Will Taking Harder Classes (honors, AP, advanced, IB) Help me get into Top Schools?

We receive dozens of the same questions during every single application season. They range from questions about testing, grades, time management, and class selection, but we want to make sure that you know we hear you. Every time you email us, we reply to each individualized question. But in order to make this knowledge as accessible as possible, we’ve started to address these questions in the public forum (on the blog) so that you can understand our stance on the hot topics of college applications. Let’s get started with a question that plagues every single student around this time of year as they’re selecting classes for next year: “Should I take the AP class?”

In short, yes. It always is better to take the most challenging classes available to you at your school, but it’s not wise to load up on hard classes and not be able to keep up with your workload. Colleges are looking for students who, first and foremost, challenge themselves and don’t take the easy way out. One indicator of this quality is the rigor of the classes that a student chooses to take.

We receive many inquiries every year from students whose schools only offer a limited number of AP classes. Their worry is that their transcript will be tossed because they took the only 2 AP classes available to them when compared with someone who took 8 AP classes from a completely different school. That won’t happen. It’s important to remember that colleges are familiar with which courses are available to a student at their particular school. While your profile is being compared to a student with more AP courses available to them, you won’t be punished for not taking more AP courses that weren’t available to you to begin with. You will only be rewarded for the academic challenges and risks that you did take, and particularly for the successes that you garnered.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s discuss which classes you should take and when you should opt out of an AP course. What’s most important is knowing your strengths and not taking classes that are truly not realistic for you to succeed in. Colleges are concerned with your ability to take the most challenging classes available to you, sure, but they are also looking to see if you got the best grades in these courses as well. It’s not smart to load up on AP math and science courses if you received a B in regular-level courses in these subjects and do not foresee yourself doing well in advanced level courses. Be mindful of what you choose to take, and be realistic while also challenging yourself.

Many parents and students ask us--is it better to get a B in an AP course or an A in a regular-level course? Our answer: it’s better to get an A in the AP course. If you think that you might be able to garner a B at your current level of academic rigor but know in the back of your mind that you could score an A if you just set aside 2-3 additional hours a week to study and meet with your teacher outside of class, then you know what we’re going to say. Challenge yourself within reason. Ultimately, you’ll get more “points” if you fight for a B+ in a class that is a great challenge to you and turn it into an A your second semester than if you skate by with an A- in a regular level course. One suggestion that we have is to begin taking AP courses as early as possible—if you can add even one AP course to your schedule your sophomore year, then do it. Spacing out the challenges is always a better strategy.

Ultimately, loading up on AP classes may just not be realistic for you and that’s completely fine. We work with students to create a list of schools that are not only exciting and relevant options for them to study what they want to study, but schools that are realistic as well. If you can’t handle the academic rigor required to succeed in the AP classes at your school, then we’d advise against applying to Ivy League schools, for example, but would advise that you look into many schools that could be a great match. Let us know if you need help. That’s why we’re here.