AP vs. Dual Enrollment: Which is Better?

Increasingly, competitive high school students are running into a big question: should I take AP or dual enrollment classes? Which is better?

Of course, it is practically impossible to determine that one is, in all regards, superior to the other. However, in my experience as a student in both AP and dual enrollment courses, I can certainly offer some pointers as to which I prefer — and why.

College credit

AP: You must pass the AP exam with a certain score (usually a 3, 4, or 5) to receive college credit. AP credits are recognized at practically every university but some (particularly the most selective colleges) offer little or no credit. However, unlike dual enrollment courses, AP courses are standardized internationally, meaning that colleges may be more likely to offer credit for passing AP exams than completing dual enrollment courses, especially those in a different state than the community college at which you would be taking courses.

Dual enrollment: You must pass the class as a whole to earn college credit, which takes the pressure off since you are not being judged on a single exam. Dual enrollment coursework transfers more easily if you plan to attend a public university in the same state as your community college; you may run into problems transferring credit to private colleges or colleges in other states (though I cannot speak on that). Some universities, usually the same ones that do not count AP credits toward your degree, may not count dual enrollment courses taken for high school credit (i.e., to fulfill course high school requirements), but may count courses taken outside of the high school curriculum (e.g., taking general education courses typically taken in the freshman year of college).

Verdict: In my opinion, dual enrollment wins here. Not only is your credit based on whether you passed the course as a whole, rather than the score on a single exam (which takes the pressure off); but community college courses are a great way to get some of those general education requirements out of the way, especially those not related to your intended major (e.g., humanities courses for an intended engineering major). Most of my transfer credits were dual enrollment credits, since I was able to take community college classes twice a year, as opposed to AP exams once a year, and was able to focus more on doing well in the class as a whole rather than stressing out over a single exam. However, I applied mainly to public colleges, so if you are applying to more selective schools, AP may be a better option for you.

Similarity to university classes

AP: Basically advanced high school classes. The material is standardized and intended to reflect what you would learn in a semester-long university course; however, the mode of teaching is often quite different. AP courses are generally taught by high school teachers, not college professors, and the classes themselves are structured quite differently. AP courses tend to require hours of homework per night and lots of lab reports/quizzes/other large projects, whereas university courses are much less stringent. Though AP classes mimic the rigor of a college course in content, and may help develop good study habits for your university courses in the future, their overwhelming amount of assigned homework is nothing like university courses. (In my opinion, AP courses “hold your hand” and make you do the work for each unit you learn, whereas university courses merely encourage you to study the way that works for you. If you are used to being assigned work and not taking time to study outside of homework through your AP classes, you may be in for a rude awakening when you start university.)

Dual enrollment: Community college courses, since they are college (hence the name) courses and not advanced high school courses, tend to be much more similar in structure to university courses. Like university courses, the classes tend to be focused around lectures, with a few major exams constituting most or all of your grade. As I mentioned previously, community college professors won’t “hold your hand” and give you homework to do on every topic — in fact, many of my non-STEM courses both in community college and at my university haven’t given me assigned homework at all (just readings, but you often don’t have to turn in anything that proves you read them (wink wink)).

Verdict: Again, dual enrollment wins over AP. Though AP courses may have helped me to form the solid foundation of studying that helps me succeed now that I’m at university, dual enrollment helped me get a solid idea of what to expect in college, and helped me avoid that “first exam failure” many freshmen experience.

Which “looks better” on your university applications

AP: Preferred by more selective, private colleges

Dual enrollment: More widely accepted by public colleges, particularly those in-state, as well as less selective colleges.

Verdict: This really depends on where you intend to apply to college. If you’re aiming for Ivies, buff up on the AP courses; if you’re applying to less selective colleges and want to utilize college credit to cut down time at a university and/or get ahead on your degree, take more dual enrollment classes.

Course availability/what classes you should take

AP: Much smaller range of courses. Best for taking general core classes like Calculus, Biology, and English, especially those related to your intended major.

Dual enrollment: Wider range of courses, especially in non-core areas — great for students with niche interests or humanities/arts students. Best for taking non-core classes while still obtaining general education credit, such as Art History and American History, and/or dabbling in non-core subject areas.

Verdict: In my opinion, this is the most important factor when deciding which to take. If the course is available in both AP and dual enrollment form — such as Chemistry or English — I’d suggest taking the AP course. Not only will it illustrate your commitment to a rigorous education, but it will ensure that you receive credit (if you do well on the exam) and show that you chose the more work-intensive option. However, for courses that are not related to your intended major but that still satisfy general education requirements, take the dual enrollment class. If you plan to major in Political Science in college, take dual enrollment Art History instead of AP — it will give a lighter courseload and allow you to focus on your main field of interest.

Final verdict

Whether you should take AP or dual enrollment courses is weighed by a variety of factors, but ultimately, my suggestion is to take a mix of both. Take AP courses for those core freshman classes — English, Biology, Calculus, etc. depending on your major — and dual enrollment to satisfy other general education requirements or explore other subject areas (for example, I would have never realized my love for policy had I not taken a marine mammal biology class outside of my intended major path — and that led me to add a second major in Political Science). For some, it may be more beneficial to take more AP courses, or vice versa — but in the end, any effort to enhance and increase the rigor of your education will pay off in many ways.

For more on my stance on the AP vs. Dual Enrollment debate, check out my article on Odyssey: AP Classes Are A Waste of Time

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