If your high school has AP classes, you probably know a bit about which ones are offered and what they’re like. AP classes are designed to be the equivalent of introductory-level college courses.
However, you may also have the opportunity to take a real college class at your local community college as a high school student. Which option should you choose?
Both community college classes and APs can be valuable additions to your transcript, but you might decide that one or the other is a better fit depending on your needs. I’ll go through the advantages of each and give you the information you need to decide between them.
2020 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests will now be held remotely, and information about how that will work is still evolving. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for you with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
What Are AP Classes?
The AP (Advanced Placement) program was designed by the College Board to give high school students an introduction to college-level material. AP classes are widely considered to be the most advanced types of classes you can take in high school.
To earn AP credit, you have to take an exam at the end of the class that tests your knowledge of the curriculum. The exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score. You may be able to get college credit if you score a 3, 4, or 5 on an AP exam, although policies differ between schools. AP classes are offered in 34 different subjects (although some high schools that participate in the program only offer a few of them), and over 2.3 million students take the exams each year.
What Are Community College Classes?
For the purposes of this article, community college classes are classes at nearby community colleges that are open to high school students. Many high schools have programs that allow students to enroll in community college classes and continue their high school educations at the same time. You have to actually go to the community college to take these classes, and they may be held either during the regular school day or at night.
In the following sections, I'll go over the advantages of AP and community college classes for high school students.
It's like choosing from a box of gourmet truffles, except they're all filled with the creamy goodness of pure knowledge (imported from Belgium).
Advantages of AP Classes Over Community College Classes
Let's start with some of the benefits of taking AP classes in high school.
You Can Earn College Credits Without Leaving Your School
AP classes are the best way to earn college credits without disrupting your schedule. It's difficult for students who are heavily involved in after-school activities and sports to fit community college classes into their schedules. You can also potentially knock out high school and college requirements simultaneously if you earn a high score on an AP exam in a core subject. Not every college will give you credit for your work in AP classes, but most will at least allow you to place out of introductory courses that could end up being redundant.
You’ll Be in a Class With Other High-Achieving Students Who Care About the Subject
Another positive aspect of AP classes is that usually most of the students want to be there. Being in a class with other people who are genuinely interested in learning can make a big difference in the experience (not that everyone who takes AP classes is a perfect student, but it’s more likely that they’ll be at least somewhat nerdy). Some students in community college classes could be taking the class as a major requirement. This might mean that they’re not as engaged, making the learning environment less intellectually stimulating.
The Material Is More Predictable
Since the AP program is standardized, you’ll be able to study for each exam and be confident that you've learned all the necessary information. There are tons of review books and practice tests to help you master the material and skills that are tested on AP exams. You’ll also know the format of the test beforehand, so you can get comfortable with it and avoid too much stress on exam day. In a community college class, the tests might be structured in a variety of different ways, and the outlines of what you need to study may be less clear depending on the professor.
They're Usually Cheaper Than Community College Classes
Although it costs $92 to take each AP test, that's all you need to pay for the entire class. Even though community college classes are inexpensive compared to four-year college classes, they'll probably cost you more than an AP test, especially if you don't live in the same district as the community college. Some high schools help students pay for community college classes, but others will leave it up to you to take care of the costs. If money is a concern, AP classes may be a better choice for you.
I mean, not really, but you get the idea.
Advantages of Community College Classes Over AP Classes
Now that you know the potential benefits of taking AP classes, lets take a look at what community college classes offer that might make them a more attractive option depending on your situation.
You’ll Get to See What It’s Like to Be in a Real College Class
Although AP classes are intended to be roughly equivalent to introductory college courses, they can only do so much to replicate the experience a college class. Taking community college classes will give you the opportunity to see first-hand how college courses and exams are structured. You’ll also see what the dynamic is like in the classroom and be able to hear the viewpoints of older students who might help you see the subject from different perspectives. In AP classes, the group of students tends to be more homogeneous, so points of view may be less diverse.
You May Be Able to Get College Credit More Easily (and Be Better Prepared to Place Out of Introductory Classes)
Credits from community college classes usually transfer easily to your state school and other public schools. You may also be able to place out of introductory courses in college. This happens with AP credit as well, but since AP classes don’t quite replicate the college experience, sometimes students are unprepared for actual advanced college classes. It’s more likely that you’ll feel comfortable in a higher level class if you’ve taken a real college class already and mastered the introductory material in that context.
You’ll Have More Course Options
AP classes are relatively limited in their subject matter. The AP program covers all the core subjects, but you might find a community college class that aligns better with your interests than any APs that your school offers. Community college classes are a good way to expand your horizons before college and learn how to choose classes from a wide variety of subjects.
A Bad Teacher Can't Sabotage Your Credit
AP exams and curriculum are standardized, but methods of teaching for AP classes are not. Some teachers are less effective than others. This can be an issue because it affects students’ ability to do well on AP exams, and a low score on the exam diminishes the validity of the AP class on your course record. You may not be able to get any college credit for your efforts in the class if the colleges where you apply only accept 4s or 5s for credit or if you don't end up passing the test. In community college classes, even if you earn mediocre grades in a poorly taught class, it's likely that you'll still be able to get some college credit.
Come on guys. I know this is supposed to be AP Calculus, but help me out here.
Do Colleges Prefer One Over the Other? Which Should You Take?
Which type of college class for high schoolers will look better on your college applications, AP or community college? It depends on the types of colleges that interest you. AP exams are scored using a standardized system that almost every school recognizes and understands. In most cases, you can also use AP test scores to earn college credit or place out of introductory classes. High grades and scores in an AP class indicate to colleges that you are a driven student who is capable of working at a high level. A rigorous high school course load is very important to selective colleges, and AP courses may be considered stronger indicators of your academic abilities than community college classes.
With community college classes, the difficulty of the class and your mastery of the material are harder for colleges to judge. Since you won’t take standardized tests, colleges must rely on their knowledge of the community college’s reputation and your grades in the class to make judgments. This could be fine if you’re applying to an in-state school or even an out-of-state public school, but more selective private colleges are less likely to accept credits from classes at community colleges that are unfamiliar to them. They may not consider the coursework to be equal to that of an AP course.
If you’re applying to highly competitive private colleges, I would advise choosing AP courses over community college courses. Admissions offices at these colleges will recognize APs as markers of academic drive and the ability to handle a difficult course load. They might recognize community college classes as well, but because of the standardization and widespread respect for the AP program, AP classes will be seen as more concrete indicators of your abilities.
While it's impressive that you wrote this paper with a comically large pen and still got an A+, we don't accept credits from Reelskool Community College.
On the other hand, if you know that you’re going to your state school or another public school, community college classes may be a better option because the credits will transfer more easily. For this reason, they could also be a smart choice in the long run if you want to cut down on total tuition costs (even if they cost more in the short-term when compared to AP classes).
Your decision depends on what interests you as well. If your high school doesn’t offer a class that you want to take but your local community college does, you should take the community college class over a random AP. Read up on the courses offered by both your high school and your local community college, and see which classes interest you more. You can even try taking one of each type initially so you can make a more informed decision about what works best.
If you're still trying to figure out your schedule, check out our expert guide on which classes you should take in high school.
As a high-achieving student, you may be interested in joining high school honors societies. Read this article to learn more about honors societies and classes and what they entail.
If you're interested in selective colleges, it's important to challenge yourself in your courses. Check out this article for an overview of what a rigorous course load looks like in high school.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.