3 High School Alternatives to AP and IB

When it comes to competitive colleges, a high school transcript decorated with Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses may seem like an unspoken prerequisite to acceptance. AP and IB classes are designed to demonstrate college readiness, but unfortunately they are not universally available.

If you are home-schooled or attend a rural or small high school without these advanced courses, know that you still have options. Most colleges value diversity in their student populations, and the admissions process typically considers differing access to educational opportunities. But academic rigor is still key.

College Admissions Playbook powered by Varsity Tutors published a blog on three ways other than AP or IB to get the challenging junior- or senior-year courses you need for college admissions success. Here are the 3 alternatives they suggest and summary of each:

  • Choose honors-level classes.
  • Develop an independent study.
  • Register for CLEP, DSST or UExcel exams.

Choose Honors-Level Classes

Students should search their high school’s course catalog for honors-level classes. While they do not conform to a set external standard like AP and IB classes do, the term “honors” indicates that the course is more challenging than its regular-track version.

As they build their schedule, follow this rule of thumb: Choose classes that demonstrate curiosity and intellectual rigor. For example, instead of selecting easy electives, choose options like honors-level music theory or honors-level sociology. Keep in mind that what is easy will depend on their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Develop an Independent Study

Another option is to develop a challenging independent study with the help of a favorite teacher. This is also a great approach for home-schooled students who may not adhere to the structured format of a traditional high school.

In one student’s case, his high school had no AP or IB options, no advanced language classes and no math courses beyond introductory calculus. So he arranged several independent studies that were intended to approximate calculus II, an advanced class on English novels and German courses that were equivalent to third- and fourth-year study.

If your student cannot develop an entire independent study, they should ask their teachers for extra-credit projects that they can cite on their college applications.

They can also incorporate massive open online courses, or MOOCs, into their independent study. This will likely require some negotiation and planning, generally with the help of a teacher or from you (their Counselor).

As they design their independent study, make sure that they will be able to explain to a college admissions representative what their course objectives were, whether they met them and how they were evaluated.

Register for CLEP, DSST or UExcel Exams

A third option, standardized testing, is not a class but it is still worth considering. Not all colleges ask for test results from the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) or UExcel exams, but many will consider them as part of your students overall college application.

These exams allow them to demonstrate their academic abilities by taking subject-specific assessments in biology, history, literature, math and other subjects. Each test has ample study material, so they can even design an independent study around the exam that is the most relevant to their college and career goals.

It is unlikely that they will be able to tackle all the tests, so select just one or two that best demonstrate their inclinations and capabilities. As a bonus, many colleges will accept sufficiently high scores on CLEP, DSST and UExcel tests as college credit or course prerequisites. Thus, superior performance can demonstrate competitiveness against students from larger or better-funded high schools that may offer AP or IB.

Document Their Accomplishments

A final piece of advice is to document their accomplishments as they complete each honors-level class or independent study.

This is because you may be asked to rate the relative difficulty of their courses when you forward their transcript to a college.

Save documents like exams, papers, reading lists and syllabuses. Not only can they use them as they compile their college applications, but they can also share them with you (their Counselor).

Gaining admission to a competitive college is difficult for any student. But with careful planning, it is possible no matter what classes their high school offers.