Advanced Placement classes can set applicants apart in a competitive college admissions environment, demonstrating the ability to perform well on more challenging coursework.
Experts say performing well in AP courses often signals readiness for college. But for students looking to land at a top college, the question of how many AP courses to take persists. That number depends on each student, say school counselors, researchers and educational consultants.
And for those academically unprepared for the challenge, struggling in AP courses can backfire, with low grades and exam scores reflecting negatively on college applications.
“Taking a really high AP course load only benefits the student if they can manage their time and achieve a passing grade on the AP exam,” says Shondra Carpenter, a counselor at Cherokee Trail High School in Colorado.
“We found that there was no boost to academic achievement unless the kids, at the very least, took the test,” says Russell T. Warne, an associate professor of psychology at Utah Valley University who has conducted research on AP. “You have to get the kids to study for and pass the test.”
Carpenter adds that admissions officers “are not impressed when a student takes numerous AP courses and does not earn passing grades in the course or on the AP exam; it shows that the student was trying to compete in a field they are not ready for and are simply trying to enhance their transcript with courses they think will impress a college.”
A 2013 study conducted by admissions officials at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill found almost no difference in the first year GPA for students who took five college-level classes during high school compared with those who took six or more. Based on these findings, UNC officials remarked in the study they will encourage students “to pursue at least five college-level courses” during high school.
Though the research did not indicate that a student taking more than five AP classes is better prepared for college than those below that threshold, the authors said they will not discourage students to take more “if they have a genuine interest and inclination to do so.”
Jack Whelan, director of college guidance at Providence Day School in North Carolina, says he generally sees students taking too many AP classes in high school rather than too few.
“Kids and parents hear that colleges expect to see AP classes on a transcript, but just taking these classes does more harm than good if the student isn’t ready for such high-level work,” Whelan wrote in an email.
To determine how many AP courses to take, students should review their academic success in rigorous classes and consider other extracurricular engagements and social commitments, says Kat Thomson, MCAT curriculum manager at Magoosh, a California-based test preparation company.
“As a general rule of thumb and starting place, I don’t recommend students take on more than 15 hours of commitments on top of regular schoolwork. And in my book, demanding AP classes and college applications count as extra commitments, so a student might need to cut back a bit in extracurricular activities and part-time jobs,” Thomson wrote in an email.
Part of the appeal of AP classes to students is the rigor, says Debra Landesberg, a certified college counselor and founder and president of My College Resource.
Another draw for AP classes in high school is the possibility of earning college credit. Experts emphasize students must pass the AP exams to earn credit, not merely complete the course.
For high school students seeking college credit via AP exams, the outlook is mixed. While some colleges offer credit or waive prerequisites for high scores on AP exams, others don’t, particularly selective schools.
Thomson notes the “advantage is clear” for earning credit or skipping prerequisites: Students save money and may be able to graduate early thanks to the work they put in during high school.
Rather than overload themselves, experts suggests that students concentrate on AP courses they are interested in and feel confident they can pass. With that in mind, Warne says students should consider what they want to get out of AP, such as using it to shop for a college major or explore other academic interests. One example he cited is STEM majors – students focused on science, technology, engineering and math – who should concentrate on those classes to prepare for college.
But Warne also cautions against the expectation that passing AP exams will lead to significant savings.
“The idea, for example, that taking and passing a whole bunch of AP tests can shorten your time in college and save tuition money – that almost never happens for most students,” Warne says.
To help identify schools that do offer college credit or allow students to skip prerequisites for passing AP exams, the College Board offers an AP college credit policy search on its website.
A 2016 study from the nonprofit Progressive Policy Institute found that 86 percent of the top 153 colleges and universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report limit credit for AP exams.
“Only a handful of colleges deny AP credit altogether, but many others restrict the granting of credits. As a result, students who start their undergraduate studies thinking they have enough AP credits to graduate a semester or year early often discover their school has denied some or all of their AP coursework,” the study found, based on an examination of school AP policies.
While experts say AP courses are viewed favorably by admissions officers, Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling and outreach at The Derryfield School in New Hampshire, notes colleges will consider a student’s application in the context of the curriculum offered at his or her high school, meaning the applicant won’t be penalized if few or no AP classes are available.
With Derryfield shifting away from AP courses next school year, leaving teachers to develop their own advanced classes, Barnard said he’s been assured by college admissions officers that the curriculum change won’t harm prospective student’s applications.
Thomson believes that honors courses or classes taken at a local college can be equally impressive to scholarship committees and admissions officers as passing AP exams. She also feels that the benefits of AP classes level off as students take more courses.
“For instance, having six AP courses is not perceived to be twice as impressive as having three. Also, if the workload is heavy, which tends to be the case in AP courses, this often takes a real toll on a student. The courses begin to take the place of other important life activities such as college applications, sports, socializing, part-time jobs, and self-reflection,” Thomson says.
While Landesberg notes that colleges aren’t concerned about a race for the most AP courses, she encourages students to take as many as they have the academic prowess to complete, and to challenge themselves without being overwhelmed.
“If the student has been progressing academically through the previous three years, then that’s the level that they’ve naturally reached,” Landesberg says of students taking more advanced course loads.
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What Are the Right Choices in College Admissions?
Which Path Is Better?
Use the following advice from three admissions experts to understand how to choose wisely in tough college admissions scenarios and to learn why it’s important to think about topics like college majors and standardized tests scores.
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Is it better to apply with a declared major?
Some students enter college knowing exactly what they want to study and what career they want, while others don’t. Which is ideal?
It’s OK Not to Know
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The answer to this question depends on the student and his or her schools of interest. “Applying undecided is perfectly fine for a student who has a liberal arts interest and really doesn’t know what he or she wants to study,” says Chuck Hughes, founder of Road to College, which helps prospective students around the world get into school.
Some institutions, though, such as California Polytechnic State University—San Louis Obispo, require applicants to declare a major as part of the admissions process, says Irena Smith, founder and principal of Irena Smith Consulting, which focuses on college admissions consulting.
Hughes encourages applicants to carefully read the admissions requirements at different schools to note if it’s necessary to declare a major.
Is it better to submit one strong recommendation letter or multiple, less powerful letters?
It’s common for colleges and universities to require one letter of recommendation but allow applicants to submit more if they’d like. But that doesn’t always mean you should.
Less Is More
One strong letter is better than two or three mediocre letters, say college admissions experts.
Nina W. Marks, principal of the admissions counseling and test prep company Marks Education, says it’s best for applicants not to pad their applications with material that isn’t compelling.
Some admissions officers don’t have a lot of time to read applications, so applicants should only submit their best, she says. “They’re typically reading 10 applications an hour,” says Marks. “So you do the math. Six minutes for an application.”
Is it better to have high standardized test scores or perform well in AP/IB classes?
College applicants must submit scores from the SAT or ACT, but many prospective students also take and submit scores from Advanced Placement exams in subjects like English or psychology. Other applicants may participate in their high school’s International Baccalaureate program, which also offers rigorous classes for teens. But which do admissions officers value more?
Focus on the SAT and ACT
“For admissions, it’s probably better to have stronger standardized test scores,” says Hughes, who once worked in admissions for his alma mater, Harvard University. Although some colleges and universities are test optional or test flexible, many more require SAT or ACT scores. Schools are usually more lenient about requiring information on an applicant’s performance in AP or IB classes.
“For most colleges, AP scores are optional,” says Smith. Admissions officers aren’t “necessarily going to make a decision based on them.”
Is it better to submit test scores to a test-optional school?
More than 900 schools are test optional or test flexible or de-emphasize the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions, according to FairTest.org, which tracks such information. However, at many of these universities, applicants can choose to submit standardized test scores. But when given the option not to submit scores, should you take it?
Send High Scores
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“If you’ve whacked your grades out of the park but you’ve struggled with standardized testing, withhold your score,” says Marks, who graduated from Harvard and spent time interviewing prospective students for the school.
“If you’ve rocked your standardized testing, send them to a test-optional school, because they love reporting high scores.”
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Is it better to choose a lower-ranked school with a large financial aid package or a higher-ranked school that offers less aid?
When deciding where to enroll, prospective students often consider a school’s rank, which U.S. News determines based on several factors including an institution’s academic quality. Financial aid and scholarships are also usually key components of the decision process, since they play an important role in whether students have loan debt long after graduation. But is aid more important than rank?
Think About the Price
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Smith, who once worked in the admissions office at Stanford University, encourages students and families to lean toward the larger aid package.
“It’s usually better to end up taking the big financial aid package at a lower-ranked school where it’s already very clear that they think extremely high of the student and the student is going to get a big springboard to do well professionally and academically,” she says. “Not just from a financial point of view, but because the school is so clearly rolling out a red carpet, that will probably manifest itself in other ways.”
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