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What Are AP Classes in High School?

a boy student sits on his bed and studies for the AP exam

With the cost of college tuition a concern for families, it's essential to know about AP classes and how they work to give students college credits while still in high school.

AP classes, coupled with a passing score on an AP exam, offer students the opportunity to earn college credit. My daughter took several AP classes in high school but neglected to take the AP test for college credit. While the classes certainly helped her overall academic achievement and looked good to colleges, she missed an opportunity to save us some money on college costs.

Today we'll cover the topic of AP classes and why they're beneficial for some students. 

What are AP classes in high school?

AP classes, or Advanced Placement classes began in the 1950’s to give students an opportunity to stand out on their college applications. Colleges still consider AP classes when evaluating academic performance on college applications, which is good news for students preparing to be competitive applicants.

AP classes are academically challenging and more advanced than typical high school courses. The coursework mirrors what a student can expect in an introductory-level class at college. AP classes are sometimes confused with honor classes or dual enrollment classes, but they are different. 

The College Board sets the curriculum and oversees end-of-year AP exams. There are 38 AP courses available, but very few high schools offer even half that number. Over 80% of U.S. high schools offer AP classes on-site, and the average number of course offerings is eight.

What are the benefits of taking AP classes?

There are three basic benefits of taking AP classes in high school:

AP classes (along with a passing grade on the AP exam) will save you money on college tuition.

According to, the average public four-year university charges in-state residents $390 per credit hour. Most college courses are worth 3 credit hours, meaning one college class typically costs $1,170. If you add room and board expenses, the cost is closer to $876 per credit hour. The average private 4-year university charges $1,365 per credit hour or $4,095 per course.

An AP exam costs $98. With a score of 3 or higher, most colleges will award you credit for an introductory-level college course. If you get college credit for five AP classes, it’s a substantial savings. In addition, you can enter college as a sophomore, making it possible to graduate in three years, save additional costs on living expenses, and give yourself an additional year of earning potential.

AP classes impress college admissions officers.

Colleges are looking for students who can succeed in a rigorous academic environment. They do this by viewing your high school course selection and how well you handled a challenging course load. Challenging yourself with AP classes shows your desire to excel academically and your ability to tackle a difficult college curriculum.

Taking AP classes can demonstrate interest in a certain subject.

If you want to pursue an engineering career, taking AP Calculus or AP Physics courses and passing their exams will show you are serious about engineering. Want to study pre-med in college? Taking AP Chemistry and AP Biology would show you are preparing for that career. Taking the AP classes that align with your passion will not only prepare you for that major in college but show admissions officers you are committed to that passion.

How many AP classes should you take?

Every student is different. Consider your previous performance in certain subjects and your future goals. You should also bear in mind your interest in the subject and whether it will align with your goals in college.

Another factor to consider is the strength of your AP teachers. Ask other students who have taken the class whether it helped them pass the AP exam. Taking a class with an inexperienced teacher could be a waste of your time.

It’s also important to take only as many classes as you can handle. If you take too many, you can risk becoming overwhelmed. Additionally, taking too many classes and scoring poorly will affect your overall GPA and possibly your AP exam performance. A logical plan would be to take one or two AP classes each year in high school and excel in each of them.

What should you consider when choosing an AP class?

Selecting the right AP classes can significantly impact your high school GPA and college preparation. Before choosing a class, consider these factors:

·  Assess your interests—Evaluate your academic strengths and your passions and choose subjects that align with those interests.

·  Consider your college goals—Think about your intended major and what classes would align with that major.

·  Understand the workload—Be realistic about the time commitment each class requires and avoid overloading your schedule with AP classes.

·  Check the AP policies of colleges—AP classes can be helpful in getting general education credits. However, you should check the policies for the colleges you are interested in attending to ensure it is an option for you. 

Above all else, your interests should guide your choices. If you are interested in a subject and have done well in the past, it’s logical you will do well in the AP class.

What are AP exams?

An AP exam measures what you learned from taking an AP class. AP classes are designed to help students pass the AP exam. After taking the class, you will take the AP exam to test your knowledge of the material you learned. AP exams are scored from 1-5, and most colleges typically require at least a 3 to receive credit for the course. However, some elite colleges require a higher score to be awarded credit.

What if my high school doesn’t offer AP classes?

If your high school doesn’t offer AP classes or doesn’t offer a class that interests you, there are still options.

It is possible to study on your own and take the exam without the related AP class. Some students opt to go this route. But, self-study can be a challenge, and it requires a commitment of time and a strong desire to learn.

You can also take online AP classes. Search the College Board’s AP site and search for online providers. Simply type “online” into the High School Name or College Board School Code field to see authorized online providers.

What are the easiest AP classes in high school?

If you want “easy” AP classes, consider this: what’s easy for you may not be easy for your friend or the student at the high school on the other side of the country or the world. So, you shouldn’t ask, “What are the easiest AP classes?” Instead, ask, “What AP classes might be easy for me?” 

If you want to evaluate classes based on difficulty, you can look at exam pass rates, course content, student feedback, teacher insights, college preparedness, and workload. Based on these criteria, the five easiest AP classes are the following:

  • AP Environmental Science: Seen as easier because it is less intimidating for students without a strong biology and earth sciences background and requires less memorization and more application of general scientific principles.
  • AP Psychology: Could be easier because the exam focuses more on terminology and basic concepts than on complex theories.
  • AP Human Geography: Seen as easier due to its more relatable content that connects with real-world scenarios and geographic concepts.
  • AP Comparative Government and Politics: Seen as easier because it deals with contemporary and practical issues with an exam focusing on basic political concepts.
  • AP Computer Science Principles: Considered one of the easiest AP courses due to its practical approach and less emphasis on programming skills, making it accessible to students with no prior computer science background.

Now that you know some of the easier AP classes, what are generally considered some of the harder ones?

  • AP Chemistry
  • AP Physics C: Mechanics
  • AP Calculus BC
  • AP English Literature and Composition
  • AP United States History

Remember, what’s easy for you may be harder for someone else. Don’t rely solely on data and difficulty. Decide based on your own abilities and interests. 

Can you take an AP class without taking the exam?

You can take an AP class without taking the exam, and it will still boost your academic achievement and look good on college applications. Discuss this with your school counselor and evaluate the pros and cons of taking the exam before deciding.

Final thoughts on AP classes

Taking AP classes in high school has multiple benefits. You can save money on college costs by taking the AP exam for the class and gaining college credit. Most colleges look for students who challenge themselves with college-level classes in high school, and AP classes on your transcript will communicate your abilities to excel in college. You can also pursue your passions with these classes, preparing you for your future career.

Knowing your chances for college admission

Taking AP classes in high school can be a smart way to distinguish yourself on your college applications. But 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. Share a few data points, like any test scores, majors you're interested in, and your GPA, and we'll show you your chances for admission into all the colleges on your list. 

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