The Pros and Cons of AP Classes

Today's high school students have more options than ever to earn college credit prior to graduation and to take higher-level courses that can better prepare them for college. One popular option is the Advanced Placement (AP) program, which students can take starting in their junior year.

About 60 percent of U.S. high schools and 15,000 high schools worldwide offer Advanced Placement classes. There are more than 35 different AP courses in 22 subject areas - everything from chemistry and calculus to Japanese language and culture. The program is run by a non-profit membership organization called the College Board New Window icon.

AP classes are designed to prepare high school students for the rigors of college-level work. To see if your high school offers approved AP courses, check the College Board's AP Course Ledger New Window icon.

After students complete an AP class, for which they earn high school credit, they can take the AP exam. The exams take place every year in May.

It's also possible to take an AP test without taking the class. If students are home-schooled or if their school doesn't offer a particular AP class, they can still arrange to take an exam. They still earn credit if they get a good score on the exam.

Depending on how students score and what college they plan to attend, they can earn academic credit or "test out" of a college class. It can mean fewer assignments to juggle come college time and possibly even some financial savings.

AP classes are free, but it costs $84 to take an exam. For low-income students, the fee is usually reduced or entirely paid for through state and federal funds or assistance from the College Board, according to the Board's website New Window icon.

Student exams receive a score ranging from 5 to 1, with 5 being the equivalent of A-level college work. Many colleges accept scores from 3 and up, while more selective schools only consider 4s and 5s as worthy of credit or placement. The scores are reported to the college of the student's choice, unless the student chooses to have them withheld.

However, if students aren't prepared to do the work required to do well in an advanced class, they should think twice about enrolling in one. They also should keep in mind that colleges are interested in more than just test scores. If taking a number of advanced classes prevents students from participating in other activities they enjoy, or from taking a class that really interests them, they might want to reevaluate their priorities.

A guidance counselor recommended to Luther College sophomore Cavan Krekelberg that he sign up for AP classes when he was in high school. Krekelberg says the chance to obtain college credit was but one of the reasons he did take the AP classes. He also liked the fact that the AP coursework was more challenging.

Krekelberg took three of the four AP classes offered at his public high school in Minnesota. On his AP exams, he received a score of 4 in both psychology and biology, which Luther accepted for credit. His score of 3 on the English literature exam didn't meet Luther's requirements for credit, although some schools do accept 3s.

"If you're toying with the notion of going for an AP class, I say do it," says Krekelberg, a music education major. "It can't really hurt you, as long as you're willing to do the work. Getting college credit from high school classes is invaluable, too."

If you're interested in taking an AP class, try to talk to your guidance counselor about it during your sophomore year or early in your junior year before you select your 11th grade classes.