How to Tactically Pick Your AP Courses

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With competition steadily rising over the past few years, AP courses have been more and more common within students’ schedules. Students may be under the impression that filling up a schedule with AP courses helps them come off as extremely smart for when it’s college application time, but this isn’t really its primary benefit. Sure, AP courses are by definition more demanding and can give insight into a given student’s character and intellectual ability, but only to an extent; consider all the variables at play besides course difficulty. College admissions reviewers have no idea how hard your high school is, how many AP courses (if any) are offered, how your specific teachers were, how crowded the school is, and so forth. As a result, simply throwing AP courses onto a transcript is hardly the benefit it’s made out to be. Consider, instead, this alternate benefit: once admitted, students can use their AP courses as academic units at their future college! The way this works is highly variable among colleges, and you also need to weigh how important this benefit is to you, so read on to figure out more.

Using AP Courses as College Course Credit

Colleges use “units” as a value that roughly gives an idea of how much time a student is putting into education (based on their course load). For example, a highly difficult course may reward 5 units upon completion, whereas a very basic course with minimal homework may offer 2. Academic units are essentially the currency needed for graduation — you’ll need a set number of these (determined by your college) as a strict requirement to graduate. Get too few, and expect to spend an extra semester or summer than you had intended.

It’s important to note that taking an AP course by itself won’t reward you with these units. Near the end of each high school year (usually around May), there’s a lengthy exam you’ll have to take to demonstrate your understanding of the material from that course (although you can skip the course entirely and self-study if you choose). This exam will be graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent, 4 being pretty good, and a 3 being decent (1 and 2 won’t do much for you). For certain scores on certain exams, you’ll be given academic units. For example, your future university may award you 5 out of the 120 units needed to graduate simply for getting a 3 on the Microeconomics AP test. The benefit here is obvious — the less time you take getting your degree at college, the less you pay in tuition and housing and the sooner you move on to getting a full time job. In an ideal world, you’ll have taken enough AP exams to offset your college years by an entire semester (and this is very doable)! Keep in mind that AP policies vary wildly for different colleges, so do look at the credit policies for any colleges you’re considering.

One note: taking too many AP courses may do you no good. If your university requires, say, 100 units to graduate, and the major you chose requires you taking 95 units worth of coursework at your university (courses you can’t take anywhere else), then it’s only useful to take enough AP tests to cover 5 academic units. Planning well ahead of time and working out optimal scenarios for your various desired schools is essential.

Using AP Courses To Satisfy College Course Requirements

Not only do AP courses award academic units for college, but in some cases, AP classes can help you avoid taking certain classes that would otherwise be required at your university. For example, if you were to get a 5 on your AP Calculus BC test, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to skip calculus at college and go straight to the next math requirement. Again, keep in mind that the exact score you need to satisfy a requirement varies from college to college, and there’s no guarantee a certain exam will clear a requirement at every college you apply to. Plan ahead to get an idea of what kinds of requirements your targeted schools have in place, and then use their website’s AP credit policy page to see whether any of these requirements can be cleared with a certain AP test.

One thing to note here is that clearing a college requirement in high school is not always a good idea. University level education tends to be a lot harder than in high school, so there’s always the aspect of difficulty to consider. Let’s say you’re an Economics major, so you take the Economics AP Exam and get a sufficient score, thus allowing you to skip Economics I at college. You may find, however, that this was a bad decision; if you skip straight to Economics II and find that it’s an extremely demanding class (and that college in general is extremely demanding), you’ll be wishing you took Economics I at college as well (so you could have covered the basics in a more refined, relative environment). The difficulty and concepts of high school courses may not match very well with what’s presented in the university level of that course, so it’s important to assess whether or not you actually want your AP test to null a certain requirement at college. Generally, it’s a good idea to take AP exams to clear requirements for classes that aren’t too relevant to your college major (for example, if there’s a required art requirement with no further art requirements afterwards, and you can clear it with an AP course, it’s a good idea to do so).


Overall, it’s important to learn that AP classes’ benefits extend well beyond their reputation for being challenging and difficult. With the ability to knock out both unit requirements and required courses at college, AP exams allow students to graduate sooner from college (thus saving time and money), or just clear low-level requirements, enabling the ability to focus on a wider variety of courses that were previously unavailable. When planning which AP courses to take for the rest of high school, keep in mind that simply the name “AP” on your transcript may not be all it’s hyped to be; don’t overwork yourself just to get the AP badge, because colleges know that not all high schools are equal. Instead, keep in mind your future college’s AP credit policies, and try to see the alternative benefits AP courses offer.

If you want more help regarding picking AP’s, or assistance in other academic areas, feel free to schedule a free consultation with us!

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