AP Classes: Are They Worth It?

Many U.S. high schools offer AP classes. Discover the benefits of taking AP courses and what factors to consider before enrolling.
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  • AP courses enable students to learn advanced skills while earning college credit.
  • At the end of the course, students can take an AP exam to test what they've learned.
  • Students should balance taking AP classes with maintaining a manageable schedule.
  • AP classes can be well worth the time and investment for high school students.

According to the College Board, more than 2.5 million students in grades 9-12 took Advanced Placement (AP) exams in 2021. Some of the most popular AP exams and courses include AP U.S. History, AP English Language and Composition, AP Calculus AB, AP U.S. Government and Politics, and AP Psychology.

Students taking AP classes can earn college credit, prepare themselves for the rigors of higher education, and even skip introductory college classes.

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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.

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 usually move at a fast pace and require a significant amount of studying and working on assignments outside 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, students who take 4-5 AP courses can still qualify for good schools, including many of the country's top public research institutions.

Students should balance taking AP courses with maintaining a healthy schedule to avoid burnout. Colleges usually only reward students for taking difficult course loads if they do well on their AP tests.

What Are AP Exams?

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

After you take the AP exam, you'll receive a score from 1-5. A score of 3 typically qualifies students for college credit, though more selective institutions may require a 4 or 5.

Each AP test costs $96 to take, though students with financial need may apply for a fee reduction. You can register for an AP exam any time it's available, with no limit on the number of times you can take it.

4 Benefits of Taking an AP Class

AP courses offer many benefits to high-achieving students. Here are the top four.

1. Potential to Earn College Credit

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

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

2. Save Money and Time

One of the best and easiest ways to test out of lower-level college courses is to take AP exams.

By skipping intro classes, you can reduce the total amount of time spent pursuing your degree. Eliminating a semester or more of college classes can save you a lot of money in tuition and allows you to move more rapidly into graduate school or a career.

3. Get Accepted by More Schools

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

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling's 2019 State of College Admission report, over 80% of colleges surveyed considered grades in college prep courses and strength of curriculum "moderately" or "considerably" important in admission decisions.

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

4. Prepare for College Courses

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, you can get a sense of the commitment, time management, and other skills you'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 transition to a higher education setting.

Factors to Consider Before Taking an AP Class

Before you sign up for an AP class, it's important to think about the different factors that can affect how well you perform in the course.

  • 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 you may need to start from scratch while working at an elevated pace.

    For example, if you've received good marks in previous science classes, you might take AP Chemistry or AP Biology as a logical next step.

  • Your Schedule

    Carefully consider your course load each semester when deciding how many AP courses to take. Attempting too many challenging classes at once can lead to burnout and frustration, negatively affecting your GPA and even mental health.

    Students should also think about the demands of extracurricular activities, honors courses, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities as they prepare 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, be sure to look at each course description to determine whether you feel ready to tackle the subject matter.

    Performing poorly in AP courses can drag down your 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 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 you 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.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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