How many AP classes should you take? You want to get into a “good” college, right? So you look for advice on how many AP classes you should take. You find the same advice everywhere. Take as many AP classes as you can handle! But how many AP classes is that, really? Let’s take that advice and analyze what they’re saying. Let’s do the math! (And it’s not AP Calculus. It’s basic arithmetic.)
How many AP classes should you take?
Do the math! The Logical Approach
Let’s start at the beginning. What is the most common answer you hear to the question, “How many AP classes should I take?”
Universal answer to the question “How many AP classes should I take?”
It doesn’t matter who you ask. Ivy League admissions. High school guidance counselors. Private college admissions counselors. Big Universities. Small colleges. University admissions at universities with an 80% acceptance rate. You always get the same answer.
The standard advice you see about AP classes is covered in this article.
In summary, it’s this:
“Good” colleges expect you to challenge yourself in high school. Taking as many AP classes “as you can handle” is evidence of this.
Let’s break that down.
How many AP classes should I take? Analyze the standard answer.
Note something that is often brushed over. You will usually see – or imply for yourself – the term “good” colleges, based on context. But what this piece actually reads is “Competitive colleges like Ivy League institutions expect that students will take mostly AP classes by their senior year.”
That is not “all” colleges. It’s not even all “good” colleges.
It’s “competitive” colleges, meaning colleges with low acceptance rates. (It has nothing to do with how good a college is, just how many students they turn away. Students apply based on reputation. It’s a cycle.
How many AP classes should I take for Ivy League?
So, you want to go to an Ivy League school.
So you still want to give it a try, for well thought out reasons.
Good for you! There is certainly something to be admired in trying difficult things.
So let’s look logically at what this means.
Moving on to their next piece of advice, for all schools.
How many AP classes do other students take?
“College admissions officers like to see that you’ve challenged yourself in high school…many students choose to take between two and five AP classes their senior year.”
So if you’re aiming for an Ivy League, an elite school, a “top” school, or a “good” school, most students will be taking on the upper end of that range.
Let’s do the math.
How many AP classes should I take? Do the math.
College courses were traditionally designed to require 2-3 hours of outside work, or homework, for every hour spent in class. If you complain about the homework load in AP classes, that’s the standard response you’ll get back. These are designed to be college classes with a college homework load.
So let’s assume you’re an ambitious student. You might want to get into an Ivy League, but you certainly want to get into a “good” college. So you take the standard advice and take 5 AP classes your junior or senior year. (I’ve known seniors who took seven, so I’m not picking the most extreme.) That’s your four core classes – AP English, AP US History, AP PreCalculus or Calculus, AP Physics, and one elective AP class, another AP science or AP Psychology.
Calculate class time
Some high school classes meet every day for 45 minutes a day.
45 minutes/day/class x 5 days/week = 225 minutes of class instruction = 3.75 hours/week/class
Some high schools have block scheduling, 1.5 hours 2 days a week, with the last day split in half various ways, but it’s essentially a half day.
1.5 hours/day/class x 2.5 days/week = 3.75 hours/week/class
No surprise, you end up with the same number of hours. That was just to cover all the bases.
Calculate expected homework time
Now let’s look at how many hours of outside work, or homework, that is expected to be.
3.75 hours/week/class class time x 2-3 hours of homework/hour of class time = 7.5-11.25 hours of homework/week
Not bad, you say? You’ve got 5-7 days in the week?
You forgot this was one of 5 classes! (Remember to check your units! I dropped that on pupose to make a point.)
7.5-11.25 hours of homework/week x 5 AP classes = 37.5-56.25 hours homework per week
That’s still not so bad. A workweek is 40 hours after all.
But you forgot the time you spend in school!
Calculate the total time spent in school and on schoolwork/homework
Typical school day goes from 9 am – 4:15 pm, 7.25 hours per day. 36.25 hours per week
So let’s add it all up!
36.25 hours/week school day + 37.5-56.25 hours homework per week = 73.75-92.5 hours of schoolwork per week!
How many AP classes should I take? Typical hours per workweek.
A high school senior who takes 5 AP courses is looking at the possibility of 74-90 hours of work per week! Would you take a job where your are required to be at work that many hours?
Adults wouldn’t put up with that. So why do we inflict it on our children?
And those hours are before you consider showing you’re well rounded by excelling in a sport, leading a school club, or doing community service hours.
Oh, and high school students usually take more than 5 classes, usually 7-8. And those other classes might have homework as well.
How many AP classes should I take? Prove you can handle what you’ll have to take in college!
How do college students do it?
It’s easy to forget that a college student only spends 12-15 hours a week in class, instead of 36-37 hours.
Also, their professor usually has more control over their curriculum. Really, it’s a topic for another post, but over the history of AP classes, classes such as World History have evolved to cover ALL the topics of World History covered at ALL the colleges and universities. They did this as more and more colleges quit taking AP credit. So they try to cover everything, to try to maximize the number of schools that will accept the AP credit.
Does this mean I’m not good enough for the Ivy League?
Still trapped by the feeling of inferiority if you find those hours daunting? Think this means that Ivy League material students can handle it, and if you can’t then you’re not elite material?
Students at elite universities are suffering from the effects of these over-packed schedules. I go into that issue in my article “Are Stanford students affected by college application stress?”
Too smart for the Ivy League?
So the question becomes, if you’re smart enough to do the basic math and decide not to join the AP arms race, are you too smart to go to Harvard?
I’m only partially joking.
Because the other option is to play the education game, graduate with a 3.88 GPA in a STEM degree, and not be able to get a job, like this poor recent graduate in a Forbes article. And I mean “poor” in two senses of the word.
An alternative to the AP arms race
Not too excited about piling up those AP credits now? Never fear. You can get into great colleges without playing the AP arms race. See my article, “What is required to get accepted to a good college?”