For high-achieving school students eyeing college applications, course selection could make or break your college admissions decisions. Your high school transcript needs to impress college admissions committees and highlight your areas of interest. This usually includes challenging high school coursework, like honors courses and advanced placement (AP) classes.
But not all AP courses are created equal. You will need to choose your advanced placement classes mindfully if you want to get the most out of them. Here are some factors to weigh as you select your AP course load.
What Are Advanced Placement Classes?
Advanced Placement classes, also referred to as AP classes, are a set of standardized, college-level courses designed and implemented by the College Board, which is the same company that designs the SAT.
These classes are taken by high school students over the course of a full school year, and each equals a single-semester college course. Like honors classes, these are typically higher-level courses selected by students who want to enroll in a challenging course load.
There are 38 advanced placement courses to choose from, ranging from subjects like AP English Literature and Composition and AP Human Geography to AP Environmental Science and Macroeconomics. Most high schools do not offer every AP course, and some don't offer any at all, but students can also independently study for AP exams if they want to take them but can’t enroll in a class.
Most AP classes culminate in an exam that is scored on a scale from 1-5. Passing scores are considered 3 or higher, and students who pass an AP class are sometimes eligible to receive college credit for them.
Choosing the best AP classes isn’t simple, so we’ve listed three key points to help you to narrow your choices.
1. The Best AP Classes Align With Your Interests
When college admissions committees evaluate the strength of your college application, they carefully consider your overall profile as an applicant. This includes both the breadth of your classes and activities and the depth of your coursework and extracurriculars.
College admissions officers love to see applicants who are fairly well-rounded, but that's not all they are looking for. They also want to see applicants with established interests and strengths. This means that you should pursue difficult classes in the areas that you're most interested in. That way, you can prepare for a possible future college major or career.
For example, if you're interested in a career in medicine, you might consider taking advanced placement classes like AP Biology and AP Chemistry. If you're interested in a career in the tech fields, advanced placement courses like AP Calculus, AP computer science, or AP Physics might be a better fit.
There are advanced placement classes for the humanities too. If you want to go into the social sciences or history, advanced placement classes like AP Psychology, AP World History, or AP English Language might be good choices for you.
2. The Best AP Classes Are Ones You Can Do Well In
Taking AP classes that interest you isn't enough on its own. You also need to be able to succeed in them. Advanced placement classes culminate in an AP exam, a standardized test that measures what you've learned. In most schools, you will also receive a grade in your advanced placement class.
When you enroll in an advanced placement class, you should think carefully about how well you'll do in it. It's great to take on challenges and to work hard, but if you take on too much all at once, your grades might suffer and actually hurt your college admission chances. Not to mention you’ll be stressed all year.
It's a good idea to start small by taking one or two AP classes during your freshman or sophomore year. If those go well, you can take another two the next year and possibly even three during your senior year.
It's not just your course load you'll need to think about, either. Some AP classes coordinate with exams that are more difficult. Luckily, statistics about AP exam scores are available to help you choose.
Again, AP tests are scored on a scale from 1-5, with passing scores are considered 3 or above. In 2019, the advanced placement tests with passing rates above 60% included:
- AP Chinese Language
- AP Spanish Language
- AP Art Studio Drawing
- AP Art Studio 2D
- AP Calculus BC
- AP Japanese Language
- AP French Language
- AP Physics C: Mechanics
- AP Studio Art 3D
- AP Seminar
- AP Italian Language
- AP German Language
- AP Spanish Literature
- AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
- AP Research
- AP Latin
- AP Computer Science A
- AP Psychology
- Comparative Government
- Art History
- AP Biology
- AP Statistics
If you're an AP student, you should consider your own specialized knowledge when reviewing these statistics. For example, students who do especially well on foreign language tests are bilingual at home, and students who take the calculus AP exam should have higher-level experience with math. Play to your strengths when choosing which AP classes you'll take.
3. The Best AP Classes Will Earn You College Credit
One of the aspects of advanced placement classes that makes them so intriguing is the ability to earn college credit for your work. At many colleges, you can receive college credit or place out of introductory courses if you perform well enough on your AP exams. This could save you money on college courses or allow you to skip ahead to more advanced classes.
Policies about AP credit are not universal, and they are determined by each individual college. These institutional policies outline which exams can help you receive college credit and what scores you need to receive on them in order to earn this credit. In some cases, no credit is awarded, but you may be able to test out of prerequisite classes if you've passed the equivalent AP test.
You can usually find the AP credit policy for a college on its website, or you can use the AP Credit Policy Search to filter by AP course on the College Board website. You should always consider which courses are most likely to earn you college credit when you select the best AP classes for you.
How To Choose the Best AP Classes for You
Ultimately, there is no magic formula to determine which AP classes are best for you. You’ll need to decide this on your own, but we have some ideas for what to consider.
First, you'll want to decide which classes interest you and most closely align with your future goals. For an aspiring engineer, this might mean taking AP Physics 1, while for a future politician, it could be AP U.S. Government. Only you can decide which classes best support your goals for the future.
Next, you'll also need to think about which classes you're most likely to succeed in. You don't want to take a course that you can't complete or will do poorly in. Instead, consider which exams students tend to do well in and how those line up with your personal strengths. Again, start with just one course, and then add more the next year if the workload feels doable.
Finally, you'll want to think about which courses will earn you college credit. Check with the colleges you aim to apply to, or do a general course search on the College Board website to see which colleges accept credit for that class.
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