Ambitious students who have goals of getting into highly selective colleges commonly wonder whether it is better to get an A in a regular course or a B in the corresponding advanced placement course. There is no one correct answer to this question for all students because it depends on the rest of your course load and GPA. If you want to get into an elite college such as one of the Ivy League schools, you should strive to take advanced placement classes and get As in them. If you are weaker in a subject area and wondering whether or not to take the AP version in the subject or a regular class instead, here are some important things that you should consider before choosing one or the other.
Consider Where You Want to Attend College
One of the first things that you should consider is the big-picture goal: what college you are wanting to attend. Taking advanced placement courses is not required for admission into any school, but elite colleges such as Harvard and Yale prefer that students take the most rigorous classes that are offered at their schools, including AP courses. AP students are the ones you’ll be competing with for admission. Selective schools may be less impressed by students who earned straight As but who have failed to take advanced placement classes that were offered at their schools. This is because the admissions officers may believe that these students were unwilling to push themselves and were simply trying to take the easy path through high school.
Yale states that the strength of your transcript is the most important factor that the school looks at when its admissions committee is trying to decide whether or not to accept you. The school wants students to take AP classes if they are offered and to do well in them. Jeff Rickey, the dean of admissions at St. Lawrence University, says that admissions officers would prefer that students got As in their advanced placement courses when a similar question was posed to him by the “New York Times.” When your school offers an advanced placement course in a subject area with which you are not completely comfortable, you will need to weigh the risks in order to decide whether to take it or instead take a regular college prep class on the subject.
Weighing the Risks and Benefits
Since colleges want to see that you have taken the most rigorous classes available, you may want to risk taking an AP class over a regular class. On average, the Los Angeles Times reports that applicants to selective schools take eight AP classes during high school with some taking as many as 13!
You should recognize your own limits, however. For example, if you are already working hard and taking many difficult classes at once, you might want to hold off on enrolling in another AP class during that semester if it will push you beyond your capabilities. You might also want to avoid enrolling in an AP course that is taught by a teacher who has a notorious reputation for being difficult or unfair. Taking a difficult AP class at the same time that you will also be taking the SAT, ACT or SAT subject tests may not be a good decision if you will have less time to prepare for both your AP class as well as your standardized tests.
Choosing Which AP Classes to Take
A good rule of thumb is to concentrate on taking AP courses in core subject areas, including English, science, history and math in lieu of choosing AP classes in more obscure topics. You might also choose to take more AP classes on the subject that you plan to pursue in college. For example, if you want to apply to a science and technology program at an elite institution, it might be smarter to take AP science and math classes and to concentrate on earning As in them over other subjects. If you instead want to pursue a career in the humanities or social sciences, taking AP courses that are offered in those areas might be smart.
If You Are Struggling in Your AP Class
If you are already enrolled in an advanced placement class and are struggling in it, you have a couple of options. You can get help from a tutor in the class in order to master the material and raise your grade. If you believe that you will not do better than a C no matter what help you might receive in a particular AP class, your last resort should be to drop it in favor of a regular course in the same subject. You can then save your AP classes for those subjects with which you are more comfortable so that your overall GPA remains high, giving you the best chance of gaining admission into your dream school.
It is important for you to remember that you will be searching for the college that matches and fits you the best. Finding the right college for you involves more variables than how many AP classes that you take. In addition to taking rigorous classes and doing the best that you can in them, your test scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, letters of recommendation and application essays will also be important for your admissions chances. It may also be possible that your best-fit school is not one that places too much emphasis on your taking as many AP classes as possible. You should carefully research different schools and try to visit the ones that you think might match your skills in order to determine the colleges that fit you the best. Then, review the average GPAs and the number of AP classes that applicants to those schools typically have so that you get a better idea of your targets.