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AP Courses and Ivy League Admissions

The College Board, the nonprofit educational organization that administers the SAT, initiated the Advanced Placement (AP) program in the middle of the last century. AP classes are college-level courses that are taught in most American high schools. Their purpose is to enable students to experience the rigorous standards they’ll be exposed to in college and to challenge them beyond their scholastic curricula.

There are now 40 AP courses being offered, though not every high school offers every AP course. The College Board provides high schools with the curriculum for these classes and administers AP tests to students each May. If you score a 3, 4, or 5 out of 5 on an AP final exam, you’re eligible to receive college credit for that course, depending on the policies of the college you attend.

AP courses are designed to be more difficult than those offered in the regular curriculum of a high school, except, in many cases, the school’s more rigorous honors courses. It’s estimated that AP courses demand about 30% more work from students than regular ones. AP students are expected to delve more deeply into topics through research, practical applications, and critical thinking.

The differences between a high school’s honors courses and AP courses vary from school to school. In many cases, honors courses are intended to be for freshmen and sophomores, who then take AP courses in their junior and senior years. The other difference between honors and AP is that students can earn college credits by passing AP final exams (depending upon each college’s policy), but don’t earn credits for honors courses however difficult they may be.

All AP courses affect your high school GPA, but not necessarily in the same way as regular courses. A grade of A in a regular class is weighed as a 4.0. However, many high schools give AP courses an additional point, so you can earn a 5.0 GPA credit from an AP course. It’s also possible for a student to earn a B in an AP course but still have a 4.0 GPA. In most cases, a high school that weighs AP courses on a 5.0 scale also weighs honors courses on a 5.0 scale.

As experienced college admissions counselors, we at IvySelect are often asked by students who aspire to attend the most highly selective colleges how many AP courses they should take to improve their chances of admission. Our rule-of-thumb is that you should plan to take 3 or 4 AP classes in junior year and 4 or 5 in senior year. This is often optimum because it’s enough to impress admissions officers that you have taken on challenging courses and it tends not to be too much for high-achieving students. The level of commitment to AP courses shouldn’t so overburden your workload that it risks causing your GPA to decline.

IvySelect’s recommended number of AP courses may vary according to your circumstances. It is possible that we might recommend more or less AP classes than the general rule-of-thumb. It’s dependent on other factors in the context of your academic record, goals, and high school environment. We analyze and weigh these factors in toto so we can provide advice specific to your individual situation.

Successful completion of AP courses in subject areas in or related to your planned major demonstrates to admissions offices that you’ve been engaged in your areas of academic interest and that you’re proficient at an academic level close or equal to the college level. Ivy League and other top-tier colleges consider high grades in AP courses to be a key factor contributing to positive acceptance decisions.

One additional piece of advice regarding AP courses is to be careful not to exceed your ability to produce good results. This is the risk of taking AP courses. They can hurt you as well as help you, especially if you’ve enrolled in too many difficult AP courses simultaneously. Although AP courses are impressive college admissions credentials, they’re negated by poor grades. Sometimes even a grade of B is potentially harmful. Avoidance of overly aggressive AP course selection is among the challenges of your campaign for elite college admissions in which the sound advice of your IvySelect college admissions consultant is invaluable.