Which AP Courses Should I Take? – Part 2 (Business, Humanities, Pre-Law, Political Science)

AP courses serve two main purposes: to demonstrate to colleges that you can excel in challenging coursework and to prepare you for demanding intermediate college courses. To achieve both these goals, you should take APs that showcase both your strengths and your commitment to your academic interests and passions.

 

How well do AP courses actually prepare you for success in related subjects — and do students who complete these courses actually go on to study related fields? The College Board collects data on how well AP students perform in intermediate level courses related to the AP classes they took. They also examine whether students delve further into their AP class subjects in college. Keep reading for our analysis of this data for students who major in business, humanities, pre-law, and political science.

 

Business

  • Relevant APs: Macro/Microeconomics and Calculus

 

Students who major in business will need to take macroeconomics, microeconomics, and calculus at intermediate and advanced levels in college. 

 

According to the College Board data, students who scored well on the Calculus BC performed significantly better in an intermediate calculus class than those who didn’t take the AP. For example, students who scored a 5 on the exam earned grades that were 0.96 higher (on average) than the average non-AP grade of 2.50 on a 4.0 scale. That’s the difference between a C+/B- and a B+/A-.

 

In contrast, there is no meaningful positive correlation between high scores on the Macroeconomics AP test and performance in college-level economics classes. In fact, students who earned a 4 on the AP actually performed 0.03 worse on average than the non-AP students’ average college course grade of 2.88. (However, this variation is not statistically significant.) Here, the secondary purpose of AP courses and exams — preparing students for college-level courses — is not fulfilled. 

 

Humanities

  • Relevant APs: languages, history, psychology, and English

 

Humanities disciplines cover a wide range of subjects and require a variety of skills. Students who major in humanities subjects, including languages, history, philosophy, and English, often complete coursework in text-based fields, including government and politics, English and literature, and psychology. How does previous coursework in these areas typically impact humanities students’ college-level performance?

 

Students who earned a high score on the AP U.S. Government & Politics exam did, on average, perform statistically better in intermediate coursework than those who didn’t take the AP course. For example, students who earned a 5 on their AP exam scored, on average, 0.51 higher in related college courses than the non-AP average grade of 2.76. 

 

Students who scored a 3, 4, or 5 on English Literature and Composition or English Language and Composition showed an even larger increase in their intermediate-level college grades in related courses. Most notably, those who earned a 5 outperformed scored an average of 0.79 better in related college courses than their non-AP peers, whose average grade was 3.01. 

 

However, achieving a strong score on the AP Psychology exam did not have such a significant effect on students’ performance in related college coursework. While students who earned a 5 did perform better than their non-AP peers, those who earned a 4 or 3 did not. This indicates that this AP course doesn’t always prepare students to excel in college-level coursework in the subject.

Pre-law

  • Relevant APs: U.S. government, English language, and psychology 

 

Students who choose the pre-law track in college do not have specific required coursework, since law schools do not require students to follow a particular curriculum as undergraduates. However, pre-law students do have to complete requirements for their major (pre-law is a track, not a major or area of study). Still, many pre-law advisors recommend completing coursework that’s relevant to law, so many pre-law students seek a solid foundation in topics that will strengthen their language, writing, and analytic thought, as well as their knowledge of law and history. Such a curriculum can include courses like history, English, and psychology.

 

In the humanities section, we described how English AP students achieve higher grades in intermediate college courses on average than their non-AP peers. We also noted that AP Psychology students had less promising results. Those same insights apply here. 

 

Students who scored a 3, 4, or 5 on the U.S. History exam fall somewhere in between AP English and psychology students. Those who scored a 3, for example, did not perform significantly better than non-AP students, who earned an average grade of 2.87 in intermediate history courses. However, test-takers who scored a 4 or 5 did, indicating that the AP does prepare students for history coursework to some extent.

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Political Science/Policy & International Relations

  • Relevant APs: U.S. government, comparative government, U.S. and European history, and psychology

 

A major in political science or international relations will usually include broad coursework in areas such as U.S. and comparative government, history, psychology, and other areas in the humanities and social sciences. 

 

As we discussed in the above sections, students who scored well on their U.S. Government & Politics and English exams also performed better than their non-AP peers in intermediate-level coursework in related subjects. However, AP Psychologically students’ performance in college coursework show no statistically significant improvement compared with that of those who didn’t take the AP.

 

Commitment to Future Coursework

As noted above, AP courses and exams do more than just prepare students for college-level coursework. By investing time and effort in AP courses in your preferred subjects, you can demonstrate your commitment to and passion for that area of study. However, you might wonder: Do all AP course demonstrate the same commitment to further college coursework in that subject? Luckily, College Board data can also help answer this question. 

 

The College Board aggregates data on what percentage of students who complete an AP go on to complete college-level coursework in that subject. They compare AP students in each subject to students who did not take the AP. This data shows that for certain subjects, AP completion is a good predictor of future coursework; for other subjects, AP completion does not (from a statistical standpoint) tell colleges much about your likely future interests and coursework. We’ll break some of this data down in the next paragraphs. 

 

In general, AP completion in languages and certain STEM areas is a good indicator that a student will pursue further coursework in related subjects. However, liberal arts and humanities APs have weaker predictive qualities—AP and non-AP students complete college coursework in these areas at fairly similar rates. 

 

Specifically, STEM areas like computer science and physics have strong predictive value. 58 percent of students who took the AP Computer Science went on to take at least one computer science course in college, while only 28 percent of non-AP students did. Similarly, 80 percent of students who took the Physics E&M AP went on to take at least one related course in college, while only 59 percent of non-AP students did. 

 

However, this trend does not hold for more foundational math and science exams, like AP Biology and AP Calculus AB and BC. In the case of calculus, more students who didn’t take the AP exam took related courses in college; this might be because many universities allow students to use their AP credits to skip mathematics prerequisites or general education requirements.

 

Turning to the humanities and social sciences, the data shows similarly low predictive value for certain courses. Completion of the AP English and AP U.S. History exams has almost no predictive value: 96 percent of AP English Language and Composition test-takers went on to take related courses in college, while 92 percent of non-AP students did. However, note that English courses are often required to meet either major or general education requirements, which could increase number of students taking these courses, regardless of their interest in or commitment to the subject matter. 

 

More specialized exams in the humanities and social sciences do have strong predictive power. In particular, foreign languages and economics show large differentials between AP and non-AP students. For example, 54 percent of students who took the German Language AP exam went on to study a related topic in college, while only 7 percent of those who didn’t take the AP did.

 

What AP Strategy Should You Take? 

So what does this data tell you about smart AP strategy? Ultimately, you should choose courses that highlight your interests and strengths. If you really want to demonstrate your commitment to future coursework in a given area, though, keep in mind that certain courses, statistically speaking, might have more predictive value for the admissions committee than others. 

 

As we’ve described, high performance on some AP exams can correlate to future excellence in related coursework in college, though this correlation varies from subject to subject. Notably however, the College Board’s data compares students who earned a score of 3, 4, or 5 on their AP test to students who didn’t complete the AP course. The data excludes students who scored 1’s or 2’s on their tests, so it’s impossible to draw conclusions about whether merely taking an AP course can predict future success in the subject. However, colleges are unlikely to see a low score as indicating preparedness for college-level coursework. The upshot is that, when it comes to demonstrating your ability to excel in college-level coursework, you should choose APs that you’re excited about–but also prepared to do well in.

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
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 as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.