The College Board offers four Advanced Placement classes in math: AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Statistics and — the newest — AP Precalculus. Successful completion of an AP math class is invaluable to many college-bound students, but choosing among the options can be difficult. Here is what you should know about each.
In May 2022, the College Board announced that it would debut this new math course, AP Precalculus, in fall 2023. College Board officials say the course is designed to help students build a strong foundation in mathematics early in their high school careers so that they perform better later in high school and in college-level math classes.
While the College Board states that AP Precalculus is meant to “prepare a much broader group of students to thrive in college math courses,” it also declares that those who aspire to pursue STEM majors and careers can stand to benefit from the new course option.
The College Board encourages all types of students to enroll in AP Precalculus, which it says can promote timely high school and college graduation, as well as cultivate a passion for STEM. However, be aware that your school may require you to have passed Algebra II or its equivalent before taking AP Precalculus.
After completing AP Precalculus, students may opt to maintain their momentum by continuing to AP Calculus AB or BC. Alternatively, they may choose to switch over to a regular-track calculus course that, in theory, they should be more soundly prepared for.
AP Calculus AB
Before enrolling in AP Calculus AB, students should have working knowledge of algebra, geometry, analytic geometry, trigonometry and elementary functions, course work that is covered in AP Precalculus.
Calculus AB is designed to be the equivalent of a first-semester college calculus course. Therefore, it covers fundamental topics in calculus such as limits and continuity, differentiation, integration and accumulation of change, and differential equations.
Some students elect to take Calculus AB and Calculus BC as a sequence, whereas others take just one or the other. There is no right way to go about choosing since several factors may be at play, including which courses your school offers. Also consider your scheduling demands, affinity for math and career plans.
Calculus AB is best suited to students who are strong in math and want a foundation in calculus. Taking this course may be a great option for students who want to satisfy a college math requirement but do not necessarily wish to pursue a career in a math-related field.
A high score on the Calculus AB exam will generally earn a student three to five college credits, depending on a college’s policies.
AP Calculus BC
AP Calculus BC has the same prerequisites as AP Calculus AB but covers two college semesters of calculus coursework. Therefore, Calculus BC may be better suited to more ambitious students, math lovers and those who wish to pursue a degree in a math-related field.
Calculus BC covers the same material as the AB course plus two additional units: one on parametric equations, polar coordinates and vector-valued functions, and another on infinite sequences and series.
Because a Calculus AB subscore is also calculated when students sit for the Calculus BC exam, it is still possible to get credit for the AB level even if you score poorly on questions concerning BC concepts. The College Board recommends using this option but leaves it up to individual colleges to decide.
When you think of the time and money that any earned credits can save you in college, taking AP Calculus BC can be well worth it. However, you must be willing to invest the extra study time and know that you can keep up with the fast pace.
The prerequisite for AP Statistics is successful completion of a second-year algebra course and, according to the College Board, “sufficient mathematical maturity and quantitative reasoning ability.” With its heavy reliance on graphs, AP Statistics takes familiar concepts and adds an extra layer of complexity.
Because it is modeled after introductory college-level, noncalculus-based statistics classes, AP Statistics covers topics such as one- and two-variable data, probability, random variables, sampling distributions and more.
While still a math class at its core, AP Statistics requires somewhat more reading and management of vocabulary than the calculus courses. In addition, AP Statistics is said to be applicable to a broader range of academic disciplines, since data collection and analysis is conducted in nearly every field.
A high score on the AP Statistics exam can generally earn students three or four college credits. While some of the more competitive colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University offer neither credit nor placement for completion of AP Statistics, taking the course and/or the exam is still beneficial. You make your college application more appealing, broaden your knowledge base and potentially explore a personal interest.
Find out more about the AP math offerings before deciding on one, two, three or all four.
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Update 05/23/22: This article has been updated with new information.