There are a variety of reasons why you might want to take online AP courses. Maybe your school doesn’t offer all of the courses you want to take, or you’re homeschooled, or you want to do a little extra academic work to show colleges what you’re passionate about.
But there’s a lot to consider before you take the plunge (and possibly drop a few hundred dollars on a class). I’ll take you through some basic information on online AP courses, some pros and cons, who should consider them, and how to choose classes if you do decide to take an AP course online. Finally, I’ll offer some brief blurbs on some of the most popular courses out there.
What Is an Online AP Class?
An online AP class is meant to mimic the material and workload of an in-person AP course from afar, and to prepare you for the AP exam. So you’ll have readings, lectures, quizzes, and exams just like in regular school, but all of your communication with your teacher (and potentially other students, depending on the course) will take place through your computer--probably mostly through e-mail and IM, although maybe some videochatting or virtual lecture sessions depending on the course.
The truth is that every AP class you could take online is going to be a little different, which is why if you do decide to take one (or more), doing research on which course to enroll in is very important. Some are accredited by the College Board, some aren’t; some are free, some cost almost a thousand dollars a pop. Some are essentially graded independent study and others have scheduled virtual “class” meeting times.
That said, there are still some general pros and cons to taking AP courses online.
6 Benefits of Taking AP Courses Online
You can take AP classes that are not offered by your school.
You can probably get credit toward graduating high school, although it may just be pass/fail credit on your official high school transcript.
You’ll have some flexibility in when you get the work done, so if you have an unusual schedule it might be a good choice for you.
You might be able to connect with like-minded students with similar interests! This may be an especial benefit if you are homeschooled or live in a rural area.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to take the class for free! Many states have at least one program that is free or low-cost to residents.
If you are self-motivated, you may enjoy the semi independent-study format of many of the classes.
6 Drawbacks to Taking AP Courses Online
It may or may not boost your official high school GPA. Some high schools will put the letter grade on your transcript, some won’t count the class at all, and some will allow you to count the class as credit, but only as pass/fail.
Some of these classes are expensive! Depending on the class and your level of motivation, it may make more sense to self-study for the AP test and then take the exam.
If you live in a rural area, you will still need to find a brick-and-mortar school where you can take the exam. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something you will need to keep in mind--the online course won’t coordinate your exam arrangements for you.
If you have a hard time getting work done without some supervision, an online course may not have enough accountability for you to get the work done and really get something out of the class, let alone be prepared for the exam.
Some of the classes are mostly text-based and not very interactive, so if that’s a hard way for you to learn, it may not be the best option for you.
Some classes have been criticized for being an easy A that does not actually prepare you for the AP exam. So read reviews and research carefully!
With all this in mind, how do you decide if you should take AP classes online?
With the magic of the internet, the world is your classroom! That was corny, sorry.
Are Online AP Classes a Good Fit For Me?
The number one question you need to ask yourself when deciding to undertake online AP coursework is: why am I doing this? See below for some potential answers and my thoughts.
#1: My school doesn’t offer this AP class that I find interesting/valuable/important
This is a good reason to take an AP class online! If you don’t have another way of taking the class, and you are invested in the material, you are an ideal candidate for taking online AP classes.
Particularly if you live in a rural area and go to a small high school, you should check if your school already partners with an online AP course provider. If so, you will probably be able to take the class for free, have time during the school day to do coursework, and have the class on your official high school transcript! Wins all around.
#2: I’m home-schooled and I want to take an accredited (i.e. College Board approved) AP course
This is another good reason to go online, although it’s worth noting that the person teaching you at home can get their AP curriculum accredited if they so desire. (More information can be found in our guide to passing your College Board Course Audit.) In that case, you can have the class listed as AP on your transcript.
Of course, your home-teacher may not feel equipped to teach you the material, in which case it makes total sense to take an online course. Another benefit to this is that an online course may help you connect with other students, depending on the platform.
If your only concern is taking the exam, and you don’t care about having a transcript and grade for the course, you could also consider self-study. Home-schoolers can also list their exam prep “class” as “Honors” even if their home course is not accredited by the AP.
#3: I have an unusual schedule/scheduling conflict
If you have some kind of scheduling conflict with your school’s in-class AP course—maybe there are two AP classes you want to take that meet at the same time, or you are on a work-study program—online courses may be a good option.
However, keep in mind that you may not be able to get a letter grade for the online class on your high school transcript even if you can get credit. If this is the case and you’re a junior, you might consider taking the class through your school next year.
#4: I want to take an AP class over the summer
If there’s an AP class you want to take over the summer that doesn’t work for you during the school year, online courses can be a great way to make that happen. However, you will have to spend a decent amount of time reviewing the material during the following school year if you want to remember anything for the AP exam the following May!
This cherub is thinking deeply about his class schedule. Either that, or napping.
#5: I want to boost my GPA
Your school may or may not allow you to count your letter grade in an online AP course on your high school transcript. They may not give credit, or you may only get pass/fail credit on your official transcript. So if you want a GPA boost, definitely discuss whether the class will even factor into your GPA before enrolling!
If you are concerned about your GPA, I would advise you to talk to a guidance counselor at your school. You might also read our article on applying to college with a low GPA.
#6: I think it will look good to colleges
Taking an online AP course may or may not look good to colleges depending on your circumstances. If you are taking it because it’s not offered at your school or you have a conflict and you’re really interested in the material, it will signal that you are self-motivated and invested in learning. Great!
If, however, you want to take online AP courses because you are already stacked six AP courses this year and this is the only way you could possibly fit in more, possibly reconsider. Colleges like candidates who have some interests outside of class—your entire waking life shouldn’t be spent doing AP coursework and preparing for exams. Consider an extracurricular.
#7: I want college credit
Keep in mind: only some colleges will give you credit for high scores on AP tests, and the score cutoff is different at different schools (some will give credit for a 3, while others will only give credit for a 5). Make sure you know the score cutoffs and credit policies for colleges you are interested in.
Another thing to remember is that credit is determined by your score on the exam, not whether you took the class or not—so you could self-study if you think you could get the necessary credit that way.
#8: I don’t know!If you don’t really know exactly why you would be taking an online AP course, don’t do it until you figure it out. If you don’t have a sense of purpose you won’t be motivated to put in the additional work especially because online classes tend to be more self-directed than in-person ones.
You'll notice I've mentioned self-study several times in the above list. So you are probably wondering what the different is between self-study and an online AP course, and why you would choose one or the other. Read on!
What’s the Difference Between an Online AP Class and Self-Study?
If you take an accredited (College Board-approved) online AP class, you will get a transcript with a letter grade that shows that you took the AP-level course, which you can send to colleges. You may even be able to get credit towards graduation and have the class be listed on your transcript for your regular brick-and-mortar school, depending on your school’s policies.
However, the College Board does not require you to take a class before you can take the AP exam in that subject. This means that you are allowed to self-study—that is, use resources like books, lecture videos, and internet sites to prepare for the exam on your own. In this case you won’t have a class listed on any transcript or a letter grade, but if you do well on the test, you can still potentially get college credit for it, and send in the scores to colleges.
Self-studying is a good option if you already have a baseline knowledge level in the subject area, if you are very self-directed, and if all you care about is taking the exam and getting a target score. If you aren’t at all familiar with the material, you aren’t very self-directed, or you want to have a record that you took the course, take an online class instead.
If you’ve made the decision to take an online AP course and you’re going to take the plunge, how do you pick from the hundreds of courses available?
Online means no blackboard erasers! If people even use those anymore.
How Should I Choose My Online AP Course?
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of options for online AP courses out there. And they are not all created equal. There are a number of factors you should consider when selecting a course:
#1: Is the course accredited by the College Board?
In other words, is it an official College-Board approved AP course? You can search for a course in the AP course ledger if you aren’t sure.
If it’s not accredited, it’s basically providing self-study materials to you, because any transcript you get from the course won’t say “AP.” This could be fine if your goal is just to prepare for the test, but it's something to be mindful of, particularly with respect to the quality of the material. I would hesitate to lay down five hundred hard-earned dollars on a non-accredited course.
#2: Are there admission requirements?
Some online AP course providers, like John Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth and Stanford Online High School, have prerequisites or pre-test requirements. Make sure you qualify!
#3: Are you confident it’s a high-quality course?
For starters, make sure to check out reviews from other people who have taken the course (you could try College Confidential). Here are a few hallmarks of a well-organized course:
- Are teachers accessible and consistent?
- Is tech support available to assist with any difficulties you may have?
- Are there statistics on how well the students do on the AP after taking the course?
#4: What’s your budget?
Some more “elite” online courses will run you almost a thousand dollars for an AP class. However, some of these providers also have some form or another of financial aid, so be sure to research that before writing them off. You can certainly find a high-quality AP course that’s a little less expensive. You may just have to look harder. For more ideas for online AP classes at a variety of price points, check out our article on the best and worst online AP courses, reviewed.
Check if your school already has a contract with a remote AP class provider. In this case you can probably take the class for free! Some states also have low or no-cost online classes for residents. The Florida Virtual School offers classes free to FL residents, and Scout, through the University of California, offers some material free to California public school students.
#5: How self-directed are you?
Some courses will allow you to set your own schedule and have pace flexibility—you’ll be given materials and access to an instructor if you have questions, but it will be more or less a free-range experience. Other classes have scheduled lecture sections and you will lose points if you turn in assignments and assessments late.
Be honest with yourself and choose the style that will allow you to get the most out of the course.
#6: Will you interact with other students?
Is it important to you to have some way to interact or collaborate with the other students in the class through message boards or projects? In this case, make sure your course offers this.
#7: Can you do a trial or get a refund if you drop the course early on?
If it’s an expensive class, you probably want to make sure that you can get at least a partial refund if you drop the class two weeks in if you change your mind or something comes up.
#8: Do you have access to a computer that meets the technical requirements of the course?
Since it’s computer-based, the class may have operating system or browser requirements. You don’t want to sign up for a class only to find that you can’t make it work on your computer!
He looks like he'd be a great online AP teacher. Very modern.
Popular Online AP Courses
There are approximately one gajillion online AP classes out there, but you may or may not want to sift through them all looking for that perfect Cinderella-shoe fit. Luckily for you, I have done a lot of sifting myself and have a brief list of some well-regarded online AP courses.
AP US History from the UC system’s Scout program - This course is well-liked for its engaging multimedia lessons and variety in preparation material. Cheaper for CA students, but one of the less expensive options overall.
AP Biology from Apex Learning - AP Biology from Apex is commended for its comprehensive virtual lab component—something lacking from many online AP science providers.
AP Chemistry from ChemAdvantage - This husband and wife team teach AP Chemistry online with a robust lab component and lots of instructor attention. While primarily for homeschoolers, their FAQ says that they may be able to accommodate students whose schools simply don’t offer AP Chem.
AP Psychology from the Florida Virtual School - Students liked this class for being relatively straightforward, although it is mostly self-paced.
AP Human Geography from the Florida Virtual School - Students like this class for teacher accessibility and an appropriate difficulty level—interesting, but not frustrating.
AP Art History from the Florida Virtual School - Students enjoy the interactive gallery format and find that they retain the material because it is presented so engagingly.
AP CS A from the Florida Virtual School - Students feel that not only is Computer Science a natural fit from an online school, FLVS teaches a strong coding foundation and really prepares you for the exam. Plus, it’s fun!
For homeschooled students in any state, PA Homeschoolers AP Courses are very well-reviewed, with outstanding teachers being the number one benefit. AP History and English classes are particularly well-liked. However, you must be a homeschooled student to register.
Other generally well-regarded online AP providers include Stanford Online High School, Northwestern Center for Talent Development, and Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. These providers are specifically for gifted students and have admissions requirements. They are generally considered quite comprehensive and in-depth.
Choose the course with the most dinosaurs.
Getting the Most Out of Online AP Classes
If you are going to take AP courses online, you want to make sure you get as much out of them that you possibly can. There’s no point in going to the trouble of taking the class if you aren’t going to learn anything!
So how can you succeed?
- Treat it like a real course - Resist the temptation to slack off just because it’s online and you don’t have to face your teacher in real life.
- Schedule time to work on it - Set aside specific time slots every week when you are going to work on the course. This will help keep you from falling behind, and improve your ability to take the course seriously.
- Minimize distractions - When you are doing online coursework, make sure you are in a good working environment like a library or a quiet desk. Don’t turn the TV on, and I advise not working in bed.
- Utilize the teacher - If you have questions, get in touch with your teacher! One of the advantages of an online course over self-study is that you have access to a paid professional to explain confusing concepts to you if you need it.
If you are diligent about keeping on track and get help when you need it, you will find the class much more valuable.
Online AP Courses: The Bottom Line
Online APs are a great choice for students with unusual schedules or at schools with slim AP offerings. With that said, it’s important to do your research before enrolling in an online AP class. Look for reviews online, check the price point, and triple-check your school’s policies on GPA and credit-transferring the online courses before you take the plunge!
For more in-depth reviews of online AP courses, see my guide to the best and worst online AP classes.
If you need more general information about AP tests, check out "What Are AP Exams and Tests?" by one of our experts.
Trying to decide on the best way to get college credit in high school? See our guide to community college classes versus AP classes and exams.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.