Should I focus on AP Courses or Dual Enrollment Courses in High School?

Maybe you’re a sophomore or junior in high school and you’re thinking about starting to take AP courses or college courses. But with all the choices out there, what should you actually focus on? Both can be valuable, but your choices should be dictated by your goals and objectives.

What are AP Courses?

Advanced Placement (“AP”) courses are challenging/advanced/accelerated high school courses offered for high school credit that theoretically prepare students for college-level coursework. At the end of every AP course is an AP exam that tests you on what you’ve learned during the course. The exam is doubly important because it may also count for college credit in certain courses. It’s completely the college’s choice. For example, scoring a 4 or a 5 on the AP Biology exam may get you out of taking Intro to Biology at the college level. The AP course itself is not considered for college credit, but the exam may result in college credit depending on your score.

Colleges may also view AP courses very favorably if they are present on a high school transcript. To some colleges, their presence shows that you’ve challenged yourself beyond what you had to. Good grades on AP courses can also lead to higher high school GPAs if, for example, AP courses at your school are graded on a five point, as opposed to a four point, scale.

What are dual enrollment courses?

Dual enrollment courses are college courses that you take while in high school that result in both college and high school credit (hence, the “dual enrollment” moniker). Often, these courses are taken through a local community college or technical school. Sometimes these courses are taken at an actual college campus, but often they are proctored at your high school, or taken completely online. It’s not uncommon for high schools to have special relationships with certain local colleges through which they funnel almost all of their dual enrollment students. Subjects offered typically include general education courses such as Composition, Speech, College Algebra, Biology and History.

What is best for me?

It depends on what you are chasing. If your goal is to enter college with as many credits as possible, you would be best served focusing on dual enrollment courses. They are cheap, count for both high school & college credit, and provide you an incredible opportunity to knock out dozens of credits prior to starting your freshman year of college. In some circumstances, if you plan well, you may even be able to knock out an entire year of college.

If your goal is to challenge yourself in high school and make your high school transcript as attractive as possible to selective colleges, you would be best served focusing on AP courses. AP courses are often the most difficult courses you can take in high school (even more difficult than dual enrollment courses). Because of their difficulty, they prepare you well for college classes. Colleges also view AP courses most favorably on high school transcripts, so performing well on AP courses can increase your chances of acceptance at selective schools. Finally, AP courses can inflate your high school GPA, particularly if they are graded on a five point scale.

Some final pointers if you take dual enrollment courses:

  • Dual enrollment courses can be very affordable. Many community colleges offer courses at less than $100 per credit hour. In many states, you can actually take a certain number of dual enrollment courses for free (Ohio, for example, has College Credit Plus). Make sure to talk with your guidance counselor about different opportunities and deadlines.
  • Even though these are college courses, it is not a guarantee that the ultimate college of your choice will automatically accept them. Work with the Registrar’s Office at the college you are hoping to attend to be sure that you are taking classes that will transfer & substitute for classes that you will have to take in your chosen major.
  • Even if your high school has a special relationship with a certain college through which most students do dual enrollment, make sure to explore your other options. You may be able to take college courses elsewhere, and at a place that better fits your needs.

Some final pointers if you take AP courses:

  • You still may have to fork out some money for AP classes. AP exams vary in price, but it’s not uncommon for exams to cost $100 or more, about the cost of a credit hour at a local community college.
  • Colleges often accept AP credit for certain classes, but they typically require at least a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. Be careful that you don’t depend completely on AP courses if you are hoping to get credits coming into college.
  • AP courses can raise your GPA, but taking them can also backfire. If you are struggling in “normal” high school classes, it might not be the best move to take an AP course to raise your high school GPA. Such a choice will likely lead to increased struggle and even worse grades. Colleges would much rather see a solid high school GPA in “normal” classes than a mediocre high school transcript with a bunch of AP courses.

Be sure to make choices that best fit your college and career objectives, not someone else’s. There is no right or wrong answer–everything depends on what your goals are.

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