One way for high school students to strengthen their transcripts and prepare for college is to enroll in Advanced Placement courses. AP offers rigorous coursework and the opportunity to earn college credit, which could save students money and time in their pursuit of an undergraduate degree.
But not every high school offers AP courses.
While 88% of public high school students attend a school that offers at least one AP course, students in rural areas are less likely to have access to those classes. As of 2021, 77% of rural high school students did not have access to AP courses at their school, according to a report by the College Board, who administers the program. That number is up from 73% in 2015.
According to the most recent data from the Education Commission of the States, in 2016 just eight states and the District of Columbia exclusively required all school districts to offer AP courses. Fourteen states required schools to offer advanced coursework, which may include AP courses, while 28 states had no official policy regarding AP course requirements.
Some high schoolers may worry that their lack of access to AP courses will hinder their chances of college admission. But admissions experts say students should simply focus on taking the most challenging courses they can at their school.
“If a student doesn’t have AP offered at their school, what we’re looking for is really just, ‘what is that student doing to challenge himself or herself?’ To me, that’s the most interesting part of the story,” says Lara Mann, vice president of enrollment services at the University of Indianapolis in Indiana.
Many colleges see AP courses and exams as just one part of the admissions process. All nine schools within the University of California system, for example, use a “holistic review,” in which enrollment in advanced courses is only one item in a 13-point list that also includes factors like GPA, academic improvement and extracurricular activities.
The University of Indianapolis takes a similar approach, Mann says, as do many others.
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How to Get AP Credit if Your School Does Not Offer AP Courses
Though there are options to consider in place of AP courses, some students might still wish to obtain AP credit. There are numerous ways to access AP course material and study for an AP exam without taking a course at school.
Take an Online AP Class
Some states, including Alabama, Missouri and Illinois, offer AP courses as part of their statewide virtual public school option. Alabama, for example, offers 11 AP courses – taught by College Board-approved AP instructors – at no cost to students.
Sean Stevens, program coordinator for instructional services at the Alabama Department of Education, says it’s mostly been a success.
“Having access to that advanced-level coursework I think is good for everyone, even for those districts who were unable to provide courses face-to-face,” he says. “This does give those students an option so that they can still participate and really get that same level of academic rigor as those schools that are able to offer AP courses.”
Since options and requirements may vary, students should check with their school counselors about enrolling in these courses.
Another option that might be available to students is to take the class virtually through another area high school. High school counselor Tammy Dodson says that has been a viable option at her Colorado high school, and it’s something that Amber Barrick, a high school counselor in Kentucky, says her school is trying for the first time this year.
Take a Private Online Test Prep Course
You don’t need to take an AP course in order to take the exam and potentially earn college credit with a score of 4 or higher.
Companies like Kaplan, Princeton Review, Tutor.com, and Knovva Academy offer online test prep courses and tutoring for students to prepare for AP exams.
Some students use these services to supplement their AP course at school, but others use them in place of an AP class. These courses only help students prepare for the AP exam, however, and are not a substitute for class credit.
Online classes, which can be synchronous or self-paced, range in price from a few hundred dollars to over $1,000 per hour.
In addition to the cost, prepping for an AP exam without taking the class itself is not for everyone. Success in these sorts of courses requires discipline, says Peter Dufresne, chief academic officer of Knovva Academy.
While test-prep classes expose students to AP-style questions and familiarize them with the test structure, Barrick says she would encourage parents and students to exhaust all options within the school environment before deciding to pay for those products.
“That obviously is a last resort,” she says. “I wouldn’t recommend that for any student, really, if we can offer some type of alternative for that.”
Self-Study for the Test
Numerous free resources are available for motivated students who don’t want to pay for a private online class. To prepare for an AP exam without taking the course, students should study the skills and content outlined in the course and exam description for each subject, Sara Sympson, director of communications for the College Board, wrote in an email. This resource offers free review questions and scoring guidelines to expose students to what they might experience on the AP exam.
Students who sign up for AP exams also have access to free AP Daily Videos, which are short videos created by AP teachers that are available on demand.
Some test prep companies also offer free resources. For example, Barron’s Publishing, which Kaplan acquired in 2018, provides review tests and games on Kahoot.com and short podcast episodes geared toward preparing students for the U.S. and World History tests. The Princeton Review also offers a number of free resources, like videos and practice quizzes.
As with online test prep, Barrick says students should explore other options before considering taking an AP exam without taking the corresponding AP course.
Admissions experts also recommend students take the initiative to seek out alternatives. There are multiple other ways to boost your transcript and earn college credit without taking an AP class or exam.
Enroll in Honors Courses
Schools with no AP courses might still offer other options for high-achieving students, such as honors courses.
Participation in these courses can demonstrate to colleges that a student took advantage of the most rigorous courses offered to them, experts say.
Enroll in College Courses Through Dual-Enrollment Programs
Students may also be able to take college courses while still in high school through dual-enrollment programs, in which high schools partner with local two- or four-year colleges. Students may take classes on a local college campus or at their high school.
Some colleges also offer online dual-enrollment opportunities, experts say. High school counselors can help students find these opportunities.
Be Clear on College Applications
Admissions experts recommend students use space on their college applications to explain their situation to admissions officers.
“I think if I was a student who was applying and knew I was coming in from a school that didn’t offer AP classes, I think I would take it upon myself to approach that proactively,” Mann says. “I operate with, ‘the more information the better.’”