To Take an AP Class or Not to Take an AP Class…That is the Question

Learn about AP classes, the courses that are offered, common requirements to enroll, taking the AP exam, how college admissions offices view the courses, and the workload associated with the courses.
Student taking notes

Chances are, if you have a high schooler in your life, you've heard a thing or two about AP® classes. But what exactly is an AP class? How does one take one? How do they work? How important are AP classes for college admissions? What are the best AP classes to take in high school? What are the benefits of an AP class? Are there any disadvantages to taking an AP class? I've put together a helpful overview of AP classes pros and cons to assist students and families.

Let's start with some basics. AP is short for "Advanced Placement®" and is a collegiate level course taught at high schools nationwide. The AP program is run by the College Board®, the same company that owns and administers the SAT® program. While the AP program includes almost 40 different courses, the specific courses offered at each high school will vary depending on the school's size and staffing. Each course has a standardized curriculum to ensure that all students, despite their location, have access to the same content.

Much like the variety of course options varies from school to school, so might the requirements/prerequisites to take an AP course. Some courses may be limited to certain grade levels or with teacher recommendation only. Other common requirements could be having taken a certain class or series of classes with demonstrated mastery. For example, in order to be eligible for AP Physics, your school may require you to have taken Biology and Chemistry and received an 80 or better for a final grade in both classes. Some schools may choose to allow anyone to enroll in AP courses who wants to give it a try, and some schools might cap the amount of AP classes you can take at one time. Be sure to check your school's specific policies for questions you may have on AP availability and enrollment.

Every student who takes an AP course has the opportunity to take the AP exam on the same day each May. The AP exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest with a passing score generally considered to be a 3 or higher.

Are there any advantages to taking AP classes over a regular high school level class? Absolutely! One of the top benefits to taking an AP class is that many colleges across the country will offer college credit or waive introductory courses for certain AP test scores, thus allowing the student to potentially save time and money completing an undergraduate degree. Other benefits include exposure to a rigorous content and early preparation for college. AP classes are demanding and require students to have a certain level of dedication and self-discipline in order to be successful in the class. This skill set can be extremely advantageous as high school students apply to college. College Admissions offices are tasked with gathering enough data on each applicant that supports the likelihood that the student will be successful if offered a spot at their institution. Students who take AP classes (and especially those who receive a score of 3 or higher on the exam) have shown colleges that they are not only ready to go to college, but also able to handle themselves academically with collegiate-level coursework.

This sounds too good to be true. Are there any disadvantages to consider with taking an AP course? One disadvantage to taking the actual AP exam is the cost. Registering for an AP exam will run you almost $100, so taking multiple exams can rack up quickly. In one sense, paying for these exams could potentially save you money later, but unfortunately not all colleges accept AP scores. Another disadvantage might be scheduling conflicts. Because of the limited amount of AP courses offered and certified teachers, it might be tight trying to get everything you want or need on your schedule. That AP language class you wanted to take may be scheduled for the exact same time as the AP Chemistry class you also wanted to take, or the gym class you need for graduation requirements. Some compromise could be required.

One of the biggest and most important things to consider is the workload. On average, AP courses have approximately 1 hour of homework each night with additional work on the weekends or with large projects. This might not sound like too much, but that work must be balanced with the workload from all the other courses a student is taking, extracurriculars, work obligations, time with family and friends, and downtime. AP classes are designed to be rigorous, and there is the expectation that students have the self-discipline, emotional maturity, and academic ability of a college-age student. Some high school students can handle this with ease, while for others it is a great source of stress and anxiety.

There are many things to consider when looking to sign up for an AP class, and one of your best resources in making that decision is a discussion with your school counselor. Your school counselor can provide you with a list of AP classes the school offers, any requirements or prerequisites for enrollment, and possibly a course syllabus. You may want to inquire about any specific policies your school has, such as the add/drop policy if you decide you want to make a change after starting the course. You could also ask about the teaching styles of the AP teachers as well as how past students from your school have performed in AP classes and on the AP exams. The College Board reported that the mean (average) score for the 2019 AP tests was a 2.91 and that only 60% of all test takers scored a 3 or higher on the exam. Your school counselor can give you your school's statistics to see if they fall right in line with, over, or under the national average. He or she can also make sure you are meeting your graduation requirements while balancing your course load to reflect your personal and/or post-secondary interests. Be sure to be thoughtful in balancing your school day with your time after school each day. Best of luck in your course selection process!