If you're in high school, you've probably heard about AP classes. You might have even taken some already. But is all the hard work that goes into an AP class actually worth it?
We think AP classes can be a great choice for students, as long as you're well prepared, get a lot out of the class, and align your schedule to work with your college goals. However, AP classes might not always be the best choice. Keep reading to learn when AP classes are a good idea and when they're wasting your time—as well as what steps you must take to build an optimal schedule.
How AP Classes Can Be Worthwhile: 4 Benefits
There are several compelling reasons to take AP classes in high school. We'll discuss the different ways taking AP classes can help you discover new interests and make you a competitive applicant for college.
#1: You Can Get a Challenging, Rigorous Academic Experience
AP classes exist to expose high school students to college-level courses. Even though you're taking the class at your high school, AP classes tend to have harder, more detailed curriculums than your typical high school classes do.
So if you're looking to take more difficult classes or want to impress college admissions offices with a rigorous schedule, AP classes can be a great way to up the rigor of your schedule. (As we've discussed in the past, AP classes are just one way to signal to colleges that you're taking the most challenging schedule available to you as a high school student.)
AP classes are also useful for showing off a particular academic strength. For example, if you're strong in math, taking AP Calculus BC and getting a 5 on the test is a concrete way to demonstrate your skills to admissions committees.
#2: You Can Earn College Credit
If you pass the AP test at the end of the school year (meaning you get a score of 3 or higher), you will be eligible to receive college credit for that test.
This process can vary at different colleges. While some will grant you actual course credit, allowing you to graduate faster and therefore save time and money, others will use the AP credit to put you in harder classes as a freshman. Either way, AP credit can be very helpful!
We recommend looking up the AP credit policies of schools you're interested in to get a better idea of how the AP classes you want to take could save you time and/or money in college.
#3: You Can Learn Time Management and Self-Study Skills
Maybe this isn't the most exciting reason, but taking AP classes can really improve your studying skills. Since AP classes culminate in a cumulative test at the end of the school year, you can't just go from unit to unit as you can in other high school classes. Rather, you need to ensure you're retaining information the whole year and have a foolproof study plan for the AP test!
While any good AP teacher will include review sessions in their curriculum, since there is limited classroom time, students will inevitably have to do some studying on their own.
Speaking from experience, I learned a lot of my time-management and study skills by taking AP classes in high school. Every year, I made my own study schedules in the spring to make sure I was prepared for each AP test. Making study schedules and sticking to them ultimately helped me develop more effective time-management skills, which were invaluable in college!
#4: You Can Explore New Interests
Although some AP classes build off a typical high school schedule (particularly the math, English, history, and science classes), many others are more specialized. Taking these AP classes can allow you to explore specific fields of study as a high school student.
Here are some examples of specialized AP classes:
- AP Micro and Macroeconomics
- Computer Science
- Art History
- Human Geography
While you can definitely take these courses in college, taking the AP version in high school gives you early exposure and can help you discover a unique academic interest.
A specialized AP class can also add a fun, interesting twist to your typical routine of math, English, science, and social studies.
How AP Classes Can Waste Your Time: 5 Scenarios
Taking AP classes can be helpful for a variety of reasons. But if you slack off, don't get much out of the material, or (worst of all) fail the exam, the AP program loses a lot of its benefits.
In this section, we give you some reasons why the AP program might not be the best choice, and offer tips for making the most of your schedule.
Scenario 1: You Fail the AP Test
While an AP class isn't a total waste if you fail the test—you still get the academic experience of a harder class, after all—it'll be much less beneficial. As we discussed, you need a passing score in order to get college credit for an AP class. Without a passing test score, your AP class will be a lot less useful.
What's more, colleges will look to see whether you passed the AP test. If you didn't pass, the AP class loses a lot of its admissions benefit. Even (or especially!) if you get an A in the class, that would just mean your class was too easy compared with those in the rest of the country.
In short, how good an AP class will be for you hinges on whether you pass the exam or not.
Scenario 2: AP Classes Ruin Your GPA
Even if you pass your AP tests, if AP classes dramatically drag down your GPA, they won't be worth taking.
Colleges want to see that you're taking the hardest classes available to you, but they also want to see that you're mostly succeeding and that you know your limits!
This doesn't mean that getting an A- in Calculus BC is a bad thing, though. (In fact, an A- in Calculus BC is more impressive than an A in regular Calculus.) What this does mean is that taking four AP classes and getting Cs in all of them will not look good.
As a general rule, don't worry about an AP class knocking your usual grades down one half step—that is, an A to an A-, or an A- to a B+. But if you see a full grade drop, even in one class (A to B, B to C, etc.) that's cause for concern. You should either make serious changes to your study schedule or, if you continue to struggle, consider dropping down to the regular course.
This is why not overloading and knowing your strengths is important when signing up for classes!
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Scenario 3: You Don't Get Much Out Of the Class
Even if you pass an AP class and the test, if you personally feel like you didn't learn much or if the class didn't improve your study skills, it might not have been worth it.
Even if you get college credit for a particular class, it won't be worth it if you decide to take the same version of that class in college. It's also not worth it if the class doesn't significantly improve your studying or academic skills. Since all AP classes have a pretty big cost in terms of time, if they're not serving to develop your academic interests or improve your skills, they're likely not worth taking.
This effect is more dramatic if you're overloading on AP classes: the fourth AP class you take in a year might not add as much to your skills as it's taking away from your time.
For example, if you're heading toward a humanities major in college (English, Economics, Political Science, etc.), trying to cram in AP Statistics and AP Calculus your senior year might not be helpful. You're not likely to do a lot of deep learning in either math class if you're also busy with college applications and other commitments. And if you don't do well in these math classes, you might have to retake one in college anyway.
Or, let's say you're a future computer science major going out of your way to fit in an AP Human Geography class, just so you can have another AP class. This, however, likely won't add much to your schedule, and if it's not a personal interest, you probably won't get much out of it.
To sum up, if you're taking an AP class just because it's AP, you should reconsider taking it.
You don't want to be this guy.
Scenario 4: AP Classes Become Your Main Extracurricular
While AP classes can be great—academically rigorous, cost effective, interesting—if they're taking away from the rest of your schedule, those benefits begin to shrink.
For example, if you neglect studying for the SAT/ACT because you're so busy with AP classes, this can really hurt your college admission chances. We strongly recommend taking adequate time to study for the SAT/ACT, since having a high score can greatly boost your college admission and scholarship chances.
Furthermore, if you stop getting involved in extracurriculars because you're too busy studying, that doesn't help your college applications, either. We're not saying you need to be a perfectly well-rounded student who's in 10 clubs. But we do think it's important to a have a few strongly developed interests—and overloading on AP classes can take away from that.
In short, AP classes should enhance your schedule and indicate your academic interests—they shouldn't be your chief extracurricular.
Scenario 5: You Burn Out in High School
Even if you do really well in all your AP classes, you need to have the big picture in mind. If you graduate senior year completely exhausted and struggle your freshman year of college, you're setting yourself up for a substandard college experience.
Remember that the goal of AP classes—and high school in general!—is to be prepared to do well in college. Taking one less AP class but staying more sane and balanced might actually help you more in college than overloading your schedule with APs.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by your AP schedule, don't feel bad about dropping an AP class. If dropping that class allows you to do better in your other classes and stick to your commitments, it will be better for you in the long run.
You don't want to be running on empty during your freshman year of college!
Next Steps: Should You Take AP Classes?
As you know, AP classes can give a huge boost to your college applications, but they can also hurt your college chances if you're not careful. So how do you make sure you're getting the most out of your AP classes? Follow the steps below to make sure your AP schedule is challenging but not overwhelming.
Step 1: Learn the Reputation of AP Classes at Your School
Learning the reputation of AP classes at your high school can help you decide if taking certain AP classes is worth your time. There is a huge amount of variation in how AP classes are taught at different high schools. You'll struggle if an AP class is poorly taught or overly difficult. On the flipside, a well-taught class might not only help you pass the AP test, but also help you discover a new academic interest.
Talk to your guidance counselor, older students, and other teachers at your school to get a sense of which AP classes have positive buzz—and which ones have a reputation of being overly hard or poorly taught.
Don't necessarily avoid a hard class, especially if it's in an area of interest for you. Also, don't sign up for multiple AP classes with especially tough reputations the same school year. But if an AP class has rave reviews at your school, strongly consider adding it to your schedule!
Step 2: Consider Your College Goals
Knowing your college goals can help you decide between AP classes or how many AP classes to take.
For example, if you're aiming for your local state school and want to complete as many general education requirements as possible during high school, you should focus on core subject AP classes, such as Calculus, Literature, Biology/Chemistry/Physics, and US History.
However, if you're trying to get into top colleges, you'll want to use AP classes to demonstrate your academic strengths. In this case, your AP classes might be more concentrated in either math/science or the social sciences/humanities, depending on your interests.
Check out our in-depth guide to learn more about choosing the right number of AP classes based on your college goals.
Step 3: Talk to Your Guidance Counselor
Your counselor will be able to help you come up with a challenging but manageable schedule. She'll also have a sense of your school's context, including how many AP classes students take on average, which teachers get the best AP test results, and how to build a challenging schedule that doesn't overload on AP.
Even if you don't have a close relationship with your counselor, it's her job to know about school context, and she has lots of important information. So don't be afraid to make an appointment and talk through your AP plans with your counselor!
Step 4: Remember the Big Picture
Your goal in high school is to learn as much as possible and be prepared for college. Taking one extra AP class is not going to dramatically affect your future, but cultivating a strong academic or extracurricular interest will.
Try to create a course load that is both challenging but reasonable, and definitely don't hesitate to drop something from your schedule—e.g., an AP class, a sport, volunteering—if you're feeling like you're reaching your breaking point!
AP classes are great, but they're not going to guarantee admission to college. Learn why a high SAT/ACT score is the best single way to improve your chance of admission to a competitive school.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.