The Benefit of Advanced Placement (AP) Classes Beyond the Test

Advanced Placement (AP) courses were originally meant to provide talented students the chance to earn college credits while still in high school. Currently offered in 35 subjects, AP classes are a common feature of high school curricula all over the world. Should you take them? If so, which ones? How do you make the most out of them? Here are some thoughts on how to reap the benefits of the academic opportunity they offer.

My first exposure to APs in a New Jersey high school included only Calculus AB and US History. In 1975, two APs, being in the top 10 percent of my class, median SAT scores, and a resume that included being a state playoff football quarterback, were collectively enough to get me into my first choice college. Bright enough but not especially dedicated, I earned a three in Calc, a five in APUSH, and still recall enjoying building a case to answer Document Based Questions, or DBQs.

What a difference a generation makes. AP coursework has increased dramatically. My eldest daughter took eight APs: English Literature and Composition; Calculus AB; Microeconomics; Macroeconomics; U.S. Government; Comparative Government; Biology; and Spanish Language. Her sister took six: Art History; English Literature; Environmental Science; Microeconomics; U.S. History; and Spanish Language. I heard some moaning about their workloads, but they probably had no choice.

The intrinsic value of APs, or whatever your school offers as its most challenging options, is that you will learn more. The syllabi are clear, the standards high, and each school’s best instructors usually vie for the chance to teach the most demanding classes with the brightest and most ambitious students. Never a top scholar in my classes, nor the best athlete on my teams, I nevertheless often benefitted from being a jock amidst nerds. Everyone else was so smart and committed that I learned more in my Honors and AP classes simply by showing up.

For more than 30 years since graduating college, I have worked in six secondary schools, all of them offering APs, one also having International Baccalaureate courses. Again and again, I have seen the best faculty teaching the advanced classes. Not only are the kids smarter and more driven, so too are the teachers. When in doubt about selecting classes in high school or college, ask the older students who the best teachers are, then take their classes. Websites like RateMyProfessors.com has made the research easier, but the principle is the same: find the people who can teach you the most and you will learn more.

What do you need to do to make the most of these opportunities? Work. Know your assignments. Do them on time. Ask your teachers questions. Ask your classmates questions. Study. Rinse and repeat. When it comes to the external examinations in May, consider additional prep work with tutors, online courses, published workbooks, or texts such as “5 Steps to a 5.”

One additional thought: If you’re taking APs in ninth, tenth, or eleventh grade, your May exam has potential value as part of your college applications, because the results will be available to the admission committee. If you post high scores, you will report them. If you are taking APs in twelfth grade, however, you will have paid your enrollment deposit before you even take the exams. You will be sitting them for college credit, advanced standing, or pride — but not for getting into college. I’m not telling you to tank the exams, but I am saying that rising seniors can consider loading up on APs to demonstrate strength of program, focus on grades, and not worry about the exams. By then, you will already have reaped many of the benefits APs can offer.