Updated: Dec 9, 2018
The eternal struggle: to take AP classes or not?
In addition to wanting excellent grades from their applicants, top American universities are also looking to see that candidates for admission are taking challenging classes. While on paper, this makes sense, students are often conflicted: would they rather take an honors-level, AP class and get a worse grade or would they rather get a better grade in an easier class?
The tough answer: do both. But it’s not always so simple.
In some cases, if you don’t find a particular subject area very difficult, it’s worth taking the AP class. I’m a literature nerd, so I took both AP Language and Literature and AP Language and Composition — and got 5’s on the exams. I didn’t find the subjects difficult to begin with, so taking the AP classes was an easy decision. If you are making it clear on your application that you are skilled in a certain area, you should be taking the AP classes to demonstrate that you are challenging yourself in it.
That said, some AP classes are harder to choose. I happen to not be a STEM-centric person, meaning that math and science are very scary for me. It was pretty clear on my application that I have little interest in these topics; that said, I did take honors-level chemistry (not AP!) and AP Calculus (both AB and BC). I got A’s in both of those classes, although I didn’t perform as well on the AP exams themselves. Colleges, however, were able to see that I was pushing myself academically, even if I couldn’t earn the college credit to place out of these classes.
It’s also very common to see high school students “loading up” on AP classes, taking five or six AP classes at a time. While it certainly does demonstrate that a student is challenging themselves, it’s easy to burn out in those situations and not perform well in the class, which only shows an admissions committee that the student can’t handle the pressure of a college workload.
A NOTE: In some cases, you may be able to self-study for an exam, which will show extreme dedication on your part. I took the AP French and German exams (as well as the AP Russian prototype exam) in order to demonstrate my commitment to learning languages, without ever having taken a class in any of them. That said, self-studying takes a lot of work, and isn’t the traditional route.
AP classes are a personal decision — and a student has to think realistically about how many intense classes they can take and succeed in. Take the ones that are close to your heart, and then pick one or two that will show academic growth in an area that isn’t your own.