College & Workforce Readiness

How Many AP Classes Are Enough? What Researchers (and College Hopefuls) Say

By Ileana Najarro — October 31, 2023 7 min read
A circular illustration of several books of different colors and shapes overlapping one another.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says The State of Career and Technical Education, in Charts
New federal data shows more than 8 in 10 high school graduates completed at least one course in a career-education field in 2019.
2 min read
Young girl working on an electrical panel in a classroom setting.
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion Can Mastery-Based Learning Replace Seat Time?
Developing better assessments and getting buy-in from practitioners will be key to replacing seat time as a proxy for mastery.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center Are Real-World Problem-Solving Skills Essential for Students?
Ensuring students' career readiness is a top priority for districts.
2 min read
Photograph of culturally diverse students and Black female teacher discussing mathematics problem at a whiteboard
College & Workforce Readiness What’s More Important to Students and Employers: Skills or Credentials?
At the Reagan Institute Summit on Education, leaders discussed the evolving value of college degrees versus career skills.
4 min read
Reagan Institute Summit on Education panelists discuss career-connected education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2024.
Reagan Institute Summit on Education panelists discuss career-connected education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2024.
Annie Goldman/Education Week