Is it better to take an AP or honors course and get a B than it is to take a regular course and get an A?
The too-short, oversimplified, the answer is: yes.
But it’s much more complicated than that.
The real question behind this question is whether or not you should risk taking a certain AP or honors course if you think there’s a good chance you won’t get an A. There are two concerns in play here. On the one hand, you need a high GPA to get into the most competitive universities. On the other hand, you also need to have a rigorous course load that includes AP and honors courses.
The ideal is that you would get all A’s with a ton of AP and honors courses. For most students, this isn’t possible. Be honest with yourself: how many of these rigorous courses can you handle while still maintaining a high GPA?
If you want to gain admission to competitive colleges and universities, you need to take some AP and honors courses. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should always opt for AP or honors, especially if it’s a subject you’re not particularly skilled at or interested in.
How many AP or honors classes should you take? That depends on what year you’re in, what your goals are, and how much work you can handle. The key to answering all these questions is self-awareness.
What are you passionate about? What are you good at? Where do you want to go to college? These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking to be as successful as you can be in high school.
The top Ivy League applicants will typically take 4–6 AP courses in their junior year. But there is no quick and easy answer to how many you should take. Not everyone can get into an Ivy League school, and there is a strong argument to be made that most students—even the “best and brightest”—should not go to an Ivy League school.
You should take no more AP an honors courses than you can handle while still achieving a high GPA.
What you absolutely want to avoid is transcript padding. Some applicants will cruise to easy A’s taking no AP or honors courses at all. That will not impress most admissions committees.
As Kiley explains in his article How Many AP Classes is Enough?, you should “take as many of the most rigorous classes available to you as you can as long as you can do well in them.” At most competitive universities, 7–12 total AP courses over the course of your entire high school career will be recognized as a rigorous course load.
Back to the original question: if you have your heart set on a top-tier institution, then chances are you will have to risk a B in an AP or honors course at some point. What this will communicate to admissions committees is effort, rigor, and interest.
You should absolutely take AP and honors courses in classes that align with your proposed major or minor, and you should add to that list any subject that you find interesting.
Again, you don’t want to avoid AP and honors courses just to keep your GPA up; that approach could communicate a lack of rigor and effort. But you also don’t want to risk getting a C in an AP course, either.
Long story short: it is absolutely worth occasionally risking a B in an AP or honors course, as long as you’re also mixing in a healthy dose of A’s.
A perfect GPA and a packed AP course-load is the ideal. Short of that, you’re going to want to find a healthy balance between A’s and AP’s.