Anne of Green Gables fans likely remember ominous references to the “Entrance,” a test all Prince Edward Island students must pass to attend Charlottetown’s Queen’s Academy. Anne and her classmates study anxiously, with their teacher holding extra lessons for the college-bound teens. After the exam, Anne is sure she’s failed, only to learn later that she has tied for first out of the entire class. Triumphant jubilation follows.

If you’re the parent of a high schooler, do these emotions sound familiar? Though you’re likely well past your own entrance-exam years, you probably fluctuate between anxiety for your student’s futures, daydreams about their ultimate success, and questions about how to help them in the process. If your family is suddenly homeschooling because of the pandemic, this anxiety might be especially potent since teachers and guidance counselors usually provide additional assistance. Though your student’s paths to college may look unique, specific choices can help them stand out no matter where they apply.

One of the most valuable options is taking AP® classes! Now, you may be wondering what AP courses really are, or if they’re a good fit for your student. Let’s answer these questions!

1. What makes a course “AP”?

AP is a registered trademark of the College Board and stands for “advanced placement.” In other words, AP students are doing college-level work in high school. An AP course exposes high schoolers to challenging coursework while preparing them for the AP exam in that subject, which, if passed, earns them college credit. The test is scored from 1 to 5; a 3 is usually a passing grade, although that varies somewhat by each higher education institution.

The AP designation indicates a class has passed the College Board’s course audit and meets their standards for rigor. This designation is important: while AP classes don’t have to be accredited, they must be certified in order to be listed as an AP class on your student’s transcript. You risk falsifying your student’s transcript if you list an uncertified class as AP.

Do honors courses count as AP? Unless those courses have passed the College Board’s course audit, they do not. Likewise, while your student can study for and take an AP exam on their own, you can’t list their preparation as an AP course on their transcript, even if they score a 5 on the test. An AP class carries its own significance outside of the exam itself, which is why the College Board is so particular about the certification process.

Since AP classes are nationally standardized, the credits earned from a successful AP exam are widely accepted. Some variation remains because individual departments set their own AP scoring standards.

For instance, my dad—a college professor—requires students to get 4s on their AP Government exam before he’ll accept the credits. However, 3 is generally sufficient. It’s unusual for colleges to flat out refuse AP credits, provided your student has met their scoring threshold.

2. What is the difference between dual enrollment, CLEP, and AP?

Dual enrollment is when a high school student takes college classes and receives both high school and college credit for the same course. This is a popular choice for college-bound homeschoolers and can be a great option since students earn college credit directly rather than having to take the AP exam to do so.

Still, there can be caveats. Most high schoolers haven’t chosen their college yet, and each university gets to decide what credits will and won’t transfer. Because my siblings and I were all interested in attending the university where my dad taught as a professor, it made sense for us to participate in the dual enrollment option there. It was an enjoyable experience, and I entered my full-time first semester with sophomore level credits. This allowed me flexibility throughout subsequent years and made it easier to complete my double major. But if your students are unsure about where they will attend college, dual enrollment is a riskier option.

Students can also earn college credit through credit by examination. The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is another popular option. Unlike dual enrollment or AP courses, passing a CLEP test has no effect on your student’s GPA; depending on their scores, students simply pass or fail and are awarded the credits accordingly. Similar to dual enrollment, each university decides which CLEP tests it will accept and sets scoring standards. Find out in advance what CLEP tests your student’s desired college may accept.

3. Why do AP courses matter for college admissions officers?

The tuition saved from a successful AP exam is one good reason to take AP classes, but it’s not the only one. College admissions officers consider AP the most prestigious postsecondary courses high schoolers can take. This is, again, because their rigor is nationally recognized. An English 101 curriculum varies widely by institution; however, when your student takes AP English Language and Composition and receives an A, admissions officers know exactly what that means.

For elite universities, multiple AP courses are an absolute must. For less-selective colleges, AP courses can make your student stand out from other applicants, especially if your student doesn’t have much access to extracurricular opportunities. Students may also request recommendation letters from their AP instructors, who can affirm their college potential based on the AP coursework. Even if, for some reason, a student can’t take the related AP exam, AP courses are a worthwhile investment on their own.

Are you concerned that advanced classes put too much pressure on your student to succeed? It’s true that college-level coursework is demanding and does require students to stretch themselves. But for students who are prepared for the challenge, AP classes can be deeply enriching while simultaneously setting high schoolers up well for college. Whether AP, dual enrollment, or CLEP, pursuing college credits during high school can both plumb your student’s transcript and further their pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful.

For more info on other ways your student can earn college credit while in high school, click here! And don’t forget: the HSLDA Educational Consultants are here to help you navigate the college search and application process! HSLDA members are welcome call or email us with any questions.