“How many APs do I need to get into _____?”

Many students searching for the non-existent formula for admission to the most selective colleges will ask how many AP (Advanced Placement) courses they “need to take” to be admitted. But you aren’t likely to find a college that will give a specific answer to that question, because there isn’t one.

The University of Virginia explains this well on their recent blog post, but here are some additional details to consider.

The more competitive the college, the more rigorous the course load of the admitted applicants. But those same colleges can’t provide a specific number of AP courses they “require.” Every high school is different in their offerings. Every student is different in their circumstances. Every applicant presents a different picture of strengths, opportunities, challenges, and impact for the committee to consider. Those intricacies can’t be reduced to a one-size-fits-all answer.

Taking only two of seven AP courses offered at your well-resourced high school doesn’t exactly demonstrate that you seek the kind of academic challenges schools like UVA look for in applicants. But if your high school only offers two APs, you take both, and you’re at the top of your class, it’s a different story. And if you’re a foster kid who switched high schools (and homes) six times in three years and somehow willed your way to arrive at your senior year college ready at all, you’ve already demonstrated a lot more mettle than any number of AP courses could ever demand. This is what admissions officers mean when they say they evaluate applicants in “context.” There’s more to a student and to a school than what’s communicated on a transcript.

Asking a selective college how many AP classes (or what SAT scores, or how many community service hours) you need is like asking a tennis coach how many aces you need to have served on the JV team to make varsity. It’s like asking your manager at your part-time job how many hours you need to work to get promoted. It’s like asking a potential prom date how many nice deeds you need to do to guarantee an acceptance to your prom invitation. There may be guidelines, but there are no hard-and-fast rules.

Colleges aren’t trying to sidestep questions like this or to mislead applicants. They’re telling you what they’re able to tell you. Some seemingly easy questions just don’t have easy answers.

Wherever you’re considering applying to college, visit the “Admissions” section of their website and read about their requirements for admission. If they require certain high school coursework, they’ll tell you. If they recommend (which is different from requiring) certain coursework, they’ll tell you. And if the answers just aren’t as specific as you’d like them to be and you’re struggling to plan your coursework or assess your admissions chances, run it by your high school counselor. In the unlikely event that your counselor can’t help you, reach out directly to the college (their contact information will likely be in the “Admissions” section of the website). Don’t have your parents do this for you—show the college that you’re taking responsibility for your own education. And you might consider reviewing the advice and the linked posts in one of my past posts, “Guidelines for emailing colleges.”

And most importantly, try to view your high school curriculum as a vehicle to learn, to challenge yourself, and to prepare for college work, not as an itemized checklist to be completed with the hope of a guaranteed admission to school X.

You know yourself better than colleges do. Why not decide for yourself how many AP classes you should take?