In the ever-evolving landscape of college admissions, Advanced Placement (AP) courses have become a staple for high school students aspiring to tackle college-level workloads. However, recent research from the College Board challenges the conventional belief that more AP courses automatically translate to greater success in college. This summer, the nonprofit organization released findings suggesting that the number of AP exams a student takes might not be the sole determinant of academic achievement in the college realm.

What are AP Courses?

Advanced Placement (AP) courses serve as college-level entry points within high school curricula, standardized and administered by the CollegeBoard. Globally, there are 38 distinct AP exams spanning diverse subjects such as Psychology, Art, Humanities, Science, Math, History, and Languages. These courses adopt an accelerated approach, aiming to ready students for the rigors of college-level work.

Setting them apart from traditional high school classes, AP courses culminate in a standardized test each spring, crafted by the CollegeBoard. The primary objective is to assess a student's grasp of college-level subjects. The standardized nature of these exams ensures that any student successfully navigating the AP test is genuinely equipped to handle the demands of college coursework.

How are AP Courses Scored?

AP Exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Many U.S. colleges grant credit and/or advanced placement (that means they let you skip the equivalent course once you get to college) for scores of 3 and above.

AP Score Scale Table

This table shows the recommendation that each AP score offers about how qualified you are to receive college credit and placement if you earn that score. It also shows the equivalent college course grade for each score.

Relationships Between the Number of APs, AP Performance, and College Outcomes

1. Unveiling the Research

The research delves into the question that often plagues students and counselors alike: How many AP classes should one take to secure admission to a highly selective institution that values these courses on transcripts? The analysis challenges the notion that an abundance of AP exams equates to enhanced college outcomes, emphasizing that "performing well on more than five AP Exams does not markedly alter first-year college grades and four-year degree completion."

2. College Board Methodology

To unravel the complexities surrounding the optimal number of AP exams, the study tracks three cohorts of high school graduates across more than 100 unique colleges and universities. The analysis considers various factors, including academic achievement (SAT scores and high school GPA), demographic elements (gender, race/ethnicity, and parental education), the number of APs offered at a student's high school, and cohort year.

3. Results

College Board Research

The research paints a nuanced picture, revealing that the most substantial predicted boost in college grades and on-time degree completion occurs when a student transitions from 0 to 1 AP and from 1 to 2 APs. This underscores the pivotal role of introducing students to the challenges of AP courses, which is strongly associated with future college success and yields the highest return on college outcomes. However, as the number of AP exams exceeds five, the incremental gains in degree completion begin to plateau, losing statistical significance.

4. Key Takeaways

The key takeaway from this research is clear: the initial exposure to the rigors of AP courses plays a crucial role in shaping future college success. The study suggests that the benefits of taking multiple AP exams peak when transitioning from 0 to 1 AP and from 1 to 2 APs. Beyond this threshold, the impact on first-year college grades and four-year degree completion becomes less pronounced.

5. Implications for Students, Counselors, and Higher Education Professionals

Armed with this information, students, counselors, and higher education professionals gain valuable insights into the potential benefits of taking multiple AP exams. The findings prompt a reevaluation of the common perception that a high number of AP courses guarantees superior college outcomes. Instead, the emphasis shifts towards the quality of engagement with AP coursework, highlighting the transformative impact of the first few exams on a student's academic journey.

What are the Advantages of AP?

  1. College Credit Opportunities: AP courses present a valuable chance to earn college credit. Many higher education institutions recognize strong performance on AP exams, enabling students to bypass introductory-level courses and potentially expedite their graduation.
  2. Challenging Curriculum: AP courses are intentionally designed to deliver a challenging and rigorous academic experience. Through these courses, students can cultivate critical thinking skills, analytical prowess, and a more profound comprehension of the subject matter.
  3. College Admissions Impact: The decision to enroll in AP courses carries weight in college admissions processes. It signals to admissions officers that students are not only open to tackling demanding coursework but also exhibit a robust work ethic. This can significantly enhance their college applications, setting them apart from other candidates.
  4. Subject Specialization: AP courses provide a platform for students to delve deeply into specific subjects of personal passion or interest, potentially aligning with their intended college majors. This opportunity allows for advanced exploration and mastery of a particular area of study.


As students navigate the complex terrain of AP course selections, the College Board's research provides a compass for informed decision-making. By recognizing the optimal points of impact in AP participation, students can strike a balance between academic challenge and sustainable success, ultimately shaping a path that aligns with their unique goals and aspirations in the realm of higher education.

Source: Here’s What College Board Research Says About How Many AP Classes Students Should Take

Hazel Ricky
Content Marketing Asscoiate
Table of Content
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