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Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

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As you are building your academic schedule, you’re likely to encounter the option of enrolling in AP, IB, or honors courses. You probably already know that these classes tend to be more challenging and rigorous than your average high school course, and that they are well regarded by college admissions committees. However, you may not be sure whether or not taking these classes is the right choice for you. In this blog post, we’ll help you understand the advantages and drawbacks of taking AP, IB, and honors courses in order to help you make the best informed decision possible.


What are AP, IB, and Honors Courses?

First, it’s important to understand what, exactly, these courses are, and to understand  the differences between them. AP stands for Advanced Placement, a program  administered through the  College Board. The College Board is also the company that administers the SAT and SAT Subject tests. AP courses are college level classes that you can take during high school, and as such, you can often receive college credit for them. However, the type and amount of credit you’ll receive varies depending on the university.


AP classes are typically offered at US high schools. They tend to offer more a broad overview of the course topics, rather than in-depth studies. There are currently 37 AP classes available, ranging from AP Art History to AP Statistics to AP English Language and Composition. AP classes are also weighted, meaning that they give your GPA a boost (if your school uses a weighted grading system). The degree to which they are weighted depends on your specific high school.


The IB, or International Baccalaureate program, is another option for students wanting to take a more challenging courseload. This program is currently offered in 830 US schools, so it is smaller in scale when compared to the AP program. However, the IB program has a wider international presence than the AP program, and has been adopted by over 4,000 schools around the globe. IB courses can also count for college credit, although to varying degrees. Additionally, IB classes are also weighted.


Students can graduate with an IB diploma after taking three core classes (Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge, and Creativity, Activity, and Science) in addition to taking and passing all of their subject classes and examinations. Many universities around the world accept the IB diploma, and so this confer a special boost to students applying to international colleges in particular.


Honors classes tend to be school specific, in that your respective high school will generally determine their structure. Generally, honors classes offer a more challenging version of a regular course. They are usually more intensive, fast paced, and/or rigorous. They may or may not be weighted, depending on the course and your school. Oftentimes, if honors courses are weighted, they are weighted to a lesser degree than AP and IB courses i.e. an A in an AP course may be worth 5 grade points, while an A in an honors class is worth 4.5.


The Advantages

There are several reasons why taking a more rigorous class may be a good decision for you. Firstly, taking such classes demonstrates to colleges that you are will to challenge yourself. One of the first things admissions officers look at when evaluating your application is your course rigor. Colleges look for students who are willing to broaden their intellectual horizons and who can keep up with rigorous coursework. As such, AP, IB, and honors courses look good and stand out on college applications.


Furthermore, both IB and AP classes may help you obtain college credit and/or advanced standing. Often times, the costs associated with taking these courses are less expensive than that of their college counterparts. Taking these classes can be a great way to get some requirements out of the way and save a little money in the process.


Additionally, several colleges confer advantages to students who have a given number of IB and/or AP classes. For instance, Harvard College offers an advanced standing program that allows students with a set number of credits from AP courses graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in four years. You may also be able to get a jumpstart on your college career by skipping a semester or two. Students at some schools, public universities in particular, often enter their first year with sophomore status from AP and/or IB credits.


These advanced courses can also be a great fit for students looking more rigorous and fast paced coursework. These classes are likely to be more intellectually stimulating because they demand more of you academically, thus giving you the opportunity to deepen your knowledge in a given subject. This can help make school more engaging and provide an exciting academic challenge.


Additionally, the comparative rigor of AP, IB, and honors courses will help better prepare you for college courses and give you the opportunity to develop the kind of work ethic, study habits, and academic skills you need to thrive as a college student. It can help bridge the gap between high school and college to some degree, and thus give you a better idea of what you need to succeed in college.

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The Drawbacks

Although honors courses generally do not have any associated fees, both the IB and AP programs come with some monetary costs. The IB program charges a one time registration fee of $160, and an additional $110 for each test you take. The AP program charges a $92 for every test. Although fee waivers are available, the financial burden of these programs may be a consideration when you are debating whether or not to enroll.


Furthermore, these classes do not always result in college credit. Some universities don’t count your AP or IB scores for college credit, depending on their specific policy. Some schools only count certain scores in certain subjects, and some count none at all. As a general rule of thumb, public universities generally count more test scores for credit than private universities do. Furthermore, higher ranked schools tend to count fewer. For more information on how schools count AP scores, and whether your AP classes can actually help you save money, check out this CollegeVine blog post.


Additionally, AP, IB, and honors course are all more demanding and challenging than their regular counterparts. As such, you’ll have to invest more of your time and effort into taking these classes. You are likely to have less time for other things, potentially including extracurricular activities, family, and friends..


In addition, it is important to remember that at the end of your IB or AP course, you will be required to take a cumulative test on the material you have learned throughout this year. The idea of such a test can be stressful for students, and you may find yourself feeling anxious about the prospect of this exam. In addition, many students may not be able to best demonstrate their knowledge under these kinds of testing circumstances, and thus this type of assessment may not be most conducive to their individual learning style.


Other Considerations

You should note that not taking the academically demanding courses available is likely to reflect poorly for elite colleges, given that these colleges want you to challenge yourself. Colleges seek intellectually curious and precocious students, who seek to learn for its own sake and are willing to take on academic challenges as opposed to being academically complacent. Failing to take advantage of AP, IB, and honors courses can demonstrate the opposite.


You should also keep in mind that a substantial portion of the applicant pool for elite colleges will have taken rigorous courses. Ceteris paribus, college admissions officers will be more inclined to accept the student who has taken a more challenging course load than the student who has taken a relatively easier one.


Ultimately, this decision depends on your personal ambitions. If you don’t aspire to apply to the most competitive universities, it is not necessary to take a full schedule of APs, IBs, and honors classes. On the flip side, potential applicants to top tier schools would be well advised to take the most rigorous course load they feel they can comfortably handle.   


Looking for help in making this important decision? That’s totally normal—your high school courses are important to your high school plans, but as a high school student, you’re working with limited information and experiences while making these decisions. Check out our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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Lydia Tahraoui
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.