Just as you get back from spring break and you’re gearing up for the last push of the school year, your advisor may tell you that it’s time to sign up for next year’s classes. Some students need a slower pace or may have an IEP or other academic accommodations for learning differences. Some students want to sign up for every AP class they can find. What’s the best path to take? Is it better to get an A in a regular level class or a B in an honors or AP class?
Let’s start with some definitions and pros/cons of regular, honors, and AP level classes:
Regular level classes: Most high school classes are offered at regular levels. Regular classes are structured for students who need to learn at an average pace with a moderate level of content depth. Some regular classes are for students who are new to a subject. Regular classes are the default for the majority of high school students in the United States. They’re not remedial; they’re not advanced. Students who take regular classes often report that their lives feel well balanced between academic work and extra-curricular activities, especially if they’re on a traveling team or have responsibilities that demand a lot of time outside of school.
There is nothing wrong with taking regular level classes. In the college craziness, you might think that no one in the world is taking anything but honors and AP classes. Not true. Most students take the majority of their high school classes at a regular level.
One of the drawbacks to taking regular level classes, however, is that it can look like you’re not challenging yourself or that you’re slacking off, especially if many of your peers are taking a more rigorous schedule. Another drawback can be that if you take a regular level class in a subject you really love, you might get bored because the content is moving too slowly or your teacher isn’t giving you opportunities to extend your learning. Finally, if your test scores (ACT or SAT) are really high and you’re signing up for all regular level classes, colleges might see you as a smart but lazy or unmotivated student.
Honors and AP classes: Honors classes are offered by high schools to students who have demonstrated the ability to work at a higher level than the average student. You might have to take a test to place into an honors class or a teacher might have to write a recommendation on your behalf. Honors classes are taught by regular teachers who have been trained to teach high school material at a faster speed or more complex level.
AP, or Advanced Placement, classes are overseen by the College Board. This independent organization offers college-level classes to high school students. AP classes are considered to be higher than honors classes. Teachers are trained by the College Board in AP techniques and part of their job is to prepare you for the AP exams. If you take the AP test and get a strong score, you can either skip out of some freshman college courses or get placed into higher levels. One of the biggest advantages to taking AP courses is that it helps your GPA. An “A” in an AP class usually gets more points than an “A” in a regular level class. Colleges like to see honors and AP classes on your transcript because it shows them that you like to push yourself. Perhaps the best advantage, however, is that it offers a more interesting level of study. If you really love a subject, it’s pretty cool to get to learn it at a college level when you’re still a junior or senior in high school.
Taking honors and AP classes can have some disadvantages, though. There will definitely be more work for you to do in a shorter amount of time. Teachers will expect more analysis and critical thinking from you than they might in a regular class. This can cause a great deal of pressure. If you sign up for a lot of honors and AP classes, be careful that you don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s pretty unrealistic to think that everyone can be exceptional at every subject, after all.
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So you’re looking at the choices next year and you’re not sure what to do. My advice is to challenge yourself with a few honors or AP classes in subjects you really love. Say you’ve always loved science – go ahead and take that honors chem class! And maybe you’re pretty strong in history too – go ahead and take the AP history class! But that doesn’t mean you have to sign up for AP Spanish and English and Psychology too. Go for a balance of your interests and a realistic assessment of your time.
Right now, it may seem like getting into college is the meaning of life. It’s not. Really.
Getting into college is just one part of your life.
You want your high school record to demonstrate the best of what you can do, but you also want to be a teenager. You’re not just a college applicant from the moment you start high school; you get to be a kid along the way. You’ve got your eyes on the destination of college, but you want to survive (and enjoy) the journey of getting there.
Challenge yourself at school, but don’t overdo it. Pick your schedule based on your interests and passions. Go for it with the classes you love, but don’t freak out about cramming seven AP classes into each semester.
Seriously, you’ll need to sleep at some point.