The Best Classes to Take in High School for College Success (2023)

High school can be hard to navigate at times. At some points, you might wonder how you’ll ever get through college if you can’t even handle the “easier” material. You can save yourself some of that worry, time, and money with a bit of strategic planning!

Whether you’re looking to spice up your application, earn some college credit as a high schooler, or just 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 are all kinds of courses you can take, including standard, a-g, honors, and IB. In this blog, I’ll specifically cover the two most common (and controversial) types of courses that can lead to earning college credit while you’re still in high school: Advanced Placement (AP) and Community College (CC). I’ll also cover some extra tips for those of you who don’t have these options but still want an early boost of college credit.

*Note: When I use the word “college,” I mean the two main institutes of undergraduate education: community colleges (CC) and universities. I’m aware that you could attend either a CC or a university after high school, so when I say “College Success,” I mean success at a CC and/or university!

What is an AP Class?

Advanced Placement (AP) is a program offered by the College Board for high school students all over the world! According to the College Board, “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.

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.

To give you an idea of their rigor, honors courses are considered more rigorous than regular courses; AP’s are even more rigorous than honors courses, and rightly so, since they’re supposed to introduce students to college-level work! In fact, 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. They’re graded on a scale from 1 to 5, with a 1 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.

Keep in mind, though, that every college will have different standards. One college might only award credit if you earn a 3 or above in AP Biology, and another will require 4 or above. They’ll also differ in what kind of credit they’ll award you.

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 might not accept AP credits at all! This isn’t very often with public CC’s and universities, but it’s certainly possible.

This all might sound quite complicated, but it only 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 make sure you know exactly where you’re applying.

Types of AP Classes

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, you can consider options like AP U.S. History or AP European History. There are clearly 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 don’t forget 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 could still impress admissions simply 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 CC’s 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 CC courses during high school! This is called dual enrollment, also known as concurrent enrollment.

Unlike with AP courses, you don’t have to take any special, one-time exams in order 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

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    • 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. Just 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 CC campus course, the professor will treat you just like a typical college student.

Also, unlike with AP, there will be a stricter limit on how many credits you’re allowed to take, especially if the courses are offered at the actual CC. A good number of 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 units.

If you do 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 a majority of the time it will reduce unnecessary stress.

For transferring that CC credit to a future degree, always check the articulation agreements between the CC and the universities you’re applying to. 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. ✨

Pro Tips: 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 definitely accepts CC credits, the summer after high school graduation and before matriculation to that university is a special one. As long as you make sure 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 good amount of time and money since you know for sure it’ll transfer to your degree.

Comparing AP Courses and CC Courses

Unfortunately, not all students have the opportunity to take AP and/or CC classes. If they do have both options, they might have trouble deciding whether to go the AP or CC 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. CC, 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, they’re admired because they’re consistent. No matter what high school you attend, AP courses won’t vary too much in material or workload.

  • CC: Not only does difficulty vary from courses within one CC, but one course can vary between two different CC’s. 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. Not to mention that 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 > CC.

2. Accuracy

This point is often overlooked, but the duration of the course is important 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.

  • CC: 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 normal 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 normal high school courses and with college professors. If you want to prepare yourself for college life, consider taking CC courses.

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On this point, CC > AP.

3. Variety

This is a relatively small point, but 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.

  • CC: There 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 CC > 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.

4. Transferability

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

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 AP > CC 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 CC Courses

All of the points above are only scratching the surface of the AP vs. CC debate. There are many more factors that 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 AP’s 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.

AP > CC 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 CC’s are extremely variable)

CC > AP 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.

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  • You feel more confident in earning a good CC grade than you do 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. Like 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! Keep in mind that they might be more difficult 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 age 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 in order 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.

Final Thoughts on The Best Classes to Take in High School

In the end, no matter the reason for wanting to take college-level classes, they’re all beneficial in their own way. High school can be a stressful place, but that doesn’t mean your journey ends there. Take it one step at a time and don’t always focus on what others want from you; focus on what you want from yourself.

If you’re still feeling stuck in making decisions about college and getting ahead, you can sign up for free to chat with one of UPchieve’s college counselors!


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