What Looks Better – an A in Regular College Prep Classes or a Lower Grade in Honors/AP Course?

One of the key factors of your college application is your high school transcript. This not only includes grades but also the strength of your curriculum. Colleges want to see that you can push yourself, taking the most challenging, yet appropriate, courses.
So what looks better to admissions officers: playing it safe and getting the A in a regular course or taking a more challenging Honors or AP course, but getting a B or a C? The answer that most colleges will give you is that it’s better to get an A in the Honors/AP class. And most highly-selective schools will expect that you do.
But many colleges would rather see a B in an Honors or AP course than a higher grade in a regular college prep course. They want to see that you are truly challenging yourself but that you are still mastering the material. If you’re getting C’s or D’s in the class, you clearly aren’t mastering the material and should rethink your placement in the course.
If you enroll in college prep level courses and get all A’s, it may look as though you’re capable enough to take a few Honors or AP courses but are playing it safe. Colleges may be put off by this. If this is you, try to take on a couple of Honors or AP courses, potentially in the subjects you feel most comfortable in, where your strengths and interests lie.

But will this impact my GPA?

At most high schools, Honors and AP courses are weighted differently than other courses, thus giving “extra credit” to students in the higher-level courses for performing well. Colleges typically know which high schools do not use weighted ranks and take this into consideration while reviewing and comparing students. Ask your guidance counselor about the exact grading and weighting system that your school uses. Your guidance counselor should also be able to recommend whether you should move up a level in a particular course.

What if my school doesn’t offer Honors or AP courses?

Colleges will know what classes your high school offers and will evaluate you in terms of what opportunities you had. You won’t be penalized for not taking higher-level courses if they aren’t offered. However, if Honors or AP courses aren’t available at your school, there may be other opportunities available to you, such as taking courses at a local college or community college or through an online program.
Ultimately, colleges are looking for students who push themselves, who take the most challenging, yet appropriate, course load that’s available to them, and who can handle this course load while performing well. Not every student can realistically take on a full course load of Honors and AP courses and do well. Know yourself and ask those around you who know you well, such as your teachers and guidance counselor, to help you navigate your courses.