How many AP classes am I supposed to take??
It’s course selection time, and you’re looking at a list of AP classes. Everyone says you should take them. Lots of them. How many should you take? How many do colleges expect you to take? All of them?! (No.) The stress builds up - and quickly!
Some students - especially high-achieving students - feel like they need to take #alltheclasses but is that true? Is that even POSSIBLE?? Take a deep breath and relax.
The answer to the question, as with most issues related to college admissions is this:
Vague, right? Sure Let’s break it down, though, and get you the facts you need to make a good decision.
Why take AP classes at all?
This is an easier question. There are LOTS of good reasons to take AP classes.
If you’re an advanced student aiming for top colleges, you probably need some AP classes. They are rigorous courses. They require you to think about things in complicated ways and to master complex materials. Taking an AP class and doing well on its exam proves that you are capable of an intro-level college course. Many colleges will give you credit for earning certain AP scores. (To find a specific college’s policy, check the database on the AP website.)
Second, AP classes make your transcript look good. Yes, this is a thing. Colleges don’t know you from the next guy or gal, so they look at that one sheet of paper to see what kind of student you are. When they can see that you took 1 or 2 or 8 or 12 AP Classes, they can understand some things about you. They can see whether you embrace academic challenges or avoid them. They can see if you are doing more, less, or the same kinds of work as your peers - both in your own school and across the country.
AP classes are a great way to explore courses you might want to take in college – like politics, economics, psychology, or computer science. The AP curriculum allows schools to offer some really interesting and outside-the-box courses.
Whether you are not applying to highly selective colleges or not, AP Classes can help you earn college credit in high school, which reduces the number of classes you need to take at college-level cost.
Cool! So maybe I should take ALL the AP classes then, right??
No. Bad idea. First of all, they’re hard. You can over-stress and over-burden yourself by taking too many or too many at one time. You can hurt your GPA, your extra-curriculars, and your mental well-being if you over-schedule yourself. Balance. Balance is always the key.
The point is not to “collect them all.” Colleges will not automatically favor applicants with the most AP courses, especially if they start to drag down your GPA, or if you don’t pass the exams.
In short, APs can be a huge boost to your college application, but if you take too many, they could actually hurt your chances.
OK. So…..how many AP Classes SHOULD I take???
“We expect you to challenge yourself throughout high school and to do very well. The most important credential that enables us to evaluate your academic record is the high school transcript. Remember, however, that our evaluation of your application goes beyond any numerical formula. There is no minimum GPA or test score; nor is there any specific number of AP or honors courses you must have on your transcript that will secure your admission to Stanford.”
Guess what the answer is?? It depends. (Sorry. That’s always the answer!) There isn’t one answer that’s the right answer for everyone. You need to consider several factors to figure out what’s right for you.
Start with considering the competitiveness of the schools where you want to apply.
For Less Selective Colleges and State Schools
For these schools, the number of AP classes you take is up to you and your personal goals. For example, which classes would you want to get over with in high school so you can focus on harder classes in college? Most state schools (and very many of the less competitive schools) accept nearly every AP class for credit, but they don’t require them for admission. Remember, though, that you only get credit if you pass the exam! Don’t overload yourself and spread your studying thin. It’s better to get two 4s than four 2s!
For More Selective Colleges (or Honors Colleges or Scholarship Programs)
For more selective schools – or honors programs and scholarships at state schools – it’s important to show you are taking the most challenging (“rigorous”) courses available in your school. One very easy way for them to measure this is to count the number of AP courses your school offers, and then count how many of those courses you took. There is no “magic number”. Truly, there is not. There are as many different pathways as there are high school students, and that’s a whole lot. Colleges know this. They are looking for “.…students who make the most of their opportunities and the resources available to them.” You know who said that? Harvard. There is no contest to see who took the most AP classes. But admissions is a little bit like a contest to see who did the most with the opportunities that they had.
If you are going for the most competitive colleges,
you should take the toughest core courses available at your school.
Start with core subject areas: Math, Science, English, Social Studies. Consider taking AP English Language, AP English Lit, AP US/World/European History, AP Calc or AP Stats, and at least one science (AP Bio, AP Chem, or AP Physics). Then, consider taking AP classes in non-core subjects that are interesting to you – like AP Psych, AP Econ, or AP CompSci.
Don’t overdo it. Take as many as you can do well in while maintaining your sanity.
You still want a number, right? How many??
I’ll assume you have the academic ability to take some AP classes and do well. I’ll also assume your high school offers a variety of AP classes. Based on those assumptions, here are some guidelines, based on the kinds of colleges where you might apply.
Most Selective Schools (Ranked in the Top 20, with <20% acceptance rate): You likely need AP classes in most or all of the core subject areas (Math, Science, English, Social Studies, and even Foreign Language). It helps to have additional AP courses that relate to your interests or goals. This will end up being between 7 and 12 AP courses.
Selective Schools (Ranked in the Top 100, with 20-50% acceptance rates): You likely need AP classes in most or some core subject areas, plus one or two additional courses. This will end up being between 4 and 8 AP courses.
Less Selective Schools (These are schools where >50% of applicants are accepted): You likely will want AP classes in some core courses, or in courses related to your anticipated major. This will end up being between 1 and 5 AP courses.
When should you take these AP classes?
You know what I’m going to say, right?? IT DEPENDS. But, if you have read this far, you really want an answer.
So, let’s build a possible plan. Your high school track of AP classes might look something like this.
Freshman Year: If they’re available, you might consider taking one or two AP classes that are not the most demanding ones, and build on skills from middle school (like Environmental Science, Human Geography, or Psychology). In your core courses, take honors classes if possible so you can begin earning prerequisite skills for tougher AP classes later.
Sophomore Year: Take one to three AP classes. Consider adding a more challenging AP class, like World History or US History, and one or two less-demanding APs. Continue to take honors courses if possible in your other core classes.
Junior Year: Based on your experience and scores from freshman and sophomore year, start taking APs in core classes, like AP English, AP Calculus, or AP Biology. Take as many as you can handle without spreading yourself too thin. Make sure you will have time to study for the ACT or SAT this year. An Ivy League hopeful might take 3 to 5(!) AP classes, while if you’re aiming for less-selective schools, 2 or 3 would be enough. (This truly is the most important year to take the most rigorous classes that you can AND do well in them!!)
Senior Year: Take more APs in core subjects and additional subjects, again being careful not to overburden your schedule and to leave time for college applications. It’s not uncommon for applicants to highly selective schools to have as many as 5 AP classes senior year, but keep your own schedule and limits in mind. Adding one more AP class will not have a huge effect on your college chances at this point, but it could significantly reduce the time you spend on applications and therefore hurt your admission chances.
Be careful about burning yourself out, especially senior year. You will need to devote lots of time and energy to your college applications!!
Other Factors to Consider
Your target schedule could also look different if you spend a huge amount of time on one activity, like playing an instrument or a sport, inside or outside of school. When choosing AP classes, prioritize subjects that are genuinely interesting to you and you would like to continue in college. This is far more important than choosing AP classes just because you think you should.
Also, think about your grade level and experience with AP classes before signing up. Don’t jump into four AP classes your sophomore year if you’ve never taken them before. Learning how to succeed in these classes and exams is tough!!
Plus, in many subjects you won’t have the necessary pre-requisites for AP courses until your junior and senior year. For example, AP English is usually taught junior or senior year, most students won’t have the pre-requisites for AP Calculus until junior year at least, and for the sciences – Biology, Chemistry, and Physics – most high schools have a recommended sequence that doesn’t have students taking the AP courses until sophomore year at the very earliest.
This is why many students begin with courses like AP Human Geography in freshman or sophomore year. The exams are comparatively less difficult, and younger students are more likely to have completed prerequisite courses for them. If you do well on the first exam or exams you take, you can consider taking on more in junior and senior year, but again, be careful about overloading.
Mistakes to Avoid
How do you know if you've overdone it? If you find your grades slipping in non-AP classes or if you're having a hard time keeping up with your usual sports and/or extracurriculars, you might have overloaded yourself. Don’t give into peer pressure – just because you have a friend who has taken 10 AP exams doesn’t mean you have to do the same. College applications are considered holistically, so it’s important to keep your overall GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and activities intact.
Again, one extra AP class won’t make or break your admissions chances, but if it causes your GPA to fall or your performance in extracurriculars to suffer, it could be hurting you.
Make sure you are leaving ample time to prepare for either the SAT or ACT. Your score on that will have a huge effect on your admissions chances, and you’ll likely take one or both of those tests several times over your junior and senior years.
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