Should You Take College-level or Advanced Placement Classes in High School

ap college admissions college board commonapp competitions courses high school pre-college voiced voicedacademy Jun 09, 2024

During a recent interaction with a student who was worried about their future, I was reminded how challenging high school can be to navigate. They wondered how they'd ever manage college if they were already struggling with the "easier" material. If you feel the same way, remember that strategic planning can save you a lot of worry, time, and money. Let's work together to create a plan that sets you up for college success.

Whether you're looking to boost your academic viability, earn some college credit as a high schooler, or find out whether college is right for you, we have some tips to help you choose the best classes to take in high school.

There's never been a time with so many online and in-person class options. There are numerous education opportunities, and we are bombarded with more and more higher education institutions that have made education affordable; for more information on that, you can visit VoicED where I continuously list such opportunities. You can take all kinds of courses, including standard, A, honors, and IB. Here, I'd like to address classes that can lead to earning college credit as a high school student, especially because some of you might be in a high school that doesn't offer Advanced Placement (AP) and Community College (CC) but still want an early boost of college credit.

What is an AP Class?

Advanced Placement (AP) is a program the College Board offers for high school students. AP gives students the chance to tackle college-level work while they're still in high school," which has resulted in AP courses and exams becoming the golden standard for rigor in high school. According to my research, the AP program has become so extensive that 1,178,256 public high school graduates in the U.S., even with disruptions caused by the pandemic, took at least 1 AP exam in 2021. 

AP's classes are considered more rigorous than honors courses, as they're supposed to introduce students to college-level work. I have taken the time to compare the honors curriculum vs. AP coursework, and the rigor is contained in the pacing of the class, and the speed with which AP class is supposed to deliver the material is indeed advanced. You need to walk into an AP class with stellar study skills and, in most cases, say, AP Statistics or AP Physics C, with a prior knowledge of the material. 

Also, here is where I'd like to caution you not to "skip" AP Calculus AB and jump into BC, no matter how much of a math wiz you think you are. There is value in doing the work and going through the stages of math. Many students who start with AP classes early love the idea of "skipping" as it somehow creates the feeling that they are extra advanced and knowledgeable. There are no browny points for that; burning the midnight oil leads to total burnout. 



The statistics also show that AP students "are more likely to enroll in a four-year college compared to academically similar students who did not take AP," in addition to earning college credit!

It's important to know that taking the AP course itself won't directly award you any college credit. You'll only get the college credit if you pass the AP Exams offered at the end of every academic year. But, I will be remiss if I do not mention that awarding such credits is entirely at the discretion of the college or university you plan to attend. You can get more information on that on the College Board website or check directly with the colleges you are targeting. They're graded on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being "No recommendation" and 5 being "Extremely well qualified." According to your score (typically somewhere above 3), you may be awarded college credit at the specific CC/university you plan to attend. Many times, if the score is a 3 or lower, I advise my students to leave that out of the Common Application. This is a very individual choice, and I suggest you get an expert's advice for your specific situation. 

Again, every college will have its standards and will evaluate your credentials differently, often after acceptance and not before. One college might only award credit if you earn a 3 or above in AP Biology; another will require 4 or above. They'll also differ in what kind of credit they'll award you. 

According to my research on how some of these APs translate for the University of California System, for example, a 3 in AP Computer Science Principles might earn you some general college credits toward your degree, but a 4 or 5 could mean earning credit for an actual Computer Science course. 

Not to mention that some colleges may not accept AP credits! This is rare with public community colleges and universities, but it's certainly possible. A private college will have its own system entirely, and you might not be able to access that information publicly. 

This might sound quite complicated, but it proves the importance of researching the right schools for you. Knowing beforehand whether AP credits will transfer to the college you're applying to is incredibly important, so you have to know exactly where you're applying. As I always say, start early to get there surely VoicED. 


What AP Classes are Available

There are currently 38 official AP exams offered for high school students, covering topics like Science, Math, Art, English, History, and Languages. If you're leaning toward an interest in life sciences, you can consider courses like AP Biology or AP Environmental Science; if you're interested in the physical side of science, there's AP Chemistry and four AP Physics courses to choose from. 

If you prefer learning history, consider AP U.S. History or AP European History. There are plenty of courses/exams you can choose from, so don't be afraid to explore!

You can see all of the offered AP courses and exams on the College Board website, but according to a 2021 report, here are some of the most popular and likely to be offered at your high school:

As you can see, the AP Program offers a diverse range of exams that can cater to the interests of any high school student! Make sure to evaluate any course/exam you're interested in to see if it's right for you, but don't be intimidated, and remember that the AP program is meant to help you succeed!

To enhance your success, the College Board lists all high schools that are authorized to offer AP courses along with the AP courses they do offer. You may even be able to take AP courses online through an approved AP provider if your high school doesn't offer them.

Risky tip: For those feeling especially brave, you don't even have to take AP courses to benefit from the AP program! Technically, you can still impress admissions by passing the annual AP exams through the power of self-studying! 

This can be much harder than taking an AP/CC course, though, so I advise going this route only if absolutely necessary or if you're confident in your ability to self-study.

What are Community Colleges?

Community colleges are undergraduate institutions similar to universities. The main difference is that community colleges only offer associate degrees (2 academic years), while universities offer bachelor's degrees (4 academic years).

While you might have heard of community college before, you may not know that high schoolers and some middle schoolers are allowed to take community college courses. This is called dual enrollment, also known as concurrent enrollment

Unlike AP courses, you don't have to take any special, one-time exams to earn credit (although exams are usually part of CC courses). Once you've completed the course with a passing grade (usually a C or a B with more selective colleges/majors), the CC credit will go toward your high school and - most of the time - college degree!

There are usually two ways a high school student can participate in dual enrollment, depending on the high school they attend: 

  • Dual Enrollment on the high school campus
    • A dual enrollment course at a high school is usually taught by a teacher on the general staff who has enough credentials to teach a college-level course.
  • Dual Enrollment at the community college 
    •  A dual enrollment course at the community college is just what it sounds like a normal college course taught by college professors.

If you can't fit an in-person CC campus course into your schedule, then online courses can be a great addition to accommodate your course load. Consider first what the universities you're interested in might think of virtual classes.

Although both are preferred over regular course offerings, dual enrollment courses taken at the high school might be seen as weaker than those on the CC campus since these teachers might deliberately try to make it easier for their students. When you take a community college course, the professor treats you like a typical college student.

Also, unlike with AP, there will be a stricter limit on how many credits you can take, especially if the courses are offered at the actual CC. Many community colleges require students to take at least 12 units to be considered full-time, so the maximum limit for high schoolers is often 11.

If you choose to take advantage of dual enrollment, one resource that countless college students can't live without is Rate My Professors. You shouldn't 100% rely on this website to figure out what classes to take, but it will reduce unnecessary stress most of the time.

Always check the articulation agreements between the Community College and the universities you're applying to for transferring thatCommunity College credit to a future degree. One resource that's extremely useful for this is Assist, which will show you all the transfer agreements between CC's and public universities for a given academic year. Trust me, this site is a godsend. 


You aren't always restricted to your local CC. It might vary by what your high school allows, but taking online CC courses means you have a lot more freedom and variety of courses!

If you'll be attending a university that accepts CC credits, the summer after high school graduation and before matriculation to that university is special. As long as you ensure they'll transfer, you'll generally be allowed to take as many CC courses as you want. 

Even if you decide to take 12 courses, like a close friend of mine did (not at all recommended)! This could save you a lot of time and money since you know it'll indeed transfer to your degree.

Let's Compare AP Courses and CC Courses 

Unfortunately, not all students can take AP andCommunity College classes. If they do have both options, they might have trouble deciding whether to go the AP or Community College route. After all, there's a longstanding debate over factors like which one is best for impressing admissions officials. 

If you're one such student, here are just a few of the many factors that you can consider:

  1. RIGOR

This is where you'll find most of the debate regarding AP vs. Community College, all because of variability.

  • AP: AP is probably what comes to mind when you think of rigor in high school. In the long term, not only are AP courses admired for their rigor, but they're also admired because they're consistentNo matter your high school, AP courses are aligned from the College Board in material or workload.
  • CC: Not only does difficulty vary from courses within one CC, but one course can vary between two different community colleges. Even if they generally cover the same material, a Biology course at one CC can be ten times harder than a Biology course at another CC. A CC course might turn out to be easier than the corresponding AP course. 
  • You might think CC courses are obviously more rigorous than any high school course, but with the high amount of variability, there's no way for admissions to determine how college-ready you actually are. Even if you choose a CC course that's notoriously difficult at that particular CC, admissions officers won't know that.

Conclusion: Overall, although you have to choose based on your wants and needs, the general consensus is that in terms of rigor, AP classes trump CC.


This point is often overlooked, but the duration of the course is essential as well, especially if your goal isn't purely impressing admissions.

  • AP: Even though AP courses are generally seen as more rigorous, they're still taught within the timeframe of a regular high school course, which is usually the entire school year. They're also taught structurally similarly to a normal high school course, with the only difference being the amount and rigor of the workload.
  • Community Colege: They might vary in rigor, but one thing is set about these courses: they're only a semester/quarter long, which is only a half or third of a typical school year. Getting experience with a true CC course and college professor would also be beneficial in the transition from high school to college.

Conclusion: Once you enroll in a CC/university, you're expected to take courses at twice the speed of regular high school courses and with college professors. If you want to prepare yourself for easier college life consider taking CC courses. 

On this point, Community College trumps the APs


This is a relatively small point, but it might make a great contribution to what you decide to study in the future!

  • AP: There are currently 38 AP courses offered by the College Board. An impressive selection, with courses in many subjects.
  • CCThere are hundreds of courses you can choose from in many subjects. Every CC will likely have a few unique offerings that won't be found very often anywhere else.

Conclusion: There are plenty of AP courses to choose from, but the vast selection available at many community colleges ultimately results in the decision that Community College gets more points than the AP. Still, this might not be very important to you if you aren't exactly looking to branch out and are perfectly fine with what the AP program offers.

  1. How Do These TRANSFER?

Depending on what you're hoping to get out of AP or CC courses, this might be the most important point of allEspecially if earning college credit is your primary goal.

  • AP: The College Board is the best place to verify whether most colleges will accept AP credits. It will vary, but they're generally accepted at most colleges, particularly public colleges.
  • Community College: Colleges will often accept CC credits, but private colleges are usually stricter on this front. So, AP credits are more straightforward to transfer than community college credits overall.

Conclusion: No matter what, you must check each individual institution you are applying to, whether it's a CC or a university, whether it's public or private. Every single school has a different policy, so you have to put in some research to make sure you're benefiting as much as possible from all of your hard work. For undergraduate schools, it's probably safe to say that APs trump CC as the best choice in this case.

PS: If you're dead set on going to medical school, for example, CC credits are accepted more often than AP credits to satisfy prerequisite courses. This just goes to show that the decision to take CC or AP depends on the individual person.  

Deciding on AP Courses or Community College Courses 

All of the points above are only scratching the surface of the AP vs. CC debate. Many more factors might be important to you, but only you can determine them. Even if most of the factors you're considering point to CC over AP, just the fact that APs are preferred for private universities might shift the decision to taking AP courses.

You'll most likely hear different answers from different people, so here are some things you can consider.

Choose AP Over Community College if:

  • You're directly applying to private universities (always check with them to see what they'll accept).
  • You want to impress admissions committees.
  • Your goal is purely to attend a university.
  • You want to make sure you're ready for college-level work (since community colleges are extremely variable)

Choose Community College Over AP's if:

  • You don't feel comfortable with a single (AP) exam determining whether or not you get college credit.
  • You want to get a more accurate feel for college life.
  • You feel more confident in earning a good CC grade than you do in earning a good score on the AP Exam.
  • You feel like you could take the AP exams without taking AP courses but still want to take a college-level course.

There are plenty of other factors that will change the final AP vs. CC decision since no two people have the exact same circumstances. As I said above, you could even go without taking any special courses and still get college credit through the AP exams! 

If you can't or don't want to take an AP course, you could even take a CC course and then take the AP exam to prove that the CC course really was on par with an AP course! As cliché as it may sound, you have to choose what you need based on what you want – and only you know what you want. 

You might even find that explaining how AP and/or CC courses have benefitted you and prepared you for college is what will look most impressive to admissions officials.

Other Ways to Earn College Credits in High School:

There are other types of courses you can take in high school to bump your college success! Remember that they might be more challenging to get, but feel free to learn more about them as extra or alternative options to AP/CC.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Program

  • Not offered at every single high school in the US; high school students aged 16-19 must apply to the program, so there's no guarantee of being able to participate. High school students must take the IB course and Exam to earn college credit.

College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)

  • Exams administered by the College Board that are prepared for through self-study rewards college credit that is not accepted at all colleges, including the University of California system.

Cambridge AICE Exams

  • Credits earned from exams aren't accepted at every single college in the US (as compared to CC or AP credits).

Various University Programs

Many universities will offer programs (particularly during the summer) for high school students to start earning college credits. A few downsides:

  • They often require an application with limited spots available.
  • They might charge large fees. Make sure to check their financial aid office!
  • There's no guarantee that admissions officers will find these programs more impressive than other options (AP and CC). If there's a significantly larger cost to enrolling in a university program, weigh your options, and don't assume that bigger = better.

Ultimately, they're all beneficial regardless of the reason for wanting to take college-level classes. High school can become stressful if you do not plan well or are still learning how to learn. Find a support group, friends to study with, and a knowledgeable counselor who will have your back and mentor you through these four years. During every training on college admissions I have attended, all of us counselors are reminded of one thing: Do not send us students who are overworked and burned out from high school. So, no matter what, you want a great college experience and not just work yourself to the bone. Your journey continues beyond high school, not even in college. Take it one step at a time, and only sometimes focus on what others want from you; focus on what you want from yourself.

If you're still stuck in making decisions about classwork, college and your best options in getting ahead, you can contact VoicED to set you on your path. 

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