Advanced Placement (AP) courses are designed to prepare students for the rigor of college curriculum while earning credit at higher education institutions. This can save college-bound students both time and money and help them learn critical study skills. Their perceived value has resulted in consistent increases in the number of students enrolling in at least one class in recent years.
Another factor driving demand is the conventional wisdom that AP courses can increase the chance of college admission which has led to mounting pressure for students to take several AP classes during high school and at younger ages. Some students now take as many as 15 AP courses, which can mean an overwhelming course load and lead to “serious depression, substance abuse … and sleep deprivation,” according to Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer and co-director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The high cost of undue stress of a heavy course load at the expense of extracurriculars, jobs and social activities may not be worthwhile in the end. Finding the right balance to develop into a well-rounded student is the most critical factor for success in college and in life. Let that be your guide as you plan your high school class schedule.
Determine the type of college you wish to attend
The number of AP courses you need to enroll in depends largely on the type of higher education institution you seek to attend. Only the most selective universities, particularly Ivy League schools, expect students to take between 7-12 AP courses, or equivalent honors classes.
Admittance to large, competitive public universities may require as many as 4-5 advanced courses. Up to 2 classes are sufficient for less-selective private and public schools.
Most importantly, consider whether or not highly selective universities are the right fit for you. You may have your eye on a prestigious college, but it may not be the best option for you based on your needs. The academic environment is one of the key factors you should weigh in selecting a college. The rigor of an education at one of these schools will be similar to or greater than the coursework of multiple AP classes in high school. Similar to college course work, AP classes cover many complex concepts and at a faster pace than typical courses. If you are less comfortable taking several challenging courses simultaneously in high school, then you may have a very difficult time doing so at the most elite colleges.
Follow your interests
The combination of tough classes, after-school activities, family life and other factors can be too intense for students to cope with. Some students are driving themselves unnecessarily to dangerous outcomes. Additionally, remember that the number of AP courses completed often matters less than the subject of the courses.
The field of study you’re interested in pursuing can help determine what AP classes you should take. If you are planning in a career in a STEM-related field, such as mechanical engineering and medicine, you will get the most value from at least taking AP courses in relevant subjects such as Physics, Calculus or Biology. Admissions officers want to see that students declaring majors in these fields can handle the material they’ll encounter in college. For example, demonstrating excellent math skills can be important, both in terms of gaining admission to STEM programs in university and in terms of actually performing well once you get there.
Set Yourself up for Success
Degrees in other fields are not as dependent on AP courses in specific subjects. Liberal arts colleges will look for students with writing capabilities, so pick AP courses – such as History or Literature – that help you develop and showcase this skill set. And for students interested in fields such as linguistics or international relations, studying foreign languages can have a clear benefit. Languages are also one of the subjects where starting early can have a distinct benefit in terms of the ease of learning.
To create a healthy balance of AP courses, select them in subjects you enjoy. The classes are challenging and taking them in subjects you don’t like, just to rack up a certain number, can quickly start to feel like a chore. If you’re not invested in the class, it can lead to poor work and ultimately damage your GPA. Even Harvard University has noted in its Turning the Tide report on admissions that, “simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas.”
Taking AP courses doesn’t always translate to academic achievement in college, according to one widely-cited study by Klopfenstein and Thomas (2010). The best choice you can make for yourself is just that—choosing what works for you. Enroll in AP classes that align with your academic goals, strengths and interests, and not for any other reason. You will reap the rewards of becoming a better learner and have the time and space to ensure your overall social and emotional health, which will serve you well beyond high school and college.
By Venkates Swaminathan
Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He has helped counsel more than 2,000 students and their families to get into the college. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has a M.S. from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.