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What Are AP Classes? The Ultimate Guide

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As a student interested in a college education, you have likely heard of Advanced Placement courses, or AP courses.  

The AP program has long been a way to impress prospective schools and kick-start your college education.

However, with the recent changes to the SAT in early 2021, especially the cancellation of the Subject Test options, AP classes and exams have taken on a more prominent role than ever before in the college application process.

This guide offers you some valuable insight into what exactly Advanced Placement is, why it is important, and how it can affect your entry into the college of your dreams.

What is Advanced Placement?

The New York-based non-profit, the College Board, which also runs the SATs, founded the Advanced Placement program in the mid-1950s as a way for students to get a jump on college-level education.

Students can take the College Board’s standardized exams in a variety of subjects—as of this article, the College Board offers 38 courses and exams—and they can prepare for those exams through specialized courses. 

Although high schools around the country offer AP classes as part of their curriculum, anyone can take the AP exams and test their ability in a specific subject.

Over the years, both the courses and exams have remained a popular tool for high-achieving students to prepare for college, while also demonstrating their viability as a candidate for admission. 

Why Are AP Classes Important in High School?

AP Classes have become increasingly common among high schools around the country. As of 2018, more than 22,000 schools in the United States offer AP courses.

In 2020, after moving to online testing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the College Board administered more than 4.2 million AP exams, and that number is expected to grow in 2021.

This continued relevance is because studies routinely show that students who take AP classes in high school, and also pass the exams, are better prepared for college and more likely to finish a four-year degree.

In the end, an AP class is a way to challenge yourself and set yourself apart from other students. You are able to get a college-level education geared specifically toward high school students, and that can prepare you for the rigors of college coursework.

Why Are AP Classes Important For College Admissions?

The obvious answer to this question is that AP courses offer colleges a snapshot of your viability as a student.

Since AP classes are conceived as college-level courses for high school students, they naturally show that you are ready for the college educational experience, and in some cases, you can even use them for college credit (more on that further down).

They also demonstrate your expertise in a particular subject. If you are looking to study engineering, then performing well in math and science-related AP courses will highlight the likelihood of your success.

In many schools, grades in an AP class are weighted more heavily than other coursework.  So, an “A” in an AP class will help raise your GPA, and in turn your transcript, for when you send it out to prospective schools.

What Are the Benefits of AP Classes?

To sum up, AP classes can be advantageous because they:

  • Prepare you for college
  • Challenge you
  • Allow you to jump-start your college education
  • Set you apart from the average student
  • Demonstrate your ability in specific subjects
  • Offer colleges assurance of your college-level potential
  • Can be used for college credit (in some cases)
  • Help beef up your transcript
  • Look good when applying for scholarships

Can AP Classes Give You College Credits?

Yes, but not everywhere, and not every course.

While thousands of schools accept AP courses for college credit, often, the parameters of that acceptance can vary wildly.

To check if your AP class will be accepted at the college of your choice, you can use the College Board’s own search tool.  Remember, any school that does accept credit will only do so if they have the scores, so make sure that you send your scores to any prospective schools through the College Board.

You can also search on a prospective school’s website, and they will have their AP policy clearly spelled out for incoming applicants.  

Be aware that your AP exam score matters—how high that score needs to be for credit can change from school to school. So, your best bet is to check each school’s specific policy.

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The Entire List of AP Classes

  • AP Capstone Diploma Program
  • AP Research
  • AP Seminar

Arts

  • AP Art and Design Program
  • AP Art History
  • AP Music Theory

English

  • AP English Language and Composition
  • AP English Literature and Composition

History and Social Sciences

  • 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: Modern

Math and Computer Science

  • AP Calculus AB
  • AP Calculus BC
  • AP Computer Science A
  • AP Computer Science Principles
  • AP Statistics

Sciences

  • AP Biology
  • AP Chemistry
  • AP Environmental Science
  • AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  • AP Physics C: Mechanics

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

How to Sign Up for AP Classes?

Many high schools throughout the US offer AP courses, however, they may not offer all 38 courses offered by the College Board.

The first step would be to talk to your counselor, teacher, or course advisor to see what AP classes your school offers.

If your school does not offer the AP class you want, any at all, or if you are homeschooled, you still have options.

Search College Board’s AP course ledger to find exams or courses that are available near you or online.

What Are AP Exams?

AP exams are the College Board’s standardized method for testing your proficiency in AP class coursework.

Students who take an AP class can take these exams, but they are open to anyone willing to pay for them, including students who do not have access to AP classes through their school, or those who are homeschooled.

When Do AP Exams Occur?

In 2021, AP exams will be held from May 3rd to June 11th in three phases:

  • Administration 1 — in school (paper and pencil)
    • May 3-7, 10-12, 14, 17
  • Administration 2 — in school (paper and pencil) and at home (online)
    • May 18-21, 24-28
  • Administration 3 — In school and at home (online)
    • June 1-4, 7-11

While the start times of the paper and pencil exams depend on your area, the online version of the test begins at the same time worldwide on any given test date, either 12pm EDT or 4pm EDT.

How Much Studying Will I Need to Do For AP Classes?

The short answer—quite a bit.  But it isn’t really that simple.  

While as a general rule, AP classes are more difficult and require more diligence, organization, and, yes, studying than classes in the standard curriculum, predicting the actual amount of work or level of difficulty depends on several factors.

School

Each school has different grading policies, and the difficulty of a class, or the ability to achieve the highest grade, might be more demanding as a result.

Teacher

Even within a school that has a more lenient grading policy, grading often comes down to the individual teacher and their grading style. Talking to your counselor or upperclassmen may help you judge a teacher’s idiosyncrasies.

Subject

As with regular classes, the amount of studying will be different based on the subject. For instance, a history course might require an above average amount of reading and memorization, while a mathematics course might require less reading, with a focus on practical application and memorization of theorems and formulas instead.

With that in mind, an AP class can require anywhere from 1-2 hours of study per weekday. Depending on your approach, that may sound like a lot or a little, but compound that amount over several AP classes and it will quickly start to add up.

Why Should I NOT Take AP Classes?

AP Classes are not Pokémon—you don’t need to catch them all.  

Below are a few situations when you should consider avoiding an AP class.

  • Never take an AP class if you think it will negatively affect your GPA. 

While colleges don’t look only at a student’s GPA when considering an application, it is still one of the most important factors in their acceptance decision. If you think you will not be able to achieve at least a B in your AP class, then chances are it is worth it to take the standard class on this subject instead.  Challenge yourself, but also try to understand your limits.

  • Avoid taking classes that are not aligned with your interests.  

You may think that taking as many AP courses as possible is your ultimate goal, but not every course is right for every student.  If your dream is to become a medical doctor, and you have never had an interest in the economy, then taking AP Microeconomics might not be the best choice. Think about your interests and your future, and gauge how each class fits into that path.

  • Avoid being too repetitive.

Sometimes, your school will offer honors classes or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes that cover similar material to the same AP class.  If that is the case, and you already took, or plan to take, one of those equivalent courses, then it may make more sense to consider a different AP course..

  • If college credit is important to you, look at your prospective schools.

As we have already stated, not every school accepts AP classes and exams for college credit. If this is one of your main goals when taking an AP class, then look at your prospective schools and see which classes they are more likely to accept. That can help you make some key decisions when deciding which courses to take and which to avoid.

How Many AP Classes Should I Take?

Is “more” always better?

You may find yourself asking that question as you try to figure out how many AP classes to put on your schedule.

Answering yes seems logical. Your goal is to impress colleges, colleges are impressed by rigorous courses and high achievement, and therefore, you should take as many AP classes as possible to impress colleges.

So, it’s settled, then, right? Take as many as you can?

Not exactly. The wow-factor of AP classes only extends as far as your actual achievement in the class and the AP exam. 

Yes, an “A” in an AP class is more impressive than an “A” in a standard class, but if that grade dips, then the value of the AP curriculum lessens. An “A” in a standard class outweighs a “C” in the AP class.

Ultimately, you should take as many AP classes as your schedule and bandwidth allow. Follow your strengths—if you aren’t particularly secure in a subject and it doesn’t play a huge role in your prospective major, then taking that AP class may not make sense. 

Push yourself, but take stock of your limits so you can be sure you aren’t pushing so far that it will negatively affect your GPA or your personal well-being.

How Much Do AP Courses and Exams Cost?

AP Course Cost:

In most cases, AP classes offered by your school are covered (not the exam) in your school’s standard tuition fee. 

With online AP classes, not every course or provider is created equal.  Some providers can charge more than $1000, while others offer the online material at no cost. 

If online AP classes are the best option for you, then you would want to research providers and see who is the best fit for you. With that said, be aware that some online courses may not be accredited by the College Board, which may lead to inconsistencies in their viability as an educational and test-prep resource.

AP Exam Cost:

  • In the United States, Canada, U.S. Territories and DoDEA schools—$95 per exam
  • In schools anywhere else—$125 per exam*  
  • The AP Capstone Exam (AP Seminar and AP Research)—$143 per exam

*The fee for exams administered at College Board-authorized testing centers outside the U.S. can vary.

Conclusion: What Are AP Classes?

The College Board’s Advanced Placement program offers motivated achievement-minded students a valuable way to kick start their college education, while also demonstrating to prospective schools their ability to handle the rigors of a college-level education.

Both the AP courses and AP exams require more work than your average class on the same subject, but the experience can be very rewarding from both a personal achievement perspective and for putting together an impressive application for college.

Although the AP program is not universally accessible—some schools don’t participate, homeschooled students would need to seek out class options, and testing costs can quickly add up—if you can handle the coursework, they can help make your college application more impressive, give you a headstart on your college education, and begin to prepare you for your eventual career. 

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