Article by Adriane Donkers, College Consultant with Annapolis College Consulting 

Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses are offered in many high schools. When choosing your classes each year, you may wonder whether you should enroll in more rigorous courses and how many of those honors, AP and IB courses you should take. Below are some considerations when determining your high school course rigor.

Three Reasons to Take AP or IB

If available to you, the three main reasons to take AP or IB courses is college applications, preparation for college academics, and college credit.

College Applications
Regarding college applications, colleges assess a student’s transcripts by looking at the rigor of the courses taken based on what was available to them in their school (see your school profile). This does not mean that a student needs to take 25 AP courses if there are 25 AP courses offered. What it does mean is that the college admissions representative will look at the list of available AP courses at the school and look at the student’s transcript to see if the student took advantage of and challenged themselves by enrolling in challenging those more difficult course offerings, particularly in the latter grades.

College Preparedness
AP and IB courses also offer academic benefits in that students are taking advanced courses and they should become better prepared for college-level work because they develop better writing skills, better research skills, and better problem-solving skills. They also learn how to manage their time for a more rigorous curriculum, which prepares them for university courses. Having this experience during high school will help students to feel more confident about their ability to handle college.

College Credit
Finally, students may be able to receive college credit for AP and IB courses. Whether credit is offered will depend on the student’s AP/IB test scores and what the college deems to be worthy of college credit. For instance, for AP courses some colleges require a test score of 3 or higher, others require a test score of 4 or higher, and others require a test score of 5. Some do not offer any college credit for AP/IB courses. In addition, the test score required may vary across courses, e.g., an AP score of 3 may be required for some courses, but an AP score of 4 may be required for others. This variation in test score requirements is also true for IB courses.

Which AP/IB courses should I take?

A student should take advanced courses in a variety of subject areas, however, if choices need to be made, then students should take advanced courses in their areas of interest or areas they intend to study in college. For instance, if a student intends to study History in college, then it would be wise to take AP or IB History courses. Similarly, if a student intends to study Engineering, then advanced math and science courses would be beneficial to the student. Finally, if a student is interested in English or Creative Writing then advanced Composition and Literature course would be appropriate.

A student can take as many AP or IB courses they wish, but If a student’s goal is to receive an IB diploma, then the student needs to examine the requirements and work with their high school counselor to ensure they will receive the diploma.

How many AP/IB courses should I take?

While rigor is important, it is also important for the student to assess how much college-level curriculum they can handle. Some students are not academically prepared for rigorous course work. For example, it would not be wise to take an advanced math course just to show rigor if a student does not have the pre-requisite level of math necessary to be successful in the course. It is important for a student to assess whether they are prepared for the curriculum. The guidance office should be a part of this decision-making process.

Students should also consider how well they can balance their advanced coursework with other obligations such as family, a job, and extracurricular activities. Colleges are not only looking for academic rigor; they are also looking for how a student engages outside the classroom. Through activity lists, essays, and Letters of Recommendation, the admissions offices will assess how students are involved, whether they like to contribute, and if they are eager to make an impact. It is a matter of balancing academic rigor and non-academic activities. However, it is important that students not use non-academic activities as an excuse for skipping AP or IB courses because colleges will examine whether a student challenged themselves given the courses available to them.

Finally, it is important to consider the stress and anxiety that advanced courses may cause a student. If the student is able to have a well-rounded and happy life while taking advanced courses, then they should take go for it. However, if a student is already suffering from mental health issues or if the advanced courses will cause excessive stress and anxiety and negatively affect their mental well-being, then it may be time to put on the breaks. This would be the time to assess whether any AP or IB courses should be taken, and if so, the appropriate number to take.

The decision to take AP or IB courses can be complicated. It is best for students to examine their goals and preparedness and work with their counselor and parents to determine what would be appropriate. As always it depends on the school, the student and the type of college in which they are interested.