Choose AP Classes Wisely: They May-Or May Not-Help in College Admissions

by Stuart Nachbar, Daytripper University Contributor *

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Motivated high school students have difficult choices when planning their class schedules for the next academic year: take honors or advanced placement (AP) courses taught by high school teachers, or take community college courses taught by college teachers. Admissions to the more selective colleges, even flagship state schools, have become more competitive, forcing more and more students into these choices each year.


It is more convenient and less costly to take an honors or AP class on the high school campus and learn from a teacher that you may already know from previous classes. Grades in the courses are often “weighted.” An ‘A’ in an AP course is worth more points on a high school GPA than an ‘A’ in a less difficult one. 

However, an AP class that has been approved by the College Board, the people who make the AP exam, has two grades: the one that you earn in the class from the teacher, and the score that you achieve on the AP exam as the class winds down to its end. Students who are serious about taking an AP class in high school need to be sure that they can do well at both. 

The College Board provides high schools with the data on students who take the AP exams offered during the previous school year. Ask your school counselor to make the score information for the prior class available. You want to know if the students who took the class scored a “passing grade,” a 3, 4 or 5 on the exam, to earn college credit.

While course grades are the decision of the teacher, AP exam grades are the decision of readers who are paid by the College Board. The teacher might be a fair, even generous, grader. She will not want to jeopardize a student’s chances at college admissions and scholarships, but the reader is an unknown.  When I was in high school, the Calculus teacher took the square root of each student’s average test grades and multiplied it by 10. An average of 81 became a 90 on the report card and kept most of the students in Calculus. But while a teacher may want to help their students, she should also be guiding their students to do well on the exam. This becomes more important next year, because the College Board will ask students to sign up for AP exams in November, well in advance of the test date, and before their teacher has issued first quarter grades. 

I understand why the College Board made this decision: more early commitments put more money in their coffers, and those who commit are more likely to pass. Depending on past success, teachers might need to teach more to the test. Next year, the College Board will make over 30,000 questions used on previous exams available to help teachers design their own tests throughout the school year. Hopefully, there will be questions tied to each unit that she will teach, or that there will be additional advice from the College Board and other experienced teachers to help her design her questions. 

If a course is going to be essential towards an intended major, motivation alone may be enough of a driving force to score well on the AP exam, and earn a high grade in the class. But if the course is not going to be essential towards a student’s intended major, and past classes have not passed the AP test, it might be wise to pass on the class, or not bother with the exam if she still enjoys the subject and the teacher still teaches fairly. 


An independent college and graduate school admissions advisor based in Central New Jersey, Stuart Nachbar blogs on higher education at EducatedQuest.com. For more about his writing and services, contact him at stuart@educatedquest.com