5. If I don’t do well on an AP exam, can I retake it?
Sure, you can! The only catch: you have to wait another year. Each AP exam is only offered once per year, typically in May. So be sure to prepare well! The College Board’s website has the free response questions available for the past several years. This is a great resource for you as your study for the exams. The website also includes scoring guidelines and sample answers.
Remember, colleges are impressed with students who challenge themselves by taking AP and other honors level courses. It shows colleges that you have what it takes to succeed at the university level. Start planning now to better prepare for your future!