There are loads of great reasons to take advanced classes in high school: additional rigor, intellectual challenge, preparing for college, diving deeper into a topic. One of the most common reasons students take these classes, though, is to get college credit while in high school. If college credit is one of your goals, then you need to know what colleges do with your AP, IB, dual credit and other courses. Colleges may offer one or more of the following, dependent on the student’s exam results:

  • Credit towards the student’s major
  • General education (elective) credit
  • Advanced standing (accelerating graduation by one or more academic terms)
  • Placement

Schools set their own minimum score requirements, so a student might get credit at one school but not at another (and in many cases, not know until well after they’ve made their college selection). It’s not unusual for schools to either cap the total number of credits a student can use toward their college degree, cap the credits toward a major, require a minimum number of advanced courses to get any placement, or not count any credit earned as a high school student. For example, my daughter’s college allows a maximum of 3 college courses to be fulfilled outside the college itself and required their own placement exams for many subjects.

Students who intend to use AP or IB courses to shorten their college career need to research how the schools they are interested in handle those credits. Some schools require a minimum number of credits to get advanced standing and require the student to request such standing. Others automatically grant credit for every test taken.

Schools that offer advanced standing to students entering with a specified number of credits tend to have specific pathways for students to complete their degrees in a shortened timeframe. In other cases, most often at public schools, it’s incumbent upon the student to manage their coursework toward the desired graduation timeline.

If your student is offered credit only—as opposed to standing—then you should research how the school prices academic terms and credits. Typically any full-time student—earning at least 12 credits in an academic term—will pay the same price regardless of whether they’re taking 12 or 17 credits. Students who choose to simply take less courses each term due to their existing credits will not accelerate their graduation, and if they drop below full-time standing may forfeit scholarships.

Entering college with a lot of credit has pros and cons. Especially at public schools, which may require graduation once a student has earned a set number of credits, students who enter undecided as to major and career path often find that their options to explore are limited due to their existing credits. And students pursuing a major with rigorous prerequisites or course sequencing such as engineering might find they are unable to meet their graduation requirements in less than four years regardless of credits.

College credit shouldn’t be the only reason for taking advanced classes in high school. Often these classes are far better preparation for college level work and help build the critical thinking skills and academic independence to succeed not just in college but in the years beyond as well. And students intending to apply to elite schools should assume that it’s more or less a requirement to have taken the most rigorous curriculum available at one’s high school.

That being said, there are good reasons not to take advanced classes in high school, or to take a more thoughtful approach to selecting them than simply the “better, faster, stronger” approach we tend to lean towards. Many colleges award merit scholarships on the basis of unweighted GPA, for example. Often, a scholarship saves more money than early graduation. My son’s college offers merit scholarships on the basis of unweighted GPA, and the difference between a 3.5 GPA and a 3.75 GPA is currently $7,500 annually or $30,000 over four years.

As with so many things college-related, it’s challenging to chart your course through advanced classes not knowing where your student will ultimately attend and thus what the college enrollment or credit benefit will be– and students have to commit to (and pay for) the exams before knowing whether they’ll attend a college that gives them credit. For students who are passionately interested in a given topic, advanced courses in that topic can be terrific. For students wishing to apply to elite schools, advanced courses across the board are at least recommended if not a must. But not every advanced class is a fit for every student and many students will benefit from pursuing a more balanced courseload.

What can you do now? Research credit policies at schools you’re interested in, especially your in-state public schools. That way you can at least get a sense of what coursework might be needed to benefit. Most schools post this info on their websites; just google “[school name] AP credit” to find it.