Does your high school student want to challenge herself and do college-level work in high school? The Advanced Placement (AP) program provides that opportunity.

The AP program is run by the College Board, which develops the curriculum, creates and administers the exams, and provides support for teachers. The AP program gives students the opportunity to take one or more college-level courses while they are still in high school — and to receive college credit if they receive a score of 3, 4, or 5 on the AP test.

What AP courses and exams are offered?

The AP program currently offers 38 courses and exams across 24 subject areas. It offers a diploma-earning option called Capstone, which requires two courses, Research and Seminar, four subject-specific AP courses, and the exams. Schools vary in which AP courses they offer. In 2017-2018 the College Board offers AP exams in Art History, Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Chinese Language and Culture, Comparative Government and Politics, Computer Science A, Computer Science Principles, English Language and Composition, English Literature and Composition, Environmental Science, European History, French Language and Culture, German Language and Culture, Human Geography, Italian Language and Culture, Japanese Language and Culture, Latin, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, Music Theory, Physics 1 and 2: Algebra-based, Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, Physics C: Mechanics, Psychology, Spanish Language and Culture, Spanish Literature and Culture, Statistics, Studio Art: Drawing, Studio Art: 2-D Design, Studio Art 3-D Design, U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History, and World History.

Both AP participation and performance are on the rise. A total of 1.1 million students from the class of 2016 took at least one AP exam, nearly double the number of students who took at least one AP exam in the class of 2006. The percentage of high school graduates who earned a score of 3 or higher on at least one AP exam increased from 14.3% to 21.9% over the same time period.

Many schools offer college-level AP classes to prepare students for AP exams, but students can take exams without completing a specific course. Taking AP courses helps students develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for a successful transition to college. Many believe that regardless of exam results (and in fact, many students don’t take the exam), students who take the courses are better prepared for college. Also, it increases a student’s likelihood of graduating from college on time. AP courses are generally demanding and require a certain level of maturity and dedication for students to succeed.

When you look up your high school on GreatSchools, you can see the percent of kids who are taking AP classes, taking AP exams, and passing AP exams. And in California, Florida, New York, and Texas, you can see a list of the AP courses offered at each high school.

How much do the exams cost?

Students in 2018 are required to pay $94 per exam. For those who demonstrate need, financial aid is available from the College Board, as well as from some states, cities, and school districts.

How do honors and AP classes compare?

Like AP courses, honors classes have more rigorous workloads and involve a deeper dive into the subject they cover. Although honors courses don’t lead to college credit, they are a completely free alternative to AP classes and let colleges know your student opted for the extra challenge of an honors course.

Unlike AP classes, honors classes are not based on a national curriculum. Instead, local districts, schools, and teachers determine what will be taught (so long as the course content aligns with any state standards that may exist for that subject). Because of that flexibility, honors classes can vary in rigor. In some schools, they are challenging alternatives to AP classes, especially if those AP classes don’t do a very good job of preparing students to score well on AP exams. In other schools, honors classes may be more rigorous than regular classes but less rigorous than AP classes. Because the “honors” classification can vary so much, it is important to learn how honors classes compare with other options at your child’s school.

Benefits of AP

  • Students who earn a 3, 4, or 5 on AP exams can bypass introductory courses and enter with college credit at many colleges and universities. Each college sets its own policy on college credit and advancement to high-level courses for successfully completing AP exams. To find out which schools offer credit for AP exams, use the College Board College Search tool (under the Academic Credit section, check the box for AP credit) or check with the specific schools your child is interested in.
  • Although there has been a national debate over whether high school students are feeling pressured to take too many AP courses, several studies have shown that high scores (3, 4, or 5) on AP exams correlate with better grades and graduation rates in college.
  • A University of Texas study compared undergraduates’ grades in advanced courses in 10 subjects. One group had taken an AP course in that subject in high school; the other group had taken the introductory course at college. The study showed that the students who used their AP credits to take a more advanced course in college had better grades in those advanced courses than the students who took the introductory courses in college.
  • Some critics argue that high school AP courses cannot match the depth and rigor of courses offered by colleges. But others counter that students are more likely to get attention in a smaller high school AP course than in a large, lecture-hall-style introductory college course.
  • Many selective colleges and universities look for students who have successfully completed the most challenging courses offered at their high school. That means honors, AP, or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.

Questions to ask at your high school

  • Find out which AP courses are offered at your child’s high school. Ask what prerequisites are required for your child to take these courses.
  • Ask what scores students have received on particular tests and if the same teachers are teaching these AP courses. Beware of a large number of low scores on a particular test. It may indicate that students are not being sufficiently prepared to pass the AP exam.
  • If your child is interested in a particular course, have her talk to the teacher ahead of time to find out what the workload is and what preparation will be necessary to take the course. Some teachers require that students complete work (summer reading, for example) prior to taking the course.
  • If your child is interested in a subject offered by the AP program but the course is not offered at your child’s school, find out what support your child can expect to receive at school to prepare for the test. Some states also offer online AP courses.
  • Check to make sure that your school is following the AP curriculum aligned with the AP test. Beware of courses labeled AP Philosophy, AP Astronomy, or AP Botany. These aren’t subjects included in the College Board Advanced Placement program.
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Updated: May 6, 2021