Which AP Classes Should You Take?

Which AP Classes Should You Take?
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By Kasia Kovacs

Published on September 8, 2021

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In 2009, about 1.7 million students took Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school, according to the College Board. Ten years later, that number jumped to about 2.8 million.

An increasing number of students enroll in AP classes to help boost their college admission chances and to earn college credit while still in high school. These courses may prove challenging. But for many students, the challenge of AP classes is worth it.

Still, planning your high school schedule to take AP classes can seem confusing. How many AP classes are there? And how many AP classes should you take?

How to Choose AP Classes: 5 Factors to Consider

When selecting AP classes, think strategically. Here are five things to consider when trying to decide which AP courses best suit your needs.

1. Your Subject Strengths and Weaknesses

First, take an honest look at your academic strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you excel in math, then you should consider AP courses in calculus, computer science, and statistics. But if you know math isn't your strong suit, then you may not want to place that additional pressure on yourself.

If you like science, you might enroll in AP Chemistry or AP Physics. A student who shines in the arts and humanities might prefer AP courses in art history, foreign languages, music theory, or English literature.

2. Your Overall Workload

High school students sometimes put unrealistic expectations on themselves, especially when aiming for a top college or university. This can lead to pressure and burnout instead of success.

Take a look at your overall workload. Consider your extracurriculars, volunteer work, other student activities, and any family or personal commitments. If you're already busy, enrolling in too many AP classes could derail your goals.

Some AP classes are more demanding than others. For example, two of the hardest AP exams to pass in May 2020 were AP Physics 1 (51.6% pass rate) and AP Environmental Science (53.4% pass rate).

3. Your School's and Teachers' Reputations

Each teacher and school has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some teachers possess a knack for teaching a certain subject. Some schools have a better reputation for specific AP classes.

If you can, choose a teacher with a good reputation, since they're more likely to help you succeed in your AP class. Ask your school if you can see pass rates for certain AP classes and exams. Those pass rates can help you evaluate a teacher's capabilities.

4. Your Prospective Colleges' AP Credit Policies

Each college sets its own policies for granting college credit for AP classes. Some put a cap on the number of credits students can earn for AP courses, whereas others only accept credit for certain classes or only offer credit if students earn a 4 or 5.

If you know where you'd like to apply for college, research the policies at your prospective schools. That way, you can get the most out of your college transfer credits.

5. Your Interests and Prospective Area of Study

Although you should weigh the practical considerations above, you also should keep your own interests in mind. Maybe you love Latin or European history. In that case, think about enrolling in those courses.

Your future college studies can help you decide on which AP classes to take as well. Of course, it's fine if you're still deciding on your college major. But if you have a general idea of what you'd like to study, then you can align your AP classes with that subject.

How Many AP Classes Should I Take?

How many AP courses you should take depends on your goals. For instance, consider the competitiveness of your prospective colleges. The more selective the school, the more AP classes you may want to take. Additionally, many scholarships take note of students who push themselves academically by taking AP classes.

For Highly Competitive Colleges and Universities

If you want to apply to some of the most competitive schools in the country, you can show the admissions departments you're capable of taking challenging courses. When applying to some of the top schools, students sometimes take seven, eight, or even up to 12 AP courses during their time in high school. Selective state schools might also prefer applicants with 4-6 AP classes.

You can further enhance your transcript by earning an AP Scholar Award. These awards recognize students who "have demonstrated exemplary college-level achievement on AP exams." Students who receive high marks on multiple exams may qualify for an AP Scholar Award.

For Less Competitive Colleges

Less competitive schools may be excited to see AP classes on an applicant's transcripts, but they may not be required or expected. Of course, these courses can still boost your chances of admission, especially if you pass 2-4 exams or more.

Plus, you can reap the rewards of AP classes in other ways, such as by improving your studying skills. AP classes can help you earn college credit, or you might qualify for scholarships to help cover some college costs.

For Scholarships

Even if you decide not to apply to the country's most selective schools, you can still benefit from taking multiple AP classes. Many scholarship committees offer financial rewards based on merit. They like to see high school students challenge themselves academically.

A College Board study found that 31% of colleges considered students' AP accomplishments when making scholarship decisions. Therefore, passing several AP classes may help keep your college costs down in the long run.

When Should I Take AP Classes?

Students often use their first year of high school to build a foundation and adjust to the more advanced curriculum. Many first-year students avoid jumping into AP classes as they get used to high school. In fact, some schools don't even offer AP classes to ninth graders.

Instead, students typically start by taking 1-3 AP classes during their sophomore year, beginning with some of the less demanding courses. They may then pick up the pace during their junior year, enrolling in more challenging options. These courses can enhance your transcript and boost your GPA.

You'll apply for colleges during your senior year, so your junior year is the time to make an especially good impression. That said, don't slack off your senior year. Although these AP courses may not play as big a role in college admission decisions, AP test scores can still affect how much college credit you get.

Try to balance your AP classes with honors classes, extracurriculars, SAT/ACT prep, volunteer work, and any personal commitments without overloading yourself.

Grade Recommended Number of AP Classes to Take Recommended AP Classes
9th Grade 0
10th Grade 1-3 European History, World History, Human Geography, Psychology
11th Grade 3-5 English, Calculus AB, Biology, Spanish (or other foreign language), U.S. Government and Politics
12th Grade 3-6 Chemistry, Physics C, Calculus BC

Frequently Asked Questions About Choosing AP Classes

Do you have to take the exam if you take an AP class? true

You can usually take an AP class without taking an exam and vice versa. However, you need to take an exam if you hope to gain college credit. And a high exam score can help with college admissions. It's also best to take the class before taking the exam so you're properly prepared.

What year should you take AP classes? true

While some high school students may be able to take AP classes during their first year, most wait until their second year. Students typically enroll in the bulk of their AP classes during their junior and senior years.

How many AP classes should you take for Harvard?

While Harvard does not set a hard-and-fast rule for AP coursework, the average incoming Harvard student has taken eight AP classes. Keep in mind that Harvard's admissions department weighs several factors, so don't count on AP classes alone if you want to get into Harvard.

Is there a limit to how many AP classes you can take?

Although the College Board does not set a limit on how many AP classes you can take, you will probably face some limiting factors. For example, your school may not offer all available AP classes. You might struggle with certain subjects. And you could find yourself overwhelmed if you enroll in too many classes.

Feature Image: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Figuring out how to pay for your child's education may be one of the most daunting aspects of the college planning process, but there are ways parents can get involved... We've ranked the 10 hardest AP classes and tests based on exam pass rates and scores. Learn what you should consider when selecting AP classes. Learn how to find the "easiest" AP classes, which have more flexible study requirements, and earn college credit through classes with high exam pass rates.