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The Guide to AP Classes

Most high school students are familiar with what AP classes are, and a good amount of U.S. high schoolers have taken at least 1 AP class and/or exam. But what are the benefits and drawbacks of taking an AP class, both during and beyond high school? We’re here to answer the most commonly-asked questions about the Advanced Placement program.

Advanced Placement, or “AP,” is a program created by the College Board that offers college-level curricula and exams to high school students. You might recognize the College Board as the group that also runs the SAT and PSAT/NMSQT, as well as offers financial aid and college admissions resources. Even though the classes are taught by each school’s respective faculty, the curriculum and exam material is standardized, earning each student an exam score from 1 to 5 based on their level of mastery.

In the class of 2021, 1,178,256 U.S. public high school graduates — 34.9% of all public high school graduates in the country — took at least 1 AP exam. The pandemic made AP testing a bit more complicated, but a digital testing option made AP tests a bit more accessible than before. However, this year, most AP exams will be administered in the traditional pen-and-paper format, and the AP exams are set to begin in May and will continue over the course of several weeks.

For students who are also in the process of picking their classes for the upcoming year, you may be wondering which APs, if any, are a good fit for you and the potential impact it could have on the rest of your time in high school and in the college admissions process. Here are some of our answers to the most common questions we get asked about AP classes and exams.

Why should I take AP classes?

The best reason for taking AP classes is different for every student. However, there are some quantifiable benefits, such as a GPA boost, college credit, the advantage in college admissions, and more, that apply to most AP students. Strong AP scores can also help students receive merit-based financial aid and scholarships, especially in the subjects they’d like to pursue in college and beyond. And nowadays there are so many free resources available to help students tackle even the most challenging AP classes that you won’t have to struggle alone to keep up with your work.

AP classes are more difficult than the standard high school class, but they give students a taste of what a college curriculum may feel like. As a result, they can help students go to college feeling more prepared and self-assured about their academic careers, which can be invaluable.

Which AP classes should I take?

The answer to this question depends on myriad factors — i.e. academic strengths and interests, prerequisite classes taken, teacher recommendations, room in your schedule, and more. Basically, you should take the AP classes that will challenge you, but not to the point where you’re sacrificing your success in other classes or hindering your ability to fulfill other commitments.

Just because an AP class is hard and may “look good” on a transcript doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for you. While colleges often look favorably on students who push themselves in all of their subjects, it’s not worth tanking your GPA and damaging your mental health to take a class that is incredibly difficult. For instance, if you’re a stellar humanities student, there’s no need to take AP Physics and AP Chemistry. Instead, focus on AP history and English classes, while throwing in some moderately difficult STEM classes like AP Statistics, AP Psych, or AP Biology, if possible. And if you’re not sure which class would be the best fit for you, ask previous teachers what they think might fit your skillset — you will likely need their recommendation anyways to take certain AP classes.

If you’re a first-year high school student planning out your longer-term academic plan, look at what juniors and seniors in your school often do. Usually, there is some kind of track that advanced students follow with some variation depending on the factors mentioned above. Make sure you have enough time to fulfill any prerequisites and meet credit requirements for graduation and consider where you can step outside of your comfort zone to push yourself or explore new interests.

How many AP tests should I take?

This answer to this question will also vary from student to student and school to school. Most schools place a limit on when students can start taking APs and, especially in the first two years of high school, how many they can take per year. For instance, it’s common that students only take 1 AP in their second year (often an AP History class), and then expand that number in their junior and senior years. While some students are an exception to this trajectory, it’s important for most students to cover the fundamentals of their core subjects before moving on to the more advanced courses.

Furthermore, many schools offer a limited number of APs due to the availability of school resources. It’s important to note that in the college admissions process, your transcript will be considered in the context of how many advanced classes are offered, so don’t worry if your friend at a bigger school is taking 10 APs if you are only allowed to take 5. College admissions officers want to see that you’re challenging yourself, so make the most of the different AP offerings that you can access at your high school.

Can I actually get college credit for taking an AP class?

Yes, but it depends on the kind of credit that your college or university accepts. Many liberal arts colleges with a highly specialized and unique curriculum or elite institutions may not accept any of your AP credits, but that can depend on your major as well. Many schools will allow you to opt out of gen-ed or low-level courses if you have an AP score of 3 or higher in that subject, even if those credits might not count towards your graduation requirements, and they will allow you to take higher-level courses earlier. Additionally, self-directed projects in classes like AP Research can help you score extracurricular and employment opportunities on campus faster.

It’s important to note that AP credits, while considered to be college-level coursework, are not the same as dual enrollment courses, which are actually offered through a local higher education institution. The two types of credits will likely be seen differently at each college and university, so make sure to check with your registrar before your first year of university to see what might be counted.

Do I have to take AP exams if I take an AP class? If I have the choice, should I take the AP test?

The answer to the first question depends on your school’s requirements. For instance, some schools require you to take the test (not necessarily pass — i.e. get a 3 or above) to get credit for the course. Obviously, in that case, you will be taking the test and likely preparing for it during your class sessions.

If your school doesn’t require you to take the test, it’s still in your best interest to take it. There is a fee associated with the exam, but if you qualify for a fee reduction, the cost decreases from $96-144 to $53 per exam. You’ve spent a full year learning the material on the test, so it’s usually worth making the most of the hard work you’ve put in by taking it.

What are the potential drawbacks of taking AP classes?

Since AP classes teach collegiate-level material, they’re fast-paced, and the workload is heavy. Oftentimes, AP courses, especially STEM classes, will be some of the hardest classes high school students will take over their four years of high school.

If you do choose to take an AP class, it’s important that you make enough time between all of your academic and extracurricular commitments to complete the course to the best of your abilities. Otherwise, AP classes can take a toll on your GPA and mental wellbeing. And if there is a specific and unique class your school offers but conflicts with an AP class, it is important to consider what might be most engaging and useful to you based on your academic goals.

If you’re concerned about a specific AP class, ask your teacher or counselor if they think it’s a good fit for you at this time in your academic career.

How do I prepare for AP exams?

It’s important to create a study plan well in advance — if you haven’t started studying for this year’s exams, get started today! That way, you can make sure to review the intricacies of the material while familiarizing yourself with the structure of the exams. Practice tests, whether on the College Board website (check out the AP Classroom resources), Khan Academy, or in a review book, are a great way to experience testing conditions and gauge your preparedness so you can figure out what you need to review.

If you’re struggling with preparing for the exams on your own, you can hire a tutor. H&C Education offers personalized, 1-on-1 tutoring with our standardized test specialist. We work with you to create a comprehensive study plan and keep you on track to excel.

Contact us today to set up a free consultation with one of our college admission consultants!

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