It can be hard to figure out what exactly colleges are looking for when considering applicants.


What if you’re not a math genius, or the captain of the soccer team, or the Ambassador of Papua New Guinea at the Model UN?! Relax. Take a breath. 


Colleges look at a variety of factors when evaluating applicants, and there are a multitude of ways to strengthen your chances of admittance. Still, besides your essay and standardized test scores, good grades, maybe some honors classes and all that volunteer work, you may be wondering if AP classes are a requirement for admission to a competitive school. The short answer is that while AP courses are by no means the only reason you will or won’t get into the college of your choice, they are a great way to distinguish yourself academically.

How many AP classes should I take?

Admissions requirements vary from school to school, but most colleges are looking for well-rounded individuals who applied themselves seriously not only in school but also in extra curricular activities and in their communities. Still, a strong transcript will help you to stand out from a crowd of similar candidates. Admissions boards will be able to see what AP courses your school offers and will weigh your engagement against your opportunity. 


For instance, if your school only offers three AP classes, taking all three will weigh more heavily in your favor than a student who takes the same amount at a school that offers six. Colleges also want to see that you are willing to work hard and challenge yourself throughout high school, so taking AP classes now shows initiative and a willingness to push yourself beyond the bare minimum requirements for graduation. 


Moreover, doing well in an AP class shows admissions boards that you’re ready for the academic rigor of college itself. In fact, doing well on AP exams can even save you money, as many top schools will accept high enough scores (usually four or five) as college credit. A strong performance on a $94 dollar exam in high school might end up saving you thousands of dollars on the same class once you get to college. 


AP courses require that you devote a lot of time and energy to the rigorous workload in preparation for the exams. While you certainly want to challenge yourself to excel in subjects you think you can succeed in, you don’t want to overload yourself to the point that your other subjects begin to suffer. For example, if you’ve consistently done well in history throughout your high school career then your talents will most likely shine in classes like AP US and Global History. The mistake would be burdening yourself with three other AP classes that you don’t feel as confident in, spreading yourself so thin that your grades begin to suffer as a whole. 


The key is finding a balance between challenging yourself academically and maintaining a course load you can handle. Remember that admissions boards are looking not only at how many classes you took, but at how well you did in them and on the exams. Two fours is certainly better than four twos! 

What if my school doesn’t offer AP classes?

Again, don’t worry – AP classes are not the only factor in a college’s decisions, and admissions boards will be able to see that these courses were not available to you. Ask your counselor if you can enroll in AP courses at a nearby high school, and make sure to take advantage of other academically challenging opportunities offered by your school such as honors classes. 


You also have the option to take an AP test even if you haven’t taken the corresponding course. In this case you could work with your school or a tutor to develop a strategy for studying on your own, although you might want to take a practice test to see if your chances of scoring well on the exam warrant the testing fee. The College Board has exam prep materials here.


Should you take both the AP Calculus Exam and the SAT Subject Test in Calculus?

You may have noticed the trick question: There is no SAT Subject Test in Calculus. In fact, there are only 8 SAT Subject Tests in subjects besides languages to choose from (adding in the language exams makes a total of 20). And there are a whopping 38 AP courses at your disposal! So, in the case of any overlap (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, U.S. History, World history, Literature), approximately 75% of the test material will overlap as well. And many find the SAT Subject Tests less challenging than the AP Exams (they are only an hour long, for one, and you can take up to 3 in each sitting). 


SAT Subject Tests are not required if you’ve taken the AP Exam and done well; top tier universities would prefer to see that you can score well on a number of diverse exams. But there are other scenarios to consider. Let’s say you got a 3 on the Biology AP Exam, but you are applying to colleges with the intention to be Pre-Med. In that case, we’d recommend wowing admissions boards with a 750-800 on the SAT Subject Test in Biology. Same if the AP biology course isn’t offered at your school. 


The other good thing about Subject Tests is score choice; you do not have to report your score if you aren’t happy with it. And while you’re sitting for the SAT Subject Test in bio, you might as well show off with a great score in Math II if you’re taking AP Calculus. The scores will be a bit redundant, of course, but if you think you can ace it without a huge amount of studying and without affecting your grades by taking time away from studying other subjects, we say: “Go for it!” 

Meet the Author: Gill W.

Gill is a writer, musician and filmmaker born in New York City. He graduated with honors from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he studied Storytelling and the World Narrative. In tutoring students, he has a unique framework for each individual’s specific learning style, fostering intellectual curiosity and a deeper understanding of curricula. This is especially effective when helping students craft unique college application essays to showcase their distinct voice, passion, and worldview. Learn more about Gill. 



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