So you’ve been told you should take AP exams in high school but are confused as to why they are essential. Aren’t they the same as any other honors course? What makes AP exams unique? Do they really count for more than a standard class?
Well, we are here to answer these questions and more, so if you are someone who is confused by AP courses, you have come to the right place. Understanding why you are taking an AP course is essential to giving you the motivation you need to do well. In this article, we’ll be covering everything from what AP courses you can take to if colleges even care about them.
What is the Purpose of AP Exams?
AP, or Advanced Placement, are standardized tests that high school students take after completing a rigorous course. The exams aim to determine if you have comprehended the material to a high enough degree to be awarded credit. AP credits can be used to count for college classes and are often viewed favorably by many colleges and jobs, making them a pretty valuable resource.
AP exams are a way of making you stand out against other applicants. Colleges look at thousands of applications before selecting, so adding classes they recognize as rigorous can be a tremendous help. It’s great to take advanced, honors, or accelerated courses, but those words have no national standardization, meaning that the level of difficulty can vary significantly between schools.
What AP Classes Are There?
Thirty-eight different AP courses are offered nationally, but which courses you have access to will depend on your school. Unfortunately, as with many other factors in the education system, there is a significant disparity between schools that have the funding to support a lot of AP classes and schools that don’t have that same level of funding.
Most public schools are limited in the number of AP courses they can offer, so they try to choose the most popular exams and courses they think will be the most popular. Typically, you will find that public schools are likely to offer a few languages AP courses, a few math AP courses, and a few science AP courses. If you are lucky, your school might offer AP art, English, or history courses, but this is more school-dependent.
It really depends on the school. At a school with smaller class size, such as a private school, you may have well over 20 different AP courses to choose from; it all depends on your school. These schools are more likely to offer a more extensive selection of AP courses within each subject area as well. For example, while a public school may offer one of the four AP physics courses, a private school might offer all four AP physics courses.
Do Colleges Care About AP Exams?
The short answer is yes, but the long answer to this question is much more complicated. On the surface, most colleges care if you have taken AP exams, but it goes a little deeper than this. Generally, some of the first things that colleges look at are your GPA, or grade point average, and the courses you have taken. This is where it starts to get complicated because at some schools taking an AP course counts for more GPA points than an average class, but at other schools, this isn’t the case.
Ultimately, this means that while colleges do look at and factor into their decision if you took AP exams and how many, taking AP exams or not taking AP exams is hardly likely to be a major deciding factor in your college acceptance. Understanding how important AP classes are for college admission is confusing; we get it, but it really is a case-by-case question.
Another thing to think about when thinking about how much or how little colleges care about your AP exams is what your score is. If you took lots of AP exams but only scored a three or so on most tests, this will likely harm their view of you more than help it. On the other hand, if you took many AP exams and got a five on all or almost all of the tests, this will probably help you.
Here’s a short description of AP test scores to clear up any confusion about that last point. AP exams are scored from 1 to 5, with five being “yeah, you passed with flying colors!” and 1 being the equivalent of no credit. For colleges to even think about accepting your AP scores for any type of credit, which we’ll discuss later, you will need to score at least a three, if not higher, depending on the school.
What are the Benefits of Passing an AP Exam?
AP classes have many pros and cons, but we’ll be focusing on the pros here! Since AP exams are pretty large, it is crucial to understand the benefits of taking the course and sitting the exam, so you can maintain motivation throughout the whole semester.
Push yourself to learn at a higher level.
It might seem simple to say, but it is important to remember that the real goal of going to high school is to learn. We might get caught up in thinking about the next step and the next goal, but slowing down and reminding yourself that you are here to learn and this course will help further is a great way to motivate yourself.
Stand out on college applications.
We’ve talked about this a good amount already, but it is worth listing it here because taking AP classes is a significant benefit. While some schools might help boost your GPA, the national benefit for all high school students is that having AP exams on your college application can strengthen your application. Even if it helps you make it past the first round of cuts, the reviewers will have more time to dig deeper and learn why they should accept you after that.
Get credit once you’re in college.
Although we haven’t really talked about it much yet, taking and passing AP exams can get you credit at many colleges and universities. There are lots of different ways that this can manifest. Still, the main two are receiving credit for AP exam results above a specific number, like 4, or allowing you to opt-out of an introductory course if you scored above a certain number on your AP exam, again like 4. We use four as an example score here because that is a relatively common score that you will need to receive any type of credit. Make sure you check with your university, though, as each one has different rules.
What AP Classes Are Worth Taking?
The big question is, are AP exams worth it? The short answer is yes, but if we accept that all AP exams are worth taking, we lose the nuances that come from having so many exams. While each exam is technically scored and viewed the same, there are some AP exams that will stand out to colleges more if you get a good score.
These are some of the AP courses that a college might look upon favorably. Note that this is not an exhaustive list, just somewhere to start.
- AP Physics (any of the four exams)
Taking AP Biology or AP Chemistry is great, especially if that is a field you want to go into, but tons of students take these exams, meaning that colleges see these exams all the time. These science AP exams are some of the least common that students take. Fewer schools offer higher AP physics exams, but these scores aren’t seen as frequently and so might stand out more.
- AP Latin
AP Latin is in a similar vein. The challenge with AP Latin is that it isn’t offered as frequently, but if your school offers it, you should try to take it. This AP will also do a great job of setting you up well for many different college courses.
- AP Music Theory
Similarly to AP Latin, AP Music Theory isn’t offered quite as much, but it can really pack a punch if it’s on your resume. While lots of students dream of going to college for something in music, very few do much to prepare for this career path. Taking AP Music Theory is a great way to express your interest in this field in a very tangible way.
While those AP exams might earn you extra brownie points with some college recruiters, there are AP exams that don’t carry quite as much oomph. We aren’t saying that you shouldn’t take these exams, but these are the exams that are quite common and will stand out a lot less.
- AP Environmental Science
AP Environmental Science, or APES as it is often called, is a super common science AP. It is generally known as a more accessible AP, mostly because environmental science is a subject that most students have an excellent working knowledge of when they enter the course. Colleges see this AP every day, so it isn’t as likely to stand out to them.
- AP Statistics
AP Statistics is similar to APES. This is one of the most common AP exams that students take. Statistics, in general, is a great field to have at least some working knowledge of, so even if this exam is super common and might not win you tons of brownie points, don’t knock it off your list.
- AP Spanish or AP French
AP language courses are fantastic, especially if you want to study that language. The challenge with taking AP Spanish or AP French is that these are the most commonly offered AP languages, so colleges always see them. While this isn’t bad, these AP courses just won’t overwhelm college recruiters quite as much as you might want them to.
Wrapping Things Up: Are AP Exams Worth It?
Hopefully, we’ve answered some of your burning questions about AP exams. Regardless of if you choose to take a few AP courses, no AP courses, or pack your schedule with AP courses, as long as it is the right choice for you, it will all work out. It might seem like a massive decision in high school, but, in the grand scheme of things, there are more important things in life than what APs you take.
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If you enjoyed this article, check out some of our other AP-related content below:
> How to Study for AP Classes and Pass Them?
> When Should You Start Taking AP Classes in High School?