Over one million high school students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams each academic year, according to The College Board. While many students find these courses appealing because they enhance their track record and can earn them some college credit, others wonder if they’re worth the additional effort.
The challenge of AP courses may prepare you for college-level work, but can they help you get your foot in the door? Here is what you need to know about AP classes and college admissions.
What Are Advanced Placement Courses?
AP classes are college-level courses offered to high school students across the country. The official Advanced Placement program is maintained by The College Board, a nonprofit organization built on the premise of connecting high school students to college success and opportunity.
The College Board AP program currently offers 38 Advanced Placement courses in the following subject areas:
- Math and Computer Science
- History and Social Sciences
- World Languages and Cultures
Not all Advanced Placement courses are available at every high school; some high schools do not offer the program at all. Depending on the high school, a student may take all AP classes offered or be limited to only a few.
The College Board offers an AP exam at the end of each course. Students may be provided college credit depending on their exam scores and the college they attend.
Can Taking High School Advanced Placement Courses Help You Get Into College?
Taking high school Advanced Placement courses can help you get into college due to the rigor of the AP program.
According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s 2023 State of College Admission Report, many colleges consider the strength of an applicant’s high school curriculum and their grades in college prep courses when making admissions decisions.
Percentage of Colleges Attributing Different Levels of Importance to High School Grades and Curriculum Strength (Fall 2023)
|Factor||No. of Colleges Surveyed||Considerable Importance||Moderate Importance||Limited Importance||No Importance|
|Grades in college prep courses||185||76.8||15.1||4.9||3.2|
|Strength of curriculum||185||63.8||22.7||10.3||3.2|
While it’s still vital to be a well-rounded student, the same study found that the strength of your curriculum is often more important than your positive character traits, teacher recommendations, admissions test scores, and interview scores combined.
A Note About the Ivy League’s Academic Index
The Ivy League and other highly selective schools use a score known as the Academic Index (AI).
First revealed by former Dartmouth College admissions counselor Dr. Michele Hernandez, the AI considers your unweighted GPA and your standardized test scores for either the SAT or ACT and ranks your application on a scale of one (exceptionally weak) to nine (exceptionally strong).
Keep in mind that colleges calculate these scores using complex and proprietary formulas not officially available to the public.
|The Academic Index Scale|
|Exceptionally Weak||184 or less||1|
|Very Weak||185 – 194||2|
|Weak||195 – 205||3|
|Below Average||206 – 216||4|
|Average||217 – 224||5|
|Above Average||225 – 229||6|
|Strong||230 – 233||7|
|Very Strong||234 – 236||8|
|Exceptionally Strong||237 – 240||9|
The AI was originally developed to serve as criteria for admitting student-athletes, but admissions officials continue to use it to calculate scores for all students.
If your calculated AI falls under the threshold set forth by the college, it’s possible you may not be seriously considered for admission, regardless of how many Advanced Placement courses you have taken.
Suppose that you do meet the AI threshold score. In that case, these highly selective schools will factor the rigor of your curriculum into their admissions decision, and it can give you an edge over candidates with similar profiles who have chosen not to take AP courses.
Overall, the more AP courses a student takes, the better their chances for admission to their top choice schools.
Why Colleges Love Advanced Placement Courses
Many colleges encourage students to take as many Advanced Placement courses as possible. Colleges do this for three primary reasons:
- College Prep: Advanced Placement courses are generally as challenging as introductory college courses, so doing well in them lets admissions officers know you’re ready for freshman year
- Challenging Ambitious Students: Because Advanced Placement courses are optional, colleges know that students who take them do so because they love to challenge and push themselves
- Standardized Difficulty: A third party standardizes the Advanced Placement curriculum so college admissions officers can verify their rigor, which is not possible with honors or dual-enrollment courses that vary from school to school
The preparation that Advanced Placement courses afford students can go a long way in helping them understand what the next four years of their lives will hold.
Advanced Placement Courses vs. Pre-AP Classes: What’s the Difference?
While Advanced Placement courses are college-level courses, Pre-AP classes are courses at the high-school level designed to prepare students for AP courses. Pre-AP classes are back-mapped from AP courses and offer the same instructional and evaluation framework.
While Pre-AP classes do not offer students college credit or require a final exam, they can broaden students’ horizons and close the opportunity gap by making it easier and more plausible for students of all backgrounds and skill levels to take and do well in Advanced Placement courses.
How Many Advanced Placement Courses Should You Take for the Best Chance of Admission?
High school students who wish to attend college should take as many college-level courses as possible. However, that number will vary according to a student’s unique personality, abilities, and circumstances.
While a study published in the Journal of College Admission showed that taking at least five Advanced Placement courses was correlated with better first-year college performance, there are some caveats to this advice.
Avoid Overwhelming Yourself
It’s best not to take more Advanced Placement courses that you can reasonably do well in. Admissions officers are not impressed with seeing high numbers of AP courses on your transcript with low grades or low scores on the AP exams. This strategy will likely hurt your chances of admissions in the long run.
Consider Your Interests
When you are interested in the subject matter, you are more likely to do well in the Advanced Placement course — even if the subject matter is very challenging. Remember that not all high schools offer the full range (or even a fraction) of AP courses, so you may be unable to choose solely on deep interest.
What to Do if Your High School Doesn’t Offer AP Courses
Don’t fret about Advanced Placement courses not being offered or being offered in limited numbers at your school. Admissions officers know that not every school offers the same classes and will look at an applicant’s curriculum choices in context.
Your best bet is to ensure you take the most rigorous curriculum possible to demonstrate your readiness to handle the challenge of college academics.
You Can Bend, But Don’t Break
College is challenging, and admissions counselors want to ensure they admit students who are ready to take it on. Voluntarily enrolling and doing well in Advanced Placement courses and exams shows college officials that you can bend without breaking — in other words, you can challenge yourself without becoming overwhelmed.
Take as many AP courses as possible, but do so in a way that allows you to maintain your interests and mental health. Finding a healthy balance between rigor, passion, and self-care is key — not only in college admissions, but also in life.