So you’ve decided you want to add an AP class to your schedule. Maybe you want to take even more than one! Good for you – taking AP classes is a great way to start challenging yourself in high school.
Now comes the hard part: choosing which AP class (or classes) you should take. This guide will walk you through different factors to consider and help you decide on the best AP classes to take.
What Steps Should You Take When Deciding on AP Classes?
There's a lot more to choosing AP classes than just choosing a course that sounds interesting or that your friends are taking. AP classes can have big benefits, like strengthening your college applications and earning you college credit. However, if you don't choose your AP classes wisely, you could end up in a class that is overwhelming, boring, and/or drags down your GPA because you can't get a high grade in it.
By carefully considering which AP classes to take, you can maximize the benefits you get from them while minimizing the drawbacks. Below are six steps you should take to ensure you've considered all the major factors needed for choosing the best AP classes for you.
#1: Consider Your Strengths
Before you even look too closely at your school’s available classes, start by thinking about what topics interest you and which subjects you tend to do well in.
AP classes can be very difficult even if you're interested in the subject material, so it would be especially challenging to get yourself to study for something you really dislike, even if you think taking a particular AP class will look good on a college application.
Instead, you should aim for AP classes that you are interested in and think you can do well in. Explore our list of AP classes to get started.
Also think about your favorite classes so far in high school or even back in middle school. Classes you enjoy are a good predictor of the type of AP class you will like and do well in.
#2: Learn What Prerequisites You Need
Once you have considered your own personal strengths, also think about classes you have taken that could prepare you for an AP class. You shouldn’t jump into an AP class unprepared!
Often your school will mandate prerequisites anyway, like requiring pre-calculus before you can take AB or BC Calculus. Some schools even require you to take a placement test to get into certain AP classes!
If your school doesn’t have prerequisites, or if you’re having a hard time deciding between classes, think about all of your past preparation. It can be more than just one prior class. For example, if you’ve taken honors English each year since seventh grade and also write on the school newspaper, you would likely be well prepared for AP English Language or AP English Literature.
Conversely, say you took Honors Biology last year and didn’t do too well. AP Biology will probably be challenging for you, even though you technically have the prerequisite under your belt. So unless you like biology and are up for the challenge, you shouldn’t force yourself through AP Bio just because you think it will look good on your transcript.
In short, consider both your school’s mandatory prerequisites and your own broader preparation. Try and aim for classes you think you are very prepared for, especially if this is your first AP class!
Since in an AP class, you will also have to learn how to study for a cumulative exam – in other words a single test that covers a year of material – you should make sure your first AP class is in a subject you do well in. Don’t underestimate the added challenge of the AP exam.
#3: Consider Other Skills Certain AP Classes Will Require
In this discussion about prerequisite courses, you might be wondering about AP courses like Human Geography, Economics, Computer Science, Psychology and Statistics, which often don’t have direct prerequisites.
When considering those classes, think about the skills you have built up – because again, even if your school doesn’t have a prerequisite for those AP classes, you still shouldn’t walk in unprepared.
For example, if you want to take Computer Science, Statistics, or Economics, a strong math background is important. Even though you won’t spend tons of time in those classes solving equations, the logic and skills you learn in math classes are necessary to take on CS or Economics.
For Psychology, think about how well you do in science and social studies, and also consider how good you are at memorizing things, since you’ll have to master the structure of the brain.
For Human Geography, consider how well you do in geography and history courses and whether you enjoy them. Also consider your ability to take a broad idea and apply it to a concrete case study – as an example, are you able to pick out patterns in historical events? This is a skill you will need for Human Geography.
To learn more about individual AP courses and the material they cover, see the AP student website. As you read course descriptions, think about how they relate to other classes you have taken and the skills you have.
#4: Learn What Specific AP Classes Are Like at Your High School
You should also consider which classes are offered at your school and what their reputations are when choosing AP classes.
For example, at my high school in Salt Lake City, AP BC Calculus was known as a challenging class with lots of homework. During the second semester, you had to take it for two class periods! In contrast, AP Physics was seen as laid-back, and students were expected to manage most of the studying on their own.
Students who needed structure thrived in Calculus, while others who liked to work more independently did well in Physics. But the reverse was also true – some students got burned out by BC Calc, and others didn’t have the motivation to study for Physics and so even though they passed the class, they failed the AP test.
That AP Physics class was also famous for building trebuchets and testing them out during school hours.
In short, teachers approach AP courses differently. Some expect their students to manage their own studying, like in a real college course. Others make sure their students are prepared by assigning a ton of work.
As you choose AP classes and learn about their reputations at your school, think about your own study habits and what kind of classroom environment will help you do your best.
There are many other school-specific factors to consider: who teaches the AP classes? What are their pass rates? How hard are the classes themselves to pass? How many students take the class each year?
These are questions you can take to your guidance counselor, the AP teachers themselves, teachers who teach the prerequisite classes, or even upperclassmen friends. (Though don’t rely just on student word-of-mouth, since it can be biased!)
If your school is adding an AP class for the first time this year, think carefully before taking it – it’s always tough teaching a class for the first time, especially an AP class. There might be some growing pains that first year as the teacher works out the curriculum.
Veteran AP teachers are often a safe bet, because they will have strategies for preparing students for the exam. Often they will be involved in AP grading as well, so they will have lots of insight into how to pass the test.
#5: Think About How Busy You Are
AP classes are big time commitments, especially in the spring (see our post on test dates for tips on dealing with the spring time test crunch). Some teachers require extra study sessions, including on the weekends, to give you time to take practice tests.
So before signing up for a slew of AP classes, think about the other commitments you already have. Especially if you have a very time-consuming sport or extracurricular activity, taking more than two or three AP classes could overload your schedule.
Even if you have friends who are taking several AP courses, don't feel like you have to keep up with them. Keep your own strengths and limitations in mind. It’s better to pass two exams than to fail four!
If you’re not sure if you’ll have the time to take on an AP class, talk to your parents/guardians (or a guidance counselor or teacher if you have a good relationship) for advice. Also find out if you will be able to switch out of the course mid-year if you realize you don’t have enough time for it.
#6: Think About Which APs Best Fit Your College and Career Goals
AP Exams are a great way to begin exploring future college and career options. They are also a great way to signal on your college applications that you are considering what you want to study in college and are developing the skills for college classes.
When I was in high school, I was positive I wanted to study political science or international relations in college. So in addition to activities like Debate and Model United Nations, I also took AP classes like Statistics, World History, US History, US Government, Human Geography, and Environmental Science. All of these courses helped me explore topics and issues that college political science courses tackle, and also gave me skills – from the ability to analyze a poll to being able to break down an article’s viewpoint and bias – that prepared me for political science.
Remember to keep your end goal in mind!
On my college applications, I was able to show my interest in political science with both my extracurricular activities and the advanced classes I was taking. In addition to my test scores and GPA, being able to show colleges I was serious about what I wanted to study helped me be successful during the application process.
In short, think about your future goals and how your class choices now can support them. AP classes are a concrete way to demonstrate on your applications that you are serious about a certain major and have the skills to pursue it.
To take another example, if you want to be a doctor, tackling AP Biology and AP Chemistry can give you a taste of what the pre-med major will be like, and you can get a sense of whether you would be up for it. It will also show college admissions officers that you are serious about pre-med.
If you’re stuck between two AP choices that otherwise seem good (you’ve taken the prerequisites and they have good teachers), go with the one that you think will be more relevant to your major or future goals.
Also keep in mind that taking an AP Language exam, if you’re ready, is a great way to show second language proficiency to colleges. Many colleges offer credit for AP language, so it can free up time for other classes.
Summary: The Best AP Classes for You
We've covered a lot of important factors in determining which AP courses are the best for you to take. You should first look to your strengths and prerequisites to see what you naturally have a good shot at doing well in.
Then, you should look at your personal schedule and find out the reputation of AP classes at your school to figure out which classes you can handle, and which ones are out of reach.
Finally, you should consider what kind of applicant you want to appear as to colleges. This will help you plan your coursework to support your goals.
If you’re serious about APs, you should also be thinking about the SAT and ACT. The first step is deciding which test to tackle, which you can do with our guide.
Once you’ve chosen between the ACT and SAT, come up with a target score to help you study! Use our guides for the SAT and ACT to come up with a score based on your top choice schools. If you're shooting for the Ivy League, learn more about the kind of scores you will need.
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 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.