Socrates, the oft-quoted Greek philosopher, once said, “The true measure of a student can be ascertained from but a single glance at his class schedule.” It was either him or Thomas Paine. (It was definitely neither.) Regardless, it’s safe to say most admission counselors will tell you that the academic rigor a student pursues in high school is one of the most telling aspects of his application. Which brings us to the question juniors and seniors find themselves asking every year: When it comes to choosing between challenging coursework, do colleges prefer AP or dual enrollment classes?

While most of the advice you’ll come across whilst Googling is essentially variations on a fence-sitting theme, I’m going to be so bold as to give you a definitive answer from behind the admission counselor’s desk. When given a choice between an AP and dual enrollment course…take the AP, hands down. Now, let’s discuss why.

Unlike dual enrollment courses, all AP courses undergo a rigorous audit by the College Board (the same folks who administrate the SAT) to ensure that each instance of a particular course complies with standards agreed upon by all secondary and post-secondary College Board members. As a fail-safe, AP students are encouraged to take a standardized test at the end of the academic year so there can be no question as to the quality of coursework and student performance.

Dual enrollment courses are more difficult to objectively evaluate. For instance, how might you assess the following students who all received A’s in their English dual enrollment courses: Student A) who took the community college course but didn’t have to study because the coursework was easier than anticipated; Student B) who took a college course at the local state university, renowned for its academic rigor, and Student C) who took a dual enrollment course at his high school from a teacher using a college syllabus?

Because all AP courses are accountable to the same expectations, college admission counselors can be relatively confident in the quality of instruction. With dual enrollment courses, however, admissions professionals are left to make educated guesses about the rigor and quality of specific programs with limited knowledge of the course material and no standardized exam. This might not present as troublesome a problem regionally, but schools receiving applications from across the country can’t afford to individually investigate every dual enrollment course they come across.

Okay, so let’s switch gears for a minute. It’s widely known that AP course offerings are not the same across the board. For instance, a large private school in Chicago will probably offer more numerous and rigorous options than say a small rural school in Wyoming. What do you do if your school either doesn’t offer AP courses or (based on your school’s AP testing history) you feel that a particular dual enrollment option will present a more sophisticated challenge? Assuming, you’ve completed enough research to make a qualified decision on the matter, go for the more arduous option. However, be sure to explain the reason for your choice in your application.

Now, I’ve managed to ignore the elephant in the room for six paragraphs: what about college credit? Right, well, as you know AP and dual enrollment courses are often a means to an end…that end being college credit. The policies employed to allocate course credit are as varied as the institutions they serve. Some schools, like Centre, will not accept dual enrollment credit for the reasons mentioned above. Regarding AP scores, many schools will accept any passing score on an AP exam (3-5), while some schools are more selective, accepting only scores of 4 and 5. Beyond that, you get into issues of which credits count toward electives and which count toward graduation requirements. And the list goes on…

To be honest, it can be a bit of a quagmire regardless of which path you take. In the end, seeking out information from your list of prospective colleges is the only way to be 100% sure you’re making the best decisions. For the most organized student, that may mean having a tentative list of colleges by the end of the sophomore year. (Being familiar with with the AP curriculum as whole couldn’t hurt either.) But you needn’t be a slave to college credit in high school; pursue courses that will genuinely stimulate and challenge you. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “You can never please everyone. Sometimes it is sufficient to simply choose the path that pleases you.” Well actually, that one was just me.

  • Matthew Forchetti

    What if your high school does not offer AP classes of any kind but does offer the opportunity for dual enrollment? Are you implying that it might be better to NOT take dual enrollment classes at all?

  • http://www.theadmissioncentre.com Adam Brown

    Absolutely not! The message of this piece is that colleges favor demanding coursework, so when given the option between AP or dual enrollment, one should take AP in light of the rigor and quality control. If your high school doesn’t offer AP courses but does offer dual enrollment, DO IT! Colleges want to see that you took the most challenging path available to you, if that means exclusively taking dual enrollment courses, get in there and take them.

  • http://www.rcacollegeguide.com Matthew Forchetti

    Thanks a lot Adam. I hope it is okay for me to copy over your article to the blog that I started for my school? Your article might – A: help our administration consider adding AP type courses, and B: help students who are on the fence about whether or not to take Dual Enrollment classes.

  • http://griyamobilkita.blogspot.com sewa mobil

    Nice article, thanks for the information. 

  • Suzieconner

    Thank you for the article… it helped understand the difference.  However, I am a little concerned because my son, who is entering his Jr. year, has taken two AP classes so far.  The first class he took, he received a 3 and the second one he took, he received a 2.  The funny thing is that the class that he didn’t pass the test, he had the highest grade of an A+, yet did not pass the exam.  He told us that after they took the test, he realized that his teacher had skipped over a large section in the book that WAS on the test, so in his defense, him passing wasn’t completely his fault.  I have just contacted the two colleges that he is seriously considering to see what their view on this topic is.  We shall see… Good luck to all! ;-)

  • http://www.theadmissioncentre.com Adam Brown

    Suzie, your concern is certainly one that we’ve heard before. Unfortunately, the final score on the exam is the standard by which many colleges assess the student’s performance in the subject, though not necessarily the class. Is it true that a teacher may have negatively influenced that score by not living up to expectations of the College Board? Yes. It would be unfair, however, to give the student a “pass.” Ultimately, it would invalidate the entire purpose of the standardized exam. More importantly, forgiving the score could mean that the student would be placed in a higher level course than what they could feasibly handle.

    On the upside, many colleges aren’t going to look at that 2 and immediately draw the conclusion that the student is dumb or didn’t care about the class. The score is viewed in context with counselor and teacher evaluations, his transcript, as well as other standardized exam scores. Admission counselors are pretty adept at identifying hiccups in records and drawing appropriate conclusions. If you’re still concerned though, you may always elect to write a note of explanation to be included in the file.

    So, while having a low score on an AP exam may preclude a student from getting course credit or allowing him to enter a more advanced course (even if it was the result of poor instruction), it won’t necessarily cast him in a negative light during the admission process either. 

  • Anonymous

    My daughter has taken the most rigorous course load through her junior year at a private school, and already has taken 4 years of World Language and 4 years of Science. For her senior year, she is planning to take AP English Lit and AP Calculus AB. Most of the other APs offered at her school are considered “soft” APs by the school’s standards: Psychology, US Government, Environmental Science, Statistics. They also are offering AP Biology which she isn’t interested in taking. In terms of college admissions only (not college credit) to a say, Princeton, Amherst, or Swarthmore, would it look “bad” to take dual enrollment courses for most of her senior load? She is looking at taking dual enrollment courses at the community college: Art History, Business Law, Comparative World Religions, and Philosophy.

  • http://www.theadmissioncentre.com Adam Brown

    Unfortunately, I can only tell you definitively what it looks like at Centre College. You’ll have to contact the admission offices at each of colleges you mentioned to know for sure how they view dual credit. What I can tell you about selective college admissions in general is that we are looking to see that the student has taken the most rigorous course load available to her. If that’s AP, then it’s AP. If that’s dual enrollment, then it’s dual enrollment. While the general rule of thumb is that AP courses are considered more rigorous, there are always exceptions. Whatever you decide, if you feel your choices may be misinterpreted by the app reader, you can always include additional information with your application to elucidate on the particular decisions you made.

    When you say that your daughter’s high school considers the remaining AP courses available to her “soft,” is that a judgment of the subjects or the teachers? Based on the list of AP courses you’ve provided, Centre would consider those more in line with core content than the community college courses you’ve also listed.

    Finally, what do you know about the quality of the community college where the courses would be taken? Ask for a college profile or some other set of information that could be used to compare the quality of your daughter’s high school with that of the community college. If the high school is statistically stronger in terms of where they send students to four-year institutions, standardized exam scores, etc., it could mean that your daughter will stand to glean more from an education there (where she can ultimately take the AP exams to verify her learning) than going the dual credit route.

    Does this answer your question?

  • Goldasin

    Hi Adam,
    I was just wondering, is it a good idea that I am taking a couple of AP’s but also dual enrolled at UF for Calculus 3 and Russian 2 (which wasn’t offered at my school)? UF is a good school and I really think the classes are harder than AP’s. How do you think most colleges (ivies and the such) woudl view that?

  • http://www.theadmissioncentre.com Adam Brown

    Goldasin,

    The general rule of thumb is that you should challenge yourself to the best of your ability. If limited access to AP courses means you go the DE route in certain subjects, that’s totally fine.

    Regarding your specific situation, most colleges (including ivies) are going to recognize Calc 3 and Russian 2 as being rare options in most high schools. It should reflect on you positively.

    Like I said, just be sure you can demonstrate that your choices were made in the interest of providing the most robust and demanding course load you could handle.

  • Chela Kevin

    i am currently a Dual-Enrollment student & loveeeee it . I learn at a much faster pace , my SAT scores doubled , I am in NHS , president of my FBLA chapter , VP of the Student Class, play volleyball and could graduate a year earlier if I chose too . One thing I always told my mom is that I am not doing dual-enrollment solely so that my grades can transfer to another school but so that when I do get to college or an university I am well prepared and know what I am getting myself into . I am 16 and currently have 32 credits with a 3.8 unweighted GPA . Dual-Enrollment has also made me realize what school I would like to attend and my intended major there . I like this article because you’re completely right AP classes, which I have taken 8 of are rigorous but it also depends on the school you are taking them at . AP vs. Dual-Enrollment in my opinion depends on the student & the school , just sayingg ( : .

  • http://twitter.com/AdmissionCentre The Admission Centre

    Chela,

    I think you’re doing everything right. Just saying. (:

  • Jason S.

    Adam:

    Is your take on AP v. DE the same for home-schooled students? I’ve seen both AP exams and community-college courses, and I certainly agree with you that the former are more rigorous academically. (Whether the same thing can be said for a private school or a state flagship university depends on the school). I know things are sometimes different for home-schooled applicants, though.

  • Nasazam

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Can I ask who The Admission Center is. Are you a government entity or private?

  • Adam Brown

    The Admission Centre is a blog authored and moderated by the Office of Admission at Centre College, a highly ranked small private liberal arts college in Danville, KY. That’s the short of it, at least.

    Here’s more: http://www.centre.edu/about_centre/elevator_speech.html

  • Adam Brown

    Here’s what I’d say: home-schooled students are a whole other entity when evaluated by counselors. There are so many nuances to their education that we have to consider differently because their curriculum is almost always of a completely unique nature. AP vs. college courses are certainly one of those things we study closely.

    Most often, Centre College sees home-schooled students who take community college or public university courses instead of online AP courses. For these students, either is desirable…but going the DE may be the better choice simply because it puts the home-schooled student in a classroom for peer-to-peer interaction. If it’s financially feasible, and you’re interested in getting that nearly universally transferable college credit, you may take the AP exam in the subject you took your college class in. But that need not be a principle concern.

    Again, and I know I keep repeating this, we want to know our students sought out the greatest challenges they could reasonably tackle in high school. That may not mean getting an A in every hard course, but it does mean not being satisfied with with what is easily offered. Students who are likely to succeed at rigorous academic institutions have a long track record of finding ways to push themselves before even making an application. That’s what you should strive to do each and every time.

  • Donna

    Thank you for explaining the difference.  The public HS is trying to determine whether DE classes should be offered.  Many AP courses are currently offered.  I would like your opinion on why we as a nation are teaching our HS students college level material?  I believe enriched/enhanced HS opportunites seem more appropriate.

  • http://twitter.com/dangdangBB Sam

    Fabulous article. I’m an AP kid through and through (6 full year courses and 2 half year courses). The only time I took dual, it was offered as a Pre-Calc dual or honors option. I went honors, without paying and with a GPA weighting. There’s no point in paying a few hundred bucks when you don’t even know if you’re heading out of state or if the rigor of the class should be accepted at the colleges you’re applying to. Honestly, it shouldn’t. I know that that class was not anywhere near college level. Overall great advice!

  • chris

    Question:

    If all AP courses require the same expectations, why is there such a disparaging difference between passing rates and test taking numbers when comparing suburban, urban, and rural areas? Why are minority students taking the AP tests in high quantities but not passing?

    My thought is that academic rigor is based upon each individual instructor/professor. No matter the rubric given for course content development, or the training given to an AP teacher, deliver, or pedagogy is important. Thus, it can’t be measured accurately for either.

    What CAN be measured is the number of low socio-economic, middle, and high class students, minority and majority groups testing for AP and taking Dual credit courses, and the percentage passing for each test and subgroup.

    What are these numbers? Where can we find these numbers. I think these numbers can give an individual a better picture of what route he/she should consider instead of the theory behind what each program is designed to do.

    Last, saying that community college courses have less rigor than high school AP courses is not a message we want to send to students, it may motivate, but it can also deter.

    I have my own personal preference, but as an educator I advise students on what is best for them based on their learning style(s), educational goals, and intrinsic motivation.

  • Haylee S

    My junior year I am enrolled in my local university for dual enrollment. Half the day at College the other half at my High School. Does this hurt or help my getting into another college?

  • Yasira

    Hello, i am a junior at the moment and i am in all ap and honors courses but am looking at doing dual enrollemnt my last two years to get an associates degree. Should i shoot for the dual enrollment, (b/c I have heard some colleges dont accept it) or stick with ap courses and keep it moving?

  • John Locke

    For a student in 10th grade at a small religious private school in Gainesville, Florida who is looking to get into an Ivy League school, which is better:

    1. to dual-enroll through local public high school for 11th and 12th grades with the University of Florida (which only allows two classes, thus she would also take 2-3 AP or honors courses at the high school)
    or
    2. to go to the local high school only and take a full course-load of AP classes?

    Does it look better to have a combination of dual-enrollment and AP credit, considering the college would be the University of Florida, which is the best school in the state and 14th public university in the country, and thus is well-known enough to be academically rigorous, or to focus solely on AP at the high school level? Acceptance-wise, which is better? I realize that Harvard only takes 5′s on AP and may not accept all dual-enrollment credit, but what LOOKS best on an application??

    Information about the student: She has a 4.0 unweighted GPA, 4.6 or so weighted (idk exactly), and wants to go into medical field. Very intelligent and hardworking and literally has 99s and 100s in all her classes, which are all either AP and Honors. Her schedule includes: Pre-Calculus Honors, AP English (Lit/Writing combo), AP US history, Chemistry Honors (AP not offered at this school), Latin 3 Honors, and some SAT prep thing that’s basically just a study hall for her. She is 15 in 10th grade looking to pursue the best path to Harvard Medical of Johns Hopkins. Any real advice would be appreciated.

  • John Locke

    You are right that almost everything rides on what exactly a teacher does with their curriculum. They might know to “teach to the test” but success depends almost solely on how a teacher does things.

    Obviously there are many factors involved, and what takes place outside of the classroom, specifically in the home, is very important in the academic success of an individual. If someone in a low-income home has only one parent and that parent is working all day to provide, that student is at a disadvantage compared to a student coming from an upper-middle class family with either a private tutor or a parent who is able time-wise and otherwise to help them with their homework, keep on top of them, etc. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sentiment might sound nice, but in reality, the people trying to do this for themselves have limited time and resources, putting them at a disadvantage. In my opinion, it is very difficult to succeed academically in a difficult family socioeconomic situation. And those situations do not correspond directly to race, which is a common misconception I hear.

    That is why colleges should take into account socioeconomic and family situations of a students, rather than solely race. Race is no longer an indicator of socioeconomic circumstances, but merely an arbitrary piece of data universities use to claim “diversity”

  • Adam Brown

    I don’t know that you’ll like it, but the real advice is much simpler than you’d expect. Your daughter should contact the schools and ask what they’d prefer to see.

    But, herein lies a problem. Suddenly the objective of high school is no longer about your daughter’s experience, it’s about her pursuit of college admission. That’s exhausting. Every college is going to look for something different. What’s more, the differences may boil down to what they want/need for that year’s class irrespective of your daughter’s individual academic success.

    Yes, it’s important to focus on preparation. Yes, it’s important to maintain a competitive edge (especially at the ivy level). But in the hyper-competitive realm of college admissions, students (and parents) can lose focus on what’s most important: what does the student really want? That question is a lot harder to answer than dual enrollment or AP’s. It requires introspection and commitment to self.

    So, before you start emailing and calling the ivies, here are some questions she should be asking:

    1.) What does an ivy league education REALLY provide me?
    2.) Why do I (not my family, friends, peers, guidebooks, or rankings) think I need to go to an ivy league school?
    3.) What is my ideal fit?

    If your focus is primarily centered on the brand name and the prestige of being able to impress people with your alma mater, by all means, get dogged and go for the ivies. But, if your daughter’s ambition is personal success and genuine happiness, it might behoove her to focus less on making college admission offices happy, and more on defining her own personal happiness. If she does that, then she’ll have a better idea of what college is right for her.

    And let’s be honest, your daughter has another two years of high school, and then four years of college before she starts knocking on John Hopkins door. It’s good to have ambitions and direction in life, but enjoy the journey, relish the detours, and don’t be surprised if your original destination is not where you land at the end.

    I know, I know. You wanted a real answer. And I won’t disappoint. Both options look awesome.

  • John Locke

    Thanks for the reply, Adam!

    I realize my post gave the impression that I am an overbearing parent pressuring her to get into an Ivy League school. My views are actually to the contrary. I have a daughter graduating from the University of Florida in the spring, and a son in 12th grade applying to UF, and I encourage Carley (10th grade daughter) to go with the flow and not pressure herself, that she can go wherever her heart desires (that she can find funding for).
    Our situation and her choice for college involves/will involve mainly financial issues. My eldest daughter chose to go in-state, despite her great grades and what not, because she did not want to take out loans or go into debt to go to college, but rather go where a federal pell grant and Florida bright futures would cover her expenses. My son plans to do the same, despite similar credentials.

    In our financial situation, Carley knows she can go wherever she wants or chooses, as long as she can get some type of financial aid. Harvard’s policy is to pay full-ride for admitted students with household incomes under 60k, and that’s why she’s so interested in Harvard specifically– because she knows it’s a prestigious school that she could actually feasibly attend. She knows I can’t contribute much to her college education. We’re just getting by paycheck to paycheck, so she’s seeking to do so well with herself because she knows she needs a scholarship, unless she wants to do what her siblings are doing and go in-state. She’s a whirlwind for sure, and a giant little brain that wants to do a lot of things in her life. I do remind her to not stress about it and go with the flow.

    I encourage her that she’ll be successful in life going to whichever college she wants, and she genuinely wants to go to the most challenging, prestigious school that is willing to offer her financial aid.

    Harvard is just an example. She’s looking at many schools, including non-Ivies. My question was posted on her behalf, because she was asking me what to do for next year (AP or dual enrollment), and I had no idea what to advise her to do, given her goals. So the question was my attempt to look into the options she is already considering.
    Thank you for the advice! I will show her your post and pass along to message to not stress about Ivy acceptance!! [It will do her good hearing it from a 3rd party :) ]

  • Brooke Tipton

    I’m currently taking honors chem II and I have an A in the course. The teacher does not get the material across and I have faked my way through the entire class. I have yet to learn anything new, it’s simply been a review of chem I. The teacher does not give feed back and honestly does not grade hard enough. I missed 13/20 and received an 87% on a quiz. Due to her lack of teaching a good majority of the students decided to drop AP chem next semester and take pyschology. I want to take the AP class, but the scores from last years exam scare me. One person made a 5 on the AP exam and everyone else made a 1. They all say they were not prepared at all. I don’t want to judge the course off of others, so I’m hoping you could point me in the right direction.

  • Brooke Tipton

    I have maintained over a 4.0 GPA over the past 2 and a half years in honors classes. I have never had to fake my way through a class. I’ve given full effort, but it appears that she only gives completion grades.

  • Teresa Hollins

    Our county is starting Middle College next year through Vol State. If a student were to go to the Middle College and receive his high school diploma as well as his associates degree, would the courses taken for college credit transfer to Centre?

More in Advice
5 Reasons to Visit Colleges in the Summer
Close