In recent years, there has been a tremendous surge in the number of students participating in Advanced Placement (AP) programs, which offer college-level courses to high school students. According to an NPR article from 2017, participation in AP programs “doubled in the last 10 years, and also doubled in the decade before that.” A 2020 article on Inside Higher Ed reported that more than 1.24 million public high school students in the Class of 2019 had taken an AP exam.

What is responsible for the program’s popularity? In addition to enabling students to explore subject matter in greater depth, AP courses and exams have become a gateway into prestigious and highly selective schools.

In this blog post, we’ll provide an overview of the AP program, help navigate its complexities, and explore its potential benefits. AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, but how colleges use AP scores and credits varies. Students can use AP scores to distinguish themselves from other applicants, for advanced placement (skipping over entry-level courses), for college credit, for the satisfaction of distribution requirements, and/or for early graduation, depending on the school.

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Expansion of AP Program

The Advanced Placement Program currently offers more than 30 courses and exams in the areas of AP Capstone, Arts, English, History and Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences, and World Languages and Cultures. The AP program continually evaluates potential new courses to add to the line-up.

In 2014, for example, the AP Capstone Diploma was launched. This consists of a sequence of two courses, AP Seminar and AP Research, typically taken in 10th and 11th grades or 11th and 12th grades. AP Seminar is a foundational course in which students explore a variety of problems and issues from different perspectives. In AP Research, students identify an academic topic of significant interest to them and apply research methodology and analytical skills to explore a research question, culminating in a paper of 4,000-5,000 words. (It’s possible that the College Board introduced the AP Capstone courses in order to be more competitive with the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, which includes the Extended Essay, an independent research project that culminates with a 4,000-word paper.)

In the current academic year of 2022-23, College Board piloted an interdisciplinary course of AP African-American Studies at 60 US high schools. The pilot will expand to hundreds of additional schools in 2023-24, and will be available to all schools in 2024-25.

Finally, AP Precalculus is in development for 2023-24. According to the College Board, “Precalculus is one of the most powerful math courses in American high schools – taking it increases a student’s likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree by 155%.”

AP Exam Scoring

To make sure that you understand how the AP exam scoring relates to college-readiness and college grades, here is a quick synopsis of how the exams are graded. Each AP course concludes with a college-level assessment developed and scored by college and university faculty, as well as experienced AP teachers.

Research shows that students who receive a score of 3 or higher on AP exams typically experience greater academic success in college than their non-AP peers. Selective colleges treat strong scores on the APs as additional evidence of your ability to master course content. In order to be considered for credit or placement, you must send your official AP score report to the college you’re planning to attend.

Scores on the free-response questions are weighted and combined with the results of the multiple-choice questions, and this raw score is converted into a composite AP score of 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1. See the following chart from the AP website for a breakdown of what each score signifies, and see AP’s college database for specific policies at each university.

Benefits of Taking AP Courses/Exams

AP courses are more challenging than standard high school level courses. However, there are many benefits to taking AP courses, which can make them worth the extra work required to succeed.

AP helps you develop college-level skills, thereby easing the transition from high school to college.

AP classes require college-level critical thinking skills. As a result, taking these classes can help high school students improve in areas like high-level computation, essay writing, and problem-solving, thereby easing the transition into college.

Adjusting to life in college is often challenging, as students have to make sense of many changes happening at once. For many college freshmen, this is their first time living away from home. They must learn to be self-sufficient while also navigating a new social and academic world. Easing the academic transition by taking AP courses in high school can make the shift to college life just a bit easier.

AP courses are valued by college admissions officers.

Admissions officers look for students who have taken the most challenging courses available to them. Success in high-level courses, like APs or the International Baccalaureate program, is a strong indicator of preparedness for college. Often, high schools reflect the rigor of AP coursework by weighting these courses higher than other courses in the GPA calculation, which provides students with a higher weighted GPA, and potentially a higher class rank (for high schools that rank).

AP classes can help you save money.

Taking AP classes in high school (and scoring well on the exam) can yield college credit. Depending on your university’s requirements, you may not have to take these subjects again in college. So, instead of paying a substantial amount for the courses in college, you only have to pay a small portion in order to take the AP exam in high school (see AP’s college database for specific policies at each university). AP exams can also help you to graduate early, if you so desire.

AP course credit enables students to take higher-level courses and a broader array of courses.

Earning college credit in high school will free up your schedule, giving you the opportunity to take more electives in college. Gaining course credit through AP exams allows you to skip introductory courses and enter directly into higher-level courses. This is helpful for students who have already chosen a major because it allows them to dive right into the material they find most interesting. It is also helpful for students who are undecided, as it enables them to take more electives by skipping some general education requirements.

How Many and Which AP courses Should You Take?

Students and parents often ask how many AP courses is the “right” amount to be competitive in college admissions. The answer, as with so many other college-related questions, is: “it depends!” There is no “one-size-fits-all” magic number of AP courses that we advise our students to take. Our overall rule of thumb is that students should challenge themselves to a degree that is manageable.

Here are a few factors that should inform your planning of which and how many AP courses to take:

  • How strong are you academically? It’s important to consider this honestly and frankly; you want to challenge yourself to a reasonable degree, but not be overwhelmed by coursework beyond your capabilities.
  • To that end, what are your academic and career interests? Many students do not yet have a definite plan for their major or career, which is perfectly fine! But if you do have interests at this point, and discuss them in your college applications, they should be supported by your academics.For example, if you plan to apply to an engineering school within a university, the admissions committee will expect you to have taken AP Calculus and would look favorably on AP levels of relevant sciences, such as AP Biology for Biomedical Engineering, or AP Physics for Mechanical Engineering. Similarly, if you are interested in international relations, AP courses in government, economics, and language would be very relevant.
  • What is your work ethic? Are you willing to do the extra work required by AP courses, and to participate more deeply in classroom discussion?
  • What are your other commitments? Family or work obligations, extracurricular activities, and other responsibilities are both important and time-consuming. Evaluate your time realistically, and choose an appropriate number of AP courses.
  • What AP courses are available at your high school?
    Colleges evaluate the rigor of your high school curriculum relative to what’s available at your high school. In addition to ensuring that your course-load is manageable for you, evaluate it in the context of what’s available to you.

The Importance of Balance

Despite the benefits of AP courses discussed above, it’s important for college applicants to demonstrate a balance between formal and informal studies. Often, students feel pressured to add another AP course — sometimes a fifth, sixth, or seventh — and, consequently, drop something they really enjoy, like sports, music, or extracurricular activities.

But in actuality, most admissions officers want to see well-rounded individuals who are involved in extracurricular activities. Therefore, it is not necessarily the best course of action to drop meaningful activities in order to fit more courses into your schedule. Otherwise, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, which could lead to burnout.

Wondering what you should do? Collegiate Gateway has a wealth of experience in advising students on future curriculum planning. Feel free to contact us—we’re always happy to help!