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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
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Are All APs Created Equal In Admissions?

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If you’re an ambitious prospective college student who’s working to get the most out of your high-school experience, you know that Advanced Placement courses are generally considered to be among the most intellectually rigorous courses an American high-school student can take.


Some schools do not offer APs at all, as we’ve addressed in our CollegeVine blog post “What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?” Even for schools that do offer APs, specific offerings differ, and there is usually a range of AP courses and exams among which to choose. But how do you make that choice?


Obviously, there’s a great deal of variation among the available APs. Not only do subject matter and format differ, but additionally, certain AP courses and exams are generally considered more challenging than others. Some colleges may reward you with college credit and/or higher placement as a result of scoring well on your AP tests, but this isn’t true for every AP at every college. On top of all of this, your intended major or field of study matters when it comes to which APs you should take.


Read on for more information about the differences between APs and how to pick the courses and tests that will be most beneficial to your application.


Benefits of AP Courses and Exams

Why take AP courses and/or exams in the first place? The answer to this question forms the basis for why some APs are treated differently from others in the college admission process.


We’ve covered various aspects of the Advanced Placement program in detail in previous posts on the CollegeVine blog. In brief, the AP program is intended to allow students to access college-level coursework while still in high school. If they’re offered, AP courses are usually among the most challenging and highest-level courses available at a given high school, and the corresponding exams give you an opportunity to prove how well you grasp the subject matter compared with other students.


You can look at AP courses and exams as being potentially useful to you in two major ways. First, having APs on your transcript will help demonstrate to colleges that you took the most rigorous courses available to you as a high school student. Since AP tests are standardized, it’s easier for colleges to determine how well you mastered the topic compared to other students.


Second, scoring well on AP exams may allow you to skip certain introductory courses in college. This can mean that you’ll be able to fit more higher-level, interesting courses into your college career, instead of taking introductory courses that typically involve more students per class and thus less personal attention from the instructor.


Receiving college credit directly as a result of your AP test scores is also an option at some schools, though you’ll have to look over a given school’s policies carefully to determine whether this is offered. If you’re able to obtain college credit this way, it can add flexibility to your future schedule, and potentially even allow you to graduate early. (Not every college will allow early graduations.)


Remember that for both placement and credit, your options may differ depending on your eventual AP exam score. Taking the course and/or sitting for the exam isn’t enough; you also need to demonstrate through the standardized exam that you really have a competent grasp of the material presented. A score below a 3 is unlikely to help you much, and many colleges require 4s or 5s for credit or higher placement.


It also depends which AP courses and exams you’ve taken. While some, such as the AP Calculus exams, are frequently used at the very least for placement purposes, other APs, especially those considered less rigorous or those that don’t correlate to the material covered in an introductory course at a particular college, may not make much of a difference for your college course selections.

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Identifying Challenging AP Courses and Exams

As we’ve mentioned, certain AP courses and exams are considered to be more challenging than others. This has to do with the subject matter as well as how well the particular AP course or exam corresponds (in theory) to courses you might encounter in college.


Among the 37 courses and exams currently available through the AP program, certain courses and exams are usually thought to be more difficult simply by virtue of their subject matter. For  instance, the AP Calculus AB and BC exams and Biology exam are considered especially challenging.


The various language APs are known to be especially rigorous because of the level of knowledge which they expect students to have achieved. However, the literature counterparts of these exams- AP Spanish Literature as opposed to AP Spanish Language, for example- are not generally accepted for credit or placement by colleges.


Some APs are frequently considered to be less rigorous simply because they don’t correspond as well as others to the content of an actual college course. AP Microeconomics and AP Macroeconomics are two APs that fall into this category, and have been criticized for not addressing important recent developments in economic thought.


The effectiveness of the teacher, including how well they understand the mechanics and scoring of the AP exam itself, is one factor that affects what you actually learn from your AP course. Another is the question of how well your particular school prepared you in earlier years to enter an AP course—it’s difficult to do well in AP Calculus AB if your previous math classes were lacking, for example.


Specializing Your Academic Profile

During your time as a prospective college applicant, you may have heard many different types of advice about what colleges are looking for in their applicants. In the past, students were often advised that it was most important to be “well-rounded,” or to have a broad range of achievements in different areas, but in recent years, colleges have begun to lean towards  applicants whose backgrounds are more specialized in one area.


As we discuss in the CollegeVine blog post “Well Rounded or Specialized?”, both of these approaches have their merits. Colleges do want to see that you’ve succeeded in a number of areas and have a strong all-around academic background, but specialization in addition to this broad background has become quite important as well. Colleges want to know that you’ve focused some of your energy on a particular field of interest upon which you’ve become something of an expert.


AP courses and exams represent one way in which you can demonstrate specialization on your college application. While it’s important to take the most challenging courses available to you in general, of course, it’s especially important that you do so within your area of specialization, and AP courses are often the most challenging options you’ll be offered on a given subject.


Some AP courses are more directly relevant than others to your eventual degree program. If you plan on pursuing a pre-med major and eventually becoming a doctor, for instance, you should definitely take AP Biology if you have the opportunity. If you have to choose between AP Biology and AP Spanish Language, you should pick the former, since, regardless of difficulty, it’s more relevant to your field.


Taking AP Biology, in this case, will not only demonstrate your interest in the topic, but also give you a chance to show that you excel, since presumably you are specializing in a subject in which you do particularly well.


Additionally,  taking an AP course in a certain subject may be a way for you to determine whether you’re actually well suited for the field of study you’d theoretically like to pursue. To continue the previous example, if you want to become a doctor, but find yourself uninterested or foundering in AP Biology, this may be an indication that medicine is not the best field for you.


What if your school doesn’t offer any AP courses in your field of specialization? It may be possible for you to study for an AP exam on your own without taking the associated course, as we discuss in our CollegeVine blog post, “Which AP Exam Should You Self-Study?”.  While this can be quite a difficult undertaking, if you do well, you’ll provide colleges with more proof that you’re a self-motivated and hardworking applicant who can be trusted to manage your time and workload effectively.


Again, of course, high grades in AP courses on your transcript and high AP exam scores on your application can only help you as an applicant, whether they’re in your field of specialization or not. You definitely shouldn’t refrain from taking an AP course or exam that you think you’ll do well on just because it doesn’t fit your specialization.


However, colleges know that you’re a human being with limits. Obviously, the best possible outcome would be for you to take and do well on every AP available to you, but no one has infinite time and energy. If you have to choose between a number of different AP options, it’s best to choose those that are closest to your specialized field.


APs alone won’t make or break your chances of getting into your preferred colleges. They’re just one among many academic and personal factors that colleges consider, especially at schools with a holistic admissions process. If you’re applying to a particularly competitive school, even the best possible record of AP courses and exam scores won’t be enough by itself to make you stand out to admissions officers.


To the extent that your AP courses and exam scores will have an impact on your college application, however, it doesn’t matter so much whether you took the “most challenging” of the AP courses or exams that were made available to you. It’s more important that you took and did well on the APs that are most relevant to your area of interest and the field you wish to pursue in college.


Your AP record shows admissions committees that you’ve prepared yourself as thoroughly as possible to be a successful college student and a positive contributor to the intellectual life of the school. Not only will this benefit you as an applicant and eventually as a college student, but it will also benefit your college, which will see that you have the dedication and skills to succeed.


Grappling with decisions about AP courses? ? The CollegeVine blog has you covered with advice on everything from which APs to take to what to do if you run out of APs offered at your high school. Check out some of the following blog posts for more information.



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.