When evaluating your transcript in the admissions process, colleges look not only at your individual grades in each course and GPA, but also the rigor of your curriculum. Having numerous AP, IB, and/or honors courses on your transcript has manifold benefits: your weighted GPA will be higher, as we discuss in the post, “What Is a Good GPA for Top Schools?”; you will rise in your class rank, since your curriculum will be challenging compared to those of your classmates; and, ultimately, you are more likely to be academically stimulated. Additionally, earning high scores (usually 4s or 5s) on AP tests, and sometimes IB exams, which are graded on a different scale, may allow you to earn college credit, depending on the subject and college. (For more advice on how these exams can help you receive credits, read our post, “Can AP Test Actually Save Your Thousands of Dollars?”)

But what if you are not sure you will be able to do well in a higher level course? If you are hoping to matriculate at a top-tier school, you will need to earn top grades to be considered. That doesn’t mean you need to earn straight As in an all-AP course load. However, it does mean you need to take a fair number of high-level courses, and you need to have mostly As on your transcript. So is it better to get an A in a regular class or get a lower grade in an AP, IB, or honors class?

The easy answer is that it is best to get an A in an AP, IB, or honors class. Of course, that may not always be feasible.

Getting an A in a regular class vs. getting a B in an honors class

If you think you can get at least a B in a rigorous class, you should probably take the class anyway. Colleges want to see that you are challenging yourself and doing as well as possible, because this indicates that you have what it takes to perform well at an elite college and will contribute to the intellectual community. Additionally, even if you don’t get an A in an AP or IB course, you may still be able to achieve a high score on the exam, thus giving you a chance at earning college credit.

If you are at risk for earning a low grade in an honors class…

If you think you may earn a C or lower in a high-level course, you should take the regular version instead, or replace it with something else entirely if it is an elective. Earning a low grade or failing a course will have a significant adverse effect on your application, even in a challenging course. It is much better to earn an A or a B in a regular-level course than a C or below in an honors course. Additionally, you are unlikely to earn a 4 or a 5 on an AP exam if you are struggling with the material in the course itself, so you probably won’t be able to earn college credit if you are not doing well in the class.

Considering the course itself

If you are concerned the class in question may be too demanding, you should also think about how it fits into the rest of your schedule. As we discuss in “Can You Be an Engineer without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Can Affect Your Chances at Admissions”, colleges want to see well-rounded candidates, but also ones who show some degree of specialization. Therefore, if you consider humanities to be your strength, and you have already loaded up on AP Literature, AP History, and AP language courses, you may not need to take AP Calculus as well, because colleges will understand that this is not your strength or what you intend to pursue in college. If you don’t think you will do well in a rigorous class that is not in your area of specialization, it may be better to skip it in favor of a course that is more in line with your interests.

However, you should take a challenging course that does fall within your strengths or talents. For instance, if you are an aspiring medical doctor, and you don’t take AP Biology, that will not reflect well on your application with admissions committees. Even if you think you will get a B in a case like this, you should still take the course and aim to do as well as possible.

If you are not applying to top-tier colleges…

If you are not planning on applying to extremely competitive schools, it probably isn’t as necessary to load up on AP, IB, or honors classes. In this case, it is fine to take regular classes and earn strong grades in them, especially if you are worried about not being able to manage the material.

However, you should still consider the advantages of taking rigorous classes. In additional to the benefits outlined above, having a high GPA—which improves with the rigor of your curriculum—can make you a candidate for many honors programs and scholarships. For more information on scholarships, check out our post, “Helpful Scholarship Resources and Tips.”

A final note

AP, IB, and honors courses have a lot to offer in terms of challenging you and helping you become a competitive candidate in the college admissions process. But if you don’t think you are going to perform well in a particular course, you may want to take the regular version instead and compensate with other challenging courses or in other areas.

If you are concerned about enrolling in a course and want more advice on how to proceed, try talking to the teacher of the class or your current teacher in that subject. He or she is familiar with your abilities in the subject and may be able to steer you in the right direction.

Looking for more tips and advice on how to build a competitive academic profile in high school? Read CollegeVine’s posts below.

What Is a Good GPA for Top Schools?

What Class Rank Do I Need to Get into a Top School?

Is GPA or Class Rank More Important?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

How Do I Decide to Drop a Course?

Will Failing a Class Impact My College Application?

Can You Be an Engineer without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chances at Admission

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine

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