The value of A.P. classes

by Grace

The New York Times Motherlode blog asks the question, “To A.P. or Not to A.P”?

Students, parents, and school administrators have mixed feelings about A.P. classes.  Students sometimes feel pressured to take these advanced courses even when it’s not appropriate, but in many cases taking at least a few A.P. courses is the right decision.

When taught well, A.P. and I.B. courses can offer high school students the opportunity to study college-level material while in high school. Administrators and teachers may be divided on the merits of offering A.P. courses, but they agree that secondary schools feel pressure to offer them to appear academically rigorous.

A.P. courses usually look good on college applications.  Selective colleges want to know if students have taken the “the most rigorous academic program available”, so the natural inclination is to take as many A.P. classes as possible.  While some experts advise students that more is not necessarily better, it’s hard to believe that in a competitive situation more high A.P. scores will not add points on a college application.

… “Selective colleges make it clear these days that they will not consider candidates that have not done AP or IB.”…

Students and parents often blame the Ivy League and other selective colleges for perpetuating the current cutthroat environment, insofar as such schools advise taking “the most rigorous academic program available” (as stated on the University of Virginia’s admissions website).

“What parents are saying is that ‘until colleges change their message, I’m not going to let my kid be the sacrificial lamb,’ ” Pope observes.

But colleges say it’s the literal interpretation of this advice that gets students into trouble.

“What admission officers almost always say…is focus on what lights your fire and take advantage of the most challenging offerings in those areas,” urges NACAC’s Hawkins. “That’s a very different message from, ‘Take all of the AP classes.’ ”…

Why take A.P. courses?

A.P. courses can be the appropriately challenging level of study for advanced students, and a way to avoid being bored in classes that are too easy.

Students can earn college credit for A.P. courses when test scores are above a certain level.  This can save money and time, even enable graduation in less than four years.

In some cases colleges do not give credit, but use A.P. test scores to allow a student to skip over introductory classes.  This can be a benefit, but in some cases students should still take the lower-level college class.  For example, a STEM major may wish to take the college calculus course as a way to establish a stronger foundation for advanced course work.

Why avoid A.P. courses?

For some students, A.P. classes add excessive stress, either because of the extra work involved or because the student is not prepared to perform at the higher level.  In these cases, the lower-level course is the more appropriate placement.

There are borderline cases, where the question is whether it’s better to get an A in a regular college prep course or a lower grade in an A.P. course.

The answer that most colleges will give you is that, it’s better to get an A in the Honors/AP class.  Well, of course.  And most highly selective colleges will expect that you do.  But in reality, most colleges would rather see a B in an Honors or AP course.  They want to see that you are truly challenging yourself, but that you are still mastering the material….

The decision to take or skip A.P. courses is not always easy.  Consider it carefully.

ADDED:  Gas station without pumps blog gives commentary and advice on How many AP courses are too many?

Probably the most reasonable course is for students to take AP courses (and exams!) in those subjects that most interest them and pursue interests outside the AP classroom. Community college courses that go beyond the AP courses are also a cost-effective choice, if you can get in.


Jessica Lahey, “To A.P. or Not to A.P., That Is the Question”, New York Times, November 13, 2014.

Amy Brecount White, “Under Pressure”, Arlington Magazine, September-October 2014.


11 Comments to “The value of A.P. classes”

  1. My most popular blog post this year is which I wrote almost 3 years ago. Students and parents are wondering what the right amount of AP coursework is.


  2. gassstation — I updated my post with a link to your A.P. post. Students and parents are STILL wondering about this!


  3. At highly selective schools, I agree that taking the harder course, at the risk of getting a B, is probably better than taking the easier class to ensure an A.

    However, I wonder if that is the case for larger, less selective schools in which the admissions personnel do not have as much time to carefully examine each application.


  4. In the case of less selective schools, the student would want to consider how much difference B-grades in X-number of AP courses would affect his GPA, as opposed to A-grades in the same number of regular college prep courses. I don’t think it would make a difference in most cases, but I wonder how it would affect a student wishing to attend a mid-tier California state university or college. It might make a difference there since their rules for admittance include consideration of class rank.


  5. California State and University of California both give a full point on the GPA for AP classes, which results in ridiculous statistics like that the UCSB admitted freshman class has an average GPA of 4.15 (or 4.05 depending which source you believe) on a 4-point scale. When the average is already off-scale, you know that the scale has become meaningless.


  6. A full point? So students who take only a few AP classes must really have a rough time getting in.


  7. Some high schools do not give any additional points for AP classes. Do schools that the UCs and Cal
    States recalculate GPAs in those cases? I suppose the applicants from those high schools could recalculate their own GPAs and note that somewhere on their applications.


  8. University of California calculates their own weighted GPA from the reported grades.


  9. I believe most selective colleges calculate their own GPAs, typically asking students for unweighted GPAs. High schools vary so much in how they bump up honors and AP courses, and colleges vary in how they handle this.


  10. One thing more about AP class and GPA re-calculations – the UC system only allows for a certain number of classes to get the grade bump. I forget the exact numbers and rules, vaguely recall that it was 8 classes in grades 10-12, but I may be wrong about that.

    Every college my daughter has looked at (mix of public/private/selective/less-selective) has said that they recalculate GPA.


  11. “Every college my daughter has looked at (mix of public/private/selective/less-selective) has said that they recalculate GPA.”

    Good to know.


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