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What Is an Advanced Placement (AP) Class?

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Odds are you’ve already heard of AP classes, either from friends, teachers, or gloating classmates. If so, you’re probably wondering what exactly these classes are. What are their origins and what can they do for you? It’s only natural if you’re staring down at your high school course registration and thinking, would I, could I, should I? Don’t worry—CollegeVine is here to clear things up for you. Read on to learn more about AP classes.


First, a little background.

In a post-WWII America, our country was caught up in the Cold War and the race to space. Government leaders worried that American high schoolers were not equipped to compete in an increasingly global world. Basically, everyone was worried that we were falling behind and would never be able to compete with the Soviet Union, a fear that only deepened when the U.S.S.R. launched the first satellite, years before the U.S.A. was able to launch one of our own.


So, the Ford Foundation created the Fund for the Advancement of Education and funded a series of studies. These confirmed that smart, motivated high school students were being bogged down by a lack of continuity in their coursework when they got to college. These bright, high-achieving students were often required to repeat introductory work that they’d already done once in high school. It was a waste of time, and a waste of potential. Not surprisingly, the studies found that there was a striking disconnect between high schools and colleges, which operated in complete isolation from one another.


In 1952, a pilot program was launched to address the widening gap between secondary and higher education and to grant students who excelled in high school “advanced placement” in college courses. This Advanced Placement (AP) program, administered by the College Board, caught on and has since grown to include teacher training, pre-AP initiatives beginning as early as middle school, and standardized assessments.


Today’s Advanced Placement (AP) courses actually have roots dating back more than 60 years to the days of Sputnik and the original space age. And while we can’t guarantee that AP classes will have you launching satellites into orbit, we can guarantee that they’re as solid an option for motivated and intelligent high school students today as they were 60 years ago.


So What Exactly is an AP Class?

Basically, AP classes are a set of 38 (and counting) college-level courses that you can choose from while you’re still in high school. They are based on a standardized set of curriculum determined by the College Board and administered by teachers at your high school who have completed AP teacher training and professional development programs.


AP classes generally last the entire academic year and are usually the equivalent of a single-semester of college or university level work. Sometimes, they may be administered over a single high school semester, particularly in schools with block scheduling. Other times, the AP course is actually equivalent to a full year of college study. For specifics about individual courses, check out the course homepage.


All AP classes culminate in a standardized assessment that is graded on a five-point scale. Students who receive a score of three or higher are considered to have passed the exam, and, by extension, the equivalent college course. While many AP classes still rely on the old-fashioned formal, standardized exam, some AP classes are now scored entirely on prolonged projects that you create over the course of the school year, which is good news for students who don’t thrive in the traditional, standardized testing environment.


Most students enroll in the actual AP course to prepare for the standardized assessment, but this isn’t necessarily the only means to the end. If your school doesn’t offer an AP course that you want to take, or for whatever reason you can’t take the class through your school, you can often still self-study for the assessment or enroll in an AP course online. For more on this, check out CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams or Which AP Exam Should You Self-Study?

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So, Are You Ready?

If you’re thinking about registering for AP classes, there are a couple of important details to consider first. While you don’t necessarily have to be at the top of your class and you certainly don’t need to be considering a satellite space launch, you should at least be academically inclined and generally receive strong grades. APs are tough classes, and they can be overwhelming if you aren’t up for them. If you’re a junior, you can use your PSAT scores to help shape your decision if you’re unsure about your ability to tackle this caliber of coursework.


You should also make sure that you’ve met any prerequisites required for the specific class you want to take. Find more specific information for each subject area by checking out the course homepage.


Your teachers or guidance counselor should be able to help, too. If you need some advice for initiating the discussion, check out the College Board’s AP Conversation Starter.


In addition, don’t miss these helpful CollegeVine posts:


Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

How Much Do AP Scores Matter?

Guides for Acing Your AP Exams

How to Handle Multiple AP Exams


Great! But How Much is This Going To Cost?

Because there seems to be a price for everything these days, you’re probably wondering how much AP classes are going to set you back. Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.


First, the good: if you take the AP courses offered through your regular high school, the classes themselves won’t cost you a thing. They are free through public schools and are almost certainly included with your general tuition at private schools. The only time you need to pay to take an AP class is if you are registering at a school other than your own, or you are taking the class online.


The bad? AP exams are a different story. The cost to take an AP exam has risen consistently just about every year. As of 2018, the fee for each AP exam is $94 for tests administered in the United States and at U.S. Department of Defense Dependents Schools abroad. The fee for exams administered outside of the U.S. is $124 per test. In addition, schools are allowed to charge you even more to cover proctoring or administration costs and some assessments, such as those required for the AP Capstone Diploma, cost $142. Not to mention, if you end up needing to take a test during the late-testing period, you’ll need to pay an additional $45 per exam.


If you have significant financial needs, you can apply for a $32 College Board fee reduction per AP exam. Some states will also offer additional funds to supplement the College Board fee reduction. See the AP Student guide to Fees and Fee Reductions to learn more.


Also, keep in mind that although the AP exam fees might seem steep, AP coursework can actually work to your financial advantage over the long run; that is, if you are able to apply the credit at your college or university. For more about this potential, check out CollegeVine’s Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?


What Do You Get Out of AP Classes?

There are lots of reasons to take AP classes. First of all, AP coursework on your college applications highlights your commitment to higher learning and your ability to tackle college-level work. It can also help you to gain college credit or earn advanced standing when you do matriculate. (To learn which colleges and universities accept credit and what their exact regulations for it are, use the AP Credit Policy Search tool.) In addition, AP coursework can qualify you for an AP Scholar Award.


Of course, AP classes help you to build your skills and knowledge at the college-level, too. Thinking back to the original aim of the Advanced Placement curriculum, these rigorous courses are often the most demanding track of coursework available, and as such, you can expect to gain more knowledge and experience through them than through other high school classes available to you. We may no longer be competing in a space race with the U.S.S.R. (because, well, they don’t exist anymore) but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to support students who want to achieve more, learn more, and grow more during their high school years. And the AP curriculum can provide you with a platform to do just that.


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.