High School Honors and AP Classes – Do I Need to Take Them?

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One of the most important decisions a high school student must make is whether to take honors and Advanced Placement classes. These classes involve more challenging coursework than regular ones, but attending them looks good on college applications and prepares students for college workloads. Should you sign up for honors and AP classes? That all depends on your skills, interests, work ethic and long-term plans.

What Are the Differences Between Honors and AP Classes?

The key difference between high school honors and AP courses is that teachers, department heads and state government officials build the curricula for honors classes whereas the College Board, a U.S. not-for-profit organization, builds the curricula for AP classes. In addition, AP classes feature an end-of-class test with a score range of one to five, and colleges award class credit to students with AP test scores of four or higher. Some colleges even award class credit for an AP score of three. Honors classes, by contrast, generally don’t translate to college credit.

High schools often require students to take placement tests, get teacher recommendations or take prerequisite courses before they can attend honors classes. However, College Board doesn’t require any of these criteria to take an AP exam; this ensures every high school student has an equal opportunity to get college credit if they wish. In terms of grade point average, high schools sometimes weight honors and AP courses differently than regular courses. Many schools also give AP courses extra weight but not honors courses. Before choosing an AP or honors class, you should find out how it’s weighted. Fortunately, college admissions officers take weighting differences into account when selecting students.

The Benefits of Honors and AP Classes

Taking honors and AP courses shows college admissions officers you can handle the rigor of college, making your admittance more likely. In particular, these courses teach you to handle harder exams, stricter deadlines and more complex reading material than you’re apt to find in typical high school classes. They’re akin to dipping your toe in the pool before jumping in. Since AP courses can give you college credit, taking them means you can focus on more challenging courses in college.

If you’re passionate about the subject matter, honors and AP courses can prove highly stimulating. AP classes often cover specialized subjects that high schools don’t normally teach, such as Latin, statistics, studio art design, human geography and music theory. At least three dozen AP classes exist, though schools vary in which ones they provide. Some of the most common AP courses are English Language and Composition, United States History and Calculus AB.

The Drawbacks of Honors and AP Classes

Since honors and AP classes are unusually difficult, they can soak up a lot of time and energy that could go toward clubs, hobbies, college apps, standardized tests and extracurricular activities, not to mention other classes. If you take too many such courses, you also risk burnout and poor grades, which lower your chances of getting into college. In addition, taking AP tests can be stressful. Even if you receive a high grade in an AP class, colleges may assume the teacher was too easy if you failed to pass the AP test. Getting a good score on the test in addition to a high grade in the class is vital.

One problem with AP classes is that they can be boring if the teacher isn’t engaged with the material, since College Board administers the same AP curricula to every school. By contrast, honors classes feature curricula that teachers can modify at will, which can boost their enthusiasm. If possible, find out how good your school’s honors and AP teachers are before taking their classes, by researching them online or asking students who’ve taken them.

Picking Honors and AP Classes

How you should pick your honors and AP classes depends on how competitive the colleges are that you wish to attend. For the most selective schools, such as Harvard and Princeton, you should take half a dozen to a dozen AP courses, including as many of the core ones as possible, such as English and Biology. For less selective but still competitive schools, such as Boston University or New York University, half a dozen AP courses is plenty.

Admissions officers know that not every school has a wide selection of AP classes, and they avoid penalizing applicants accordingly. However, they prefer to admit students who take the hardest courses they can. Usually, admissions officers give more weight to modest grades in honors and AP classes than to high grades in regular classes. Even for less-than-competitive schools, honors and AP classes go a long way toward admittance.

Scheduling Honors and AP Classes

To avoid suffocating under the stress of honors and AP classes in your senior year, make sure you stagger them out strategically throughout all four years of high school. For example, you might take one honors or AP course during your freshman year just to get the hang of things, such as Psychology, and ratchet up to another couple of classes during your sophomore year to develop good work habits. During your freshman and sophomore years, you should be knocking out all your prerequisite classes for your junior and senior years.

Junior year course loads are the most important to admissions officers, since students’ time and energy are yet to be spread thin with college apps. Take as many honors and AP classes as you can in your junior year. Finally, for your senior year, try to balance your honors and AP classes with your college apps and extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that applicants to the most selective schools sometimes take half a dozen AP classes during their senior year.

Other Considerations

When choosing advanced courses, remember that elite colleges probably don’t know how difficult your school’s honors curricula are compared to its AP curricula, which are universal. Therefore, AP courses are better indicators of intelligence and work ethic for elite and out-of-state universities, while honors courses are better indicators for in-state universities, which keep track of state curricula. Also, just taking college preparatory courses doesn’t cut it for most colleges; this suggests the student is capable of taking honors or AP classes but is merely afraid of doing poorly.

Overall, taking honors and AP courses is a great idea, especially if you plan to attend college. Just make sure you choose your courses carefully and schedule them according to your needs.