Does a C in an AP Class Look Bad?

First and foremost, we have to establish the selectiveness of the college we are talking about when it comes to this question.

If you are wondering if a college with a 90% acceptance rate will care about you getting a C in an AP class, that is very unlikely because a college with a 90% acceptance rate is not at all selective.

However, once you start moving up in selectivity, that’s where we can see the impact of having a less than desirable grade in an AP class. So, for the sake of this article, I’m going to be talking in the context of schools that are, at the minimum, moderately selective. 

Does a C in an AP class look bad? If we are talking about this in the context of a highly selective school, a C in an AP class doesn’t look good because most other applicants will probably have nearly perfect grades.

However, having a C in an AP class doesn’t discount you from being admitted into a highly selective school.

Will a college reject me if I get a C in an AP class?

There is no direct answer to this because it depends on the surrounding circumstances. Let’s first talk about a C in an AP class in the context of a top tier school and/or highly selective school.

The average GPA at Vanderbilt, for example, is a 3.9 out of 4.0 (according to prepScholar), meaning that the average student they accepted into their school had an average of A’s throughout high school.

And knowing that Vanderbilt is a top tier school, those A’s were earned in a mixture of regular, honors, and AP/IB classes. Having a C anywhere in your transcript already puts you below the average for top tier schools, not just Vanderbilt.

If you have a C in an AP class, this may indicate to the college that you are not fully prepared for the level of academic rigor in college (because an AP class is meant to be a college-leveled class).

During my Vanderbilt info session, the info session speaker presented us with a slide that showed how heavily each component of your college application is weighed during the admissions process.

Academic Achievement had the most influence over your admission decision; the other components had about the same impact on the admission officer’s choice.

This doesn’t mean you’re doomed because grades are not the only part of your application that colleges consider, but you do have to make yourself stand out in other parts of your application.

If your grades don’t meet the average, you have to have something in your extracurriculars or essays that makes you an unforgettable candidate. 

For moderately selective schools (these will most likely be your state schools), a C in an AP class is not going to have nearly as much of an impact on your admissions decision as a highly selective school.

However, having a high GPA and high SAT/ACT scores is sometimes almost a guarantee of acceptance. For example, my state school is UMD – College Park, which has a ~45% acceptance rate.

Because of UMD’s acceptance rate, it definitely wouldn’t be considered a safety. Still, everyone at my school knows that with an almost perfect GPA and SAT score, we have an extremely likely chance of getting in.

This is obviously not the case for every moderately selective college, but it’s a likely scenario for many. 

How does a C in an AP class affect my GPA?

Again, this depends on the surrounding circumstances. Let’s say that all your other grades are A’s. Even in an AP class, one C won’t make a huge dent in your GPA because the vast majority of your grades are still A’s, and the average comes out to be an A.

Your GPA will, inevitably, go down, but not by a worrisome amount. For example, in my school, most students take seven classes per year, which, if you take seven classes every year, totals up to be a total of 28 classes through high school.

Even though some classes will have different weights than others, if I had only one 1 C and 27 A’s, my GPA would be only slightly below the 4.0 mark. 

If your grades are mainly B’s and you get one C, then the C could do more damage because your existing grades are not enough to compensate compared to if you had all A’s instead.

Even though this is how most GPAs work, it’s best to talk with your guidance counselor to get the specifics of your school’s way of calculating GPA.

Should I tell a college why I got a C in a class?

If something beyond your control happened sometime during your high school life that affected your grades, then you should definitely try to explain to the college why a slip in grades happened. Don’t leave it up to the admissions officer to come to a conclusion about your slip in grades. 

When I interviewed Taylor from GW, she told me something that severely affected her academic performance in her sophomore year of high school. She got really sick and was constantly at the hospital, so inevitably, her grades dropped sophomore year.

Taylor said she “slaved away” during junior and senior year to make up for sophomore year, but she still used the opportunity to explain herself.

In her common app essay, Taylor wrote a sort of letter to herself reminding her through all she had been through (adoption, parents’ divorce, and sickness) and that she always made it through all those obstacles and would continue to do so.

She said that she wrote that common app essay because she thought it was good (obviously), but also to make sure the admissions officer understood what happened sophomore year. 

If you find yourself in a situation similar to Taylor’s, then definitely do what she did and explain yourself, either in an essay or the additional information section on your application. 

How should I know whether or not to stay in an AP class?

This is a decision you need to make quickly. Are you able to grasp the concepts your teacher is teaching you? Are your grades doing well?

Any AP/IB/Honor class is meant to challenge you, but sometimes it reaches the point where you can’t see yourself succeeding in a class no matter your effort. Let me provide an example from my own school. Upon entering my freshman year of high school, I started off by taking Algebra II GT. 

NOTE: I honestly don’t know the difference between AP and GT. In my school, GT is considered more challenging than an honors class, but not necessarily an AP because there is no test at the end, so we don’t earn college credit for taking a GT class. However, a GT class is supposed to mimic the rigor and depth of material of an AP class; GT also starts much earlier than AP. I started taking GT courses in 4th grade, but AP only starts in high school.

A few weeks into the course, my teacher told us that if we couldn’t keep up in this class, we should consider moving a level down to honors. A number of students dropped out of this class because of the pace of the class and the grades they were getting.

This was very likely a smart move because they were now getting A’s & B’s rather than C’s, D’s, & E’s. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, you might want to consider moving to a class that is a bit less rigorous. 

This could also be a result of already taking a bunch of other challenging classes in a year. Perhaps you understand the material, but you simply don’t have the time to put a lot of effort into the class. 

Should I not take AP classes if I think I’ll get a bad grade in them?

Personally, I try my best not to contemplate what I may get in a class before I even take it. However, if I really feel like I would get a bad grade in a class, I would still take the class.

Wait what? Yeah, my high school has four quarters in a year, and we are allowed to drop out of a course so long as it is within the first quarter. Because of that, if I do ever come to the scenario of thinking of not taking an AP, then I would at least try it out before making any final decision.

If your high school also has this kind of system, I would personally recommend you try the class before deciding not to take it. Who knows, you may find yourself a natural talent for the subject you thought you’d fail. 

Is it ok to get a C in an AP as long as it is in senior year?

Absolutely not. There are people who get their applications revoked because they let their grades drop senior year. If you want to learn more about getting your application revoked because of a drop in grades, check out my article “How Bad Do Your Grades Have To Be To Get An Admission Revoked?” But the short answer is no. Don’t completely let yourself go senior year just because the application process has come to an end. 

Concluding Thoughts

If you get a C in an AP class, you are not doomed, but it also doesn’t look good to a college either. In the context of highly selective schools, you must have something else in your application that can make up for that C.

And if you have a reason for that C, use any chance you can to explain to the college why you got such a grade.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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