Every year, students ask me whether it’s worth taking Advanced Placement classes in high school. Will they help you get into college? And, once you’re accepted, will that college even award credit for AP classes? The answer: It depends.
AP courses, or their equivalent, are offered at almost every high school in the region. Despite their critics, AP classes are often viewed as the gold standard for an academically challenging curriculum. They give students the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with classmates and teachers. For that reason, I’ll often encourage students to take AP classes taught by teachers they like in subjects I know they’ll enjoy—or simply for the enrichment value. Because they tend to be the most rigorous, such classes are often smaller, which is a benefit for students in large public high schools.
Still, AP classes can create an atmosphere of stress and intimidation, with piles of homework and tight grading. Teachers have been accused of gearing the curriculum to the tests and overloading students with summer work. Right now, though, they’re viewed as one of the few ways to create rigor in a standardized format that colleges can gauge.
Those aiming for top-tier colleges will likely take a slew of AP classes to demonstrate their ability to handle the most challenging courses available. For those with hopes of attending big public universities, where admission decisions may be based on GPA without regard to strength of curriculum, foregoing AP classes might mean faring better in admissions, since A’s are often hard to come by. But that ignores the enrichment factor and the potential advantage of earning college credit in high school.
Over 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities offer AP credit, usually the equivalent of a one-semester course, for students who earn a 4 or 5 on an AP exam. Many will even offer credit for a 3 earned in a core AP subject like English, history, science, math or foreign language.
But don’t expect these credits to save tuition dollars. Colleges require full-time students to pay by the semester, not by the course. AP credits can reduce the workload when facing a challenging semester, studying abroad, or pursuing research or an internship. But they won’t reduce financial obligations, unless a student has enough credits to skip an entire semester of college.
Ironically, some of the most selective colleges in the country, including the Ivies, don’t award AP credit, even though their applicants tend to take the most AP classes and score the highest. Instead, they allow students to place out of introductory classes or core requirements if they score high enough on a corresponding AP exam. In rare instances, a student who’s earned 5’s in enough designated core classes may pursue “advanced standing” and graduate in three or three and a half years. Students whose high schools don’t offer AP courses can still take college-level classes over the summer.
Standards for whether a college will accept credits earned off-campus change significantly once a student matriculates. That college-level calculus class taken at Montgomery County Community College the summer before senior year of high school will probably earn three credits at George Washington University when starting as a freshman. But the student who waits until the summer after sophomore year to take the same class may see his credits turned down.
Getting the most out of AP classes can be tricky. They can offer an advantage in admissions at the most selective schools and some college credit at others. For those seeking to reduce tuition costs, however, they probably aren’t the answer.
Abigail Simkus graduated from Princeton University in 1985. She’s the founder and director of The College Connection, a private college consulting company serving students in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Visit www.the-college-connection.com.