AP — Advanced Placement classes and tests — were first developed in the 1950s to help college admissions officials determine potential student competency.
Their popularity has grown tremendously since, and many highly competitive schools all but require them to even be considered for admission.
They are a popular choice for many high school students and college hopefuls, but are they worth it?
There are definitely some major pros and cons to keep in mind before making a decision on how to schedule your last two years of high school.
APs are traditionally more challenging than the regularly offered Honors classes, and they can help students prepare for the rigor of university life and sometimes fulfill college general education requirements before they even enroll.
Most AP classes cover material that would be present in a college introductory class, and the tests may mirror college final exams. You can even take a number of AP courses online.
Because of the level of their difficulty, APs can also be quite stressful for college hopefuls, and they come with a number of potential downsides.
Here are a few key things to think about before loading up your junior and senior year schedule with AP classes.
AP Class Pros
Prepare you for academia
The first obvious benefit of taking AP courses is that they can help students get used to the academic rigor of college.
Unlike in high school, where classes are typically taken every day or every other day, at most colleges classes are typically offered once or twice a week, usually for anywhere from one to three hour blocks of time depending on the subject matter.
Conditional on the program you select and the professors you choose, your homework load for APs may vary, but be prepared to write a lot of essays, do a lot of research, and take lengthy tests.
AP classes can help students get ready to juggle multiple demanding courses with such requirements and prepare for the pressure of the ACTs and SATs in one go.
Earn college credit
Most colleges have a general education curriculum that a student is required to complete before graduation.
If you want to graduate faster or just get to higher-level classes quicker, APs are definitely worth it, especially if they are in the field you wish to major in.
Save money long-term
Since you can earn college credit through AP courses, taking them might save you and your family money further down the road, especially if you plan to pursue a degree at a private institution with a hefty price tag or a program that requires many years of schooling.
Make you a more competitive college candidate
The rigor of your high school curriculum is considered by all college admissions committees (with the exception of some schools with open admissions policies), and the more AP courses you do well in, the better you look and the more of a competitive edge you can gain when gaining admission to selective schools and their Honors programs.
Give your GPA a boost
In addition to providing rigor, in many high schools, AP courses can give your GPA an overall healthy boost, just another bonus for selective admissions committee members.
Remember though that your score on the test will not affect your GPA; only your overall grade in the class will.
Boost your chances of getting a scholarship
According to College Board, 31 percent of of colleges and universities look at AP courses when making scholarship decisions.
It’s not the only way to earn a scholarship, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
AP Class Cons
While AP classes and exams are all theoretically helpful, some (like Calculus and Physics) are considered more rigorous than others (English, Biology) and thus typically more impressive to admissions committees.
Therefore it’s very important to be selective in which courses you decide to pursue, if at all.
Here are some cons to consider:
They might bring down your GPA
While some schools have both weighted and unweighted GPAs, others will grade and measure every course the same way.
Since each high school is different, each college has its own method of converting said GPA to their individual rating system.
Taking several AP courses in an area you believe you’ll do well in is great, but overloading on classes that will cause you to struggle can potentially hurt you in the long run.
They might cause struggle in school and beyond
Taking on too many AP classes can seriously overwhelm some students and make it a struggle for them to maintain a high GPA, let alone enjoy their junior and senior years.
The extra study time that might be required to keep up and do well in these classes can also make it difficult for some students to participate in sports and extracurriculars (which admissions committees also look quite favorably upon).
While doing well in high school is important, remember that college is also a place to explore leadership opportunities, volunteer positions, internships, on-campus jobs, and a near endless list of clubs and organizations.
Don’t limit your educational experience to just achieving good grades and scoring well on tests, which often also have demanding test-taking and test-preparing schedules attached.
Classes are expensive
AP courses are not cheap. The average cost of an AP exam is $85, and if you wind up taking a number of them, that total investment can add up quickly.
A low grade on the exams (many schools will not recognize a score below 4) will result in a poor return on that investment.
While some argue that taking a lot of AP courses can ultimately help you save money by potentially enabling you to graduate on time or even sooner, it all depends on the type of student you are.
If you fail an AP course or score poorly on the exam because the material was too difficult or overwhelming, it won’t help you reach your college goals any faster.
You may not immerse yourself in the material
While AP courses sound fantastic on paper, not all of them are equally engaging and productive for students.
They might give you a taste of the college-level workload, but they won’t necessarily give you the depth of an actual college course.
Likewise, focusing too much on simply memorizing test material can defeat the purpose of observing, understanding, and applying class material.
Some online AP courses may not be fully accredited, or may not have the best teaching staff available.
Do your research and due diligence before diving in.
Is it Worth it to Take AP Classes?
Before you select every AP course available at your high school, consider what you might wish to major in at college or what kind of career you might like to pursue.
If you plan to pursue a degree in STEM, for instance, it’s probably a good idea to take AP classes in Science and Math.
Likewise, students interested in the humanities could benefit from History, English, and Psychology AP classes.
Students who are undecided could benefit from a couple of varied course subjects to find out what interests them.
It’s also important to consider the competitive nature of the schools and programs you are applying to.
Most state schools – while competitive – do not expect a 4.0 GPA and a boatload of AP courses for admissions alone, while some honors programs at state schools look very favorably upon them.
The bottom line is, AP courses are worth only as much as you put into and get out of them. Ask yourself what you can handle or are willing to take on for your junior and senior years.
Think long and hard about what you enjoy studying and may want to someday major in.
It’s okay to be undecided, and it’s okay not to know yet what kind of college you want to attend.
And remember: There is life beyond high school and college!
You are preparing for that life and future, so do what feels best to you and take the courses that adequately challenge you to the best of your ability without worrying too much about what other students are doing.
It can be hard to maintain this mindset in such a competitive admissions age, but it is essential.
After all, college (and education) is what you make of it.
Do Bad AP Scores Affect Admission?
While most colleges will only accept a score of 4 or 5 for credit, a lower score will not hurt your chances for admittance.
The fact that you are taking an AP class in the first place is an indication to schools that you are seeking a more rigorous curriculum.
That’s a good thing. Doing better in the class than on the AP test is a more significant sign of your ability to schools.
AP Classes in the Age of COVID-19
COVID-19 has singlehandedly changed the landscape of college and college admissions today.
While considering whether or not to take AP classes, students must also consider whether or not the exams will be given and when.
According to the College Board, as far as this year’s AP exams go…
- they will be taken at home, and “students can take exams on any device they have access to—computer, tablet, or smartphone.”
- accommodations can be made for students who do not have a device or access to the internet
- they will be shorter (45 minutes in length)
- there will be no multiple-choice questions
- they will consist of only what had been covered in class up until early March
Any additional information regarding the revamped AP exam can be found on the College Board’s website.
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