B+ in AP Class Vs. an “A” in Regular Class?

Question: My child is attending a Catholic high school in Houston and taking all AP and honors classes, playing sports, etc. The AP and honors classes are quite demanding and in some, like AP Biology, they have an 88 and it is one of the highest grades in the class. Thus, I am wondering if the AP and honors classes are worth it or should they take regular classes? I am not sure an 88 in an honors class will outweigh a high “A" in a regular class. I realize it is all a numbers game and want to put my child in the best position possible when applying to colleges. My child is quite bright and I anticipate they will do well on standardized tests. They were accepted into the Duke TIP program in seventh grade and has attended Duke summer camps.

Any insight you can provide into whether or not the AP and honors classes are viewed more favorably than better grades in academic classes would be very helpful. Thank you!

Top class versus top grade is a conundrum about as old as the chicken and the egg ... and there aren't any easy answers either. Typically, if a student is aiming at the most hyper-competitive colleges (Ivies, Duke, Stanford, MIT, etc.) then “The Dean" suggests choosing the most rigorous classes unless the stress of these classes seems overwhelming. So if the concern is that an AP student won't earn an A and not that the student's health might suffer, then I recommend the AP because the most selective schools expect it. Note, however, that at the elite-college level, a large chunk of the applicant pool has taken an AP-laden curriculum and earned all A's anyway. So these students may be your child's “competitors" when it's time to apply to colleges.

When my son was in high school a few years ago, I encouraged him to select some of the more rigorous AP classes (e.g., chemistry and physics) but I also let him choose which ones he did not want to take. His decisions were largely based on teachers and not on the potential challenge of the class itself. Did the fact that he took “regular" sections in calculus and history impact his college outcomes? Maybe. He was admitted to the only Ivy on his list (where he did not enroll), got a full ride at Tulane (which he attends and loves) and was turned down by another uber-selective school. So did his lack of a full-AP load “hurt" him? Well, perhaps it affected his college verdicts, but it definitely did no harm to his life since he couldn't be happier, and my husband and I are thrilled with the generous scholarship.

So as your child continues through high school, you have to weigh the admissions “currency" of AP classes against the potential anxiety (and dip in grades) that may come with them. And you have to remember how grueling the competition will be if your child shoots for the most sought-after schools, regardless of how many AP classes are on the transcript and how good the grades are. However, if your child does stick with the most demanding classes, you can certainly remind the high school guidance counselor at recommendation time to be sure to tell colleges when your child has earned the highest grade in a class, even when it's not an A.

Finally, I assume you are familiar with how your child's high school computes the GPA (and class rank, where available). Commonly, AP and honors classes are “weighted" when the GPA is calculated. Sometimes these receive the same weight; sometimes AP classes are accorded greater weight than honors. Schools that calculate rank typically do so using the weighted GPA, but some compute rank with the unweighted GPA, which is often a disadvantage to AP/honors students. While college admission officials will look at a candidate's actual transcript and make assessments based on the specific classes and grades and not just on GPA and rank, your high school's GPA and ranking methodology might end up determining some course choices if you feel that this system penalizes students in the challenging classes. So that's yet another clod in the already muddy waters!

In summary:

  • AP and honors classes are viewed more favorably by admission folks.
  • In theory, a “B" in an AP or honors class is “better" than an “A" in a regular class, but many applicants to top colleges will have all A's in the top classes.
  • Never put your child's physical or mental health on the line for the sake of what looks “good" on an application, and listen to your child when course selections are being made.

Good luck to you as you navigate the murky maze ahead!