If you're an advanced student aiming for top colleges, or you're a student who wants to save on tuition by getting college credit in high school, taking Advanced Placement classes is a great option.
However, you might be wondering, "just how many AP classes should I take?" You can save a lot of money and make your transcript pretty impressive with lots of AP classes. However, if you overdo it, you could actually hurt your GPA and lose time for other important activities—like extracurriculars and ACT/SAT studying.
So what's the magic number? We'll look at different factors to help you decide the right amount of AP classes for you.
Why Take AP Classes?
Before we get into the numbers, it's important to remember your reasons for taking AP classes in the first place. This will help you consider your options and make the best choice for your long-term goals.
Taking and passing an AP class and its exam proves you are capable of an intro-level college course. Many colleges will give you credit for higher class standing for passing AP scores. (To find out any college's particular policy, see the database at the AP website.)
AP classes are also a great way to explore classes you might want to take in college—like economics, psychology, or computer science.
Finally, taking AP classes is a great way to challenge yourself and also to show colleges you're taking on the toughest courses available to you.
But take note: the point is not to "collect them all." Colleges will not automatically favor applicants with the most AP courses, especially if they start to drag down your GPA or if you don't pass the exams.
In short, APs can be a huge boost to your college application, but if you take too many, they could actually hurt your chances.
How Many AP Classes Should I Take to Impress Colleges?
One of the most important factors for how many AP classes you should take is the competitiveness of the schools you're interested in applying to.
For Less Selective Colleges and State Schools
For these schools, the number of AP classes you take is up to you and your goals—for example, which classes would you want to get over with in high school so you can focus on harder classes in college? This is because most state schools accept AP classes for credit (again, check the AP database for more info) but don't require them for admission.
You only get credit if you pass the exams, so don't overload yourself with AP classes and spread your studying thin. It's better to get two 4s than four 2s! (Read all about AP scoring here.)
For More Selective Colleges or State School Honors and Scholarship Programs
For more selective schools—or honors programs and scholarships at state schools—it's important to show you are taking the most challenging courses available to you, which includes AP courses if your school has them. There is no "magic number" of AP courses for the most selective colleges, especially because course availability changes so much from high school to high school.
For example, Harvard College says on their admissions website, "Most of all, we look for students who make the most of their opportunities and the resources available to them, and who are likely to continue to do so throughout their lives … You should demonstrate your proficiency in the areas described below by taking SAT Subject Tests, Advanced Placement tests, and International Baccalaureate tests."
The University of Pennsylvania's website notes, "We expect that every student who applies to Penn will challenge themselves in high school based on the opportunities offered at their school... Every high school is different, though, so we will review your school’s profile to best understand the types of courses available to you, your school’s grading scale, and the ways you can challenge yourself with extracurricular or post-secondary activities."
Out on the West Coast, Stanford says, "We expect you to challenge yourself throughout high school and to do very well. The most important credential for evaluating your academic record is the high school transcript. Please know that our evaluation of your application goes beyond any numerical formula. There is no minimum GPA or test score; nor is there any specific number of AP or honors courses you must have on your transcript in order to be admitted to Stanford."
Note that Stanford specifically says there is no certain number of AP courses you should take, but that the transcript is the most important part of the evaluation and that they expect you to challenge yourself.
Translation? If you are going for the most competitive colleges, you should take the toughest core courses available at your school—including AP English Literature and/or Language, Calculus or Statistics (or both!), US, World, or European History, and at least one of the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics). You should also take APs in non-core subjects that are interesting to you—like Psychology, Economics, or Computer Science.
That said, you won't impress colleges with a laundry list of AP courses, especially if they have no relation to what you want to study, and especially if it drags down your GPA or you don't pass the exams. The goal is to challenge and enrich your high school curriculum, not to spread yourself thin.
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So What's the Right Number of AP Classes?
You need to challenge yourself, but not overload your schedule. Also keep in mind your target schedule depends on which type of college you are trying to get into, and the AP availability at your school. As a general rule, you should aim for the following AP class numbers:
Most Selective Schools (Top 20): APs in most or all of the core courses (English, Mathematics, Science, History, and Foreign Language), plus additional AP courses that relate to your goals, future major, or interests. This will end up being between 7 and 12 AP courses.
Selective Schools (Top 100): APs in most core courses, plus one or two additional courses. This will end up being between 4 and 8 AP courses.
Less Selective Schools: APs in some core courses, or in courses related to your anticipated major. This will end up being between 1 and 5 AP courses.
But how do you fit these courses into a four-year high school plan? This is our suggested schedule for a relatively ambitious student:
Freshman Year: Consider taking one or two AP classes that are less demanding and build on skills from middle school, including Environmental Science, Human Geography, or Psychology. In your core courses, take honors classes if possible so you can begin earning prerequisite skills for tougher AP classes down the line.
Sophomore Year: Take one to three AP classes. Consider adding a more challenging AP class, like World History or US History, and one or two less-demanding APs. Continue to take honors courses if possible in your other core classes.
Junior Year: Based on your experience and scores from freshman and sophomore year, start taking APs in core classes, for example AP English, AP Calculus, or AP Biology. Take as many as you can handle without spreading yourself thin, and make sure you will have time to study for the ACT or SAT this year. An Ivy League hopeful might take 3 to 5 AP classes, while if you're aiming for less-selective schools, 2 to 4 would be enough.
Senior Year: Take more APs in core subjects and additional subjects, again being careful not to overburden your schedule and to leave time for college applications. It's not uncommon for applicants to highly selective schools to have as many as 5 or 6 AP classes senior year, but keep your own schedule and limits in mind. Adding one more AP class will not have a huge effect on your college chances at this point, but it could significantly reduce the time you spend on applications and therefore hurt your admission chances.
Be careful about burning yourself out, especially senior year. You will need to devote lots of time and energy to your college apps!
Below is a chart summarizing the above information. And again, these rules aren't hard and fast, as there is no set formula for admission to the most selective schools. The bottom line is to take the most challenging course load you can handle while also doing very well academically.
Recommended Number of AP Classes to Take
AP Class Suggestions
United States History
AB or BC Calculus
US Government and Politics
Other Factors to Consider
Your target schedule could also look different if you spend a huge amount of time on one activity, like playing an instrument or doing a sport, speech and debate, or college-level research. This is especially true if you compete or participate at a national level.
When choosing AP classes, prioritize subjects that are genuinely interesting to you and you would like to continue in college before you choose AP classes just for the sake of AP.
Also, think about your grade level and experience with AP classes before signing up. Don't jump into four AP classes your sophomore year if you've never taken them before. Learning how to study for the exams and pacing yourself is tough. This can be hard with just one or two exams, let alone a handful.
Plus, in many subjects you won't be able to acquire the necessary pre-requisites for AP courses until your junior and senior year. For example, AP English is usually taught junior or senior year, most students won't have the pre-requisites for AP Calculus until junior year at least, and for the sciences—Biology, Chemistry, and Physics—most high schools have a recommended sequence that doesn't have students taking the AP courses until sophomore year at the very earliest.
This is why many students begin with courses like AP Human Geography or Psychology in freshman or sophomore year. The exams are comparatively less difficult, and younger students are more likely to have completed prerequisite courses for them.
If you do well on the first exam or exams you take, you can consider taking on more in junior and senior year, but again, be careful about overloading.
Mistakes to Avoid
How do you know if you've overdone it? If you find your grades slipping in non-AP classes or if you're having a hard time keeping up with your usual sports and/or extracurriculars, you might have overloaded yourself.
Don't give into peer pressure—just because you have a friend who has taken 10 AP exams doesn't mean you have to do the same. College applications are considered holistically, so it's important to keep your overall GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and activities intact.
Again, one extra AP class won't make or break your admissions chances, but if it causes your GPA to fall or your performance in extracurriculars to suffer, it could be hurting you.
Make sure you are leaving ample time to study for either the SAT or ACT. Your score on that will have a huge effect on your admissions chances—as well as scholarship eligibility at other schools.
Finally, have back-up plans ready when you sign up for classes. For example, if you start BC Calculus but realize it's too tough, see if it's possible to transfer down to AB Calculus. Also be prepared to switch into an honors or regular classes if an AP class is eating up too much of your life and hurting your GPA.
Talk to your guidance counselor before signing up for AP classes to find out the protocol for changing your schedule mid-year.
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Is It Worth It To Self-Study?
Is it possible to study for an AP exam on your own? Is it worth it? It's actually not uncommon for students to not take an AP class but study on their own and just take the AP exam.
This often happens if a school doesn't offer a more niche AP, like Art History or Latin, or if a certain AP class doesn't fit into your schedule.
Here's the thing: self-studying only works if you are very disciplined. Most students who take AP exams have taken a class for the whole year, and all of the assignments and tests that come with it, to prepare.
Replicating that on your own can be tough, especially if you have a full class schedule and other commitments.
Be prepared to plan ahead to fit a self-studied AP exam into your schedule.
That said, if there is a topic you are really interested in but can't take, and you are committed to self-studying, that kind of initiative and self-discipline is very impressive, especially to colleges—if you pass the exam.
I would wait to self-study until you have already taken at least one AP exam through a class. That way you will have an idea of how much you need to learn and what it takes to study for an AP exam. Also talk to your guidance counselor and ask if they know of any students at the school who have successfully self-studied for an AP exam.
Tips for Self-Studying
#1: Gather your resources. At the very least you should have a prep book for the exam you're taking, but if possible, try to find the following:
- A teacher at your school who can answer questions about the subject if you ever get stuck or lost. For example, if you are self-studying for European History, ask your history teacher if any of the history teachers at your school have background in that area.
- Additional materials, like a textbook for the subject. Your school might have old textbooks lying around, especially if they used to teach the class or some variant of it.
- A private tutor, especially if there is a college or university nearby. (College students who have recently taken AP exams often make great tutors, and often charge less than private companies.)
#2: Develop a year-long strategy. You can't self-study for an AP exam in just a few months. Create monthly content goals. You can do this based on units or sections in your prep book. Remember to schedule time for practice exams in the spring!
#3: Set weekly study times. Build your self-study into your schedule like it's a class or extracurricular activity. By doing a steady amount of work each week, you will have time to learn enough content to do well on the exam and won't face a time-crunch in the spring.
For more tips, check out our guides on how to self-study and the best APs to self-study. Also, make sure studying for this AP exam doesn't replace time you would use to study for the ACT or SAT—those tests ultimately carry much more weight in college admissions.
We mentioned how important the SAT and ACT can be. The first step to studying is deciding which one to take! Find out how with our exclusive guide.
Once you've chosen the SAT or ACT, you will also need to develop a study schedule. Use our guide so you can fit in study time alongside your AP courses and other commitments!
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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.