Advertiser disclosure

Honors vs. AP Courses: What Are the Differences?

If you’re new to high school and 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 that typically go through content at a quicker pace. Schools are not required to offer honors courses. Therefore, some may have none while others may have many.

The content of honors courses typically overlaps heavily with regular courses. The curriculum chosen by the teacher, school, and district themselves (there is no standardized, state- or national curriculum).

Now, on to the next one (AP courses)!

What are AP classes?

Similar to honors courses, students taking AP classes are surrounded by other high-achieving students. However, many differences still exist between AP and honors courses. For example, 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 also cover a variety of subjects, including English, history, social sciences, mathematics, foreign languages, and more (for a full list of AP courses, access this page on the College Board website). In addition, the College Board’s Capstone and Diploma Program also offers Seminar and Research courses. 

Being college-level, 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 does not offer AP courses, students are allowed to self-study and enroll and sign up for AP exams.

We’ll go more into detail for that later, but for now, let’s get into the key differences! What really makes AP courses differ from honors courses?

Learn more: Do colleges use weighted or unweighted GPA?

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.

Now, how do you know if you’re eligible for honors of AP courses? Let’s see.

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.

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.

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 

As a general rule, AP courses do tend to be more rigorous than their honors counterparts. However, that doesn’t quite cover it. So, are honors or AP courses more difficult?

Well, 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.

This may not seem like a helpful answer, we know. 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. So, ask away! 

With that said, it may not be very much help to ask a student from another school what they thought of the course. After all, each school and teacher is unique. Feel free to ask them about the course content though – that should be the same!

4. Curriculum

On that note, we’ve already gone over differences in curriculum briefly, but what really makes the curricula of honors and AP courses differ?

Well, as we mentioned before, 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

It’s time to talk about grades! Are honors and AP courses weighted differently? Well, they’re both usually weighted more than regular classes (in that they give you more grade points), but 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, as regular courses would, AP classes have an additional AP exam that students are encouraged to take. These exams take place on specific dates in May and June, with a new schedule being released each year (these are the exam dates for 2022). All AP students across the country are expected to take their exams on the official test date and time. Then, these students will be expected to sign up for a makeup AP exam.

Exams are taken with paper and pencil, except for the AP Chinese Language and Culture or AP Japanese Language and Culture exams. Those tests are taken on computers (at your test site). 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)!

When AP Exams aren’t offered at your school 

For those of you who don’t have AP courses available at your school, or are homeschooled, you can still take AP exams! While you did not have to take an AP course itself to take its  exam, it is highly recommended that you take an equivalent or self-study for the exam before taking it. 

To sign up for an exam, you should then check the AP Course Ledger. Here, you will be able to enter your location, desired exam, and test year in order to find local schools. Once you find a school, we recommend contacting them to confirm that they will allow you to test there that year.

For more detailed information on taking AP exams if they’re not offered at your school, or you’re homeschooled, see:

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!

However, it is important to note that each school (and subject) is different. 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.

And that’s all the differences! So, should you choose honors courses, AP courses, or a mix of both?

Which should you choose?

It depends. If you are aiming for top colleges, however, 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.

Also, 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). For example, say you want to major in forensics. If there’s an Honors Forensics at your school but no AP equivalent, it would make more sense to take the forensics course rather than a random AP. Basically, 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).

See also: How many AP classes should you take in high school?

Does taking advanced classes impact your college admissions?

Generally, taking advanced courses in high school (whether honors or AP) 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! 

Read more: Why should I earn college credit in high school?

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 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