How many AP classes should you take in high school?
Whether you want to save money, challenge yourself, or beef up your college applications, taking AP classes is a great option for your high school course load. But exactly how many AP classes should you take? Too few and you may be sacrificing a great opportunity. Too many and you may be overwhelmed and unable to focus on the rest of your life. In this article, we’ll explore the Advanced Placement program, and the factors you should consider in determining your sweet spot.
What is the AP program?
AP classes are college-level classes offered at many high schools across the country. There are more than 30 AP classes offered, in a wide range of subjects. Once you complete an AP class, you take the corresponding AP test. How you do on that test determines whether or not you receive college credit in the subject area. More than 2,600 colleges and universities around the world accept AP scores as college credit. AP scores can also allow you to skip prerequisite courses at your college. If you do well on your AP Biology exam for instance, you may be able to bypass intro bio and move on to the harder stuff.
Even if you choose not to take the AP test, an AP class still provides a great opportunity for a more rigorous academic setting. You’ll engage with more difficult concepts, and read and write more. Conversely, you can also take an AP test without having taken the class. If you’ve been studying piano since you were a kid, you might consider taking the AP music theory test even if you have taken the official class. This is an excellent way to receive college credit for knowledge you already possess.
For more information on the AP program, check out its College Board website.
Why should you take AP classes?
There are many reasons why AP classes (and tests) are beneficial. For one, they can save you a great deal of money. If you can earn some of your college credits before even entering college, you may save time and thus money once you get to college. With the help of AP, you may even be able to graduate college early.
AP classes can also help you prepare for college-level academics. Through AP classes, you can explore a college atmosphere at your high school. You’ll read more challenging material and engage in deeper discussions. Not only will this ready you for college rigor, but it may help you stay more engaged and interested in high school.
Lastly, AP classes look great on your college applications. When a college sees you’ve taken AP classes, they’ll know you’re a driven learner. Schools want students who will go above and beyond to challenge themselves, and this is just what you’re doing when you take AP classes. Still, this doesn’t mean you should overload your schedule with AP classes. Colleges don’t automatically accept students who took the most AP classes.
So how many AP classes should you take?
The quick answer is: it depends. The number of AP classes depends largely on what kind of school you want to get into. If you’re aiming for a less selective school, it’s up to you how many AP classes you take. Think practically about which credits you might want to get out of the way during high school. Instead of signing up for more AP classes than you can handle, focus on excelling in a few.
More selective schools, on the other hand, want to see their applicants taking the most challenging courses available to them. While there is still no “magic number” of AP classes to take, you should be prepared to take a lot. See if your dream school has a note on their website about their selection process. Or contact a current student at the school and ask them about their high school course load.
Stanford University writes, “we expect you to challenge yourself throughout high school and to do very well. The most important credential for evaluating your academic record is the high school transcript. Please know that our evaluation of your application goes beyond any numerical formula. There is no minimum GPA or test score; nor is there any specific number of AP or honors courses you must have on your transcript in order to be admitted to Stanford.”
While Stanford, like other selective schools, doesn’t require a certain amount of AP classes, they do pay close attention to transcripts, and the academic choices applicants make. This means, if you are aiming for a highly selective school, you should be taking the hardest classes available at your high school. Take a range of your high school’s AP classes, including math, English, history, and science. And sign up for any non-core AP subjects, like psychology or art history, especially if they are fields you are interested in pursuing.
Because we’ve only given vague answers thus far, so here is a guideline of the number of AP classes you should take based on what kind of school you want to get into.
Most selective schools (Top 20)
Take AP classes in most core areas, including specialized ones related to your academic interests. This should total between 7 and 12 AP classes.
Selective schools (Top 100)
Take APs in most core areas, plus a couple specialized ones. You should end up with 4 to 8 AP classes.
Less selective schools
Take enough APs to challenge you in subjects you enjoy or want to pursue. Don’t take so many that you can’t focus on your other coursework. This should add up to 1 to 5 AP classes.
It can also make sense to plan out your AP classes by year. Each year of high school has its own challenges, and eases, so take these into consideration when choosing your APs.
Some high schools don’t allow 9th graders to take AP classes, and the College Board does fully support doing so. But if you’re able to, and feeling up to it, take one of the easier ones. AP Psychology and AP Environmental Science are usually regarded as having lighter loads. Make sure to take honors-level core classes to bolster your skills and transcript.
Take 1 to 3 AP classes. Try pairing 1 hard AP with 1 to 2 easier ones. Talk to upperclassmen or counselors at your school to gauge the difficulties of the various APs. Continue pursuing honors classes. This could be a good year to push yourself, considering that your next years will only get harder.
This is when you should start taking your AP core classes. Take 3 to 5 if you are aiming for a highly selective school, and 2 to 4 if you are aiming elsewhere. Note that many students describe this year as significantly harder than past ones. And you’ll also likely be taking your standardized tests. So use your time wisely and don’t spread yourself too thin.
Continue to take AP core classes and other AP subjects of interest. Leave space for your college applications, as they can feel like another AP class in themselves. That being said, your college applications will likely be done by the second semester, so you will gain more free time. Students aiming for highly selective schools may take up to 6 AP classes this year. But again, don’t overburden yourself. Based on your AP experience in past years, you know you best at this point.
Final words on AP planning
In the whirlwind of college preparation, many students forget to follow their gut and interests. While it is beneficial to push your comfort zone, try formulating a course load that you are genuinely excited about. If this means taking AP music theory instead of AP chemistry, go for it. You will do better if you are legitimately engaged.
If your grades are slipping, or you’re losing ability to concentrate in sports, you may be in too many APs. Here is a fun article by Bustle detailing other signs you may be in over your head. Taking an extra AP course won’t be the reason you get into your dream school, but dropping out of cross country might be the reason you don’t.
Always consult your counselor, as they’ve done this before. As mentioned earlier, it is also helpful to communicate with upperclassmen at your high school and students at your dream college. Get an idea of how those before you have mapped out their AP life. And trust yourself. Don’t get too caught up in AP frenzy—stick to your strengths as a student. At the same time, take some leaps. Now is the time to prepare for college academics, earn credits, and pick up some new strengths while you’re at it.