A Guide to Choosing Your AP Courses: Factors to Consider
January 26, 2021
A Guide to Choosing Your AP Courses: Factors to Consider
Choosing your high school courses can feel like an overwhelming ordeal. At first glance, all the options, course names, and new lingo can be very confusing. When it comes to advanced course selection for high school, there are a lot of factors to consider. One of the most common and challenging higher level exams that high school students take is the Advanced Placement, or AP exams. With lots of options on the horizon, and perhaps uncertainty about what you wish to study in the future, you may be confused about choosing your AP courses.
Choosing your AP courses and succeeding in them can be an effective way of showcasing your prowess in a certain area. A good place to start is thinking about what a typical course load looks like at your high school. In the college admissions process, you will be compared to other students from your school, so it is important to think about your course selection in that context. Your high school college counselor will detail the rigor of your course load in their letter of recommendation. Before you choose classes, talk to your counselor so that you understand the courses students at your school usually take. Ask which ones are considered the most challenging, and think about how you can select your courses to go above and beyond, separating yourself from the rest of the pack.
To guide you through the selection process, we have outlined basics of the AP exams, the AP subjects that are offered by the College Board, how scoring works, and strategic tips for choosing your AP courses.
Choosing Your AP Courses
AP exams occur every year in May, and usually feature both a multiple-choice and a free-response section. Even though AP classes are most suited to the level of juniors and seniors, you may start earlier depending on your school’s policy. Schools sometimes have restrictions on which year you can take certain APs and they can place caps on how many AP classes each student can take. Look online or talk to your counselor to find out more about your school’s policies to navigate and strategize which courses would be the best for you.
Know Which Courses Your School Offers
The College Board offers 38 AP subjects in total. Your school probably will not offer them all, but most schools cover several disciplines so that you have options. Learn the number of APs that most students at your school take, and then how many you should enroll in to stand out.
Below is a list of every AP subject administered by College Board:
- Art History
- Calculus AB
- Calculus BC
- Chinese Language & Culture
- Comparative Government & Politics
- Computer Science A
- Computer Science Principles
- English Language and Composition
- English Literature and Composition
- Environmental Science
- European History
- French Language & Culture
- German Language & Culture
- Human Geography
- Italian Language & Culture
- Japanese Language and Culture
- Music Theory
- Physics 1: Algebra-Based
- Physics 2: Algebra-Based
- Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism
- Physics C: Mechanics
- Spanish Language & Culture
- Spanish Literature & Culture
- Studio Art: 2-D Design
- Studio Art: 3-D Design
- Studio Art: Drawing
- U.S. Government & Politics
- U.S. History
- World History
How Scoring Works
The multiple-choice sections of AP exams are digitally scored. The free-response sections are scored by experienced AP teachers and college faculty according to their areas of expertise. A Chief Reader for each exam—always a university faculty member—develops scoring rubrics for free-response questions. The cutoff scores for AP grades are based on several factors:
- What percentage of students earned each AP grade over the past three years
- How students did in multiple-choice questions and different parts of the exam
- How examiners viewed the overall quality of answers in the free-response questions
- How university students who took the exam as experimental studies performed
The scores are reported on a 5-point scale at the end of July:
- 5 = Extremely well qualified
- 4 = Well qualified
- 3 = Qualified
- 2 = Possibly qualified
- 1 = No recommendation
Some universities accept a 3 or above to grant college credit, although top schools look for higher scores or do not give credit at all. A 5 may be considered equivalent to an A in college, so you should aim for those 5s! But note that colleges have been increasingly giving fewer and fewer advanced credits for AP classes, as many schools believe that AP courses do not substitute for college level course quality. Students who use APs for college credit are also sometimes required to take fewer classes and graduate early. Colleges view restricting AP credit as a method of continuing to maintain a certain amount of tuition and revenue.
Colleges that do not give any credit at all may still use AP scores for placement purposes in the different courses. If you are a top student and want to skip low level prerequisites, this may be your best option.
Strategic Tips for Choosing AP Classes
So, how do you go about choosing your AP courses from the wide selection to ensure that you can study to the best of your abilities and score those 5s? We’ve outlined some tips below to help you narrow down your choices:
- Reflect on Past Courses - Often, in order to qualify for AP classes you’ll have to take honors-level courses in the same areas, or meet a required GPA or grade. So make sure you’re choosing your AP courses based on the courses you’ve excelled at during freshman or sophomore year. If you’ve discovered that you’re surprisingly good at English, take AP Lit. If physics was your best class, take that as a sign that you would perform well in AP Physics!
- Think About Your Future Plans - This is key in your advanced high school course selection process. What do you want to major in once you’re in college? Do you have a dream career? What academic areas are you passionate about? Asking yourself these questions can help you decide which direction you want to head. If you plan to study STEM fields in college, you’re definitely going to need AP Calculus to show admissions officers your prowess. If you want to eventually go to medical school, taking AP Biology and Chemistry is a great place to start.
- Don’t Try to Self-Study for AP exams - It’s important that you only sit for the AP exams in which you are enrolled at your school. Don’t try to self-study, as extra scores are not seen as a good use of your time in most cases. Even a couple of extra 5s won’t help you stand out. It would be far better to use that time having an impact in your community. In addition, studying under an instructor will prepare you far better for your exams and be more efficient; your teachers have lots of experience! Plus, remember those letters of recommendation? Your teachers can’t write them if they haven’t taught you directly. It’s important that you select the courses from your school that interest you the most so that you can perform better on the exams.
- Take Advantage of Tenth Grade - At some high schools, you can start choosing your AP courses in tenth grade, or even ninth grade. While you definitely don’t want to overburden yourself this early, it may be worthwhile to take an early AP or two to get a feel of what’s to come, without the pressure of impending college applications. If you’re hoping to take all three of the popular AP science classes—Physics, Chemistry and Biology—your sophomore year is a great place to get one out of the way. Or if you want to take AP World History or European History, you could try to enroll in the tenth grade. Talk to your counselor to figure out which are best for you early on, in order to strategically plan your course load.
- Don’t Put Everything Off - Since you can take APs multiple years throughout high school, there’s no need to stuff all of your AP classes into senior year. You’ll be busy trying to write your personal statement and working hard on extracurriculars. So, make the most out of your options and spread out those APs. Take a couple in the tenth grade if you can, a few in the eleventh grade, and the rest in the twelfth grade. Colleges know you’re human and definitely don’t expect you to have taken ten AP classes in your senior year alone. Moreover, you’ll perform better if you have fewer exams to study for each year.
- Maintain a Balance - Balance is important—not only in the way you spread your AP classes throughout the years, but in the courses you decide to take. While colleges want to know if you excel in the field of your interest, they also like to know you’ve got skills in other areas. What better way to demonstrate that than through excellence in your AP exams? For example if you want to major in History, you should definitely score well in AP US History and AP World History. But you can also take AP Physics or AP Calculus to show colleges that you’re skilled in other fields too and can keep up with the distribution requirements of the school.
No matter which AP classes you take, what’s important is that you take courses which challenge you and you can strive for excellence in. When choosing your AP courses, think about your career prospects, areas where you shine, and how to maintain a balance by showing depth of knowledge in a multitude of areas. Don’t make the decisions on a whim. Try and foresee which subjects will help you in a couple of years when you’re working through the Common App, and choose the classes which will benefit you the most to help put you at the top of the application pool.