AP Courses: A Guide to Success

AP Courses: A Guide to Success

The high school years are critical for planning out your journey in college and beyond. During these 4 years, you’ll discover which subjects interest you the most as potential areas of study in college and perhaps as career paths. You’ll also come across challenging courses, notably Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which cover college-level material. 

Read on to learn more about AP courses, how they benefit you, and how to develop a plan to succeed in them!

Why take APs?

Taking AP courses is an effective way to show admissions officers that you are prepared to handle the academic rigors of college. APs, which are equivalent to introductory college courses, are taught at a much faster pace than regular high school classes. The course material is also more complex than regular high school classes and requires students to have a solid understanding of foundational concepts. 

Here are just a few of the benefits of taking an AP course:

College credit

If you score a 4 or 5 on an AP exam, most colleges will count the course as college credit and some may allow you to skip the corresponding intro-level course in your freshman year of college. This lets you potentially get ahead by as much as a whole semester, saving time and money. 

Find your passion

By taking AP courses, you’ll be able to find or further learn about your subjects of interest, giving you an idea of what to pursue in college and beyond. If you’re interested in science but you’re not sure if you gravitate more toward physics or chemistry, taking APs in those subjects can help you find the answer. 

How many APs should you take?

There is no one-size-fits-all magic number of AP courses students should take. It all depends on the individual student and their college goals. If you’re applying for more selective colleges, more APs can help you be a competitive applicant.

However, filling your schedule with as many APs as possible is a recipe for burnout and will likely hurt instead of help your GPA. Taking 10 APs and getting 3s or lower in them is worse than taking 5 APs and scoring 4s and 5s. It’s a better idea to focus on quality over quantity.

Which APs should you take?

You may be struggling to choose which APs to take, especially if you’re just starting high school.

Start by taking APs in your subject(s) of interest. By learning more about the subject in a more detailed way than in regular high school classes, you’ll be able to narrow down your interests. 

The most selective colleges look for variety in a student’s list of APs. If you’re applying to highly competitive schools, take APs across the humanities, STEM, and social sciences to show them you’re an academically well-rounded student. 

When should you take APs?

To ensure you get good grades and earn a 3 or higher on AP exams, consider the difficulty levels of the APs available at your high school. Try taking easier AP courses with fewer prerequisites in 9th and 10th grade before progressing to more rigorous courses. This way, you’ll get used to the structure of AP courses before facing challenging material. 

Here’s a brief overview of which AP courses to take at each grade level.

9th-10th Grade

Courses such as AP Psychology and AP Human Geography are good choices for students new to APs because of their few prerequisites and generally less challenging curricula. 

11th Grade

After progressing through regular or honors classes in the first two years of high school, students gain the skills and prerequisites they need to take on more difficult AP courses such as AP Biology, AP U.S. History, and AP English Language. 

12th Grade

At this point, students have learned the fundamental high school concepts needed to tackle the most challenging AP courses, which include AP Chemistry, AP Physics C, and AP Calculus BC. Students have also been exposed to years of essay-writing and literary analysis, preparing them to take AP English Literature. 

Be careful not to overload your schedule with too many APs so you have enough time to craft a strong college application. 

How to study for AP courses and exams

It’s important to develop good study habits when aiming for top grades in AP courses and a 4 or higher on the exams. You can also check out our AP blog series where we give you specialized strategies from our expert instructors to get the most out of each specific AP class.

Here are some key study tips to be a successful AP student, no matter which AP class you’re taking!

Build focused study sessions for each AP into your schedule  

High school students have packed schedules, juggling classes, extracurriculars, and volunteering or part-time jobs. Seniors also have college applications and the SAT/ACT to prepare for. 

Learning to budget your time is a skill that can be the difference between subpar and outstanding performance in AP courses. Allocate a block of uninterrupted time out of every day to dedicate to each AP course. Also, consider which AP courses you find more difficult and spend more time studying those.

Annotate texts, word problems, and equations

Annotating texts and excerpts is key for humanities APs, but did you know annotating is also important for STEM APs? 

While you might already be highlighting unfamiliar vocabulary, underlining key points, and jotting down thoughts for a text, taking those habits to math and science could do you well. Circling units of measurement in word problems and underlining elements in chemical equations can help you better keep track of your problem-solving process. 

For more tips on annotating pieces of writing, check out this blog!

Complete practice problems every day

You’ve probably heard the old adage “practice makes perfect.”  While practice does help you get correct answers more consistently, it more importantly helps you better understand the process of getting to correct answers. 

Aim to do practice questions for your APs every day, even if it’s just a few questions. It’s better to do 3-4 practice questions daily than 30 once a week. MEK’s AP tutors provide you with practice packets tailored to your course curriculum so you can complete problems daily.

Ask your AP teachers for help

Your teachers are there to help you. Ask them questions in class or outside of class when you don’t understand something. By showing your AP teachers you are proactive and eager to learn, not only will your class performance improve but you will also gain strong letters of recommendation.

MEK’s AP tutors regularly monitor student progress and provide personalized score reports after each practice test. Teachers work with students to reinforce conceptual understanding and address areas of weakness.

Next Steps

AP courses are tough and may seem intimidating at first. But with a solid study plan and good study habits, students can get high grades and ace exams.  

Many AP teachers focus on only the course material, leaving students underprepared for the actual 2-3 hour exam. At MEK, we take a two-pronged approach to AP Prep. Through providing students with both lectures by experienced teachers and practice exams, students gain a solid understanding of the material and learn test-taking skills to maintain their performance under time pressure.

Click here to learn more about our AP Course offerings for Spring 2024! Or if you have questions, contact us! We look forward to hearing from you.

Elisa Sung

Elisa Sung is the Marketing Assistant and Junior Content Writer for MEK and is a recent graduate of Vassar College with a degree in English. She is passionate about creating and providing educational resources for parents and students in order to help families make the most out of their academic and admissions experience.


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