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Are AP Classes Worth it: The Impact on College Admissions

April 01, 2023 :: Admissionado Team

The AP (Advanced Placement) Program is administered by the College Board (the same folks who cook up the SATs) and is technically considered a college-level curriculum.  Some courses are a full year; some are only half. All AP exams are given in May, and you may be able to trade a high score for college credit.

The AP exam’s popularity has been on the rise since it was first created in the 50’s. As the college admissions process has gotten more competitive, students have loaded up their schedules with AP courses to improve their chances—but will adding that one extra AP course really make a difference? As you adjust your schedule, there are a few things to consider before heaping a large helping of AP courses onto your plate.

Deciding How Many AP Classes To Take

Do College Reaaaally Care about AP Classes?

In the arms race to have the best, most competitive transcript to send in with your college applications, students have begun taking AP courses earlier in their high school career, and racking up more AP courses than in previous years. This trend has led both high schools and some in the admissions community to question their value. 

Several years ago, eight elite independent high schools in the Washington D.C. area announced in a letter to the Washington Post that they would no longer be offering AP courses, eliciting strong reactions from every corner of the higher education community. Some came out in support of the move as a step toward “disarmament” in elite college admissions, while others dismissed the move as elitist (arguing that these schools, because of their reputation, can afford to nix APs, while most high schools need APs to establish their credibility).

Wherever you fall in this argument, the reality is that AP courses, and, yes, the exams, are still valuable for most students aiming for elite colleges. While we can argue in theory about whether this should be true—citing the damaging effects of students feeling the need to do more and more to set themselves apart, and the resultant stress—AP courses remain an important standardized measure of a student’s ability, indicating to colleges that they are competitive with applicants from other schools. 

So unless you are lucky enough to attend a high school that has the heft and reputation to throw these courses out the window (and likely replace them with their own carefully designed system of honors courses), go ahead and sign up for more College Board-designed fun. But tread carefully.

Do AP scores Matter for College Admissions? 

Do colleges look at AP scores? The answer is YES, they do and they care. In deciding on how many classes to take, think QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. If you are disappointed by low scores this July, you may consider whether you have overstretched yourself. Colleges value the AP test as a way to measure a student’s ability, and they won’t be impressed by low scores on the 4 or 5 AP exams you’ve been cramming for between piano lessons, sports practice and volunteering commitments. 

When choosing next year’s course load, college admissions will undoubtedly be on your mind. But step back and think holistically about how your file will look to an admissions officer. Having the wisdom to choose just a couple AP courses—ones that you are truly interested in—and balancing it with the other commitments in your life in such a way that enables you to excel (measured by a 4 or 5 in exam scores)—now THAT is a competitive candidate profile.

What AP classes should I take?

While we shouldn’t need to say it, you shouldn’t be taking these classes with earning college credit in mind any more than you should be packing them into your schedule just to impress. While it is a potential bonus, different colleges and universities have different policies about what exams and what scores they give credit for, and angling for this benefit may not even pay. The long and short of it is: take AP courses that you are actually interested in, and don’t overburden yourself. If you do, you won’t have time for extracurricular activities…which is CRUCIAL in any successful application.

Other Frequently Asked Questions about AP Classes

Every spring, we get all kinds of questions from parents and students about signing up for AP courses. Here are a few that we’ve seen come up!

What do I do if my school doesn’t offer AP classes?

Some high schools only offer a few AP classes; others have dozens of them.  Colleges understand this. When they scour your transcript, they’re not looking specifically for AP classes.  They’re looking to see that you took a challenging course load based on what your school offers.  So if your school only has two AP classes, and you took both, that’s great!  If your school has twenty AP classes and you only took two, you may need a few more APs for a highly selective school.

Is it better to get an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class?

When you’re picking your classes, you need to think of your course load as a whole.  If you struggle with science, AP Chemistry may not be the best choice for you; the hours that you spend trying to balance chemical reactions may impact your work in other classes.   So don’t take an AP class just to have it on your transcript – think about the bigger picture.

Do I need to fill my schedule with AP classes?

Colleges want to see that when given the choice between an easy thing and a hard thing, you choose the hard thing. Ideally, if you’re aiming for an Ivy-level school, you would be taking AP courses whenever you’re given the choice to show that you’re up for the challenge. But if taking a full semester of AP courses would sink your grades, you should prioritize taking APs in subjects close to your intended major. For example, if you’re a STEM student, make sure you’re taking AP Calc BC. If you’re an artist, make sure you’re taking AP Language.

Another “trick” is to take a non-AP course in a subject that isn’t offered in the AP system. For example, you might take “Animals in Literature” instead of AP Language. As a student of animal literature, you don’t look like you’re shying away from a challenge. Instead, you look like you’re really into puppy novels—and who isn’t!

I’m really interested in X class, but it’s not AP. Should I take it?

Yes! You should always be following your interests first. The AP vs. Regular Course question really only comes into play when you’re comparing otherwise identical courses, like AP Physics vs. regular Physics or AP U.S. History vs. regular history. When the only difference is difficulty, colleges want you to go for the more difficult option, but if you’re looking at a course out of left field, like “History of Spiders,” by all means study the spiders!

But won’t that ruin my weighted GPA? And what about my class rank?

These things aren’t as important as you imagine, at least not in the way you think! Colleges are going to recalculate your GPA using their own metrics, and they’ll read your transcript cover to cover. So strategizing for a top weighted GPA isn’t all that crucial, and it’s certainly not as important as following your intellectual interests wherever they might bend. If it really is a genuine urge that’s pulling you towards spiders, you should answer the call!

What is the difference between Honors and AP classes?

There’s no difference at all as far as college admissions is concerned. AP’s are really only important to the extent that they show you’re choosing difficult courses, and honors courses communicate exactly the same thing. If you have the choice between an honors course or an AP course, you might go for honors because you will (1) free yourself of the expectation of taking the AP test and (2) probably have a better experience in a course that isn’t teaching to a test.

Do AP classes count as college credit?

Yes and no. Some colleges do accept AP scores for credit hours, but others (especially top schools) will only accept high scores to place you out of introductory courses.  For example, at Brown University, if you got a 5 on your AP Calculus BC exam, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take your calculus requirement for your Economics major.  It means that you’ll be placed in a higher-level calculus class instead. You can check out AP policies on school websites.

What’s the difference between AP and IB?

The IB (International Baccalaureate) Diploma Program is the international cousin of the AP Program.  Like the AP, the IB program tests a single subject, assesses with an exam in May, and is considered a college-level course.  Colleges look at IB and AP courses similarly, though colleges are generally more familiar with the AP curriculum.

When determining which program is right for you, it is important to consider what type of student you are and what type of schedule you have. The IB diploma program has a heavy emphasis on writing, which might be an advantage to a student who is a particularly strong writer or one who is looking to improve their writing skills. Most IB programs require students to devote a significant amount of time to the extended essay over the summer, which might not be suitable for students who are very involved in sports or other extracurriculars. Earning college credit in an AP program, on the other hand, requires being a very good test taker. If a student tends to do well in classes but struggles during exams, AP might not be the best option.

Soooo we know that’s a lot but that’s all you really need to know for now.  Take a challenging course load that you can do well in, and if you can, sprinkle a few APs on the top! If you have other questions, sign up for a free consultation to talk to one of our experts today.