For students who want to attend university, one of their top concerns is AP classes. There is a general knowledge that AP classes are good for a student’s GPA and that they can help improve college prospects. But for students and parents with no prior knowledge or experience with the AP program, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. What are the risks of the AP program? Are there any alternatives to taking the AP test? What is the right amount of APs to take?
Although there is no single answer that fits every student, this article will try to provide enough information that people can make well-informed decisions when the time comes.
What is an “AP”?
“AP” – short for “Advanced Placement” – refers to a program offered by the College Board which offers high school students a chance to take “college level” classes. The AP program provides students with these more difficult classes in exchange for a boost to their GPA (grade point average). This is because AP classes are worth an extra “point” per grade so if a student does well in their AP classes, they have a chance to raise their GPA above the 4.0 level.
Each AP class has a corresponding exam that is taken at the end of the school year. AP exams are scored on a scale of one to five, with one being the lowest and five being the highest score. Parents and students are often told that AP classes earn college credit that can be transferred to a college or university but that is only partially true. Students must pass the AP exam for that class by earning a score of three or higher in order to gain these credits. Even if they pass the class with an A, a failed AP exam means that student will not be able to earn any college credit .
Different schools can offer different AP classes. While many schools offer AP classes in the core subjects, there are many AP classes that are often overlooked and not widely available like AP Drawing & Painting or AP Music Theory . It is important to note that a student can take an AP exam without being enrolled in an AP class. So, if a student wants to take the AP Psychology exam they can do that, even if their high school does not offer an AP Psychology class. 
Students and parents should also know that not all the credits earned from AP exams can be transferred to every college or university . Some schools will accept one AP exam in a subject but not another – for example, a college might accept AP English Literature to fulfill a student’s English GE but not AP English Language. Always check the schools that you are applying to and see which credits are transferable, which can be checked on the College Board website. 
Are AP Classes Useful for College?
The College Board explains on their website that:
“Regardless of your AP Exam score, completing an AP course and exam advances you academically. You’ll develop skills that help you succeed in your current classes and in college, such as time management, critical thinking, scholarly writing, and independent study. Sharpening these skills as you prepare for your AP Exam makes your transition from high school to college easier.” 
Because the curriculum of an AP class is meant to be at a “college level,” students are able to experience the kind of rigor that will be expected during their first-year of university. The transition between high school and university is difficult for many students, so being familiar with the required work-load can be a definite advantage. While the difficulty curve of an AP class can be a struggle for some high school students, that is not necessarily a negative thing. It can be argued that this is the express purpose of the AP program: to introduce students to the rigor expected of them before they commit to a major or program. For example, a student who planned to major in pre-med might reconsider their choice if they struggled with AP Biology in high school. Although it is important for students to pursue their passions, it is also important to weigh the risks and consider the potential of failure.
In addition, it is possible that students that do well in their AP classes stand out compared to their peers during the college application process. This is because students who have proven they can withstand the rigor of AP classes are seen as a better “investment” for the university because they may be more likely to get better grades. The more students that graduate with better grades, the more acclaim the university earns. So, it is in the school’s best interest to enroll students who will fulfill that expectation. This is also why universities emphasize the importance of extracurricular activities – the admissions office wants to see that a student can handle a busy, demanding schedule while maintaining a good standing in all of them.
Students and parents are also drawn to AP classes because of the GPA boost built into the AP program. After all, even if you don’t pass your AP exam, a higher GPA is better, right?
Well, that isn’t the whole story. When you submit your application to a college or university, these schools will often look at both your weighted and unweighted GPA. The difference between these is that a weighted GPA takes into account the extra “point” added to your grades when you take an AP class while an unweighted GPA does not. For example, if we imagine a student who got all As except in one of her AP classes where she got a B, her weight and unweighted GPAs would look like this:
|Weighted Score||Unweighted Score|
GPAs are one tool used to measure a student’s performance, so many admissions offices will compare a student’s weighted and unweighted GPA during their evaluations. They do this while keeping in mind the difficulty of the classes and any extraneous activities that might have made it harder for a student to obtain/maintain good grades . So, when comparing the GPAs and extracurriculars of two students, it is always difficult to say which is the “better” student based on numbers alone.
And while it is important for students to challenge themselves and strive for the best chance to get into their dream school, students and parents should keep in mind the thin line that often exists between excellence and overwork. The College Post explains:
“Some think that piling up AP classes is a good choice but don’t fall into the trap if you can’t handle the load. Flying by with a “B” or a “C” in a high-level class rather than an “A” in a normal one could be your undoing, as colleges also pay close attention to your unweighted GPA.” 
Let’s look towards a real-world example using two students: A and B. Student A and Student B both do well in school and achieve high grades. Student A decided to take 5 AP classes and one “regular” class while Student B only took two AP classes. At the end of their first semester, these are the two students’ grades:
|Student A||Student B|
|AP Math||B (4.0)||Math||B (3.0)|
|AP English||B (4.0)||AP English||A (5.0)|
|AP History||B (4.0)||AP History||A (5.0)|
|AP Science||B (4.0)||Science||A (4.0)|
|Elective 1||A (4.0)||Elective 1||A (4.0)|
|Elective 2 (AP)||B (4.0)||Elective 2||A (4.0)|
|Weighted GPA||4.0||Weighted GPA||4.167|
|Unweighted GPA||3.167||Unweighted GPA||3.83|
Here we can see that although neither student earned a grade less than a B, Student A has both a lower weighted and unweighted GPA than Student B despite taking more AP classes.
In the above example, Student B received a B in their “standard” math class. If Student B had chosen to take an AP math class, we can reasonably predict that they might have performed worse and received a C which would bring down their unweighted GPA. This shows admissions officials that Student B knows their own limits and is able to balance difficult classes without being too overwhelmed. From GPAs and grades, colleges and universities can also determine whether a student knows their own limits – a valuable trait when you want the lowest possible chance of losing students.
But it is important to emphasize that we have no way to peer behind the doors of an admissions office to see their selection process. The example outlined above – or any example of a student’s AP classes we could give – are always a single sample in an enormous pool that is often full of contradictions. Admission into universities is not as clean-cut as students and parents might want them to be. Individual students will always have individual experiences and that is one of the most crucial things to keep in mind throughout this process.
Criticisms of the AP Program
For how common the AP program is throughout the United States, it is easy to assume that it is the best available path for students who want to challenge themselves and prove that they are worthwhile to more competitive universities. However, like anything else, the AP program is not without its faults nor its critics.
One of the most common criticisms of the AP program is the cost. While students who have “significant financial need” qualify for a fee reduction, the AP exam can be a financial burden for families of all economic backgrounds. One standard AP exam costs $97 and goes down to $35 if a family qualifies for a fee reduction . It is important to reemphasize here that without a passing AP exam score, a student cannot earn transferable credits. This creates a clear financial barrier for students to access equal education. In addition to being able to afford the tests, students from higher income families will be able to afford tutoring, workbooks, and other programs. Some schools also do not offer enough AP classes to give their students a competitive advantage, which pushes students and families to spend even more money on private classes or programs. For example, a well-known U.S. education company that publishes test prep materials offers AP exam tutoring for ~$221 per hour. Although the company claims that they will refund part of or all of the cost if the student does not earn the score promised in their tutoring package, the initial financial investment is extremely high and not affordable for many students and their families. After all, the full price needs to be paid before any refunds can be made, which makes this service available to only the people who can afford the full price in the first place. This isn’t even considering the price of competing programs or how much it would cost to get this kind of tutoring for more than one subject. Thus, a financial advantage becomes an academic advantage. And while there are always going to be students who succeed no matter the odds, this financial inequality is a fundamental flaw built into the AP program that has been the subject of repeated criticism from students, parents, and educators.=
This is one example of how the “benefits” of the AP program are not as simple as it seems. As Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, writes:
“To the claims that [AP courses] help students in college, it is true that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. But when you look deeper into the research, it’s really hard to establish causation. It could just be that kids who take APs are kids who come from better high schools or high schools that better prepare them for college work, or they have better teachers or they’re naturally more motivated.” 
It is naive to assume that AP programs are the only possible factor in a student’s academic success. Financial and familial stability, functional support networks, mental health, and more are all things that can affect a student’s ability to learn, study, and perform. And admissions offices do take this disparity into account while selecting students for their schools which is why schools still try to enroll students from a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities instead of just choosing students based solely on academics.
Another critique of the AP program is that these classes become a huge source of stress for students. While stress from school is unavoidable, students who overburden themselves are at a risk for burning themselves out. This leaves them exhausted before they even begin the already stressful transition from high school to university. Although the AP program is meant to be challenging, it is important to carefully weigh the balance between challenging a student and putting their mental health at risk. This is especially true with students who choose to take on a lot of AP classes. Not only can stress affect a student’s academic performance, it can cause or exacerbate mental health issues.
None of this is to say that the AP program should be ignored completely, but it is an invitation to think more critically about the program’s place in our academics and open a conversation about whether it is the best choice for your student.
Alternatives to the AP Program
One of the alternatives to the AP program is the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The IB program “gives students around the world a chance to earn a rigorous, internationally recognized diploma, which [can] then be use[d] for entry into universities… in a way similar to how AP exams are used” . With an IB diploma, students bypass certain GE classes or even waive them all together. Students do not need to earn a diploma, however, to transfer credits – they can also earn transferable college credits by scoring a five or higher on the IB exam for their class at the end of the school year.
Unlike the AP program, however, IB classes are not as common and are only offered by an “IB World School” which must be approved by the IB program . The IB program is also more rigorous than the AP program – there is more to earning an IB diploma than simply passing a test including but not limited to an essay and in-class presentation. Because of this, one of the key differences between the AP and IB programs seems to be the variety and focus of their curriculums. On their website, the IB program writes that students will:
“explore the connections between the six major subject areas, study each subject… reflect critically on aspects of knowledge, pursue on subject in great detail through independent research, and have the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills through local and community service.” 
This is different from the AP program where most of the classes are focused on ensuring that students pass a single exam, so it is inevitable that students will learn different skills. Whether the IB program is “better” for students is arguable, however, and will necessitate further research.
It is important to note that the IB program has similar points of critique as the AP exam: the price and the stress experienced by the student. Not only does an IB exam cost more than an AP exam – $119 per test (IB) compared to $97 per test (AP)  – students who want to earn an IB diploma are required to take an exam for each of their six IB classes. Like the AP exams, this creates a financial barrier for students and, whether intentional or not, the program becomes inaccessible for students from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds. And, as mentioned before, the IB program emphasizes a wide variety of skills and a more interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum. But this also means that students are required to do more work and the pressure to do well in these advanced classes can cause more stress. This is not even considering how students might feel during their IB exams. As parents and educators, we must think about the risk and reward of pushing our students through these high-performance programs. Like an athlete, students must be given adequate time to rest their minds or there is a real risk of causing burn-out.
Another alternative to the AP program is directly enrolling a student in supplementary community college classes while they are still attending high school. This is known as dual enrollment. One of the benefits of dual enrollment is that the student is directly receiving credits from the school of their choice and gaining first-hand experience in the college environment. These classes offer a more “realistic” look at what to expect from the college or university experience compared to either an AP or IB class. Dual enrollment allows students to get a head start on their GE classes, explore more niche areas of interest (for example, Cerritos College offers dual enrollment classes in fields like architecture, film, and design ), or learn vocational skills such as welding.
However, dual enrollment courses are a larger investment in both money and time. At Cerritos College, students in dual enrollment are charged every semester with a health fee and student representation fees though the latter can be waived . They will also need to purchase textbooks and other materials for their college classes. And while AP and IB classes are built into a student’s regular curriculum, it is more complicated for dual enrollment classes to be used for high school credits. Every school will have their own guidelines regarding credits, therefore, it requires a lot of attention and planning from students, parents, and their counselors. Dual enrollment also asks for the student to take on more personal responsibility – from talking with their counselor, attending lectures, doing homework for both their high school and college classes, and more. This is not necessarily a positive or a negative, but something that must be considered by students and parents before investing the time and money for dual enrollment.
What is the “Right” Number of AP Classes?
Overall, the take-away from this article should not be that there is ever a “right” number of AP classes to take. In fact, hopefully this article has shown how simply taking a large number of AP classes does not guarantee any kind of substantial advantage. While there are certainly reasons to take AP classes, there are other options out there for students who want to get ahead and focusing too much on one thing can actually become a disadvantage. For students who want to challenge themselves and get into a high ranking university, we can only advise that they think carefully about their own limits and err on the side of caution rather than be over-ambitious.
It is understandable why choosing AP classes is a daunting task for many students and parents who want to reap the benefits while minimizing the potential for failure. The most important advice for parents is to talk to your student and include them in the decision. It is one thing to tell your student that they have a choice, it is something else entirely to actually give them that choice. You don’t want them to fail. That is understandable. But it is crucial for parents to teach their students that you can learn from failure and that you will support the student throughout that process.
The AP program is flawed. And in this imperfect and uncertain education system, how can we make the best choice for our children? It can be argued that the “best” choice is impossible, but parents should find solace in the fact that the choice they made was at least an informed one.