What are AP Courses?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Advanced Placement, or AP, courses are specially designed classes for high school students seeking to earn college credit or simply take a more challenging course. Classes are available in a variety of subjects and typically end with a rigorous examination at the end of the year. Students who successfully pass AP exams may be granted college credit or admission to advanced classes at some universities.

Advanced placement, or AP, courses provide challenging, specialized study for high school students.
Advanced placement, or AP, courses provide challenging, specialized study for high school students.

The Advanced Placement program is run by a nonprofit corporation called the College Board. In addition to running the AP program, the College Board offers preparatory classes for the SAT and similar tests. The College Board also provides help in applying for and choosing colleges. The AP program runs in both the United States and Canada, and boasts over one million AP test-takers each year.

Most high schools offer AP courses to advanced students as a part of their college prep curriculum.
Most high schools offer AP courses to advanced students as a part of their college prep curriculum.

AP courses are offered in more than 30 subjects, although not all classes are available in all locations. The classes are generally considered to be comparable with college-level requirements, and have a very rigorous curriculum. The AP courses cover a broad range of subjects, including calculus, chemistry, studio art, US and world history, and a variety of language and culture classes. Unfortunately, due to recent drops in funding, at least four classes have been dropped from the course list in 2009.

AP credit is typically given based on the exam scores, which allows home schooled students or those from schools that do not offer AP courses the chance to participate in the program. Although participation in the course is strongly recommended, independent study can also prepare a student for the difficult AP exam. To learn more about how to sign up for AP exams even if you cannot take the courses, contact your local school district and ask to speak to an AP coordinator.

The exams for AP courses are offered once each year, usually in May. Tests may take several hours, and strict adherence to all test rules must be followed at the risk of disqualification. Grades are determined by July, which means that high school seniors will not have their AP scores before choosing a college and determining the amount of college credit they will receive. Experts recommend beginning AP classes in sophomore or junior year of high school, which will allow you to have passing grades ready to submit to colleges and give you another chance to take exams if you fail.

Grading on the AP tests is done on a curve, with five being the highest score possible and one the lowest. Most colleges consider a score of three or above to be a passing grade. Your scores are sent to you and your high school, as well as to any university you request. Students that score particularly high on multiple exams may be given AP Scholar Awards, an academic honor distinguishing them for their achievement.

College credit given for AP courses is determined on a school by school basis. In the most beneficial programs, you can receive up to a year of credit for your AP course work. This means that you can actually begin college with a sophomore standing, allowing you to save a year of tuition and time. Be sure to check what each college you are considering offers in terms of AP credit.

AP classes are a difficult but wonderful opportunity to get the jump on your college education. While the classes may be more demanding that typical high school courses, they may also be more engaging and rewarding for advanced students. The curriculum of an AP course can help prepare students for the level of work expected from them at a university, and may give them a chance to explore subjects they enjoy in an in-depth and focused manner before even setting foot on a college campus.

AP courses generally have higher work requirements.
AP courses generally have higher work requirements.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I have spent some time teaching AP courses, and I think it should be said that students need to be careful when making their AP courses list.

It is easy to take on too much, especially when you're filing college applications, going through general senior year malaise, and dealing with everything else that comes with college preparation.

So read those AP course descriptions carefully. Doing really well in regular courses will be better for your GPA than doing poorly in AP courses.


I had heard something about online AP courses. Does anybody know if an online AP course carries the same amount of credit as a regular AP courses? I am homeschooled, but I still want to take as many APs as I can before going to college. Hence, the research on the credit system.

Has anyone reading this article taken online AP courses before, or know how they work? Specifically, I'd like to know about online AP course credit.


I was one of those who took a bunch of AP courses in high school, and let me tell you, although it makes you totally miserable at the time, it really pays off in college.

A lot of times you can use your AP credit to get out of those ridiculously early, mind numbing gen ed classes that so many freshmen have to take.

So seriously, skip the partying and take high school AP courses -- you will really, really appreciate it down the road.

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