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Duke University
Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
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What AP Courses Should You Take for Pre-med, BS/MD, and STEM Programs?

Many high school students take Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and even more take AP exams. The popularity of these exams should come as no surprise due in large part to the positive impression they make on admissions counselors during the college application season. But many high school students don’t think of the longer term effect that AP classes can have on their academic career. AP classes don’t just show your proficiency in a rigorous course—they also prepare you for success in your challenging intermediate level college classes. 


Still, it’s hard to know just how closely linked specific AP classes are with future performance in certain fields of study. Does doing well on an AP exam make you more likely to succeed in intermediate college classes? Do the students who take these tests actually go on to study these related fields? These questions might seem like a shot in the dark, but lucky for us, the CollegeBoard tracks student studies and success in college. Taking a closer look at their data can help you determine which AP classes are most beneficial for your intended field of study. If you hope to go into medicine or other STEM fields, keep reading to discover which AP classes may help you the most. 

Pre-Med: Biology and Chemistry

Students who pursue a pre-med track in college will need to study biology, chemistry, and physics at intermediate and advanced levels. While the CollegeBoard has yet to provide the relevant data for AP physics classes, data is available about the correlation between biology and chemistry AP exams and future success in these fields of study. 


The CollegeBoard’s data shows that students who receive a score of four or five on the AP Biology exam are more likely to succeed in intermediate biology classes in college. In fact, students who scored a five on the exam went on to earn grades that were on average 0.63 higher than the average non-AP grade of 2.80 on a 4.0 scale. While this might seem fairly negligible, it can actually mean the difference between a B+ and an A-, and almost even accounts for the difference between a B+ and an A. 


The CollegeBoard’s data shows that students who do well on the AP Chemistry exam are less likely to see gains in intermediate chemistry courses in college. The correlation does exist, but it is less strong than it is in the case of the AP Biology exam, and only students who receive a score of five on the chemistry exam are statistically more likely to succeed. These students go on to earn grades that were on average 0.33 higher than the average non-AP grade of 2.88 on a 4.0 scale. While this is still statistically significant, it is a much weaker predictor of future success than AP Biology in intermediate biology classes. 

BS/MD Programs: Biology, Chemistry, and Calculus BC

Students entering a BS/MD program can expect to follow a similar line of studies as those who are pursuing a pre-med track. The primary difference is that students in a BS/MD program will usually take higher level calculus classes earlier in their college career in order to accelerate their program. 


As discussed above in the pre-med section, AP biology is the class most closely correlated with future success in intermediate level college courses. While AP chemistry is still associated with higher grades in college, it is only statistically significant for students who receive a score of five on the AP exam. 


Of all the AP exams analyzed by the CollegeBoard, the Calculus BC exam was the one most closely linked with future success in intermediate college classes. Students who received scores of three, four, or five all enjoyed statistically significant increased grades in the associated intermediate level college classes. Students who scored a five 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. This is a huge difference that translates to the difference between receiving a C+/B- in a course and receiving a B+/A- in that same class.

Other STEM Programs: Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus BC

Other STEM programs will require similar course loads to those required in BS/MD programs and for pre-med tracks. This typically includes coursework in chemistry, physics, and calculus. 


As discussed in the pre-med section above, AP chemistry has only a slight correlation with higher score in intermediate level college chemistry classes. Only students who receive a score of five on the Chemistry AP typically see significantly higher scores in their subsequent college studies. 


While the CollegeBoard has yet to release data linked to the Physics AP exams, the data for the AP Calculus BC exam is strongly convincing. Be sure to read more about in the BS/MD section above where we outline the significant correlation between doing well on the AP exam and doing well in your future college calculus courses. 

Commitment to Future Coursework

While AP classes often serve the purpose of preparing you for future college-level coursework in that field of study, they also serve a secondary purpose of demonstrating your interest in and commitment to specific fields of study. Admissions committees like to see areas of specialty and pursuing certain AP classes is a great way to express you investment to studying these areas at an advanced level. 


In addition to collecting data about how your performance on an AP exam may correlate with your performance in related college courses, the CollegeBoard also collects data about what students who take specific AP classes go on to study during college. For example, do students who take the AP German exam go on to study German in college? What about students who take the AP English exam or AP Biology exam?


In general, AP classes in the arts, languages, and STEM fields are most closely associated with future studies in these fields. For example, 43% of students who took the Art-General AP exam went on to take art classes in college, compared to only 9% of students who did not take the Art AP. 


In the STEM fields, students who took AP exams were only slightly more likely to take single a class in the associated field, but they did take significantly more classes in those fields. Students who took AP exams in biology, physics, calculus BC, or chemistry took about twice as many classes in those fields in college than those who did not take these exams. 


In the end, you should choose to take the classes that most closely correlate with your interests and areas of strength. AP classes are rigorous and will demonstrate not only your ability to tackle college level work, but also your commitment to the subject area. They may also prepare you for future success in intermediate level college coursework if you pursue these subject areas further. 


Keep in mind, though, that the data from the CollegeBoard is only a small glimpse into what’s possible. While some AP exam scores might be associated with higher grades in those classes in college, this is far from a universal truth. Similarly, just because you don’t perform well on an AP exam, that doesn’t mean you won’t do well in that subject area if you choose to pursue it in college. Only your own hard work and preparation will lead to your personal success. 


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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.