How to Choose Your AP Classes
As they approach high school, students need to start focusing not just on raising their grades for their college applications, but also considering the types of classes that they take in their final two or three years of secondary school. For some international schools throughout the world and for a lot of students in the US, this means looking at the variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses available at their schools, thinking about what interests them the most, and then strategically choosing the best plan to both be engaged in these classes and excel in them.
What are AP classes?
AP is short for Advanced Placement, a set of courses offered by the CollegeBoard as college-level courses. AP classes are usually offered at American curriculum schools, and can even count towards college credit depending on the college. These AP courses range from traditional STEM subjects like physics (at three different levels) and calculus (offered at two different levels) to other disciplines like art history, English literature, Latin, and even music theory. Additionally, unlike the IB, APs have no set curriculum, meaning that students can choose any number and any mixture of courses that they want to take. For example, one student may choose to take four STEM APs and three other AP subjects throughout their time in high school while another student may choose to take two STEM APs and two history APs. Furthermore, the AP also has independent research projects that students can do called AP seminar and AP capstone where students pursue their own topic of interest. Thus, AP course selections can be highly customizable and specific to each student. In addition, each AP test is graded on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the lowest. A score of 3 is often regarded as an acceptable score, as it is similar to receiving a B in a college course.
Furthermore, if a student excels in their AP tests, they may be eligible for varying levels of AP awards. These awards are internationally recognized academic distinctions for students to list in applications and resumes, and are automatically granted the same year a student meets these requirements. However, these are not meant to be on the same level as high school certificates; rather, these awards should be seen simply as markers of test-taking achievement. See below for a summary of the different AP awards.
Granted to students who receive scores of 3 or higher on three or more AP Exams.
AP Scholar with Honor
Granted to students who receive an average score of at least 3.25 on all AP exams, and scores of 3 or higher on four or more of these exams.
AP Scholar with Distinction
Granted to students who receive an average score of at least 3.5 on all AP Exams taken, and scores of 3 or higher on five or more of these exams.
AP International Diploma (for international students only)
How do I choose which subjects to take?
As students’ first years pass, they can get a sense of what subjects they enjoy, not mind, or dislike. This will help them choose advanced classes; often, students will be much more engaged and therefore are likely to do better if they do not dislike the subject. As colleges and universities place increasing emphasis on rigorous coursework and academic excellence in their applicants, students have to try their best to match these growing demands by not only taking challenging classes, but excelling in them too.
When choosing advanced subjects, students have to take into consideration not only their current grades, but also realistically how much work they’re able to do as well. That being said, colleges and universities want students to demonstrate rigor (which means taking challenging classes across a range of subject areas) and achievement (earn good grades), meaning that they would prefer to see students take more difficult questions and get at least a B or above in them rather than take easier or standard level classes and get all As in them. As a result, every student should aim to take on a suitably challenging courseload. For some high flying students, this will mean planning to make sure AP BC Calculus, an AP science (Biology, Chemistry, or Physics A/B/C), APUSH, and AP English Literature are all completed by graduation. Students who don’t already have a history of academic excellence can instead choose APs with a reputation of being “easier” (you can check our list of hardest and easiest APs here), and if they have the resources for tutoring or self-studying, they can also consider adding a few challenging courses (e.g., AP English Language combined with AP Human Geography or AP Psychology). For students unused to academic rigor, it is very important to make sure they are not overloaded in junior year– you need to balance ambition with realism and make sure you have plenty of support in your most challenging subject areas.
Furthermore, if you already have a general idea of what you want to study in university or at least know that you’re a bit weaker in one subject than another, you can opt to take more advanced classes in the subject you want to specialize in and take standard level courses for the subjects you don’t do as well in. In AP terminology, a humanities-oriented student, for example, may opt to take AP Calculus AB instead of AP Calculus BC, and take an honors level science class while taking AP English Language, and AP US History (one of the hardest APs) in their junior year. Then, in their senior year, they can take AP Psychology, AP English Literature, and AP French while taking another honors level science class and other classes in their senior year. On the other hand, a STEM-oriented student may take AP Statistics, AP Biology, and AP Chemistry in their junior year, and then take AP Calculus BC, AP Physics C, AP Spanish, and AP English Literature in their senior year.
However, if a student is undecided in what they want to study, a good rule of thumb is to have at least one AP language (like Chinese, French, or Latin, for example), one AP english course (English literature or language), one AP math course (Calculus AB or BC), one AP history course (like World History or European History, for example), one AP social science (like Economics or Human Geography, for example), and one AP science course (like Computer Science or Biology, for example). Ideally, a student would choose two AP courses in one of the areas mentioned in the previous sentence to indicate at least some interest in a particular field. For certain subject areas where you feel that you don’t want to take an AP because it may be too demanding, taking an honors course is encouraged.
Curious about which APs are the most difficult and which are the easiest? Check out our article here to find such information, as well as what it means to take an "easy" or a "hard" AP.
Not sure how to strategize your course selections for college? Call or WhatsApp 9835 8011 or visit www.thedragonprep.com to learn more about how early applications can fit into your university admissions strategy!