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 Dec 31, 2021
AP Classes: Everything You Need to Know

A challenging yet stimulating way to get a glimpse of higher-level coursework, AP classes allow students to deepen their learning in specific subject areas while potentially earning college credits in the process. And though they do come with their complications, their ability to keep students from breaking the bank makes them a viable contender for any high school schedule. So, today let’s explore what exactly AP classes are, and how you can take advantage of them to bring a collegiate twist to your high school education.

What are AP classes?

AP (Advanced Placement) classes offer high school students the opportunity to expand their understanding and study of specific subjects in a college-level environment. There are over 30 AP courses that have been established by The College Board; however, not all schools offer each one, and some don’t offer any at all.* Additionally, many schools require students to take certain prerequisite courses prior to taking AP courses, such as taking Honors English before AP English. Make sure to talk to your counselor in advance so that you know which courses your school offers, and whether you are eligible to take them!

In most high schools, taking an AP class generally means that you will be expected or encouraged to take a nationally-administered AP exam for that class in May. While these exams may seem daunting, passing them (with a minimum score of 3 out of 5) can give you credit hours in the vast majority of colleges within the United States.**

* If your school doesn’t offer any AP classes, don’t worry! That’s not your fault! Instead, you should aim to take the most challenging courses available to you, whether they be Honors, IB, or Dual Enrollment courses, among others. 

** To earn high school credit, you do not need to pass the AP exam. You just need to pass your high school class.

How many AP classes should students take? 

It all depends on how much you already have on your plate, and how much more you think you can handle. I’ve had friends who took eight AP classes in one year, while I took three, and others took one or none! There’s no “golden number” of AP classes you’re expected to take: What matters is that you adjust your coursework to meet your own academic interests – and your busy schedule! 

What are the pros to taking AP classes?

Aside from potentially providing students with the opportunity to earn college credit hours, the other perks of AP classes are plain as day: low cost and college-level learning.

Low cost — Compared to college courses, which can cost upwards of thousands of dollars each, AP classes are certainly a bargain. The classes themselves are free to take, and registering for each exam only costs slightly below $100 (not including the additional $40 fee for late registration). Additionally, students may be able to qualify for exam fee waivers based on their household financial status. In the end, taking AP classes can give you a rich intellectual experience at a fraction of the price that you’d have to pay in college – an attractive deal, indeed!

College-level learning — Apart from offering a rigorous curriculum that rivals that of their college counterparts, AP classes also encourage students to explore complex subjects in ways that can’t easily be found elsewhere. You might test samples of water from a local stream in AP Environmental Science, explore graphs of polar functions through digital simulations in AP Calculus BC, or even stage a debate between dueling presidents in AP U.S. History. The bonus? Performing well in these courses will help your high school transcript stand out too!

And the cons?

The pitfalls of AP courses ultimately boil down to the rigor and the retention. 

The rigor — Accompanied by a substantial amount of reading, writing, or studying, AP classes are nothing to joke about. If you ultimately want to be successful, you will need to practice, practice, and practice some more by taking exams from prep books, watching videos, using flashcards – whatever floats your boat.

The retention — If you plan to send your AP scores to your college to receive credit once you enroll, you may be able to skip out of certain classes and move on to the next level of the class. For example, passing the AP Calculus BC exam could enable you to avoid taking Calculus 1 or 2 in college and instead skip ahead to Calculus 3. While this is certainly a great way to save time (and money!), you may have to brush up on some of your calculus notes before walking into a Calculus 3 class, especially if you didn’t take AP Calculus in your senior year of high school. Of course, this is a relatively minor issue, and I generally argue that it’s still worth challenging yourself in high school!

Do all colleges offer credit to students who pass their AP exams? 

Unfortunately not. Some colleges require that students retake certain courses once they matriculate, even if they may have passed the corresponding AP exam. Additionally, some colleges only award credit to students who receive a 4 or 5 on AP tests, while others offer varying amounts of credit based on the exam score. On the bright side, most colleges do offer some form of credit for high AP exam scores! For more detailed insights on individual colleges’ credit policies, visit their websites. 

With an abundance of available courses and a relatively low financial barrier, AP classes might just be your ticket to obtaining a rigorous yet rewarding academic experience. But, that certainly doesn’t mean you must take each one. In prioritizing balance over burden, you’ll be sure to find an avenue to express your intellectual curiosity with other like-minded students – all while in high school!

Trisha Bhujle is a former Brilliant Prep student with the goal of answering your questions about high school, standardized tests, and everything in between. Having received a 36 on her ACT and a 1560 on her SAT, she now actively works to inform students and parents alike of how to prepare for not only these tests, but also other high school hurdles. In her spare time, she likes to experiment in her kitchen, conquer DIY projects, and most of all, write!