Exams & Curriculum Advanced Placement (AP)

What is Advanced Placement (AP)?

There is a perception in the international school community that Advanced Placement courses are a less rigorous alternative for a high school diploma than, say, the IB Diploma. In reality, they offer students the possibility of actually doing university/college-level study while they’re still in high school. What’s more, students can even earn college credit for this study and a good standing to enter their dream college in the U.S. What AP courses offer is really very different from the IB Diploma or A-Levels. Each of these study routes has a different aim and purpose.

As tutors, we are often asked: “What is the best high school diploma?”. Our response is always, “What’s the best for you? What kind of student is your child? What are their goals for the future?”. In this piece, we combine our knowledge of why AP courses could be a great option with insights from Philip Shaw, AP Coordinator at Collège du Léman, and Chemistry Teacher and TutorsPlus Tutor, Margarita Mechkova.

What is AP?

Perhaps better to start with what it is not. Advanced Placement (AP) is not a programme of study that itself culminates in a High School diploma. It is instead a variety of courses offered as separate entities at Advanced Placement level. They are designed to be university/college-level courses of study. Schools which offer AP often combine it with their own High School Diploma programme. At Collège du Léman, for example, students do a combination of AP and regular classes. In the first year of the 2-year High School Diploma, students must do English, Maths, French plus four electives. There is an AP offered for each of these subjects. AP courses take about eight months to complete and can be done in the final year or penultimate year of the Diploma – or even earlier if a student desires and is able.

AP courses offer students that excel in a specific subject the opportunity to already begin preparing a further study in that area, especially if they intend to pursue further studies in an institution in the U.S.A as AP courses receive credit. The teaching style is more lecture-based, like at university, and students are expected to undertake a lot of reading and independent learning. The pace is fast and culminates in a final exam that hinges upon factual recall for success.

Does AP lay good foundations for tertiary study?

AP is specifically designed to lay the foundations for tertiary study, to the point of being counted as first-year college credit if students achieve sufficiently high grades. It is technically possible for students to shave off a whole semester or even a year of college study if they’ve achieved good results in relevant AP subjects.

Phil Shaw at CDL explains that the AP creators are responding to changing expectations of education, and competition from the IB and other programmes, by introducing a 2-year “Capstone” course that even more explicitly models college/university-level study. Schools need to go through a special application process to run the course since they are directly responsible for creating the curriculum. In the first year, the “Seminar” component is modelled on a university-style class that is interdisciplinary and uses skills from different AP courses. For example, a Humanities Seminar may incorporate elements of History, English, etc.

Evaluation is through a group oral presentation which is filmed and sent to college board; a 1000-word research paper; and an exam at the end of the year. The second year is called “Research”, and students choose a topic on any subject and prepare a 5000-word research paper and, importantly, defend it in front of a panel. Defence of the paper also carries a maximum 25% of the grade. If a student achieves three APs plus the Capstone course, they are awarded a “Capstone Diploma”, which is particularly recognised in the USA.


“AP introduces students to a whole different way of working and gives them a taster of what’s to come at university. Collège du Léman offers 19 APs so a student can really specialise”.

Philip Shaw –  AP Coordinator, Collège du Léman.


How does it differ from the IB Diploma Programme?

While the IB Diploma emphasises inquiry-based and skills-based learning, the AP emphasises mastering knowledge of the content of the curriculum. AP courses are less interdisciplinary and skills-based but go very deep into the content of a particular field of study. The AP is assessed more traditionally, in answering questions correctly or incorrectly in the exam. Students receive a percentage which is converted to a grade 1-5. The final exams are weighted more heavily than the IB Diploma.

There is a common misconception that the AP is not as demanding. However, Margarita, an experienced in both AP and IB Diploma Chemistry tutor at TutorsPlus, insists that the rigour is not lower or higher, but the way students learn is simply different. She emphasises that it’s challenging to get the highest grades in the AP. The difference is that there is less focus on time-management and juggling a variety of assessed coursework throughout the course. By contrast, if a student is well-prepared by the end of the course for the final exams, they will do well in the AP.


“I enjoy teaching AP because you’re surrounded by very able, creative and independent students”.

Margarita Mechkova – Chemistry Teacher and TutorsPlus Tutor.


Are there pre-requisites for AP-level study?

Officially, no, there aren’t. However, AP courses are demanding and require a lot of content knowledge. For this reason, many schools insist on certain pre-requisites so do check these with individual schools. Pre-AP courses are available that many schools offer as pre-requisites for AP level subjects. While the AP College Board doesn’t oblige students to study Pre-AP, it’s a good way for schools to make sure that students have solid foundations for the demands of the AP.

At Collège du Léman, taking certain subjects at AP level, for example, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, English and Art, requires completing the Honours class in Grade 11. For Math, there’s a progression of learning: Algebra 2, then Pre-Calculus, Calculus AB, then Calculus BC.

Is there a minimum number of AP courses a student should ideally take?

No, students can do just one AP or more. These can be done at any time during the schooling process, but most generally in the last three years of Secondary School and ideally staggered throughout due to their demanding nature. So, for example, a student very capable in a subject might already do one AP course three years ahead of graduating High School and then complete a couple more over the final two years. One AP in a year is generally considered quite manageable, while two in a year is already a lot. Some universities outside of the USA will require a certain number of AP courses – even up to five! – for entry into a given a course, so this is worth investigating in advance.

How does AP act as credit in a US college?

One huge and vital difference with AP is you can get credits for university depending on the university and subject. A student can go directly into the second year in some subjects. The financial implications of this can be significant. For example, one student at CDL once got 5 APs in relevant subjects that all contributed to the equivalent of the entire 1st year of college study.

So, while the IB Diploma is increasingly recognised and well-regarded in the USA, APs do offer the advantage of being able to cut out some of the financial burdens of studying there.

However, this shouldn’t be a reason to encourage students to do AP courses if they are not academically ready for this level of study as the college will also look at their Grade Point Average (GPA). If the student doesn’t do well in an AP course, it can significantly affect the weighting of their GPA.

Is the AP well-respected by Universities/Colleges outside the USA?

Yes,  many universities in Europe and the UK recognise and highly regard the AP. It’s important to note though, that while in the USA it is rare that a college will specify which APs and how many you need to enter a certain course of study, in Europe many universities will require a certain amount and specific ones too. The grades are important also. For example, British universities tend to offer conditional offers, equating APs to A-Levels, but often stipulating that the student needs to achieve a four. The Russell Group universities may require 3 AP’s with the highest grade, a five.

Why might the AP be a good choice of study?

As has already been mentioned, if a student intends to go to college in the USA, it is important to note that AP subjects can be used to gain credit in particular courses of study. Iif they receive a grade 3 or higher, t If they achieve they can go straight into 2nd-year courses in this subject.

Because the final exams are such an important feature of the AP, students who have excellent study skills and perform well in exams can really excel. Since there is no coursework (such as the Internal Assessment or Extended Essay in the IB Diploma), students with professional extracurricular commitments, in sports, for example, may find it an interesting option. Similarly, if a student has missed a large portion of school due to illness – and therefore compulsory coursework deadlines – AP courses could be a good choice.

There are probably three main types of students that are well-suited to AP courses:

  • They are academically very strong or take a great interest in that subject and would like a university-level challenge to specialise in it. This could be one subject only or more.
  • They have a clear idea of what they’d like to study at a US college and want to build an AP heavy transcript to get into that course.
  • Their strengths lie in taking exams rather than in coursework. There simply isn’t the same timetable load and consistent organisation over a 2-year period as that required by the IB Diploma. The AP is much more flexible in this sense.

Whichever university your child is aiming for, it’s critical to choose the best course for the individual student. There is little point opting for the IB Diploma over the AP believing it is held in higher regard, when your child may be better suited to AP-style study, and vice-versa. It might affect their results to the point of not getting into their chosen university. So take the time to discuss with course coordinators, teachers, your child to make a decision that best fits your child’s aspirations and your family situation in terms of supporting them throughout their tertiary studies.

If you would like more information on supporting your child through AP, we’d be happy to help and put you in contact with one of our experienced AP tutors. You can reach TutorsPlus at 022 731 8148 or . And more information on our website: www.tutorsplus.com

About the Author: Sandra Steiger has over ten years’ experience teaching English at various schools in Switzerland. She now works as Academic Support Manager at TutorsPlus. During her six years at the International School of Geneva, she was also the Service Learning programme Coordinator, International Award Supervisor, a Homeroom Mentor and Head of Year 8.

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