How to Decide If High School Advanced Placement Classes Are Worth It

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AP courses can help students earn college credit and bolster their applications—but they aren’t for everyone.

By Abigail Simkus

AP courses, or their equivalent, are offered at almost every high school in the region. Despite their critics, they’re often viewed as the gold standard for an academically challenging curriculum and offer students the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with classmates and teachers.

For those reasons, I often encourage students to take AP classes taught by teachers they like in subjects they enjoy—or simply for the enrichment value. Because they tend to be the most rigorous, class size is often smaller, which is a benefit for students in large public high schools. Even so, 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 standardized tests and overloading students with summer work.

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Right now, though, these classes are still viewed as one of the few ways to create rigor in a standardized format colleges can gauge. Those aiming for top-tier schools 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 an A is 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. Due to nationwide COVID-19 restrictions, 2020 AP exams were administered online so students could take them at home—a first in College Board’s 120-year history. Typically over three hours in length, the exams were only 45 minutes. There was no multiple-choice section, just two to three free-response and essay questions, leaving no cushion for any student who stumbled on just one answer. Scoring was still done on a 1-5 scale. College Board hasn’t announced whether the format will be the same this school year, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t offer a virtual option again. The tests are in May 2021, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Don’t expect AP credits to save tuition dollars. Colleges require full-time students to pay by the semester, not by the course. But they can reduce the workload if a student is facing a challenging semester, studying abroad, or pursuing research or an internship. On a rare occasion, a student may have 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. But they do 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 as little as three 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 the credits turned down.

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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 is the founder and director of the College Connection, a private college consulting company serving students in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Visit

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