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AP vs. Honors Classes: Which is Better on a College Application?

a teacher stands at the front of a high school classroom

As you prepare for your high school and college journey, you'll likely face the decision of whether to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses or honors classes. Both options offer opportunities for academic growth and preparation for the challenges of college-level coursework. However, understanding the differences between AP and honors classes is essential in making an informed decision that aligns with your academic strengths, interests, and goals.

We'll explain how both options work and what the experts say about them. Then we'll share some tips for deciding between them. 

How AP classes work

AP classes, developed by the College Board, allow high school students to engage in college-level coursework. Nearly 23,000 high schools across the US offer AP classes, and about 35% of recent high school graduates have taken at least one AP course.

AP courses cover various subjects, including arts, English, history, social sciences, math, computer science, science, and world languages. Each AP class follows a standardized curriculum, ensuring students across different schools receive the same academic rigor.

One significant advantage of AP classes is the potential to earn college credit. You can take a subject-specific AP exam at the end of the school year.
The College Board does not offer official "pass/fail" designations for AP exams, but they do report the percentage of students scoring a 3, 4, or 5 on each exam. These scores are generally considered passing scores by most colleges and universities.

In addition to granting you college credit, your score might also land you an advanced placement in a particular subject. This can lead to a reduced college course load and a lower overall tuition burden.

AP courses also offer valuable skills development, such as intellectual writing, critical thinking, and time management. By tackling college-level material, students gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter and develop skills that will serve them well in their future academic endeavors.

How AP exams work

In 2024, AP exams will be administered in high schools during a two-week period in May:

  • Week 1: May 6th - 10th
  • Week 2: May 13th - 17th

The specific exam dates within these weeks vary depending on the subject. You can find the exact dates for each exam on the College Board website.

The standard registration fee for each AP exam is $94. However, there are various fees and reductions that might apply to you, depending on your school, financial aid status, and other factors. One of which is the College Board AP Exam Fee Reduction program, which provides a $36 reduction per exam for students who meet the College Board's income eligibility guidelines or qualify as an "identified student" based on participation in certain federal assistance programs.

How honors classes work

Honors classes allow high school students to dive deeper into specific subjects and engage in more advanced coursework. These classes are typically more challenging and cover material faster than regular high school courses. Honors classes help students develop effective study habits, critical thinking skills, and a strong work ethic.

One advantage of honors classes is the potential for a GPA boost. Many high schools weight honors classes, allowing students to earn an additional grade point for their performance. For example, an "A" in an honors class might be worth a 4.5 on a 4.0 scale, providing an advantage when calculating overall GPA.

Additionally, colleges value the rigor demonstrated by students who choose to take honors classes. Admissions officers recognize the effort and commitment required to excel in these courses. By enrolling in honors classes, students show their willingness to challenge themselves academically and take on more demanding coursework.

Comparing AP and honors classes

While both AP and honors classes offer advanced coursework, they have significant differences in curriculum, standardization, and potential benefits.


AP classes follow a standardized curriculum established by the College Board. This means students across different schools cover the same material and are prepared for the same AP exam. In contrast, honors classes vary in content as they are determined by individual school districts, administrators, and teachers. The material covered in honors classes may differ from one school to another, making it more challenging to compare achievements and outcomes.

College Credits

One of the critical advantages of AP classes is the potential to earn college credit. By performing well on the AP exam, students can demonstrate their mastery of college-level material and potentially skip introductory courses in college. This can lead to significant time and cost savings. On the other hand, honors classes do not typically offer the opportunity to earn college credit.

GPA Weighting

Many high schools weight AP classes more heavily than honors classes when calculating GPA. This means that an "A" in an AP class may be worth more than an "A" in a regular or honors class. GPA weighting can give students an advantage when it comes to class rank and college admissions. However, not all high schools follow this practice, so checking your school's policies regarding GPA weighting is important.

Which looks better on a college application?

We talked with an expert to learn which looks better on a college application. High school counselor and Appily contributor Matt Hale told us:

"Good AP scores are always a much better indicator when it comes to how well a student will perform in college than almost anything else. So I’d heavily favor the AP score over an honors class.

The one additional note I’d give a student is that they should not dive straight into four plus AP courses their freshman year of high school (if their high school offers this many APs) unless they know that they can succeed with that workload.

If you take two APs as a freshman and a few honors classes, and you get a five on both AP tests and get As across the board in honors, that will look much better to a college than if you took five AP classes and scored twos and threes on all those tests.

Ultimately, if a student is looking to get into a top or competitive school, the most important thing is to succeed with the workload they take on and to take a wide variety of classes in different disciplines. Colleges will look at which classes were available to students and if they took classes that challenged them in fields that they don't necessarily intend to study in college.

A well-rounded student is almost always more sought after than a student who does very well in one or two subjects but never challenges themselves to explore other subjects."

Choosing the right class option for your goals

When deciding between AP and honors classes, it's essential to consider your academic strengths, goals, and overall workload. Here are some factors to consider:

Academic Strengths

Assess your academic strengths and interests. Taking the corresponding AP course might be the right choice if you excel in a particular subject and have a strong passion for it. AP courses provide an in-depth exploration of the subject and the opportunity to earn college credit. On the other hand, if you prefer a broader range of subjects or want to explore different areas of interest, honors classes may offer more flexibility.

College Goals

Research the colleges and universities you're interested in attending. Some institutions highly value AP courses and may prefer applicants who have challenged themselves with these rigorous classes. If your goal is to attend a college that significantly emphasizes AP coursework, it may be beneficial to prioritize AP classes. However, remember that colleges also value a well-rounded academic profile, so honors classes can still be valuable in demonstrating academic rigor.

Extracurricular Activities

Consider your involvement in extracurricular activities and the time commitment required. While AP classes offer valuable academic benefits, they can also be demanding in workload. If you have significant commitments outside of the classroom, such as sports, clubs, or community service, it's crucial to find a balance that allows you to excel academically while still engaging in your extracurricular pursuits. Honors classes may provide a slightly lighter workload, allowing more time to dedicate to other activities.


Evaluate your overall workload and ability to handle a challenging course load. Taking multiple AP classes simultaneously can be academically demanding and require strong time management skills. Assessing your ability to handle the workload and maintaining a healthy balance between academics, extracurricular activities, and personal well-being is vital. Honors classes may offer a slightly less intense workload while providing academic rigor.

Knowing your chances for college admission

Choosing between AP and honors classes is an important decision that can impact your academic growth and college success. And you also have dual enrollment classes that might be an option to consider.

But above all else, it's crucial to remember that your application is a comprehensive package, not just what an admission committee sees on your high school transcript. 

To prepare for applications and understand where you stack up against your peers, you can use Appily's college admission calculator. You can share a few data points, like any test scores, majors you're interested in, and your GPA, to see your chances for admission into all the colleges on your list. 

Click the button below to get started. It's always free and easy.



Sources quoted in this article:

Rethinking the goals of high school rigor: Three experts weigh in on the AP program and College Board," published in 2022. The article cites data from the College Board itself.

The College Board's AP Program Results for the Class of 2021 report.


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