If you’ve started high school recently, or if you're due to start soon, you might be wondering, "What are AP classes?" You might have heard that they are extra-advanced or that you can get college credit from them. But how does it work?
If you’ve been wondering what AP tests are and how they can help you, read on for our guide to AP courses and learn how they can get you ahead.
What Is Advanced Placement?
Advanced Placement is a program run by the College Board (the makers of the SAT) that allows you to take courses at your high school, which can earn you college credit and/or qualify you for more advanced classes when you begin college.
So what are AP courses? They are designed to give you the experience of an intro-level college class while you’re still in high school. Plus, you can get college credit for the class if you pass the AP exam.
AP classes were created in the mid-1950s as a response to the widening gap between secondary school (high school) and college. A pilot program in 1952 had 11 subjects, but AP didn’t officially launch until the 1956 school year, when the College Board took over the program and named it the College Board Advanced Placement Program.
The program expanded rapidly over the years. These days, about 2.7 million students take AP exams every year in 38 subjects. It’s also much more common for students to take multiple AP classes over the course of their high school careers.
Well, the content of an intro-level college class ... you won't sit in a lecture hall like this until college!
But what exactly are AP exams? An AP exam is basically a test of all you learn in an AP class. You earn college credit if you pass the exam given at the end of the year in May. (AP tests are scored between 1 and 5, with anything above 3 considered passing.)
While it's possible to skip the AP class and study for an AP exam independently, it's strongly recommended that you take the class. AP classes are specifically designed to help students prepare for the AP exams.
Taking an AP course and passing the test is a sign that you're capable of handling college-level work, which will strengthen your college applications immensely.
One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes). Our team of PrepScholar admissions experts have compiled their knowledge into this single guide to planning out your high school course schedule. We'll advise you on how to balance your schedule between regular and honors/AP/IB courses, how to choose your extracurriculars, and what classes you can't afford not to take.
Why Take AP Classes? 3 Key Benefits
Now that you know what AP classes are, why should you consider taking them? Below, we give you three potential benefits of taking AP classes.
#1: They Can Boost Your College Applications
Taking an AP class (or several!) is a great way to challenge yourself academically and show colleges that you're serious about your education. An AP class on your transcript signals stronger academic training, especially with high passing scores of 4 and 5 on the test.
In particular, getting a 5 on an AP test shows that you are more advanced in a subject than 80-90% of advanced students—which looks very impressive to colleges!
Since AP courses are challenging and require you to study for a comprehensive exam, they teach you skills that will help you in college classes. According to the College Board, students who take AP exams get higher grades in college than those with similar grades who don’t take AP exams.
You basically get a head start in college.
Many colleges say that they look to see if you took the hardest courses available to you at your school. Taking AP classes is often the best way to show that you are challenging yourself academically at your high school.
For example, Yale says on their admissions website, "We only expect you to take advantage of [AP] courses if your high school provides them.” In other words, if your school has AP courses and you don’t take them, it might look as though you aren't challenging yourself.
To take a West Coast example, USC is more straightforward: “Students should pursue Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes whenever possible and if offered by high school.”
Getting a high passing score of 4 or 5 further demonstrates your academic potential to colleges. (By the way, if you're curious about a college's suggested high school course load, look up its admissions website by searching "[School Name] admissions requirements.")
#2: They Can Show Your Passion
Taking AP exams is also a way to demonstrate real academic interest in a certain subject. For example, if you’re an aspiring engineer, taking the AP Calculus and AP Physics courses and passing the exams will prove to college admissions committees that you're serious about engineering and have the skills necessary to pursue it.
On the other hand, if you're interested in political science or pre-law tracks, taking AP US History, AP US Government, AP Statistics, and/or AP Economics would show strong preparation for those subjects.
Or if you’re hoping to be pre-med, taking AP Chemistry, AP Biology, and/or AP Calculus would indicate that you have the skills and background needed to handle tough pre-med classes as a college student.
#3: They Can Get You College Credit
Some colleges give credit for AP classes. This makes it possible to graduate from college in a far shorter amount of time, ultimately saving you money!
For example, Harvard lets you apply for Advanced Standing if you've completed the equivalent of a year of college courses with AP exams. The University of Michigan, too, grants new students course credit and higher class placements for AP exams.
However, some colleges use scores to help place students in higher-level classes but don't allow these credits to fulfill graduation requirements, so you can't graduate any earlier. Similarly, other schools might let you earn college credit but are limiting about which AP exams they accept.
As an example, Stanford University accepts AP credit from many science, language, and math AP courses, but not any from history or English courses.
Washington University in St. Louis will grant some credit for AP tests but doesn't allow you to use these credits to meet general education requirements:
"A maximum of 15 units of prematriculation credit may be counted toward any undergraduate degree. These units will count toward graduation, but will not meet general education requirements."
Despite all this, getting the boost into more advanced classes can help you work through a major more quickly and let you take more advanced and more interesting courses as a freshman. Even if you don't earn credit for your AP scores, AP classes can still get you ahead.
If you’re curious about a college’s AP policy, the College Board has a database you can use to look up any school's policy.
The fewer years college takes, the less you have to spend!
How to Sign Up for AP Classes and Tests
You can sign up for an AP course through your normal high school registration process. Keep in mind that some schools have prerequisite courses you have to take before you can sign up for an AP class. Track down your guidance counselor if you have any questions about this!
You'll also sign up for AP tests through your school, which will have a designated AP coordinator (often a guidance counselor) to help with the process. If you’re home-schooled or want to take an AP test for a class your school doesn’t offer, contact your local school’s AP coordinator.
Remember that if you pass the AP exam, you can exchange your score for college credit once you get to college. So even though that $94 fee is steep, it’s a bargain compared with the cost of taking that same class for a semester in college!
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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.