It's the age-old question this time of year as students pick their schedules for the upcoming year: how many AP classes should I take? And the answer to that question is...it depends.
In order to figure out the right number of AP or higher-level classes for you, start with asking the right questions.
1. What are colleges looking for?
In general, colleges want to see rigor within your course schedule. They want to see that you challenged yourself with what was available to you. Did you take AP English junior year, get good grades and do well on the AP test, but decide to take it easy your senior year and forego AP? That will indicate to a school that you were capable of AP, but decided against the challenge. On the other hand, if you struggled through AP English junior year, but excelled in AP Physics, it would be understandable to take a lower-level English class in exchange for taking on AP Physics C, especially if you intend on studying something in math or science.
2. How can I balance AP classes with my outside interests?
This question is really about how do I optimize my time to best tell my story? Colleges are also looking for depth of commitment and multi-faceted students. All APs and no extra-curriculars, makes Jack a dull candidate. If you've played select soccer for years, don't drop it to take on an extra AP that doesn't further your story. Maybe you're interested in ecology but just can't fit AP Environmental Science into your schedule without dropping soccer. Think about other ways you can demonstrate your interest—start a conservation club, volunteer at the nature center, or take a summer course researching water pollution. Taking a class on a subject isn't the only way to show depth.
3. What are you going to use it for?
Going into a class knowing whether you are taking it for the love of the subject or hoping to get college credit for it can help you decide. Public schools will generally give you college credit for AP scores 3 and higher. Most private colleges won't give you college credit, but they will give you advanced placement in that subject, sometimes with a score of 3, but more likely 4 or 5.
4. What can you handle?
Students assume that to get into a great school, they need a great rank, and the way to do that is to max out on AP classes to boost their GPA. And while this is broadly true for the schools with <10% acceptance rates, it's not a winning strategy for general mental health. The problem with this thinking is the idea there are only a handful of great schools in the country (this warrants its own blog). If you are struggling to balance all of your AP classes, and it's making you miserable, why are you trying to get into a school which promises more of the same? Take advanced classes in the subjects that interest you and that you may want to pursue beyond high school. Leave some time to enjoy other pursuits, friends, and family.
Finally, we always ask our students what they would have done differently when applying to college. Most of them say they would have still challenged themselves, but they would have given themselves a little grace, as well.