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Weigh the Benefits, Stress of AP Courses for Your Student

Advanced Placement courses can add up to major college savings but aren't the only option.

Advanced Placement courses can lead to college credit but may be stressful.

AP courses can offer rigorous training for college, but taking too many can be stressful for students.

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In many ways, enrolling in Advanced Placement courses can be a no-brainer for dedicated high school students. The rigorous courses not only introduce students to college-level academics, but also offer an opportunity to amass credits before high school graduation—ostensibly saving money on college in the long run. 

"AP classes mimic college courses in the requirements, the workload, and what's expected of the students," explains Gaye Weintraub, a tutor from Texas whose AP credits allowed her to place out of nine hours of freshman coursework when she studied at the University of Texas—Austin

"Kids [who take AP courses] usually are able to think outside the box; they're better prepared; they have stronger study skills; and the bar is held up for them at a level where they reach that bar themselves. They already know, 'This is what my teacher is going to expect of me—or this is what I expect of myself,'" she says. 

[Explore the rankings of the Best High Schools.] 

High school AP courses are offered in myriad subjects including chemistry, calculus, music theory, and physics, and at the end of each AP course, students have the option to take a standardized, 5-point exam. Scoring at least a 3 usually allows a student to place out of a similar course in college—though this can vary by university and subject. 

"In the best possible scenario, it could save you a year of tuition," says Steven Goodman, an education consultant and college admissions strategist for TopColleges.com. 

But these benefits don't mean all students should load up on as many rigorous Advanced Placement courses as their schedules can fit. 

[Read about schools limiting AP course enrollment.]

"The right number's going to be different for every student," Goodman notes. "If you find that you have to work past midnight to keep up with your load of AP courses, you probably have piled on too many."

Though Kansas parent Tammy Bartels's daughter was adept at juggling AP course assignments around her busy extracurricular schedule, seeing her do so sometimes worried Bartels and her husband. 

"Sometimes, she would get very stressed and she would be doing homework at 5 in the morning because she had been cheering at a basketball game till 9 o'clock at night—that was a big concern for us," she says. "There's a lot more homework with the college-level courses and the AP courses; it can be a strain on them." 

[See how one high school is trying to get stressed students to take fewer AP courses.] 

Parents of students shouldering heavy courseloads should keep an eye out for warning signs of an academically stressed-out teen, tutor Weintraub recommends. 

"If you suddenly see a child isn't performing very well in a class that, normally, they enjoyed, you have to look at what's going on," she says. "Has the kid kind of checked out because it's too much?" 

If so, it may be time to intervene, Bartels notes. 

"I think it's very important that parents keep an eye on their kids and see how they're doing," Bartels says. "Talk to them and check in on their homework. You don't want to exhaust your kids at such a young age—you don't want [them] to be burnt out at 20." 

[Find out why students learn better with engaged parents.] 

Parents can also keep in mind that AP courses are not the only route for high school students seeking rigorous college training, consultant Goodman notes. For the Bartels's daughter, for instance, enrolling in dual credit courses at a local community college while in high school also allowed her to learn in a college-like setting. 

"Be excited about the AP curriculum, but it's not the be-all, end-all," consultant Goodman says. "It's good, but it's not necessarily the best for every student." 

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