A Beginner's Guide to AP Classes

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

AP classes. Some of you have been hearing about them since before high school. Most of you know what they are, and chances are you’ve already started taking some. Still, you might not know exactly why you’re taking them or which ones you should be taking. Here is everything you need to know to easily decide which AP classes to take.

What are they?

AP stands for Advanced Placement. AP classes are part of College Board’s (the non-profit that administers the SAT) Advanced Placement Program. AP classes include a college-level curriculum and have an accompanying optional exam to each class. Here is the full list of AP classes offered by the College Board. Although there are almost fifty AP classes offered, you’re obviously not expected to take all of them or even close to all of them. Most high schools don’t even offer more than 10 to 20 of them, and many have restrictions on what grade you have to be in to start taking them. The trick isn’t to take as many as you can—it’s to take as many as you can do well on, and that’ll vary from person to person.

Why should I take them?

Top colleges expect you to take AP classes, so you should take them if you want to be a competitive applicant. For starters, AP classes provide a significant GPA boost. Your GPA (Grade Point Average) is an important part of your application that exemplifies your academic standing. Because AP and Pre-AP classes can earn more points for the same grade, many schools measure GPA on a weighted scale, meaning that GPA’s can often go beyond the unweighted 4.0 scale (the exact weighted scale depends on high school).

AP classes can also earn you college credit. Besides the GPA boost, the AP exam you take at the end of the year can get you out of a substantial amount of hours in college. Sometimes, you could graduate a semester or even a year early with these credits. Most colleges accept a 3 or above on an AP test to be able to give you credit, but this can vary within each course and each institution. If you’re curious about the AP credit policy for a certain college, you can find it using College Board’s AP credit score policy here. The downside to this is that you could spend a school year taking an AP class, but if you don’t make at least a 3 on the test, you wouldn’t be able to receive college credit for it. This is why it’s crucial to take only as many as you can do well on.

Why not Dual Credit(DC), or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes? The main difference between DC and AP classes is that they don’t have a companion exam. The problem with DC classes is that the absence of a nation-wide test means that they are not accepted for college credit across the country. There is also no nation-wide curriculum, so colleges aren’t able to measure the rigor of DC classes because it varies at every high school.

IB classes are weighted similarly to AP classes for your GPA, but colleges in the U.S. don’t give credit for all IB exams. In addition, the IB program is holistic, so you take all of your classes as IB classes. AP classes allow you to pick and choose which ones you would be good at, and this actually helps you on your college application: colleges want well-rounded classes, not well-rounded students. This means that colleges typically prefer students who are proficient in one area of study, which creates an incoming class that is proficient in many subjects and interests.

So how many do I take?

Even though it seems like the more AP classes you take, the more attractive your application becomes, this is in no way true. AP classes aren’t your ticket to the Ivy’s, and taking too many takes away from time to study for your SAT or ACT, participate in extracurriculars, or even dedicate the right amount of time to all of your classes to make sure you get the best grades you can. In fact, getting a bad grade in an AP class may hurt your GPA more than if you had just taken a Pre-AP class. The truth is, taking all of the AP classes your school offers does not make you stand out. Your interests and the ways you express those interests in your extracurriculars and projects outside of school, are what make you stand out.

With that being said, take advantage of the AP classes your school offers within reason. Take what your school has, as early as your school lets you. "[Admissions officers] want to see if you can challenge yourself and [they] check if you took the highest level of a certain class offered at your school,” says Dev Devvrat, assistant dean of admissions at Reed College. For example, only taking chemistry honors when AP Chemistry is offered at your school can show that you are not rigorously challenging yourself enough. There is no minimum number of AP classes that you have to take in order to be considered for top schools, but for a top 50 school, 4-8 is a good number. For Ivy League, and other prestigious and incredibly selective schools, this number increases to around 7-12. This means that you do not have to take too many in any one year. Even 12 AP classes can be achieved by increasing your course load by one or two AP classes each year of high school. 7, an equally competitive amount, could be achieved by 1 AP class your sophomore year and 3 your junior and senior years. There is no reason to overload yourself junior year, especially with the importance of studying for the SAT and ACT.

Which ones should I take?

Take as many AP core classes as you can. This helps you get into a habit of taking challenging classes as a basis for your schedule. After that, take classes that you’re interested in, and consequently, think you would be good at. Taking AP classes is a good way to test out of classes that you don’t want to take in college, but your application will be stronger if you choose classes related to your intended major. Make sure you look up what credits you can earn for different classes at the schools you think you might want to go to.

How can I do well?

As a general rule of thumb, if you do well in your AP class, you will usually do well on your test. This sounds obvious, but sometimes your AP class won’t prepare you enough for the AP exam. If this is the case, your textbook will be your best resource. These are some tips for doing well in an AP class:

1. INTERACT with your textbook. Even the most experienced AP teacher can only guess what will be on the AP test every year. Becoming familiar with your textbook is a MUST if you are shooting for a 5 on the test. Read and take notes. Read and use it to answer practice questions. Your textbook is the only place you can find all of the information you need for the AP test.

2. Take good NOTES. Your notes are your foundation in the class. The secret to taking good notes isn’t to write down every single thing your teacher says, or copying down the textbook word for word. The secret to taking good notes is writing down the most important things, keeping in mind how future you is going to study.

3. Do EVERYTHING your teacher asks you to, especially if your teacher has been teaching their AP class for years. Even though they can only guess at what will be on the test, the more AP tests they’ve prepared their students for (and in some cases graded), the more they are able to find patterns from year to year and have a good idea of what they need to focus on. Everything your teacher assigns is for a reason, so again, if you want a 5 on the test, then do everything they ask of you.

4. STUDY EARLY. Studies have shown that spaced practiced and periodic study sessions as soon as possible increases retention, and cramming right before the test will only ensure you remember about half of what was studied.

5. PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE. Practice the free response section of the test as much as you can. The best way to do well on the free response is to instill it in your muscle memory so it becomes second nature on the test. Know the rubric inside and out, and know everything you can do to get as many points as possible.

6. PRIORITIZE. Know what assignments count the most towards your grade, and prioritize those each week.

7. Keep a planner. ORGANIZATION makes all the difference. Click here to learn more about the benefits of organization.

AP classes are important, and they can give you an important advantage when it comes time to apply to and enroll in colleges. But just remember that no matter how many you choose to take, prepare yourself to be challenged! That’s all that matters.



Edwards, H. (n.d.). Exactly How Many AP Classes Should You Take?: AP Experts. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://blog.prepscholar.com/how-many-ap-classes-should-you-take

Robinson, A. (n.d.). How to Do Well in an AP Class: Your Complete Guide. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://blog.prepscholar.com/how-to-manage-ap-classes