Students are often encouraged to take Advanced Placement classes without much discussion of the reasons why (and potentially why not). How do you know which classes to take, how many, whether they will help your college admission chances, and what those AP Exam scores will mean for you down the road?

AP classes are meant to be equivalent to first year college courses. They will give you a small example of what college classes will be like through more challenging coursework. At the end of the class, you’ll take the AP Exam and colleges typically give course credit to students who earn a 4 or 5 on an AP Exam. Many high schools also adjust their grading scale for AP classes to reflect the increased and more difficult workload, awarding 5 points for an A. Part of a college’s evaluation of your application will be an analysis of the classes you take, and AP classes show that you are willing to take on a rigorous course load. 

With all these benefits, it may seem that you should simply take as many AP classes as possible. But – it is important to make those classes work in your favor. It will be better to have a few AP classes with excellent grades rather than a transcript filled with lots of AP classes but low grades. Students should think carefully about how to balance AP classes, other courses, extracurricular activities, sports, jobs, social and family obligations, and mental health. You should also think about which classes will be most beneficial to your future plans. If you know that you plan to major in engineering, classes such as AP Calculus, Physics, and Computer Science will help you the most. Don’t worry if you don’t yet know your intended major or if your school’s options are more limited. Colleges will not penalize you for not having the opportunity to take specific classes. Do take advantage of the AP classes that your school does offer. 

College admission decisions are complex, but it is well documented that course rigor is important, especially at the most selective schools. Universities want to know that the students they admit are able to handle the academic challenges. Taking AP classes – and excelling in them – is very important if you are applying to highly selective schools. Many colleges use a system called the Academic Index (AI) to assist with admissions decisions. This is a formula that assigns a single numeric score to a student’s application for simple comparisons. Within that framework, grades and coursework account for roughly 20% of a student’s AI. Class rank and GPA factor heavily into this number, and earning a 5.0 for AP classes can have a significant impact on both. 

It is less clear how much impact your actual AP Exam scores may factor into admissions, though it seems likely that they will matter more as more schools become test optional. It is typically up to the student’s discretion whether to self-report AP Exam scores. If you have achieved many 4s and 5s then you should absolutely disclose them. However, if you have scored mostly 2s and 3s, it may be better to leave that information off your application. Remember that you want to use your application to highlight your best achievements. 

Actual AP Exam score distributions are primarily important for college credit. Scores of 4 and 5 can be used to bypass intro level classes, allowing you to take more interesting and advanced classes sooner. This may enable you to add a second major or minor concentration in areas that interest you, or even help you graduate early. There are some schools that will even accept a score of 3 for college credit, so research the requirements of the schools that most interest you.