Why are so many students participating in Advanced Placement (AP) programs in the U.S.? In addition to enabling students to explore subject matter in greater depth, these courses and exams have become a gateway into prestigious and highly selective schools.
Due to the important role that this program now plays in the college admissions process, it is no wonder that there has been a tremendous surge in its popularity. In fact, during this week and next, almost 3 million high school students will be taking AP exams.
According to a recent study, from 1992 to 2012, the number of schools in the United States which offered AP courses nearly doubled, and the number of AP exams administered increased more than 500%. The AP program has international popularity as well; universities in over 60 countries outside the United States recognize AP in the admission process.
In this blog, 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 the colleges use AP scores and credits varies. Some schools use AP scores to allow for advanced placement (skipping over entry-level courses), college credit, the satisfaction of distribution requirements, and/or early graduation.
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. The Advanced Placement Program offers more than 30 courses and exams. Each AP course concludes with a college-level assessment developed and scored by college and university faculty, as well as experienced AP teachers.
Research consistently shows that students who receive a score of 3 or higher on AP exams typically experience greater academic success in college and have higher graduation rates 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.
For example, earning a 5 is the equivalent of receiving an A in the college course. Similarly, AP Exam scores of 4 are equivalent to college grades of A−, B+, and B. AP Exam scores of 3 are equivalent to college grades of B−, C+, and C (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 the first time they are living away from home. They must learn to be self-sufficient while also navigating a new social and academic world. Taking AP courses in high school can help ease the academic transition, giving students one less thing to worry about.
AP courses are valued by college admission counselors
Admission officers specifically 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 by allowing them to dive right into the material they find most interesting. It is also helpful for students who are undecided, as it allows 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!” 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, it would be expected that you take AP Calculus, and you would strengthen your admissions chances if you also take AP levels of relevant sciences, such as AP Biology for Biomedical Engineering, or AP Physics for Mechanical Engineering.
- 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 commitments 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.
Important Tips & Takeaways
AP classes will challenge you on an intellectual level, ease transition to college, and give you a chance to earn college credit while still in high school. Nevertheless, it’s important for students to show a balance between formal and informal studies to college admissions officers. 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 extracurricular activities in order to fit more courses into your schedule. Challenge yourself in a way that is reasonable for you, while making sure that your course load provides you with material that keeps you interested and engaged.
Otherwise, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, which could lead to burnout. “There are people who arrive at college out of gas,” says William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s crazy for students to think in lockstep they must take four or five or six advanced-placement courses because colleges demand it.”
Wondering what you should do? Collegiate Gateway has a wealth of experience in advising for future curriculum planning. Feel free to contact us—we’re always happy to help!