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  • Writer's pictureHollis Bischoff

Consider balance and interests when selecting APs in high school

Republished with permission from the Los Altos Town Crier. Originally appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition.


Following is the first in a two-part series that explores the two primary ways Advanced Placement classes impact the college process. Part 1 reviews the role of AP classes as part of college admissions. Part 2 will address how AP credits are handled after college matriculation.

In a few months, high school freshmen, sophomores and juniors will select courses for the next school year and determine how many Advanced Placement and Honors classes to take.

How many are enough for college acceptance? How many are too many to handle and still find balance (and maybe a few hours’ sleep)? The answer will be different for everyone, but here is a primer on how AP classes are used in context.

When planning which AP classes to take during the high school years, take the following into consideration.

  • Where do your interests lie? Taking AP classes in relevant areas is one way of showing college readiness and demonstrated interest in your potential major. For example, if interests lie in nursing or engineering, taking AP classes in Physics and Calculus are table stakes for admission. If the intended major is in history or politics, then AP classes in European World History, U.S. History or Government are germane. If business and finance are in the mix, then AP Economics and Calculus make sense.

  • What is offered at the high school? Colleges want to know students have taken advantage of everything a high school offers both academically and socially, hence the focus on APs and extracurriculars. So if a high school offers only three AP classes, then taking one or two is full advantage. However, in our local high schools, where the AP offerings number more than 20, students taking only one or two would not be considered as competitive.

  • What is the college looking for? Each college or university can determine what it is looking for in engaged, academically challenged students. Even less competitive colleges would like to see one to three AP courses as a way of demonstrating college readiness. The more competitive universities are looking for significant engagement in AP classes. UCLA, for example, cites that nearly 60 percent of its admitted students have 10-plus AP and Honors courses, with five or more being AP.

Elite schools like Pomona, Northwestern and Boston College, among others, have been very specific in their AP requirements. (These are not documented anywhere, but they were discovered during meetings with college admissions directors.) They are looking for, at minimum, AP Calculus and 1 AP lab science (either Chemistry, Physics and/or Biology). For these colleges, AP Environmental Science and AP Statistics are not considered academically challenging enough. So the more elite the school, the more challenging and the higher number of AP classes.

  • What about student academic/life balance? Northwestern orientation for admitted students often opens with the administration apologizing for ruining its students’ high school experience with the high expectations for AP classes and extraordinary extracurriculars, leaving little time to enjoy high school.

But high school is not one long college admissions application. It is also a time to discover about oneself academically, socially, physically and spiritually. Not all students can handle three or four AP classes at one time, while others thrive at being challenged. It is not just about the number of AP classes taken, it is also about the quality of the learning and grade-point average earned.

There is the age-old question – Is it better to take the AP and get a B or take the prep class and get an A? Stanford University admissions reps will tell you the AP with the A, and that is at least partially true. For the elite schools, A’s in AP classes are de rigueur; for the selective schools, B’s in APs are better than no AP classes. Everyone agrees, however, that C’s in AP classes are not in the best interest of the student. So each student must determine his or her own work/life balance.

While admissions is mostly concerned with AP classes, colleges are most concerned with AP tests. Part 2 will explore how after matriculating to a college, earned AP credits can be applied to college credits.

Hollis Bischoff is college admissions adviser for CollegeUnlocked. She earned a graduate certificate in college and career counseling from UCLA and is a Certified Educational Planner. She blogs about college admissions at and tweets at @collegeunlocked. For more information, email

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