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7 Insider Tips to Help High School Underclassmen Succeed in AP Courses

Taking an Advanced Placement course in ninth or 10th grade can be challenging, but many students do so successfully! Read advice from one of them here.

As a sophomore juggling three Advanced Placement (AP) courses, I understand the difficulty of managing these upper-level classes as a high school underclassman. AP courses are an extra time and resource commitment, especially for underclassmen taking them as electives. APs can be doubly challenging for ninth and 10th graders still adjusting to the rigor of traditional high school coursework. Many new high schoolers also feel intimidated taking classes with students two or three grade levels above them. However, succeeding in an AP course is doable with proper preparation, even as a freshman or sophomore. Here are seven tips I’ve learned through experience.

1. Don’t worry about the moniker

AP courses may be glorified by teachers and parents, but they range from truly difficult to somewhat easy courses. Some APs like Human Geography and Psychology are relatively easier compared to others and are perfectly manageable for underclassmen. Others like World History are already embedded in the honors sequence for most freshmen and sophomores. AP classes require hard work and dedication, no doubt, but the label itself is nothing to be afraid of.

2. Choose courses that suit your interests

Since taking AP courses isn’t expected as an underclassman, you have flexibility in choosing classes tailored to you as an individual. As a ninth grader, I took AP Environmental Science and loved it! Despite being known as a less rigorous AP option, the class opened up extracurricular opportunities and showed me what an AP course looks and feels like. Colleges appreciate seeing your personality reflected in your class schedule, and you’ll learn material more easily if you’re genuinely interested in it.

Related: Insider Insight on AP Courses: Which Classes Are Best to Take?

3. Swap contact info with your classmates

We all forget due dates or miss notes sometimes, but in an AP class, staying on track and meeting deadlines are essential. Unlike upperclassmen, underclassmen may not have friends in their AP courses to rely on in a pinch. Shy students may be reluctant to swap numbers with upperclassmen or text them with a question, but asking is ultimately worthwhile, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

4. Develop strong relationships with your teachers

As an underclassman, it’s crucial to maintain positive relationships with your AP subject teachers. APs are not the class to slack off in! Grading is almost always subjective, so friendly interactions with a teacher go a long way in ensuring academic success. These teachers can also serve as a source for future recommendations. Impressing an AP teacher as an underclassman is no small task, and since they usually teach advanced classes, you may have a chance to take another course with them in the future to further build your relationship.

Related: 6 Reasons to Put in Effort With Counselors and Teachers

5. Take advantage of class resources

Especially in an AP course, you should take advantage of any and all materials provided by your teacher. AP instructors want you to succeed, and most go above and beyond in creating helpful charts, guides, and packets that focus your studying where it’s most needed. I understand how annoying it can be to fill out organizer after organizer, but doing them will pay off by test time.

6. Focus on broader concepts

In my experience, the AP curriculum values developing a framework of analysis and understanding general topics more than memorizing insignificant details. Having a firm grasp of the material is important, but it’s most critical to use whatever information you remember to structure free responses and eliminate wrong choices. Obsessing over small details won’t help you score a 4 or 5 on your AP exam, but understanding the foundation of each unit will.

7. Prioritize your time

When choosing a more demanding high school schedule, you must learn to manage your time wisely and efficiently. Although AP courses vary in time commitment (History or Science APs generally require the most preparation at home), taking any AP involves putting in effort outside school hours. Balancing extracurriculars, APs, and regular classes can be difficult for upperclassmen, let alone 14- or 15-year-olds. You may have to choose which tasks to focus on, but to succeed in an AP, it’s essential to accept the consequences of your schedule and budget your energy where it matters most.

Related: Top 5 Time Management Tips for High School Students

Taking an Advanced Placement course as a high school underclassman may seem intimidating, but success is possible. By developing good relationships in class, organizing your time and workload, and being open to the experience, you can get familiar with college-level learning and be prepared to take even more AP courses in the future to enhance your high school résumé. 

Find even more tips for AP courses, high school academics, and more with Our Best Advice for Homework, Studying, and Tests.

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About Hunter Maguire

Hunter Maguire is a rising sophomore at Garden City High School in New York. He is a straight-A student, eager to learn and excel in all academic subjects, and is taking three AP courses this school year. Hunter is interested in social justice and environmental issues, reading up on related topics, and participating in the environmental club at his school. His other hobbies include running, genealogy research, creative writing, and discussing literature.


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