There are a variety of reasons why you might want to take online AP courses. Maybe your school doesn't offer all the courses you want to take. Maybe you're homeschooled. Or maybe 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 the basic information about 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.
AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, AP exams for May 2020 will be held remotely, and details on how this will work are still evolving. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for your prep with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
What Is an Online AP Class?
An online AP class is meant to mimic the material and workload of an in-person AP course and prepare you for the AP exam. You'll have readings, lectures, quizzes, and exams just like in regular school, but all your communication with the teacher (and potentially other students depending on the course) will take place through your computer, most likely via email, video chat, and/or virtual lectures.
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, while some aren't. Some are free, while some cost almost $1,000 a pop. Some are essentially graded independent study, while 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
There are six key benefits to taking an online AP course.
#1: You can take AP classes that are not offered by your school.
#2: You should be able to earn credit toward graduating high school, though it might just be pass/fail credit on your official high school transcript.
#3: You'll have some flexibility in when you get the work done, so if you have an unusual schedule, an online course might be a good option for you.
#4: You might be able to connect with like-minded students with similar interests. This could be an especially great benefit if you are homeschooled or live in a rural area.
#5: Depending on where you live, you might be able to take the class for free. Many states have at least one program that is free or low-cost to residents.
#6: 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
Despite the benefits, there are some key drawbacks to taking an online AP course.
#1: The class 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.
#2: Some of these classes are expensive. Depending on the class and your level of motivation, it might make more sense to self-study for the AP test and then take the exam.
#3: If you live in a rural area, you'll still need to find a brick-and-mortar school where you can take the exam. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something you'll need to keep in mind—the online course won't coordinate your exam arrangements for you.
#4: 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 learn something from the class, let alone be prepared for the exam.
#5: Some of the classes are mostly text-based and not very interactive, so if that sounds like an unappealing way to learn, it might not be the best option for you.
#6: Some classes have been criticized for being an easy A that does not actually prepare you for the AP exam. Read reviews and research carefully!
With all this in mind, how do you decide whether 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? 8 Potential Reasons to Take One
The biggest 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 Does Not Offer an AP Class That I Find Interesting, Valuable, or 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're invested in the material, then you're 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 to see whether your school already partners with an online AP course provider. If so, you will probably be able to take the class for free, get time during the school day to do coursework, and have the class appear on your official high school transcript. Wins all around!
#2: I'm Homeschooled and Want to Take an Accredited AP Course
This is another good reason to go online, though 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 homeschool teacher might not feel equipped to teach you the material, in which case it makes total sense to take an online course. Another benefit is that an online course could 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 a grade for the course, you might consider self-study. Homeschoolers can list their exam prep "class" as "Honors" even if their home course is not accredited by the AP.
#3: I Have an Unusual Schedule or Scheduling Conflict
If you have some kind of scheduling conflict with your school's in-class AP course—for example, 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 would be a good option for you.
However, keep in mind that you might 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 the following year.
#4: I Want to Take an AP Class Over the Summer
If there's a particular 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. That said, 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 marks on your official transcript. So if you want a GPA boost, definitely discuss whether the class will factor into your GPA before enrolling in it.
If you are concerned about your GPA, I 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'll Look Good to Colleges
Taking an online AP course may or may not look good to colleges depending on your individual 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'll signal that you are self-motivated and invested in learning, which is a great thing!
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 that only some colleges will give you credit for high scores on AP tests, and the score cutoff is different at various schools (some will give credit for a 3, while others will only give credit for a 4 or 5). Make sure you know the score cutoffs and credit policies for the colleges you are interested in.
Another thing to remember is that credit is determined by your score on the exam and 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. Without 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 the word "self-study" several times in the above list. If you're curious about what the differences between self-study and online AP courses are—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 (i.e., 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 might even be able to get credit toward 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 such as books, lecture videos, and websites 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, aren't very self-directed, or want to have a record that you took the course, take an online class instead.
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 Can I Choose an Online AP Course? 8 Questions to Ask
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of options for online AP courses out there. And they are not all created equal. In reality, you must consider a number of factors when selecting a course. Here are the top eight.
#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" on it. This could be fine if your goal is to just prepare for the test, but it's something to be mindful of, particularly with respect to the quality of the material. I'd hesitate to lay down 500 hard-earned dollars on a non-accredited course.
#2: Are There Any Admission Requirements?
Some online AP course providers, such as 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 That 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 or Reddit). 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 might have?
- Are there statistics on how well the students do on the AP test after taking the course?
#4: What's Your Budget?
Some more "elite" online courses will run you almost $1,000 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 might 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 to see whether 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 Florida 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 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 be sure that you can get at least a partial refund if you drop the class two weeks in should you change your mind or should something come up.
#8: Do You Have Access to a Computer That Meets the Course Requirements?
Since it's computer-based, the AP class might have specific 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 to provide you with a brief list of some highly 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. It's cheaper for CA students but one of the less expensive options overall.
AP Biology from Apex Learning — AP Bio from Apex is commended for its comprehensive virtual lab component—something lacking in many online AP science providers.
AP Chemistry from ChemAdvantage — This husband-and-wife team teaches AP Chemistry online with a robust lab component and lots of instructor attention. While primarily for homeschooled students, their FAQ says that they might 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, though 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. It's 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 for an online school, but that FLVS also gives you a strong coding foundation and effectively 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 biggest benefit. AP History and English classes are particularly well liked; however, you must be a homeschooled student to register for these classes.
Other generally highly 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 admission requirements. They are normally considered quite comprehensive and very 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 as you possibly can. After all, there's no point in going to the trouble of taking the class if you're not going to learn anything!
So how can you succeed? Just follow these tips:
- 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 keep you from falling behind and help you take the course more seriously.
- Minimize distractions — When you're doing online coursework, make sure that you're in an ideal environment, such as a library or a quiet room. Don't turn the TV on, and don't work 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 should you need it.
As long as you are diligent about staying on track and getting help as needed, you'll find the class much more valuable.
Online AP Courses: The Bottom Line
Online APs are a great choice for students who have unusual schedules or who are 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, check the price point, and triple-check your school's policies on GPA and credit-transferring 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.
Want more general information about AP tests? Then check out our guide to what AP exams are, written by one of our experts.
Trying to decide on the best way to get college credit in high school? Read our expert guide to community college classes versus AP classes and exams.
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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.