One of the most frequent questions we hear about college admissions is, “How many AP courses do I need on my transcripts to be considered for admission to a selective school?”

It’s a tough question to give a specific answer to. The answer depends entirely on the applicant in question and his or her situation and profile.

Some applicants might be well advised to stretch themselves by taking additional AP courses. Others might be better off putting their time into extracurricular activities. It’s the kind of question that we delve into during our initial client consultations.

It’s reasonably fair to say that most applicants need at least some AP classes on their transcripts these days to be competitive in the applicant pools to the top schools, if they had the opportunity to take such classes at their high school.

Please understand that under no circumstances will colleges and universities penalize applicants who never had access to AP coursework. Admissions officers realize that a class can be challenging without carrying the AP designation.

In fact, many people seem to confuse the AP label with what admissions committees are really looking for – which is evidence that a student has stretched him- or herself intellectually and taken the most challenging courses they could find.

That said, for all practical purposes, AP work has become the norm for a large number of applicants to the more selective schools. A study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that, in 2013, nearly one-third of all graduating high school seniors (including those who were not applying to college) had taken at least on AP course. That number has only grown since then.

AP credit is even more common among sub-groups of students who are more likely to attend college, including those whose parents have college degrees, who come from middle and upper income families, and who spend an hour or more per week on extracurricular activities.

But even for high school students who have access to advanced courses, it’s not necessarily ‘the more, the merrier’ when it comes to AP credit and college admissions.

AP credit is just one part of their college applications. An applicant who puts so much time and energy into AP courses that they neglect non-academic interests is probably not helping their college admissions chances. An applicant with 18 AP courses under his belt but not a single thing to say about what he does outside of school is going to have a hard time competing against students whose academic strengths are balanced by other interests.

The bottom line is that taking lots of AP courses in and of itself doesn’t communicate much about your interests to an admissions committee. You’d be wise to say something in your essays about your response to what you studied – what surprised you, what excited you, or what made you curious to learn more.

College admissions decisions are always a complex process. In the vast majority of cases, there’s no single factor, be it AP credit or SAT scores or activities records, that makes or breaks an admissions outcome. That’s why it’s impossible to give a responsible blanket answer to a question like, “How many AP courses should I take?” It all depends on the individual applicant and the schools being targeted.

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