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How to Select Your APs and Honors Courses in High School

How to select your APs/IBs and Honors Courses in High School…(and how many you should take)

Recent studies including one conducted by the Department of Education have challenged the value of advanced high school courses. The lines of attack have varied somewhat, but the bottom line is that they don’t carry much “bang for the buck.” Despite a tripling of enrollments in rigorously labeled courses over the last two decades, national standardized test scores in math and reading have not improved. Scores on the Advanced Placement exams on a scale of 1-5 have seen a steady rise in low scores of 1 and 2 over the last decade. Skepticism has been expressed by educational experts and parents alike about the rigor of these courses and their value. As opposed to giving up and accepting a diluted curriculum, students and their parents would be wise to consider the following guidelines when choosing college preparatory courses in high school.

Here are some things to consider when deciding on AP/IB and advanced courses in high school:

1. Don’t focus on the course title itself. Move beyond the label of a course and clarify whether a course is part of a formal Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) program. These programs are standardized by national and international organizations outside of your school and their content is reviewed periodically by subject specialists. A fancy title does not necessarily translate into a rigorous course.

2. Find out the quality of the instructor. Talk to strong students who have studied with a teacher to get their impressions of the course and to find out how they fared on the AP or IB exams. Contact your school or school district to see if statistics are compiled on how students in your school fared on these tests. You can sometimes trace these results to individual instructors.

3. Speak directly with the instructor about how they teach the course. College students sometimes approach their teachers ahead of time to ask about class content and their teaching methods. There is no reason why this can’t be done by high school students during breaks and after school or by parents during non-teaching periods. If the instructor declines a discussion, it is a sign that you should consider an alternative course.

4. Focus on quality, not quantity, in selecting your high school courses. Colleges will not reward you more for taking four AP courses in a semester as opposed to two or three that you perform well in. Don’t focus on numbers alone, but on the quality of the learning experience.

5. Colleges may not accept AP or IB courses, but you should still take them. Colleges vary on whether they will reward student credits for AP or IB courses. Elite private and public institutions may have different standards for awarding college credit for AP courses and may require significantly higher test scores. For example, some state universities will award college credit for an AP score of 3 while another institution would require a 4 or even a 5. There are also differences in which courses receive college credit. Science and math courses in particular may not earn college credit even with a score of 4 or 5 on the AP examination. Don’t expect to shorten your college career through AP courses since they may not fit specific requirements. The students focus therefore should not be on accumulating college credits, but on expanding their knowledge base and critical thinking skills. This into itself is the best preparation for college.

Overall, all advanced and honors courses are not alike. The inquisitive student and parent, however, can construct a curriculum which serves as a solid foundation for college and beyond.


David Dickson is an admissions counselor for Top Test Prep, and also a graduate of both Bowdoin College and Harvard University, respectively. Call to learn more about Top Test Prep’s program at (800) 501-Prep.

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