Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020
If you’re a high school student choosing classes for next year, an important question is how many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes you should take. For years, the answer to this question was, “More!” The number of students taking AP classes has doubled in the past ten years, and also doubled in the ten years before that. Once an option for only the most advanced students, AP classes are now considered a necessary component of virtually every application to a highly competitive college.
Recently, high school administrators have started to question the “more is better” philosophy. Notably, Harvard-Westlake recently decided to limit the maximum number of AP classes students can take, starting with the class of 2022: two for sophomores, three for juniors, and four for seniors. School staff decided on this policy when they observed more and more students making “strategic” course choices they thought would look good on their college applications rather than choosing classes they were passionate about. Along with this, staff were concerned students were experiencing too much stress and getting too little sleep.
While your school might not have such a limit, the ideal number of AP courses is probably not the maximum number possible. It’s true that competitive colleges look for rigorous coursework, so you should definitely consider challenging yourself with one or more AP classes. But if you’re already feeling stressed out and overloaded, adding one more AP class to an already challenging schedule might be counterproductive.
Here are some questions you should consider when choosing AP classes:
Is this class the logical next step?
If you’ve already worked your way through Algebra II and Pre-Calculus, some level of AP Calculus is likely the next step. The same might be true if you’ve done well in your first three years of a foreign language. For a subject you’re not that familiar with, though, it often makes sense to start with a lower-level class instead of jumping into AP.
Are you passionate about the subject?
AP tests involve a lot of hard work and reading, so it helps if you’re genuinely interested. Also, colleges look for evidence of passion in their applicants. A student who actively pursues his interests—entering the state science fair along with taking AP science classes, for example—will likely look better than a student who takes every AP class available.
How does the class fit into your schedule?
If you’re already feeling overloaded, too many AP classes can make you unhappy, unproductive, and even physically ill. When considering your course load, make sure to factor in time for sleep, sports and other extracurricular activities, standardized test preparation, and the college application process (which can amount to a full course worth of work in the first semester of your senior year).
How likely are you to pass the test, and what are the score requirements at your schools of choice?
An important part of an AP or IB class is the exam, and each year a high percentage of students fail to earn a “passing” score of 3 or higher. Exam scores are a good, if not perfect, indication of what you’ve retained from the class, so you should strive to take classes where you’ll be able to pass the test. Be aware that, while the UCs give advanced standing for a score of 3 on most tests, some schools require a 4 or 5 to earn college credit. Harvard, for example, only grants credit with a score of 5. It’s better to focus on fewer AP classes that you can effectively review for and pass than to take too many and fail the tests.