How Many AP Classes Should I Take? A High School Student’s Guide

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High school is the perfect time to explore academic interests.

If you are looking for a challenging and rewarding course, look no further than an Advanced Placement, or AP, class.

Many elite universities like to see AP classes on an applicant’s transcripts for a variety of reasons.

It shows their commitment to their education and that they are not afraid to take classes that will challenge them to think deeper and master even more skills.

What are AP classes?

AP stands for Advanced Placement and is a designation given to specific classes that go above and beyond the standard requirements for the subject.

The AP program is administered by the College Board, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “connect students to college success.”

AP classes are available in 38 courses, including the arts, English, history and social science, math and computer science, science, foreign languages, and research seminars.

  • AP Capstone: AP Research, AP Seminar
  • AP Arts: AP Art History, AP Music Theory, AP Studio Art: 2-D Design, AP Studio Art: 3-D Design, AP Studio Art: Drawing
  • AP English: AP English Language and Composition, AP English Literature and Composition
  • AP History and Social Science: AP Comparative Government and Politics, AP European History, AP Human Geography, AP Macroeconomics, AP Microeconomics, AP Psychology, AP United States Government and Politics, AP United States History, AP World History
  • AP Math and Computer Science: AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Computer Science A, AP Computer Science Principles, AP Statistics
  • AP Sciences: AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Environmental Science, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, AP Physics C: Mechanics, AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based, AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  • AP World Languages and Cultures: AP Chinese Language and Culture, AP French Language and Culture, AP German Language and Culture, AP Italian Language and Culture, AP Japanese Language and Culture, AP Latin, AP Spanish Language and Culture, AP Spanish Literature and Culture

AP classes consist of traditional instruction in the classroom as well as a standardized AP test for each subject at the end of the year.

“Taken each May by students all over the world, the AP Exam is the final step you take after a year of hard work in an AP class,” says College Board.

Scores are given from 1-5 based on the level of mastery demonstrated on the exam.

  • 5 = extremely well qualified
  • 4 = well qualified
  • 3 = qualified (many colleges recognize passing scores as 3, 4, or 5)
  • 2 = possibly qualified
  • 1 = no recommendation

College Board is also responsible for the SAT, PSAT, Springboard curriculum, and a variety of other programs.

Their goal is to provide comprehensive resources that allow students to thrive and succeed as part of a rigorous education program.

How many AP classes does the Ivy League look for?

Ivy League Universities remain some of the most prestigious, and competitive, institutions in the United States.

Undergraduate applicants must work hard to set themselves apart and AP classes are one way to do so.

Many universities even give college credit to those who achieve a high score on their end-of-year AP exam.

  • Harvard University grants credit towards graduation for those students who are in Advanced Standing.
  • To be eligible for Advanced Standing, an incoming freshman must have at least 32 credits.
  • They are able to receive 4 to 8 college credits, depending on if the AP class was a semester or year-long course.
  • To receive credit, the student must have scored a 5 on at least 4 AP exams.

That is a lot of studying and testing, but the benefits are both academic and financial.

With tuition alone costing over $45,000, receiving credits for previously completed courses can help keep costs manageable.

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Are certain AP classes more important than others?

All AP classes are rigorous and will help prepare high school students for college, but there are certain courses that will provide a broader foundation.

Most universities require all incoming freshmen to complete a basic list of core classes.

  • These usually include an English, math, and science requirement.
  • The AP classes that offer core curriculum courses are the most likely to be accepted by colleges to apply as credits needed for graduation.
  • Even if the college does not allow credit, students who have a strong foundation in these core classes will have an easier time adjusting to the rigor of a college class.

Colleges also want to see that you have taken AP classes to prepare you for the major that you intend to study.

It’s okay if you don’t have a set idea yet.

  • But if you know that you want to be a doctor and include that passion in your admissions essay, they may wonder why you didn’t choose to pursue AP Biology in high school.

If there is a way for you to get a deeper understanding of a subject area that you want to devote your working life to studying, you should try to start that journey as early as possible with an AP class.

Another thing to consider is your individual preparation for a particular AP class.

Some have prerequisite classes that must be completed before a student is allowed to enroll. This is to ensure that the student has the foundational skills needed to be successful in that class.

If you do not have the needed prerequisite knowledge and skills, you will have a very hard time keeping up in a particular AP class and may be better off enrolling in one that better utilizes your academic background.

What to consider before enrolling in an AP class

Does AP sound like the right challenge for you?

Consider these questions from the College Board conversation starter before enrolling in an AP Class.

  • What AP classes are you interested in taking?
  • What types of classes or subjects do you enjoy the most?
  • What college majors are you considering?
  • In which subjects do you do well?
  • What careers excite you?

It is helpful to talk about these things with a teacher, counselor, or your parents to get their perspective.

If you can, talk to current AP students to see what it would be like to be in their shoes.

You will also need to know what classes your school offers.

Talking to your counselor is a great way to find out more about the AP program at your specific school.

  • Along with teachers, parents, and fellow students, they can help you map out a challenging high school path that will prepare you for college and the future that you want.

Start with the questions below from the College Board conversation starter.

  • What AP courses does our school offer?
  • What can I do next to prepare for AP?
  • Have students like me taken AP?
  • Will the class be too advanced for me?
  • Are there AP courses offered that I am likely to do well in?
  • Are there study groups or people who can help me if I need it?
  • Are there other courses that can help me succeed in AP or help me prepare for college and a career?
  • What is the cost of taking the AP exam? Is there help with payment?
  • Does our school weight AP grades in our GPAs? How?
  • What information should I share with my parents/guardians?

It is also important to know crucial enrollment deadlines for AP classes and any prerequisite requirements that may be needed.

College Board governs the actual curriculum and standards, but schools can choose exactly how to implement the program.

Some schools may require recommendations from previous teachers or one-on-one meetings with a counselor before a student is allowed to enroll in an AP class.

Benefits of AP Classes

In a look at a comprehensive study on the benefits of taking AP classes, Stanford lecturer and researcher Denise Pope explained how AP classes can be used to help students succeed.

One of the main benefits she saw echoes those celebrated by College Board.

  • In an AP class, students are surrounded by fellow highly motivated learners and benefit from the collective enthusiasm and high work ethic in the classroom.

Tyler Valentine, a former AP student and college student at the University of Washington, called the benefits of taking AP classes “immeasurable.”

  • He said that getting his passing test scores was a real achievement in high school.

“Once you get to college, you realize you got all these free credits and you can move on to more advanced classes really quickly and it just feels great,” he says.

Other students credit their AP experience with inspiring them to pursue certain majors and career fields, opening up time to pursue more advanced courses and research opportunities in college, and start with majors courses from the first year of college.

Challenges of AP Classes 

AP classes can be a real asset for both students and schools. But they come with their own challenges.

In her research, Pope found that “students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college.”

But she saw many factors that could account for that edge—better high schools with more rigorous courses overall, better teachers, or more motivation.

AP classes certainly played a role but there were a number of things that students needed to be successful overall.

Before enrolling in an AP course, make sure that you are ready for the rigorous classwork ahead.

  • Have a strong foundation in the subject.

This means working hard and applying yourself in the classes that will provide the fundamental skills in the arts, English, math, science, or other areas that you will need in your AP class.

  • Have a study plan.

AP classes are more challenging and often come with increased responsibilities. Coming up with a plan to make sure that everything gets done, such as designating certain times each day to study, will help you keep on top of your work.

  • Ask for help.

One of the main benefits of learning in an AP classroom is the great support network of your teacher and fellow students. If you are having trouble with a concept, ask for help.

  • Prepare for the test.

What you study throughout the year will be critical to mastering the AP exam. But basic test-taking strategies are also important.

This includes understanding the structure of the test, being familiar with the types of questions you will see, and getting enough rest before the test.

How many AP classes should I take in high school? 

The number of overall classes that you take in high school, as well as which ones are required, will be dictated by your state, district, and school requirements.

There are some requirements that are fairly standard across all schools but the order that classes are taken can vary.

Where do AP classes fit into those requirements?

First and foremost, you must satisfy the graduation requirements for your school.

  • Enrolling in a lot of challenging AP courses is impressive, but if you don’t include space for the required classes for graduation, you just plain can’t graduate.

Once you make sure that your plan includes all required courses, you can look at increasing the rigor in your matrix by including AP classes.

  • Start with the core classes that can take the place of other requirements.
  • For example, if you are required to take an English class, see if an English course is offered through the AP program. The same can be true of advanced science, math, and history and social science classes.
  • Many competitive applicants at top universities take anywhere from 7 – 12 AP classes throughout high school.
  • In fact, some universities even require students to take multiple AP classes in order for any of them to count as college credit.

To best prepare yourself for college, you should always try to challenge yourself. AP classes can be a great way to do that.

  • Because most of the AP classes cover advanced topics, this often means taking multiple AP courses at once in the last 1 or 2 years of high school after the prerequisite classes are complete.

This can be a lot for any student to handle and you should make sure that you are ready for the increased workload.

Honestly assess where you are at with the foundation level skills and study habits before enrolling in an AP class.

  • You may find that a less rigorous class that focuses more on the foundation will allow you to better showcase your abilities.

Before you enroll in every AP class available, consider how much time you have to spend studying and completing coursework.

In general, AP classes require more time than standard classes. Taking multiple AP classes at once may mean that you give up time to pursue sports, extracurricular activities, or other hobbies.

  • Elite universities want to see applicants who demonstrate leadership potential as well as a strong academic background.
  • You need to prioritize your time, which may mean taking fewer AP classes but participating in other activities.

It is important to talk to your counselor about your plan for high school.

This includes your goals for college, where you would like to apply, and the application package that you want to present to an admissions board.

AP classes are an important part of that story, especially at elite universities.

Do’s and Don’ts of AP classes 

It’s true that AP classes are rigorous and should not be entered lightly.

But with adequate preparation and the right mindset, students can succeed and be prepared to make the most of their college experience.

Do’s for the AP student:

  • Do your research and determine which AP classes are right for you
  • Do take the required prerequisites
  • Do keep up with the challenging coursework
  • Do develop a support system (parents, teachers, classmates) to help you succeed
  • Do take the test seriously—it can help you get free college credit!
  • Do rest, eat well, and manage your time wisely

Don’ts for the AP student:

  • Don’t enroll in AP classes that you are not interested in
  • Don’t enroll in AP classes that you do not have a strong foundation in
  • Don’t put off your AP coursework until the last minute
  • Don’t feel that you have to do it on your own
  • Don’t stay up all night to cram for the AP test
  • Don’t stress yourself out by taking too many AP classes at once 

Help! My high school doesn’t offer AP Classes!

If you are from a small, rural school like me, you may not have access to AP classes.

But don’t worry, a challenging and rewarding high school education can still be available. Talk to your counselor about other options.

  • You may be able to take online AP courses during a self-directed study.
  • You will still be required to take the AP exam at the end of the year to receive college credits.
  • This is also a great option for those who participate in homeschool.

It is important for the leadership at your school to know how many students may want to take AP classes.

  • If enough students express interest, they might just change the offerings to add an AP program to the school.
  • You can have a positive impact on generations of students to come at your alma mater.

What do other experts say about how many AP classes I should take?

We asked high school and college experts about how many AP classes high school students should take. Here’s what they had to say.

Savannah Oxner, senior admissions counselor at Sweet Briar College and former high school teacher:

When schools offer AP classes, there is wide variation in how many each high school can offer. If a student is enrolled in a high school where only a few AP courses are offered and the student has a strong academic record and feels prepared, I would recommend she take as many of those AP courses as she can fit into her schedule because the structure of AP courses helps to prepare students for college-level rigor.

If her school offers a great amount of AP courses, I would recommend moderation and still only taking a few, either in the student’s favorite subject areas or one of each in science, math and language to get experience in multiple disciplines with the rigor.

Dr. Matt C. Pinsker, adjunct professor of Homeland Security & Criminal Justice at Virginia Commonwealth University:

I’m a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. If your goal is getting into a top college, then the answer is “As many as you can get an ‘A’ in.” For these schools, it is better to get an A in a regular class than a B in an AP class. While top colleges appreciate students who make the extra effort to take more difficult classes, GPA matters even more.

On the other hand, if your goal isn’t the prestige of a school so much as graduating college quickly while keeping the cost low, then what matters more than your grade in the AP class is doing well enough on the AP exam to get the credit at whatever school you choose. In this case, getting a B in the AP class might lower your overall GPA compared to doing an Honors possibly even a regular course and getting an A, but so long as you do well enough on the AP exam, you can save some money down the line when applying to colleges.

Alan Santillan, a marketing specialist with G2.com who came into college with 33 AP credits and skipped an entire year:

One thing students don’t understand is that AP classes aren’t much more difficult than regular classes, the only difference is that they are more geared towards standardized testing because of the final exam at the end of the year that determines college credibility.

A bonus tip for students going to schools with limited AP class selections can be to signup for testing without taking the class. I personally took the AP English Literature Exam without taking the class and still passed it. The college board AP study prep books really help with these exams, because the guidelines for testing are clearcut and students are told what topics will be covered.

If you manage to take 11 AP classes throughout your high school stay, that’s enough (33 credits on average) to skip a whole year of college. While that may too much, even a couple of classes can be enough to give you a semester ahead of your peers coming into college.

Carrie Thompson, associate director of admissions at Clarion University:

I think that one or two AP courses a year is an excellent place to start within your high school curriculum. After you master an AP course, you may find that the course load is feasible for your schedule, the subject matter is of interest to you, and that you are able to balance the work with other AP, Honors or Academic courses on your schedule.

As you explore colleges that are in your future, it is important to inquire how Advanced Placement courses are utilized in the admissions process. Each college or university may consider a different AP score in order to provide college credit at the institution, and will award you with college credit differently.

More importantly, if you are looking to pursue a professional degree in medicine or a similar health field, certain professional schools may only accept a designated number of AP courses on your college transcript. As you plan your college visits, make sure to ask these important questions during your admissions visit. An admissions counselor or faculty member can assist you with this information.

Conclusion: How many AP classes should I take?

AP classes are some of the most challenging courses that a high school student can pursue.

But they can also be some of the most rewarding.

From the academic preparation for the rigors of the college classroom to receiving free credits towards their college degree after taking the AP exam, the benefits that come with the AP program may make it the perfect fit for you.

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