Honors vs. AP Classes: What is the Difference?

June 6, 2023

If you’re a high school student, odds are you’ve heard the terms “AP” and “Honors classes” before. But what exactly do these terms mean, and how do you decide which curriculum is best for you? In this post, we’ll delve into the differences between AP vs Honors classes to help you decide which path to venture down. We’ll take into consideration the differences between these courses, their difficulty levels, and how much they factor into your college prospects and beyond. Let’s begin!

What is AP?

AP stands for Advanced Placement. These courses provide high school students with a rigorous curriculum reflective of that of a college-level course. AP classes across the country follow the guidelines set out by the College Board. At the end of the school year, AP students take an AP exam. These scores may be accepted by universities for college credit, which could potentially reduce your tuition bill. More college credit + reduced tuition = win, win!

Some popular AP courses included AP English Literature, AP Macroeconomics and Microeconomics, AP United States Government and Politics, AP World History, AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Bio, AP Chem, AP Languages, and AP Computer Science. As you can see, AP courses cover a wide range of subjects, and these aren’t even all of them! For a full list of the 38 Advanced Placement courses offered by the College Board, refer to the official list here.

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It’s possible that your school may not offer all of these courses. The average number of AP course offerings at U.S. high schools is eight. Remember to review your own school’s catalog for the course offerings. Keep in mind that it may also be possible for you to arrange to take an AP exam, even if your school doesn’t offer that particular course. This typically involves self-studying and taking the AP exam at a neighboring school. It may be a good option if you are passionate about a subject and wish to obtain college credit in that particular area prior to matriculating.

When are AP Exams Offered?

AP Exams are given every year in May. Scores are typically released in early-to-mid July. For more information on when scores are released—as well as what you might do to keep you occupied while you wait—check out our article here.

What are Honors Courses?

Unlike AP courses, which the College Board standardizes, Honors courses typically follow a curriculum set by your school district. You might think of these as the next level up from your regular coursework. While Honors classes are designed to be challenging and to delve deeper into certain subjects, they typically are not considered college-level courses the way AP classes are. Importantly, unlike with AP classes, your final exam scores in Honors classes will not be counted for college credit.

What about IB?

For the purposes of this article, we’ll primarily be focusing on Honors vs. AP Classes, as these are the course offerings at most U.S. high schools. However, in recent years, the IB (International Baccalaureate) program has grown in popularity and is now offered at more schools than ever. Some high schools (and even middle schools) offer the IB program in addition to, or in place of, the typical Honors and AP courses.

There are a few key differences between IB and AP courses. For one, the IB program takes a global approach—hence the “international” in its name. For another, IB programs are not confined to a single course. To obtain an IB diploma, students take several IB courses in tandem. Just like with the AP Courses, a qualifying score on an IB Exam may count toward college credit. Additionally, the IB takes a holistic approach to learning. Rather than multiple-choice tests, the IB prides itself on an inquiry-based approach that includes group projects, in-depth explorations on subjects, and comprehensive essays.

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For more information on the IB Program, see here.

Difficulty Level: AP vs. Honors

Now that we’ve reviewed the differences between Honors and AP courses, you may still have lingering questions as to the difficulty of each. While both are higher-level courses and include rigorous material, AP is typically considered a step above Honors. As mentioned above, the AP courses are considered college-level—thus why they’re able to be used for college credit. By contrast, the Honors level courses are considered more rigorous than regular courses but still at the high school level.

Availability of Honors vs. AP Courses

The availability of Honors and AP courses varies widely from school to school. According to the College Board, some high schools let “any student enroll in an AP course as long as the student has taken the recommended prerequisite courses,” while other schools restrict AP course offerings to upper-level students. Perhaps you’ve noticed that AP Courses are only offered your junior year and senior year of high school, while Honors courses are offered all four years. In some cases, taking Honors classes will help you score a seat in those more exclusive AP classes. This is school dependent, and we recommend speaking with your guidance counselor about which course is right for you to guarantee that you’re on the proper path to take APs in your junior and senior years.

Do Colleges Care about Honors and AP Classes?

The short answer: yes. Colleges want to see that you’ve pushed yourself academically. This includes taking higher-level courses that demonstrate your ability to tackle challenging coursework. These advanced classes have another benefit as well: they are often weighted in your GPA.

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A common weighting scheme involves adding 0.5 points to your GPA for an Honors class and 1 point for an AP class. Under this grading scheme, a student who earns As in all AP Classes will rank higher than a student who earns As in all Honors classes—and both will rank higher than a student who earns As in all regular classes. Class rank is one of the key components that colleges use to measure your academic performance compared to that of your peers. For more information on class rank and how much it counts in your admissions prospects, check out this article. And remember: not all schools or districts use this weighting system. Some schools don’t use weighted GPAs at all! When in doubt, refer to your student handbook for how your unique school calculates your GPA and class rank.

What if I Perform Poorly on the AP Exam?

So, say it’s July, and you’ve gotten back that AP Psych exam and…uh-oh. Before you panic, rest assured that your score on the AP exam factors very little into your chances of admission. Admissions officers typically care more about your overall grade in the course than they do your score. Why is this? Because ultimately, your score—be it a 2, 3, 4, or 5—is a reflection of your work on one single day, rather than your studies over the course of a semester.

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That said, we here at College Transitions encourage you to study hard for the AP exams and to try your best, as a qualifying score can save you time and money down the line. Additionally, some selective colleges do require that you report your AP scores in your application, and they may factor this score into their assessment of your candidacy. So, while factors such as your overall coursework and class rank may factor more into your chance of admission than your score on a single AP exam, that score isn’t negligible.

Can I Take Both AP and Honors Courses?

Yes! We recommend that regardless of how many AP classes you take, you mix in other advanced-level courses to bolster your admissions profile.

How Many AP and Honors Courses Should I Take?

True or false: more AP/Honors courses = better chance at college admissions.

If you answered false, ding ding ding, you’re correct! Overloading your schedule with AP courses does not correspond to a greater chance of admission. What matters is not how many AP or Honors courses you take, but how well you do in those courses. For instance, maybe you’re a student who thrives in the arts. In that case, perhaps you consider taking courses such as AP Literature and AP Art History. The important factor here is that you take courses at your level.

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Still, colleges—particularly the elite ones—want to see that you avail yourself of all the opportunities at your disposal. This includes taking advanced-level coursework, enrolling in extracurriculars that show your passions, and making use of those summer months to continue exploring your interests. The average student who gets into Harvard or Yale will have taken a majority of AP courses if those were available to them. Your high school curriculum, including the number of AP or Honors courses you’ve taken, is a key factor in your admissions profile. For more information on how many AP Courses to take, as well as whether it’s better to get a B in an AP class or an A in a regular one, check out our trusty guide.

AP vs Honors – Conclusion

When it comes to applying to college, few factors matter more in admissions than your high school coursework: which classes you took, how you performed in those classes, and how much you challenged yourself. Colleges want to see that you’ve pushed yourself where possible and that you’ve made use of all the resources available to you. In many cases, these resources include higher-level courses like AP and Honors.

When evaluating whether to take Honors or AP Courses, we recommend looking at your schedule as a whole. How rigorous is it? Have you pushed yourself where you can? Have you overextended yourself? Remember to account for your extracurricular activities and any other time commitments. AP and Honors courses are demanding in terms of how many study hours they require. If you’re preparing to sit for an AP exam, ensure that you dedicate enough study hours to achieve a score that could potentially earn your college credit.