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    Honors vs. AP Courses: What Are the Differences?

    By Lisa Freedland

    Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: February 6th, 2024
    Honors vs. AP Courses: What Are the Differences?

    If you don’t quite understand the differences between honors vs. AP courses, you’ve come to the right place. While they’re both impressive to college admissions committees, there’s quite a few differences between the two, from their availability to their curriculum, and more.

    So, keep on reading to find out what honors and AP classes are, the differences between them, and which would be best for you!

    Related: Top merit-based scholarships for high school students

    What are honors classes?

    Let’s start off with the basics! 

    • Honors classes are more exhaustive versions of regular courses 
    • They typically go through content at a quicker pace
    • May or may not be offered by each individual school

    Schools are not required to offer honors courses. Therefore, some may have none while others may have many. The curriculum is chosen by the teacher, school, and district themselves (there is no standardized, state- or national curriculum).

    What are AP classes?

    Unlike honors courses, 

    • AP courses are considered college-level
    • The curriculum is consistent across all schools rather than being decided by local school or district faculty 
    • AP courses cover a variety of subjects, including English, history, social sciences, mathematics, foreign languages, and more

    In addition, the College Board’s Capstone and Diploma Program also offers Seminar and Research courses. A year-long AP course is supposed to be the equivalent of a semester-long college course. The AP class will roughly cover the same content. At the end of the course, AP students are expected (but not required) to take a standardized “AP Exam.”  If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, students are allowed to self-study and enroll and sign up for AP exams.

    Key differences: Honors vs. AP courses

    AP and honors courses differ from start to finish, having different eligibility requirements and different “final exam” processes. Category by category, here are the differences between AP and honors classes:

    1. Availability 

    Generally, honors courses are more readily available than AP courses. Also, honors classes are available at more levels than AP courses within the same subject. For example, there may be a Chinese Language Honors II, III, and IV, but there is only one AP Chinese Language and Culture class.

    2. Eligibility

    Although this may be surprising, while there are typically certain requirements for getting into honors courses, less barriers normally exist to enroll in AP courses.

    Honors eligibility 

    To enroll in an honors class, in addition to finishing prerequisite courses, students typically have to be recommended for that class by their previous year’s teacher who taught the same subject. Alternatively, students may need to meet a certain grade threshold in their previous year’s class.

    AP eligibility

    On the other hand, while students can be recommended for AP courses by their teachers, these are generally not required for students to enroll in AP courses. Often, schools will allow students to sign up for AP courses so long as they’ve completed specific prerequisite courses. However, some schools have additional requirements, such as making students take placement exams to enroll in an AP course.

    3. Difficulty 

    There’s no straightforward answer for this question. Your school, your teachers, and the subject itself will determine whether a specific course is harder than another, whether it is AP, honors, or even just a regular class. As a general rule, AP courses do tend to be more rigorous than their honors counterparts. 

    To determine whether a specific class (honors or AP) will be difficult, we recommend asking students who have already taken the course (at your school) what they thought of it. As you know, some teachers may assign loads of work, while others assign very little at all. 

    Each school and teacher will be unique. Therefore, be sure to ask questions!

    4. Curriculum

    The curriculum taught in honors courses is determined by school and district staff. AP courses, on the other hand, are considered “college-level” and their curriculum is determined by designated AP “development committees.” These committees are made up of college faculty and experienced AP teachers from across the country, and are also responsible for writing and reviewing the AP exam questions themselves.

    While the curriculum of AP courses is standardized and the same across schools, what’s taught in honors courses can vary greatly by school.

    5. GPA

    Whether honors and AP courses are weighted the same varies by school. AP courses generally will give students an extra grade point (meaning an “A” in an AP course would be a 5.0 rather than a 4.0). Honors courses similarly tend to give students extra grade points, with some schools giving an extra grade point for honors courses while others only give an extra half-point for such courses (e.g. an “A” would be a 4.5 rather than a 4.0). Some schools do not give any extra weight to honors courses at all, weighing them the same as regular classes.

    Also read: What is a good class rank?

    6. Exams

    While honors classes generally have finals exams or projects completed within the classroom, AP classes have an additional AP exam that students are encouraged to take. These exams take place on specific dates in May and June, (these are the exam dates for 2024). All AP students across the country are expected to take their exams at the official test date and time. Makeup AP exams are available for students who cannot make the official test date and time.

    You should be able to take your exams at your high school. If not, you can sign up to take it at another school or testing site. If you’re lucky, your teacher may allow you to skip your classroom exam if you take the AP exam (some of my teachers did this)!

    7. College credit

    We made it to the last key difference! Honors courses do not provide any college credit. However, if you pass an AP exam with a score of 3, 4, or 5, you may receive college credit for these courses. Also, you might even be able to test out of some classes you might have otherwise had to take!

    It is important to note that while some schools will give students credit for AP scores of 3, other schools may require scores of 4, or even 5 to receive credit.

    Which should you choose?

    It depends. If you are aiming for top colleges, we would recommend choosing AP courses over their honors equivalents. These generally look more impressive to colleges, and have a chance of giving you college credit as well. Just make sure to not overload yourself with AP classes – give yourself some time to rest as well.

    If you have an idea of what you want to study in college, it may be helpful to take courses related to that (whether AP, honors, or regular). We wouldn’t recommend taking AP’s just for the sake of taking them – try to take classes you’re interested in too (and that are related to your intended major).

    Does taking advanced classes impact your college admissions?

    Generally, taking advanced courses in high school looks good on one’s transcript. It will be impressive to colleges, as long as you perform well in these courses. This is necessary to get into elite or “higher-tier” schools. However, it may not be required or expected for admission into other schools.

    So, if you feel that you will be unable to succeed in advanced classes and receive low grades in them, you may be better off taking regular courses and keeping your GPA up.  Remember, if advanced classes are not available at your school, colleges will not penalize you for this. Students are judged based on the classes and curriculum available at their schools. 

    With that in mind, we hope that all this information has helped you decide between honors vs. AP classes. Good luck! 

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • AP Courses are all taught to a standardized AP curriculum, honors curriculums are set by the teacher and school
    • AP Classes are generally considered more challenging than honors classes
    • When calculating weighted GPA, AP courses generally receive a 1-point boost, while honors classes receive a 0.5-point boost
    • AP Classes have the potential to earn students college credit, whereas honors courses do not
    Key Takeaways

    Frequently asked questions about honors vs. AP classes

    Is 3 honors classes too much?

    Every student will be able to handle a different course load. For some students, one honors class is enough, while other students may feel that they can handle a full load of honors courses. Assess how much time you have in your schedule. If sports or other extracurriculars are a big part of your school life, then loading up on honors courses may not be a good idea. Reassess each semester, and ask parents and guidance counselors for their advice as well!

    Is honors harder than AP?

    The answer is really dependent on the student, the course, and the teacher instructing the course. Some honors teachers require a lot from students and are quite stringent with grades. AP courses are also dependent on who is teaching the class, but the course work itself should be standard across all schools. Do your best to ask teachers and fellow students about their experiences with these classes.

    How do you get a 5.0 GPA?

    In order to get a 5.0 GPA, you need to be enrolled in classes that are weighted on a 5.0 scale. Additionally, you need to then receive top grades in all of those courses, which means receiving straight A’s. Achieving a 5.0 GPA is no easy feat, yet it is possible!

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