This is one of the top 3 questions I hear regularly from high school students. It's such an important (and difficult) question, that I thought I'd share my thoughts below.
To review, AP (Advanced Placement) classes are considered "college-level" courses and are thus weighted more heavily than regular classes when calculating GPAs.
For example, an "A" in AP History gives you 5 points, versus 4 points from regular History. This is why some schools regard a 4.0 GPA as a yawner these days.
As long as GPA remains one of the top three criteria for college admissions, students will continue to use AP classes to spike their GPAs. Taken to extremes, however, this can be dangerous.
Things to consider before registering for AP classes:
Are you interested in the topic? If so, chances are you will succeed in the class. If not, you are flirting with danger. For example, if you don't like to read, but take AP History anyway to boost your GPA - think again. AP History may require 90+ minutes of dense reading per night. If you don't like to read, this will be a constant challenge.
Where do you want to attend college? Not every college requires sky-high GPAs and AP-heavy transcripts. Yes, highly selective colleges give a lot of credit to students who perform well in AP classes, but if you are not dead-set on attending a highly-selective college, it may not be worth the incremental effort.
Do you embrace challenge? AP classes are intense. Do you enjoy this type of academic challenge, or are you just following what your friends are doing?
Do you have time? AP classes demand a lot of time, energy, and focus. Are there enough hours in your day to perform well in these classes? If you work part-time, play sports, or have theater practice 3 hours a day, re-consider signing up for too many AP classes.
Ivy League sports? If you aspire to play a sport in the Ivy League, it's important to understand the Athletic Index ("AI"). The AI is a combination of GPA, SAT, and Class Rank that Ivy League Schools use to measure academic preparedness. Interestingly, the formula uses "unweighted GPAs". If you take a full load of AP classes to look attractive to Ivy League Admissions, but gets "Bs" in those classes, Admissions may appreciate your efforts, but your AI may suffer (because Bs will count as 3.0s). This is a fragile balancing act. While Bs in AP classes may be okay with Admissions, they may be bad for your AI. [Note: Coaches must maintain an average AI across all of their players. Coaches recruit players with high AIs.]
Does your class selection tell a story? Colleges love students who "demonstrate interest" in something. If you take AP classes that support your interests, not only will you likely perform better, but you can justify why you chose the classes you chose - without getting dinged for not having a full slate of AP classes.
I personally know someone who took 19 AP classes during high school and received 5s (out of 5) on all 19 AP exams. As impressive as this is, the person did not get into their #1 college choice. Even this level of academic accomplishment doesn't guarantee anything. Remember, Ivy League Schools reject thousands and thousands of class valedictorians with flawless academic records.
Bottom Line: "Challenge yourself, but don't be a hero"
Remember, you're a teenager. It's tough to justify spending every waking moment studying and preparing for AP classes - because even if you survive this crucible with excellent grades - there are no guarantees.
Think about it, if you have no time to explore the world, read a novel, socialize, watch a movie, or enjoy some recreation, how will you ever figure out what you're really interested in?
I'm not suggesting that AP classes aren't worth the time and effort. They require disciplined study habits, time management skills, and intellectual horsepower. If academics is your thing, then maybe a full slate of AP classes is just what the doctor ordered. Go for it!
But if you have other non-academic interests that make you an equally compelling person (if not more compelling), consider moderating the number of AP classes you sign up for.
You should feel energized and excited about your class schedule - not frightened and stressed out. Don't let the crush of peer pressure or parental expectation crowd out the real you.
I know it's hard (very hard) to sign up for three AP classes when your friends are taking five. It will be natural to second guess and question yourself.
What is your gut telling you? Are you excited about this type of challenge or scared stiff? It's great to push yourself - unless it's off a cliff.
In the end, whether you take three or five AP classes will have little to do with your ultimate success in the college admissions process. It's far more important that you challenge yourself, do the best you can every day, and don't try to be a hero!
If you're interested in weekly doses of college prep information like this, enroll in PrepWell Academy.
Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank, etc.
Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.