The answer to what students should strive for in most areas impacting college admissions is a straightforward, “More/higher is better.” Whether you’re talking about GPA or standardized tests scores, the goal is always going to be to max out your potential. Yet the problem of selecting an appropriately rigorous high school course load is a bit more opaque. More is not always better and for some, more is not even an option.

It’s all relative

Part of the paperwork your guidance counselor fills out as part of the Common App Secondary School Report (CASSR) asks them to rank the rigor of your course load as one of the following: Most Demanding, Very Demanding, Demanding, Average, Below Average. Of course, these distinctions are relative to your individual high school’s offerings.

There are 34 AP courses offered by the College Board but very few schools offer even half that number. Roughly 86% of U.S. high schools offer AP testing on site and out of those, the average number of course offerings is eight. If you hail from an under-resourced high school that offers a limited number of APs, this will not be held against you as long as you take advantage of the opportunities that are accessible. Attending a high school teeming with Advanced Placement options means that the expectations for participation are raised.

St. Olaf, the elite liberal arts school in Minnesota states that, “Ideally, an applicant will have taken as many honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as available to them in their school.” St. Olaf isn’t saying that you need an exact number of courses; only that you should avail yourself of every opportunity and that they expect your counselor to be circling “Most Demanding.”

How many AP classes do elite schools require?

While it’s difficult to locate precise statistics on the average number of AP courses taken by admitted applicants at prestigious colleges, some information is publicly available. At highly selective Kenyon College, the average admitted applicant took 4.8 AP courses in high school. The University of Georgia’s Class of 2019 averaged six AP courses while in high school.

Some schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill have stated publicly that they will not grant favor in the admissions process to students who took more than five AP courses. This proclamation came a year after over 60 percent of UNC applicants hit double-digits in the number of AP courses taken, leading to concern about high school burnout.

Most elite colleges aren’t as concerned about your work/life balance in high school. If you are aiming for an Ivy League school, you need to be at or very near the top of your graduating class, which means you’ll need to take as many AP courses as the other academic superstars at your school. Since weighted GPAs work in favor of those taking APs, it would be impossible to take eight APs and beat out members of your class taking twelve APs.

B in an AP/Honors or A in regular course?

The verdict on this frequently posed question is, in most cases, a B in an AP course. If you’re aiming for an Ivy or equally selective institution, the answer would be you need an A in the AP course. For students eyeing the 99% of four-year colleges that have an admit rate of more than 20%, turning in a solid B performance in the most demanding course available will leave you in good shape.

You don’t have to be a renaissance man/woman

The fallacy of needing to present to colleges as “well-rounded” causes high school students to do a number of foolish things including joining a dozen clubs in which they have no genuine interest, attending costly summer programs in exotic locales just to appear more worldly, and most commonly, taking honors and AP courses across the board.

Many intelligent people who have a knack for math and science are not as comfortable with or motivated by reading the plays of Samuel Beckett. Likewise, many young people who elect to read Shelby Foote’s Civil War Trilogy on summer vacation are not thrilled at the idea of learning Calculus or Advanced Physics (nor are they capable of mastering the material).

Those who are brilliant across the board and are dead-set on attending Yale or Stanford have to take on an insane course-load; that’s just reality. Everyone else can afford to pick and choose their battles in areas of strength and interest.

The bottom line

If you have your heart set on an uber-elite institution, then you need to take as many APs as the other top students in your class. In the case of students not aiming for Ivies, we wholeheartedly recommend taking AP classes only in your expressed areas of interest/strength. Try an AP class as a sophomore (if available) or as a junior and go from there. If you’re successful, take another AP class or two as a senior. This schedule will be rigorous enough to satisfy 99 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities and won’t drive you to the brink of insanity.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.