What Are AP Classes?

Students may decide to take advanced placement classes in high school to potentially earn college credits. Learn more about AP classes and exams.

High schoolers are eligible to take what are called advanced placement classes, or AP classes. They’re advanced courses given at the high school level that can help students earn college credit through an AP exam following their course study. Depending on the high school, students can take any number of AP classes in many of the core subjects like calculus, biology, history and English – and even subjects like psychology, languages, physics and statistics.

Each year, millions of students across the globe take AP exams in hopes of scoring a three or higher to earn a few college credits. Here in Michigan, nearly 60,000 students took the test in 2015, notes Zach Goldberg, senior director of media relations for The College Board.

How do AP classes in high school work?

Students in high school can talk to their school counselors about what courses are available. At Trenton High School, for example, principal Michael Doyle says students have the option of 12 different courses, ranging from government to chemistry. He notes the syllabi for the classes have to be approved by AP Central.

Although the classes are open to anyone at THS, many start taking them in their later years, he says. This year, almost 30 percent of his high school’s junior and senior population took the AP exams, Doyle says. Goldberg notes while open to all high schoolers, the classes are designed to be a challenge academically, thus students are better prepared for some of the AP classes by their junior and senior years.

The exams themselves work like this: Students take the exam on the assigned day in May (you can take a peek at the calendar to see exactly when test dates are scheduled). Most exams are about two to three hours long, notes AP, and are a mix of multiple-choice questions and a free-response portion. Students who are taking multiple AP courses may take multiple AP exams over the testing weeks.

Students are given a score of one to five, and those that score a three or above on the exam can submit the scores to their future colleges for potential credits or placement in a higher-level course.

“Most colleges and universities offer credit, advanced placement, and/or consideration in the admission process for qualifying AP Exam scores,” says Goldberg.

Why take AP classes?

Research shows students who score a three or higher on the exam are more likely to have higher college grade point averages, have higher graduation rates and more, Goldberg says.

Plus, with those credits already under their belts, students (and their parents!) will enjoy a cost savings on higher education.

“My personal experience is my daughter,” Doyle says, adding she earned 15 Advanced Placement credits. “She went to Michigan State University and she basically waived her first semester, and you’re looking at $10,000 in savings right there.”

Although one hopes to earn some college credit by taking the AP exam, taking the test is predictor of future success regardless of how well they perform.

“New research also shows that students who take an AP Exam, regardless of the score they receive, are more likely to graduate college on time in four years than matched students who don’t take an AP Exam,” Goldberg says.

As for taking the courses? Doyle simply stresses, “Take ’em.” They prepare you for the “rigor” of college.

“(It’s) learning as a high school student how to compete in the university world,” he says.

AP stresses you don’t have to be top of your class to take AP classes. And, based on PSAT/NMSQT test scores, there are “tens of thousands of students” who could do well in these more challenging classes with rigorous classwork, Goldberg notes. The College Board has launched a campaign called ALL IN to encourage women, African American, Latino and “other underrepresented students” to seize the opportunity to take AP classes.

To learn more about your student’s options – and get her to sign up – have her meet with a high school counselor or talk to a perspective AP teacher about what to expect and what steps to take. A good time to start scouting out the courses is the spring before taking one to start planning. And, visit the official College Board AP Student website to get even more tips – including a handy checklist – and details.


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