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Choosing Your AP Courses - A Complete Guide

Choosing Your AP Courses - A Complete Guide

10 min Read|February 07 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


Choosing the right AP courses: is it just about academics, or is there more at stake? AP courses are not just advanced classes; they are your stepping stones to college and beyond, offering college-level curriculum while you're still in high school. But how do you navigate through the myriad of options to find the courses that align with your passions, career aspirations, and workload?

This guide is more than a map through the AP landscape. It's a tool to balance academic rigor with your extracurriculars, understand the impact on college admissions, and prepare effectively to achieve high AP grades. Whether you're a student carving your academic journey, a parent supporting your child, or a teacher guiding your students, this comprehensive resource is designed to help you make well-informed decisions in selecting your AP courses. Let's dive in, shall we? How will you choose the AP path that lights up your future?

Benefits of Taking AP Courses

AP courses are more than just tough classes; they're a step into the world of college academics while you're still in high school. Here are some key benefits they offer:

  • College Readiness: AP courses prepare students for college-level academics, enhancing critical thinking, writing, and research skills.
  • College Admissions: Excelling in AP courses can strengthen college applications, demonstrating a student's ability to handle challenging coursework.
  • Earn College Credits: Many colleges offer credit for high AP exam scores, potentially reducing college tuition costs and time to graduation.
  • Explore Interests: AP courses allow students to explore subjects in depth, aiding in determining future academic and career paths.
  • Academic Challenge: They provide a more challenging and engaging academic experience compared to standard high school courses.
  • Flexibility in College: Earning college credits in high school can provide more flexibility in college course selections, including the opportunity to pursue double majors or study abroad.

Advanced Placement Participation over the years

Image showing AP participation over the years

AP courses are a valuable investment in a student's academic growth, offering benefits that reach far into their future educational and career paths.

Understanding the AP Curriculum

The AP curriculum is designed to mirror introductory college courses, offering high school students a rigorous academic experience. Here's a closer look at what it entails:

  • Wide Range of Subjects: AP offers courses across various fields, from sciences and mathematics to humanities and arts.
  • College-Level Content: The curriculum covers in-depth, college-level material, challenging students beyond regular high school coursework.
  • Skill Development: Focuses on developing critical thinking, analytical writing, and problem-solving skills.
  • Standardized Exams: Each course is tested in a standardized exam, which assesses students' grasp of the subject on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the highest level of achievement.

Understanding the AP curriculum and AP Grading System is key to making informed decisions about course selection. It's not just about the subjects; it's about preparing for college-level academic rigor and developing a comprehensive skill set that will be valuable in further education and beyond.

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How to Choose the Right AP Courses for You?

The ideal number of AP courses varies for each student, depending on their academic ability, interests, and college goals. Generally, taking 2-3 AP courses throughout high school is seen as manageable for most students. However, those aiming for highly competitive colleges might take more. It's crucial to balance AP coursework with other activities and personal well-being.

Choosing the right AP courses requires careful consideration of your interests, academic strengths, and future goals. Here’s how to make an informed decision:

  • Assess Your Interests: Opt for subjects that genuinely interest you, as this will keep you engaged and motivated.
  • Consider Academic Strengths: Align your choices with areas where you excel academically for a better chance of success.
  • Future Goals: Think about how certain AP courses align with your intended college major or career path as well as college requirements.
  • Balance Workload: Be realistic about how many AP courses you can manage alongside other commitments.

Here is what an expert AP Calculus tutor has to say:

"In my own journey through high school, choosing AP subjects was an important decision. These courses allow you to test yourself and see if you like the subject and want to pursue a career in it or not. You can discover your interests and then aim to pick the right majors for you in college or university."

Selecting the right AP courses is about finding the perfect blend of your interests, abilities, and future aspirations. This careful selection can enhance your high school experience and set a strong foundation for your academic and career future.

Popular AP Courses Chosen and Subject Details

The selection of AP courses varies widely, catering to different academic interests and career goals. Here's an overview of some popular AP courses:

  • Science and Math: Courses like AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics are highly sought after, especially for students interested in STEM fields.
  • Humanities and Social Sciences: AP Psychology, AP United States History, and AP World History are popular among students interested in social sciences.
  • Languages and Arts: AP English Language and Composition, and AP English Literature and Composition are favored by students with a passion for literature and languages.

Popular AP Courses Chosen

Pie chart showing popular AP courses taken

These courses are not just popular; they provide a robust foundation in their respective fields, preparing students for college-level coursework. The selection often reflects students' future academic and career aspirations. Making the right choice from the AP courses available is a crucial decision in their high school journey.

AP Coursework and Workload Management

The average workload for an AP course can be quite substantial. Students typically need to dedicate several hours per week outside of class time for studying, completing assignments, and preparing for exams. This can be more intensive than regular high school courses.

The exact amount of time can vary based on the subject and the student's familiarity with the material. For instance, STEM subjects like AP Calculus or AP Physics may require more time for problem-solving and concept mastery. It's crucial for students to have good time management skills to balance the demands of AP courses with other responsibilities and activities.

Managing the workload in AP courses is crucial for success without burnout. Here’s how to effectively handle the demands:

  • Understand Course Expectations: Each AP course has its own workload; get familiar with the syllabus early on.
  • Effective Time Management: Create a balanced study schedule that allocates time for AP coursework, other classes, and personal activities.
  • Prioritize and Plan: Assess your priorities and create a realistic schedule that accommodates both academics and extracurriculars.
  • Seek Support: Don't hesitate to ask teachers for guidance or join study groups for difficult topics.
  • Self-Care: Ensure you allocate time for rest and relaxation to avoid stress and be more productive.

Number of exams and number of exams with scores of 3, 4 or 5 in Indiana 2015 - 2019

Bar chart showing number of exams and number of exams with scores of 3, 4 or 5 in Indiana 2019

Balancing AP coursework requires strategic planning and time management. By understanding what each course demands and prioritizing tasks accordingly, students can successfully navigate their AP journey without compromising their overall well-being and achieve a fulfilling and well-rounded high school experience.

Preparing for AP Exams

Starting AP exam preparation early is key to success. Ideally, begin at the start of the academic year when you start the AP course. This allows ample time to understand the material, practice, and identify areas needing more focus. However, for a more intensive review, many students start dedicated exam preparation 3-4 months before the exam date. Effective preparation is key to excelling in AP exams. Here are some strategies:

  • Understand the Format: Familiarize yourself with the exam's structure and types of questions.
  • Consistent Study Schedule: Dedicate regular time for studying, covering all topics systematically.
  • Practice Exams: Utilize past AP exams to get accustomed to the question format and timing.
  • AP Tutoring: Consider seeking help from tutors, especially in subjects where you need extra support.
  • Join Study Groups: Collaborating with peers can provide different perspectives and motivation.
  • Review Course Material: Regularly review notes and course materials to reinforce learning. AP study notes can help a lot in that.
  • Manage Stress: Develop stress-management techniques to stay focused and calm.

By combining these strategies, students can approach their AP exams with confidence. Remember, thorough preparation and understanding the exam format are crucial to achieving high scores.

Costs and Financial Aid for AP Courses

Navigating the costs and potential financial aid options for AP exams is crucial for planning. These costs can vary, and it’s essential to explore fee reduction and state funding opportunities to make AP courses more accessible. College Board's AP Central page includes the following details for AP:

  • Exam Fees: For the 2023-24 school year, the cost per AP Exam is $98 in the U.S., U.S. territories, Canada, and DoDEA schools. Internationally, it's $128 per exam. AP Capstone exams cost $146 each.
  • Financial Aid: Students with financial need can apply for a College Board fee reduction of $36 per exam.
  • Additional Costs: Late exam orders incur an extra $40 per exam. There's also a $40 fee for unused or canceled exams.
  • State Funding: Some states provide additional funding to further reduce costs for eligible students.

Cost of an AP test vs. costs of other common tests

Comparison of the approximate costs of an AP test vs. costs of other common tests

Online vs. In-Person AP Courses

In the debate between in-person and online AP tutoring, online options are emerging as a highly effective and convenient choice for many students. Here's why:

  • Accessibility and Convenience: Online courses offer greater flexibility, allowing students to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule.
  • Personalized Attention: Many online courses provide personalized tutoring and support, which can be beneficial for students needing extra help.
  • Resource Availability: Online courses often have a wide range of digital resources, including lectures, interactive tools, and practice exams.
  • Technology Integration: These courses effectively use technology to enhance learning, making complex topics more accessible and engaging.

Making the right choice between online and in-person AP courses is crucial for success. Consider your learning preferences, lifestyle, and the resources available to you when making this decision. Both formats aim to provide a rigorous, college-level academic experience.

What AP classes look best for college?

Colleges typically value AP classes that show a student's ability to handle challenging coursework, especially in core academic areas. AP classes in English, Math, Science, and History are often highly regarded. However, colleges also appreciate students who pursue AP courses in areas of personal interest or those that align with their intended major. The best AP classes for college are those that demonstrate a balance between academic rigor and a student's unique passions and strengths. It's important for students to choose AP courses that challenge them and reflect their academic and career aspirations.

How long is the AP exam?

Most AP exams are typically 2–3 hours long. They generally consist of two parts: a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. The multiple-choice section usually includes questions with 4–5 answer choices each, and your total score for this section is based on the number of questions answered correctly. The free-response section may involve essays, problem solutions, or spoken responses, depending on the exam subject.

Are AP courses considered for scholarship eligibility?

Absolutely, AP courses are often considered in scholarship eligibility. Scholarships that emphasize academic achievement typically look at a student's AP coursework and performance as indicators of their academic rigor and dedication. High scores in AP courses can demonstrate a student's capability and readiness for college-level study, making them attractive candidates for various academic scholarships. Additionally, some scholarships are specifically designed for students who excel in AP courses or exams, further incentivizing students to perform well in these courses.

Conclusion: Choosing the Best AP Courses

Maximizing your AP experience is about strategic choices and effective preparation. Whether it's selecting the right courses, balancing them with extracurriculars, or deciding between online and in-person options, each decision plays a critical role in your success. Remember, AP courses not only prepare you for college academics but also enhance your college applications and offer opportunities for earning college credits. Approach your AP journey with a clear plan, utilize available resources, and don't shy away from seeking help when needed. By doing so, you'll not only gain valuable knowledge and skills but also lay a strong foundation for your future academic and career endeavors.


How many AP classes do most students take?

The number of AP classes taken by students varies widely. On average, students might take 3 to 5 AP classes throughout high school. However, this number can be higher or lower depending on the student's academic goals, college aspirations, and capacity to manage the workload. Some students may take more to strengthen their college applications, especially if aiming for top-tier universities, while others may take fewer to maintain a balance with extracurricular activities and other commitments. The key is to choose a number that aligns with individual academic capabilities and life balance.

Are there any prerequisites for taking AP courses?

Prerequisites for AP courses vary depending on the subject and the school's policy. Some AP courses, especially in math and science, may require completion of foundational courses. For example, AP Calculus typically requires prior study of algebra and pre-calculus, while AP Biology might require a general biology course. However, many schools also offer AP courses in humanities, like AP English or AP World History, without specific prerequisites. It's essential to check with your school's guidance counselor for specific requirements. The key is to ensure that you have the necessary background knowledge and skills to succeed in these more advanced classes.

What is the least popular AP class?

The least popular AP class tends to vary each year and can be influenced by factors such as school offerings and student interests. Typically, less common languages and certain specialized courses have lower enrollment numbers. For example, AP courses like AP Latin or AP Art History might have fewer students compared to more widely taken courses like AP English or AP Calculus. It's important to note that popularity doesn't necessarily reflect the value or quality of the course. Less popular AP classes can offer unique and enriching educational experiences that might align closely with certain students' interests and goals.

How many AP classes should I take for Harvard?

Harvard, like other Ivy League schools, doesn't have a set number of AP classes that applicants must take. However, they do look for students who have challenged themselves with the most rigorous coursework available to them. This often includes multiple AP classes, especially in areas aligned with the student's interests and strengths. The key is to balance taking challenging AP courses with maintaining a high GPA and engaging in meaningful extracurricular activities. It's not just the quantity of AP classes but the overall academic performance and extracurricular involvement that are important for admission to highly competitive universities like Harvard.

What is the most passed AP class?

The most passed AP class tends to vary annually based on factors like the number of students taking the exam and the subject's perceived difficulty. Typically, AP courses with higher enrollment numbers, such as AP English Language and Composition or AP United States History, tend to have a higher number of students passing. However, "passing" is relative to the scoring criteria of each AP exam, where a score of 3 or above is generally considered passing. It's essential to remember that the rate of passing an AP exam can be influenced by various factors, including the exam's difficulty level and the students' preparedness.

Is AP easier than A level?

Comparing AP (Advanced Placement) and A Levels in terms of difficulty isn't straightforward, as they are different systems with unique approaches. AP courses tend to focus on single subjects in depth, similar to college courses in the U.S., while A Levels provide a more specialized and comprehensive study over two years. The perception of difficulty can vary depending on a student's learning style, the specific subjects taken, and their academic strengths. Both are rigorous programs, but their approaches and assessment methods differ significantly.

What is AP equivalent to in the UK?

In the UK, AP (Advanced Placement) courses are most similar to AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A-Level courses. While AP courses are designed to mirror introductory college courses in the US, A-Levels are qualifications that prepare students for university education in the UK. Both provide in-depth study in specific subjects and are recognized for university admission. However, A-Levels are typically studied over two years and are more specialized, whereas AP courses are usually one-year courses with a broader range of subjects.

Is IB harder than APs?

IB vs AP: The difficulty of IB (International Baccalaureate) compared to AP (Advanced Placement) varies based on different academic and personal factors. IB is often considered broader, requiring students to take courses in six subjects, complete extended essays, and participate in creativity, activity, service (CAS) projects. AP allows more flexibility, letting students choose specific subjects they want to study. The perception of difficulty can depend on the students' learning preferences, the subjects chosen, and their academic strengths. Both programs are rigorous and respected, but they have different focuses and structures.

What is the youngest age to take the AP exam?

There's no set age requirement for taking AP exams. They are typically taken by high school students, with most students being in the 10th to 12th grades. However, younger students who are ready to handle college-level coursework can also take AP exams. The decision largely depends on the student's academic readiness and ability to understand the course material. Parents and educators play a crucial role in determining whether a younger student is prepared for the rigors of AP coursework and exams.

Can I take AP without school?

Yes, you can take AP exams without being enrolled in a school that offers AP courses. Independent study, online courses, or tutoring can prepare you for the exams. You'll need to arrange to take the exams at a participating school or authorized test center. The AP Course Ledger is the official, up-to-date, comprehensive list of schools that have passed the AP Course Audit and may allow for you to give your AP exam. It's important to register for the exams well in advance and coordinate with the AP Coordinator of the test center. This option is beneficial for homeschoolers or students whose schools don't offer certain AP courses.

Can you apply for AP in Grade 11?

Yes, you can apply for AP exams in Grade 11. Students typically need to join their class section online to register for the exam. The school's AP coordinator orders the exam materials and collects fees. Deadlines for exam registration are usually in the fall, but they may vary by school. It's important to check with your teacher or AP coordinator for specific deadlines at your school. Remember, timely registration is key to avoiding late fees and ensuring your place in the desired AP exams.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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