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What Are AP Classes? Why Should You Take Them?

Posted by Halle Edwards | Mar 8, 2015 10:30:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)


Taking AP courses can get help you start college at a more advanced level.


If you’ve started high school recently, or if you are 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 are AP tests are, and how they can help you, read on for our guide to AP courses and how they can get you ahead.


What Is Advanced Placement?

Advanced Placement is a program run by College Board (the makers of the SAT) that allows you to take courses right in your high school that 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 can pass the AP exam.



Well, the content of an intro-level college class... you won't sit in a lecture hall like this until college!


And what are AP exams? It’s basically a test of all you learn in an AP class. You earn college credit if you pass the AP exam given at the end of the year in May. (APs are scored between 1 and 5, with anything above 3 considered passing.) While it's possible to skip an AP class and study for an AP exam independently, it's strongly recommended 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 are capable of handling college-level work, which will strengthen your college applications immensely.


History of AP Courses

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 College Board took over the program and named it the College Board Advanced Placement Program.

The program expanded rapidly over the years. Now over 2.4 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.


Why Take AP Classes?

Take AP Classes to Boost Your College Applications

Taking an AP class (or several!) is a great way to challenge yourself academically and show colleges that you are 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 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 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 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 like 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 their admissions website by searching "[College/University Name] Admissions Requirements.")


Take AP Classes to 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 AP Calculus and AP Physics and passing the exams proves to a college admissions committee that you are serious about engineering and have the skills to pursue it.

If you are interested in political science or Pre-Law tracks, taking AP US History, AP US Government, AP Statistics, 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 AP Calculus would show you have the skills to handle tough pre-med classes as a college student.


Take AP Classes to Get College Credit

Some universities give credit for AP classes. For schools that accept the exams as class credit, it makes it possible to graduate college in a shorter amount of time, saving you money! For example, Harvard allows you to apply for advanced standing if you have completed the equivalent of a year of college courses with AP exams.  University of Michigan also grants you course credit and higher class placements for AP exams.

However, some schools use scores to help place you in higher-level classes, but they won’t let them fulfill graduation requirements so you can graduate early. Or they can be limiting about which exams they accept.

As an example, Stanford University accepts AP credit from many science, language, and math AP courses, but not for history or English courses.

Washington University in St. Louis will grant some credit, but won’t allow you to use the credits towards graduation 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.” 

Still, getting the boost into more advanced classes can help you work through a major more quickly or take more advanced, interesting courses as a freshman. Even if you don't earn credit, AP classes can still get you ahead.

If you’re curious about a college’s AP policy, 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 Does It Work?

You can sign up for an AP course through your normal high school registration process. Keep in mind 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 questions!

You also sign up for the test through your school – your school has a designated AP coordinator (often a guidance counselor) to help with that process. If you’re homeschooled or want to take an AP test for a class your school doesn’t have, contact your local school’s AP coordinator.

AP tests cost $91 per test as of 2015. Some schools offer subsidies and College Board also has financial aid. Also, keep in mind that if you pass the exam, you can exchange your score for college credit once you get to college. So even though that $91 fee is steep, it’s a bargain compared to the cost of taking the class over a semester in college.


What’s Next?

Now that you now about AP classes, which ones should you take? Check out our comprehensive list of AP exams and guide. Also learn about how long AP tests are and how to deal with testing fatigue.

Also studying for the SAT? Learn how to boost your Critical Reading, Math, and Writing scores, and get some tips for the essay.

Studying for the ACT instead? Avoid the most common ACT mistake and get tips on writing the essay.


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:

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Halle Edwards
About the Author

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.

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