Is there an optimal number of Advanced Placement courses students should take to succeed in college?
The College Board, which offers AP courses through which students can get college credit while in high school, conducted research this summer to answer that longstanding question.
Taking and doing well on more than 5 AP course exams doesn’t significantly improve a student’s chances of getting good first-year college grades and four-year degree completion, the nonprofit found. In fact, just doing well on their first or second exam indicates future college success.
But Isabella Leyton, a senior at Patricia E. Paetow High School in Katy, Texas, wants to go to a top institution. She’s doing everything she can to stand out in her admissions portfolio—including taking seven AP classes this school year alone.
“I want colleges to know that I’m trying my best with the resources already present at my school,” Leyton said.
For years, students and families have also wrestled with the question of AP’s role in getting into top schools that pair a great reputation with large financial aid packages. However, the College Board specifically focused its research on gains in college outcomes, not admission chances.
The pressure to take as many AP classes as possible has often come from these highly selective institutions, which make it clear they value seeing high AP exam results in applications, but don’t specify whether there’s a threshold of how many scores they wish to see, said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.
High school counselors generally advise that there is no magic number for all students. What they want out of college—and more broadly life—is what should determine how many AP courses they should take.
It all means that while the College Board’s new data should theoretically discourage students from taking full AP course loads, whether students and families will take that to heart may depend on college admission offices shifting their messaging on AP.
Why AP matters in college applications
The College Board is well aware that some students and families view AP courses as a means to “give them an edge in their college application process,” the nonprofit said in a statement.
Yet based on its new research findings, the nonprofit still discourages overloading schedules with AP courses. In fact, in the graduating class of 2022, a majority—65 percent—of students didn’t take a single AP course or exam in high school.
Earlier this year, Trevor Packer, the head of the AP program for College Board, said addressing both challenges—the subset of students that stockpile AP courses, and the majority who don’t take AP—is a priority for the organization. Packer said the College Board has made their new research on the relationship between the number of AP courses taken, how well students did on those exams, and their future college success accessible to school board and admission officers.
Research from NACAC has indicated that grades in college-prep courses, which include AP, the International Baccalaureate, and dual-enrollment classes, do in fact receive particular emphasis in the college admission process, said Hawkins with NACAC.
“What we have seen over the years is a substantial amount of confusion between the college admission office, the school counseling community, and students and families as to how to interpret colleges’ interest in college-preparatory classes,” he added.
For instance, admission officers at highly selective institutions often tell students to take the most challenging courses available to them, without any indication of how many that entails. It could mean that, if a student says they wish to study physics in college, they should take and do well in an advanced physics course in high school. But more often, it is interpreted as taking every AP course available in high school to increase the odds of getting into a top school.
There is a fear, not totally unfounded, that if a student attends a high school with 10 AP courses and only takes a few, they will somehow seem less qualified for admission when compared to a classmate who took all 10, Hawkins said.
In order for the College Board’s new research to truly take hold, Hawkins said college admissions officers must be aware of the findings and translate that awareness into better practice and better guidance for students.
“When the colleges say this, especially the colleges that are highly selective institutions, the counselors will listen, the students and families will listen,” he said. “The bottom line is we can turn the temperature down a bit, but it’s going to be the colleges that really need to step up and take the first turn at the podium.”
‘No magic number’ for students
Students and counselors alike agree that AP courses offer many academic benefits beyond college admissions to students in terms of the skills including time management, critical thinking, and writing skills they learn in these courses that prepare them for college work.
Yet the pressure to stand out in highly selective admission processes is tangible. Ken Jackson, the counseling department co-chair at Decatur High School in Georgia, said he still sees students who think that they won’t be happy or successful if they don’t go to a school like Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Relatedly, Jackson worries about students burning out and overstressing when taking full AP class loads.
Leyton, the student in Katy, Texas, who will graduate with 13 AP classes on her transcript, admits that at times all her AP work on top of extracurriculars and everything else can take a toll. She likened it to “drowning in an immense pile of schoolwork and mental deprivation.”
It’s why she makes sure to take time to rest and recharge.
For Jackson, there is no magic number of AP courses each student should take. What matters is what goal students have for themselves—and whether that goal comes from the right mindset.
Students often think this way: I want to go to Brown University. Why? Because I love the location and it has a great reputation. Therefore, to go to Brown, I need to do X, Y, Z.
He encourages them to think of it like this instead: I am at my best and happiest if I take three AP classes and act in the school play. This is the kind of life that makes me happy. Therefore, these are the kinds of schools that I should look at, because they would be a good fit with how I want to live my life and what is healthy for me.
Tomas Marulanda-Mesa, a fellow senior at Paetow High School in Katy, Texas, reflects that more holistic approach. He’s taking 5 AP classes this year and will graduate with 10 total. His school grades AP classes on a 5.0 GPA scale.
But outside of having a safer GPA, he doesn’t see much benefit in trying to squeeze in more AP work. In fact, Marulanda-Mesa plans to major in film so he wants to ensure he has time for film classes in high school.
“To me, honestly it is better in my experience to balance that drive for academic success, along with your personal life,” he said.
Where students and counselors stand now
At St. Albans High School in Kanawha County, West Virginia, many students who go on to college are the first generation of their families to do so.
It’s why school counselor Richard Tench is less concerned about students over-packing their schedules with AP courses and works instead toward empowering students to make that jump to an AP course for the first time.
“College itself is daunting enough, and then when they consider this job of taking a college level curriculum early, there’s a lot of feelings surrounding that anxiety and hesitation,” Tench said.
The school offers various support systems for students including tutoring and focus group work with peers.
For Tench, AP courses offer students a chance to realize that they can succeed at college-level work and that it’s worth it to challenge themselves.
But he would never advise a student to take a certain number or type of AP courses specifically to increase their chances of getting into a school. Many schools, he noted, do more of a holistic admissions review where AP courses are just one component of the application.
Leyton in Katy, meanwhile, strives to be at the top of her class. Her high school only opened in 2017 and is mostly composed of students of color, and she wants to ensure she is able to stand out in admissions coming from a relatively new environment. Her hard work has so far paid off by becoming a QuestBridge finalist. Through this national recognition designated for high-achieving students from low-income families, she may secure a full four year scholarship to a top school.
She acknowledges that the workload she has taken on for herself isn’t ideal for everyone.
“I think it all depends on what that student feels like they need to do in their future,” she said. “And for me, I had a goal in mind, I knew I wanted to apply to top institutions. But that might not be the case for someone else.”