The role of Advanced Placement (AP) classes in the college application process has evolved over the years. When first introduced in the early 1950s, the Advanced Placement Program offered students the ability to earn college credit while still in high school. Today, most high schools offer AP classes and they have become a 'must have' on a college applicant's transcript. Good grades in AP classes and a strong score on the exam show the student's willingness to challenge themselves academically, and a readiness for college level course work.
Colleges began exempting applicants with high AP scores from some of their pre-requisite core curriculum freshman classes, a practice that for high achieving students had the potential of resulting in eliminating entire semesters or more of classes from their college career, and lowering the overall cost of tuition. In theory this plan made sense, but in practice it was not easy to realize for many students.
While the curriculum of a high school AP class is taught during a full year, this same material is covered within the first few weeks of a college freshman year class at which point it goes into material unfamiliar to the student. Those able to proceed to the next class thanks to AP credits will miss out on the balance of this material and find themselves immediately behind in the sophomore level class. Granted some students can overcome this deficit, but the bulk will be overwhelmed, not do well and/or drop out.
Today, the practice of offering college credit for AP classes is slowly disappearing because colleges and universities are finding that the rapid growth of the AP program has in some cases resulted in AP classes not always being as rigorous as those taught in college, and students not as prepared as previously thought. Nevertheless, in today's competitive application environment AP classes are a 'must have' on a student's transcript, but how many and which classes is always the big question.
Nevertheless, if a high school offers AP classes then it is in the student's best interest to have taken at least some. The average student should take AP classes in the subject matters that they are naturally good in, whether it be the sciences or the humanities. While a B in an AP class is often seen more favorably than an A in an Honors class, overloading a student's course load purely to have across the board AP classes is rarely a good idea or successful. In other words, match the AP classes taken to the academic strengths and interests of the student. Having said that, the value of strong grades in Honors or High Honors classes must not be ignored or diminished.
Highly selective college and Ivy League schools expect their applicants to have taken several AP classes, and the corresponding exams, across almost all subject matters. As a guide, check College Board or the school's website for their recommended admission requirements. But, a transcript loaded with AP classes is by no means a guarantee of admission to any of these schools.
As with everything, there are pros and cons to AP classes. Each student must determine whether or not to take AP classes based on their own unique academic profile and goals. A new trend among selective high schools is to eliminate all AP classes in favor of courses that will encourage more 'critical thinking and analysis', a skill that is needed in order to be successful in college course work. But, till this is a fully accepted practice by all high schools, college applicants should strive to have a few AP classes on their transcript to be competitive in the college application process.