AP Classes: Are They Worth It?

portrait of Steve Bailey
by Steve Bailey
Published on March 3, 2021

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AP Classes: Are They Worth It?

According to the College Board, more than 2.8 million students in grades 9-12 took AP exams in 2019. World history, English language and composition, calculus, government and politics, statistics, and psychology are some of the most popular AP subjects.

Students taking AP classes can earn college credit, prepare themselves for the rigors of higher education, and even skip introductory classes at the next level. Scoring well on AP tests also helps students qualify for admission to the nation's top postsecondary institutions.

What Are AP Classes?

AP classes allow high school students to take more rigorous courses. Additionally, if they score well on the accompanying AP test, they can earn college credit and/or bypass some general education requirements once they enroll in college.

World history, English, calculus, statistics, and psychology are popular AP subjects.

Students may take AP courses in the arts, English, history, social studies, the sciences, math, and computer science. They can also explore a variety of world languages and cultural courses, including offerings in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish.

These classes cover complex topics typically only found in higher education settings. AP courses also move at a fast pace and require a significant amount of studying and working on assignments outside of class. Students who take an AP class should expect to be challenged more than they would during the average high school course.

How Many AP Classes Should You Take?

Students looking to earn admission to highly selective colleges should take multiple AP classes to bolster their applications and demonstrate they can handle challenging coursework. Some college admissions experts recommend taking as many as 7-12 AP courses before applying to the most elite universities; however, many students who take 4-5 AP courses qualify for very good schools, including many of the country's top public research institutions.

Students should balance taking AP courses with ensuring they maintain a healthy schedule and avoid burnout. Colleges usually only reward students for taking difficult course loads if they do well on their AP tests. Taking a large number of AP courses but only earning high scores on a few AP exams probably won't do much to help students get into elite universities.

What Are AP Exams?

At the end of each course, students take an AP exam to determine how well they mastered the content. Students usually take the test alongside their peers, either at their school or another proctored site. The College Board administers the exam once per year in May.

After they take the AP exam, students receive a score from 1-5. A score of 3 or above typically qualifies them for college credit.

Each AP test costs $95 to take, though individuals with demonstrated financial need may apply for a fee reduction. Students may register for an exam any time it's available, with no limit on the number of times they can take it.

4 Benefits of Taking an AP Class

Many colleges and universities grant credit for AP courses students take while in high school. To earn this credit, students typically need to score a 3 or above on an AP test.

In addition to earning college credits, students who score well on AP exams can often skip introductory classes, allowing them to move more quickly into coursework for their major. Skipping introductory courses can benefit learners who already know what they want to study in college.

By skipping introductory classes, students can reduce the total amount of time spent pursuing their degree. Eliminating a semester or more of college classes can save students a lot of money in tuition, while also allowing them to move more rapidly into graduate school or a career. One of the best ways to test out of lower-level college courses is to take AP classes.

High schoolers who demonstrate they can do well while taking college-level coursework tend to stand out to admissions departments at the nation's top colleges. Students looking to attend prestigious and highly selective universities can take AP classes to boost their applications.

The most impressive college applicants boast an array of challenging honors and AP courses on their transcripts, along with a variety of extracurricular and community service experiences.

AP classes give students practice as they prepare for the rigors of college-level coursework. Because AP classes move at a similar pace to college courses, students get a sense of the commitment, time management, and other skills they'll need to achieve success at the next level.

AP courses also help students learn effective study habits that can serve them well as they move into a higher education setting.

Factors to Consider Before Taking an AP Class

Know Your Subject Strengths

For their first AP class, students should consider taking a subject with which they possess some familiarity or have had success in the past. Taking a course focused on a brand new subject can present several challenges, as students may need to start from scratch while working at an elevated pace.

For example, a student who has received good marks in previous science classes may take AP chemistry or AP biology as a logical next step.

Consider Your Schedule

Students should carefully consider their course load each semester or trimester when deciding how many AP courses to take. Attempting too many highly challenging classes at a time can lead to burnout and frustration, negatively affecting a student's GPA and mental health.

Students should also think about the demands of extracurricular activities, honors courses, part-time jobs, and other personal responsibilities as they plan to take AP courses.

AP Course Difficulty

AP classes provide a much greater level of rigor compared to the typical high school course. As such, students must look at each course description to determine whether they feel ready to tackle the subject matter.

Performing poorly in AP courses can negatively affect a student's overall GPA, doing more harm than good when it comes time to apply for college.

Are AP Classes Worth It?

In addition to giving students the opportunity to earn college credit before they graduate from high school, AP courses help prepare learners for success in higher education. A 2015 College Board report found a positive correlation between students' success in AP classes and their ability to graduate within four years once enrolled at a college or university.

Taking AP classes and receiving scores of 3 or better on AP exams can also allow students to skip lower-level courses in college. Students who test out of gen ed classes may be able to graduate more quickly.

If you enjoy learning and challenging yourself, you'll likely find success in AP classes. But if you tend to struggle with your grades and find school difficult, you may have trouble with these more rigorous academic offerings.

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