Are AP Classes Worth Taking?

     You may have heard stories of students surrounded by stacks of papers, binders, and textbooks awake until the early morning studying for AP tests and exams. This may sound like a nightmare for most teens (with good reason), but is it the reality of taking high school AP courses?

     Oyster River High School offers ten Advanced Placement (AP) courses, primarily in the STEM field. Designed specifically by CollegeBoard to help prepare you for college, the rigorous workload is similar to what can be expected in college. Many students choose to take what are widely considered as the most academically challenging classes to improve their chances of college admission, while others take the courses to dive deeper into the interesting material. Some take them simply to challenge themselves, while others take them with the hope of receiving college credit. No matter the motive, it’s important to understand what you’re getting yourself into if you are considering taking an AP course since there are notable differences from general curriculum courses. What should you really know before taking an AP class and how should you decide if AP is right for you? 

     Firstly, taking an AP course at the high school is a great option if you are interested in learning more in depth about a topic. As a year-long and fast-paced class, AP courses are able to cover more material at a more profound level. I can say with certainty that AP Biology dives much deeper into biological processes, cell structure and function, and ecology than the introductory biology course that you’re required to take freshman year. When considering whether or not to take an AP-level course, it’s important that you are somewhat interested in the subject since you will be investing a lot of work into the class. 

     While AP courses are great for exploring a subject that you already know you are excited about, they also provide the opportunity to discover a new interest. Kelly Zhang (‘23) said, “I never really thought about economics, but I took [AP Economics] to satisfy the economics requirement… Through taking AP Economics with Mr. Lacasse, I found that economics might actually be something I want to do in the future… Taking that class really helped me learn about my interests and consider pathways I didn’t think about before.”

     If you’re thinking of taking an AP course, it’s important to consider that one of the most defining characteristics of these classes is the challenging college-level coursework involved. Ben Montgomery (‘22) said that the biggest difference between AP and non-AP classes is “the amount of work you have to put in. I don’t think I ever had to really prepare for a lot of the mainstream core classes, but for AP classes I have to put in hours of effort some nights.”

     However, Zhang explained that the heavy demand from the class can be offset by an excitement about learning the material. “It’s no secret that the classes are challenging, so the motivation to work hard and [to find] the learning truly enjoyable comes from having this innate interest in the subject matter.” While there are many reasons why you might choose to take an advanced course, both Zhang and Montgomery agree that it’s important to have an interest in the subject you choose.

     Since AP courses are especially challenging, they can help you develop skills that can be used beyond your experience in high school. “There’s merit to working through challenges, asking hard questions, dealing with discomfort, [and] asking for help when you need it. All of the things in these hard classes are good skills in life,” said Kimberly Sekera, an Oyster River High School school counselor.

     Montgomery agreed that even though these courses can feel overwhelming at times, “you’re challenging yourself and building on a lot of important skills that you’re going to need later.” He expects that the study skills and time management that he has developed will help him to transition easily to the workload for college classes next year.

     Rather than taking a course to dive deeper into a subject of interest, you might aim to take an AP just to have it on your transcript. It’s well known that many colleges want to see that you’re taking on a rigorous course load so that they know you will be capable of handling the stress of their college-level courses. Sekera said that “for some colleges, AP does make a difference. As you get more selective, colleges want to know that you’re taking on rigor.” She continued, saying, “from the admissions standpoint, a lot of students want to take AP because it looks good for the college application. Which is true, however, there are plenty of students who have never taken any AP courses and go to 4-year colleges.”

     Ella Orchard-Blowen (‘22) is one of the many students who has not taken any AP courses and was still admitted into all of the colleges that she is interested in attending. Orchard-Blowen doesn’t consider the absence of AP courses on her transcript as a drawback for her application: She believes that your work ethic is more important than the level of rigor of your classes. “A drawback of not working hard is not getting into schools. I don’t think it matters [what] classes you take,” she said.

     If you’re aiming to apply to extremely selective schools such as Harvard or Yale and only considering taking AP courses to appeal to them, Sekera warns that there is no guarantee that students will be admitted even if they embrace a curriculum loaded with AP courses. “I’ve had students who load up on AP courses they don’t like [instead of] classes that they really would like to take… They don’t get into their top schools and they say ‘why did I waste all that time taking a class that I had zero interest in?’” she said.

     If you are only interested in showing that you are academically challenging yourself in your transcript, Sekera mentioned other pathways aside from taking AP courses that demonstrate this. She said, “of course colleges are going to look favorably [to AP courses] because that’s rigorous, but that’s not the only way a student can show rigor in their high school profile.” Colleges are also looking at the Career & Technical Education (CTE) program and other Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) similarly to AP courses because of the level of academic commitment that they require.

     If you decide to go to college, then the score you get on your AP exam can potentially count as college credit. Most schools accept scores of 4 or 5, but some don’t accept them at all. You might be motivated to take AP courses so that you can be exempt from taking general education or introductory courses during your first year of college. Kate Butcher (‘21), a freshman at the University of Vermont, said, “I took [AP Biology] just to take an AP. I thought I wanted to go into the STEM field, so using that to get college credit [would] kind of put me ahead or at least get me out of taking a big lecture class.”

     Even if your exam score doesn’t qualify for college credit, it can make taking an introductory course easier and allow you to focus more on other challenging classes. This was the case with Butcher. “I’m taking a biology class right now and basically what we’re doing is the entire evolution which is something we did in AP Biology. I feel like I kind of have a leg up [and] it’s like a review,” said Butcher, “it definitely helps to have that prior knowledge.”

     You might initially hesitate to take an AP because you may have heard that there is too much emphasis on taking the AP exam and the courses don’t prioritize the learning itself. However, Zhang has had the opposite experience with this. “These classes have taught me an appreciation for knowledge in general. I know some people think AP is just about studying for the test and cramming information, but in my experience the teachers do a great job of putting emphasis on the actual learning process.”

     Bill Reeves, the AP Calculus teacher at Oyster River High School, said that his goals are to prepare students for the AP exam while ensuring that students understand the material. “I want students to learn what I’m teaching and to appreciate the material,” he said. If you’re interested in knowing more about the learning emphasis in AP content at the high school, look into “Credit or Knowledge” by Lydia Hoffman. 

     Another worry that you may have when you consider taking an AP course is that it will drastically lower your GPA. Oyster River High School does not weigh GPA, meaning that every course impacts a student’s GPA in the same  way; more advanced classes are numerically valued the same way as the courses that are considered easier. If an AP class lowers a student’s GPA, it will only affect class rankings. However, colleges recalculate the GPA of all students when reviewing their applications so everyone is on the same playing field. 

     Taking an AP course may also pave the way for you to take advantage of new and unique opportunities. Zhang said that taking AP classes has “opened new doors” for her. Since she took advantage of the AP Calculus and AP Physics courses, she is able to take classes at the University of New Hampshire in these fields and even become a Teaching Assistant for the current AP Physics course at the high school.

     Zhang offered her advice for students considering taking an AP course during their high school experience. “AP classes definitely aren’t for everyone, but I would say that taking AP classes are worth my time and my effort because I truly want to learn the subject,” she said.

     Depending on the path you plan to take, whether it be college, technical school, or straight to a career, it’s up to you to decide whether taking an AP course is right for you. The beauty of Oyster River is that we have options to enroll in courses that we want to take, and it’s important to consider your own path and the challenging workload before you make a decision.