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In high school, if they’re offered, there can be a lot of pressure to take AP classes. Friends, counselors, teachers, even your parents might be pushing you, saying you’ll need them to be competitive, before and during college.

To a degree, they are right. Having a few AP credits, especially with good test scores, are great to have under your belt. But before you sign yourself up for a class designed to be at the college-level, you should have some idea of why, and why it’s not worth it to go over-board.

Challenging Yourself

Many college admissions sites will tell you straightforwardly that they like to see students “challenging themselves academically”, within the means of the coursework that their schools provide. This basically just means that if your school offers honors, IB, or AP courses, they’d rather see you take at least a few of those than take all regular classes, even if it means you might have a lower grade.

HOWEVER, this does NOT mean you should take five AP classes a semester and run your beautiful freshman GPA into the ground by the time the college application cycle begins. No admissions committee will be impressed by someone who bites off more than they can chew and doesn’t learn from it.

Ease into AP courses. Take one, maybe two the first semester or year that they’re offered to you and see how it goes. If you feel like you’re working very hard to get a grade you’re comfortable with, don’t add more the next year, keep it at one or two. Slow and steady wins the race. If and when you feel like you can maintain an A with that load, try adding in another AP to two or three classes a semester, and so on.

If you find yourself barely passing or even failing one semester, don’t be afraid to dial back the next, and don’t think that one C or D or even F is going to end your college search before it’s even begun. It’s not ideal, but upward trends are what matter most, and showing that you can make a mistake and grow from it is huge.

You’ll also have some freedom in the AP’s you can take. Play this to your strengths and interests. If you know that you’re really good at physics and chemistry, but biology, not so much, then focus on taking AP Chemistry or one of the multiple levels of AP Physics that Collegeboard offers. You’ll have better grades and better scores coming out of it, and as long as you stay as well-rounded as you can with your choices (for instance, take AP Chem with AP European History, or AP Physics with AP English Language), no one worth your time and money will fault you for not taking every single AP course offered.

With regards to scores, your classes will hopefully prepare you well for the standardized AP tests that Collegeboard offers at the end of every academic year. However, to make sure, you should always take a practice test or at least look at practice questions a month or so before the exam date itself. If the material seems way over your head, you can find shelves of test prep books specifically for a given AP test that should fill in the gaps if you leave plenty of time to study them before the exam.

While SAT, ACT, and SAT II subject scores generally matter more than AP scores in raw college admissions, they play a much larger role in determining what classes you take once actually in college.

Credit and Exemption from Prerequisites

Very little of what you did in high school matters in college; AP scores are the exception, but they really only matter in class scheduling, and sometimes the number of years you need to actually complete your degree.

Depending on the subject, a 4 or 5 on an AP test will often (but not always, depending on the college) allow you to receive credit and/or exemption from the equivalent college class. What does that mean?

Let’s say you took AP Bio in high school and (yay!!!) got a perfect score of 5. At college X, for example, they’ll tell you that you are exempt from semesters one and two of intro bio, and that you have 6 credits from that AP Bio class that now count toward your graduation from college X, which has a minimum graduation requirement of say 120 credits. Now, you can jump right into upper level bio classes for which intro bio would have been a prerequisite without having to actually take the class, and you’re the equivalent of two classes closer to graduation (as long as you still fulfill your major requirements).

Not all colleges will give you both credit and exemption, and some, mostly elite private colleges, won’t provide either. It’s important to check the colleges that you’re considering individually to find out what they do accept in terms of AP credit. However, in choosing which AP’s to take based on college credits, try to take classes that will either exempt you from area requirements that you’d rather not have to take in college (Freshman English, anyone?) or that will get you further along the road to your major.

AP classes are hard, but they’re worth taking in moderation. Challenge yourself based on your strengths, not your weaknesses, and plan ahead as best you can to take advantage of possible exemptions in college.

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the author

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kate is currently adjusting to cooler climes as a first year at the University of Virginia. A prospective pre-med student, she enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics and contributes to her school newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, as a Health & Science writer. She mentors youth as a tennis coach and spends her free time on the piano, playing anything from Rachmaninov to the theme from The Chronicles of Narnia. An aspiring hiker, she hopes to one day complete a trek on every continent.

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