what are the differences between ap and honors classes student-tutor

What are the Differences Between AP and Honors Classes?


What’s the difference between AP and honors courses?

The princess didn’t find honors under her mattress! Get it?! Hah!

Pretty lame joke, I know… However, this is a question with which many people seriously struggle!

  • Should my son or daughter take AP or honors courses?
  • Which are harder?
  • Which look better for college admissions?
  • Are AP and honors courses even that different from one another?

AP and honors courses are, in fact, very different from one another.

Both are great ways to challenge your teen and both look awesome on college applications, but there are a few important distinctions you should be aware of before deciding to enroll your child in one or the other.

The Differences between AP and Honors classes

The main difference between the two has to do with college credit. Basically, if you enroll your teen in an AP course, they have the chance to receive college credit. However, if your teen enrolls in an honors course they will have no such chance.

Sounds like a sweet deal, right?

Take a high school course, AND receive college credit? — Why doesn’t everyone do that?

Well, it’s not that simple.

In order to receive college credit for an AP course, your teen must study for the AP exam, and receive a score of 3 or higher (out of 5). However, most colleges require a score of at least 4.

AP scores

If your child is willing to put in the extra effort and study for the AP exam, then by all means, they should go for it!

But if your child is too busy or just not into it, maybe honors courses are the way to go, especially if the AP courses offered at their high school are particularly tricky.

That brings us to the next big question!

Which is more rigorous?

Ehhh….there’s really no straightforward answer here.

The level of rigor for both AP and honors courses varies by school and by state. At many schools, AP courses are much more difficult than honors courses, while at other schools the exact opposite is true.

Why does the rigor vary so greatly?

There are a lot of reasons.

For starters, some teachers are just harder than others. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all had those teachers who give a billion times more work than every teacher we’ve ever had combined.  Then there those teachers who are ridiculously easy…

easy hard ap

Also, some schools are just generally less challenging than others!

Factors in Easy vs. Hard AP Classes

  • The area
  • Students attending the school
  • Faculty

Depending on these things, a school might either be extremely competitive, or painfully easy. As a result, AP courses at schools are often less challenging than honors courses at other schools.

Before you decide between AP and honors courses, be sure to do some digging. Figure out how the AP teachers at your teen’s school differ from its honors teachers, and how their school compares to other schools.

Differences in what’s actually taught

While the curricula (a fancy word for what’s taught in the class) of AP and honors courses do often overlap, there are some important differences of which you should take note.

Who Determines AP Curricula?

  • CollegeBoard. (This means that AP teachers across the country cover the same exact topics in their classrooms.)

Who Determines Honors Curricula?

  • State government officials
  • Department heads
  • Honors teachers themselves

So…what’s your takeaway?

Well, at many schools, it can mean that the curricula of AP courses are occasionally very dry, because teachers don’t have a lot of power to choose what they teach, and are sometimes uninterested in the topics they’re being forced to cover.

When teachers are allowed to pick and choose what they really want to cover, as many honors teachers are, they get to teach topics they’re actually passionate about and want to teach, rather than being forced to teach topics they’re not super passionate about, or with which they are unfamiliar.


Honors classes are pretty challenging, right?

So it only makes sense that there would be some sort of requirement or prerequisite to be able to enroll in them.

For most schools, this takes the form of some sort of placement test. Many high schools also enroll teens in honors courses on the basis of teacher recommendation.

course requirements

Since AP courses are pretty comparable to honors courses in terms of difficulty and workload, you’ve probably guessed that AP courses also have some sort of placement test.

Well, guess again!

Actually, CollegeBoard’s AP policy states that no school can deny any student the opportunity of taking an AP course, as this puts those students at a disadvantage—they cannot take AP tests, and have no chance of receiving college credit in high school.

If your teen doesn’t test well or is, for whatever reason, unable to take their high school’s honors placement exam, perhaps AP courses are the way to go!

Which is better for College admissions?

Well, honestly…there’s no clear answer to this question either!

It all depends on the college your child wishes to attend.

ap honors where to go

Why is the school and location of my child’s college important?

I’ll explain.

AP Courses

These are more widely recognized as rigorous.

Even if your teen’s high school’s honors US history course is more rigorous than its AP US History course, Harvard would have no way of knowing that, and would assume the opposite!

Honors Courses

State universities typically regard honors courses taken in their states as just as rigorous as AP courses.

Why? State universities are usually well aware of the requirements that honors high school teachers must meet in their state.

Your next move?

Talk to your child about what colleges they might be interested in attending! Do some research on the websites of the colleges and find out whether they prefer honors or AP courses.


Deciding between AP and honors courses can be tough, especially when there are so many things to consider, like rigor, workload, and college admissions, but don’t stress!

At the end of the day, this decision probably isn’t going to significantly impact the long-term life of your teen, and they really can’t go wrong with either. I’m sure your teen will succeed, no matter which path they choose!

Know anyone who’s made the choice between Honors and AP? — What did they choose and why? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Todd VanDuzer

Co-Founder & CEO at Student-Tutor
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students raise their grades, improve their test scores, get into their dream college with thousands in scholarships, and learn digital age skills they are not teaching in schools so they can reach their wildest of dreams. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. On my free time I travel (been to 35+ countries), rock climb big walls, and go to music festivals! Let's become friends! Follow me via Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter!

Comments 54

  1. Hello, I am starting to make my classes entering freshman year but would like to know how I should plan my classes so that I could be able to pass Highschool and head off to College or University. What are the requirements to pass HighSchool. What classes should I take during all my years in HighSchool?

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  2. Hi, what is the advantage of going to an Ivy league college over a non-ivy league college?
    After college, will employers prefer ivy league graduates?
    what do l loose if l don’t get into an ivy league college?

    1. Post

      Connections. At an Ivy League you are going to be surrounded by some of the brightest, most wealthy, and well-connected individuals on the planet. This will help you build a network to get more high paying jobs. With that said, due to the internet, it is easier than ever to get this connection without going to an Ivy League. In my opinion, the cost does not outweigh the benefit. Here is an article I wrote telling you top 5 reasons honors colleges are better than ivy leagues. Hope this helps! http://studenttutor1.wpengine.com/5-reasons-honors-colleges-are-better-than-ivy-leagues/

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      Hello, Mike! I have never taken a French class so I am not 100% sure. However, from my understanding one will be more rigorous than the other and will offer you a weighted point for your GPA. Keep in mind though colleges rarely look at weighted GPAs.

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      Typically, for in state schools, they do not look at weighted GPA. They will only look at your unweighted GPA. Therefore, honors classes will not count more. However, every school is different.

  3. Do you have any idea what the difference between college courses and AP course are? My school offers AP Calculus but also offers a college course called Math 150 which is similar to it? how do colleges look at college courses?

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      Colleges mainly look at your unweighted GPA. Unless you are going to an elite university they will look at your strength of the curriculum. Therefore, I think either class will be sufficient. However, please keep in mind every college is different. There is no one size fits all formula. Hope this helps!

  4. As of right now, I take one AP class as a freshmen which is Environmental Science, I have a 92 in the class as of right now and its not an easy class due to many people with 44’s. I plan on taking as many AP classes as possible that are still reasonable with my interest. I play lacrosse and have played for awhile now, and may begin football next year. If I continue with the AP classes (I don’t believe my school has honors), and lacrosse do you believe this will allow me to go the Naval Academy? (I have a 4.0 GPA right now) Also, is it reccomended that I take both SAT and ACT?

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      Hi Connor,

      It sounds like you are off to a good start with your performance in the AP Environmental Science class. I suggest you research the Naval Academy you’re planning on attending and also speak to an academic advisor (or someone who works for the academy that deals with student admissions). Find out if the academy is interested in AP classes before you sign up to take all of them. You may find that AP classes do not give you a significant advantage over your admissions… if that is the case, it is better to take classes that are not so rigorous and score highly in them. Especially if you are interested in also getting involved in extracurriculars such as football, you want to be careful that you don’t overload your plate!

      As far as taking both the ACT and SAT, most schools require one or the other for admissions. Taking both of them, however, increases your chance of scholarships.

  5. Hello I’m a freshman from Middle Eastern Ohio. I have a 3.8 GPA and I plan on attending Texas A&M for a degree in Biology or Environmental Sciences so I can become an Ohio Park Ranger. Would this be possible if I continue my current grade levels?

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      Hi Kristopher,

      First off, I think it’s great that you are thinking so far ahead into your future! I would go to the Texas A&M website, call them, and speak to one of their admissions advisors. Ask them what the average accepted GPA and test scores were for the past year… and what other requirements they look for in applicants.

      You should also look at those specific degrees’ requirements within Texas A&M. Many college websites will have individual pages specific to one degree program and those will go into more detail about a specific degree and what is required. It will also help you to decide which one you might prefer over the other!

  6. Hello, I would like to know more information as a senior in highschool. I am taking honors courses and one AP my gpa is below a 3.5. WIll my gpa increase by the end of my senior year? I am trying to attain a good gpa because of the in state college I want to attend. Also how important are SAT AND ACT scores for colleges??

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      Hi Stephanie,

      We answer the question, “If I’m a senior with low GPA/Test Scores, do I still have a chance?” in one of our recent articles: Am I Ready for College? 4 Tough Questions Answered.

      Whether or not you can raise your 3.5 GPA is going to depend on if you are a first or second semester senior, and what is bringing your GPA down from a 4.0. But keep in mind, a 3.5 has a pretty good chance of getting you in to most colleges. Of course, admissions and scholarships also depend largely on your standardized test scores. If you’re looking to get into an elite/ivy league college with the 3.5, it may prove to be more difficult.

      If I understand correctly, you’re asking whether or not you should be taking BOTH the ACT and SAT to increase your chances of admissions, versus one over the other? If you score highly on either, there are plenty of options out there for scholarships and you will have higher admissions chances. If you take BOTH and score highly on BOTH, then you are going to increase those options even further. For example, you can look at scholarships that consider only ACT, or only SAT scores, whereas if you only took the SAT, you couldn’t look at scholarships for ACT scores.

  7. Hello, my name is Farushe.
    Soon I’m about to be a Freshman.I live in New York and two years ago I moved in America so I was in 7th grade. I had a really tough time, I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t had anybody to ask for help,I was shy to ask my teachers for help and along with the stress I had, it seemed like I couldn’t believe in my self . It was so hard to understand my teachers and I was confused all the times. I didn’t even understood what the topic’s were about. I’m my overall average was 76.00% or 78.00% . When I started 8th grade I was a little bit more confident because I new the language (not that good though) I made some friends and it didn’t seem I was stressed, I knew could do better than I did in 7th grade , my teachers were chill and much more understandable than my 7th teachers, always talked to me when I needed to talk to someone and I had a great time with them. When I finished 8th my overall average was 89.18% . I didn’t do well in E.L.A (English) not because I didn’t understand it but because I was lazy to do my homeworks and because I didn’t do my homeworki didn’t get a very good grade , I did really good in math and Okay in Science and Social Studies. I was always excited to go to my math class and learn more about. And I don’t know if I should challenge myself and take any AP/Honors classes. I’m really sorry if I made you to read all this long pagargraph.

    Thank you so much!

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  8. Hello! In about 7 days I will start my Freshman year. I have 2 honor classes and 1 AP Psychology. From what I’ve read, AP and honor classes may give loads of work. I’m not very used to receiving so much work because my teachers never really did give as much.

    Any advice on how to stay caught up and study?

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  9. My daughter is most defenitly not an A/B student. She tries but just doesn’t quite get there. I don’t hold it against her because i see how much she tries. She has a mild learning disability and struggles in school. she is in inclussion classes and is given extra help and time to do her work or take tests. She has never taken a honors or advance class. She is going into the 11th grade and her class schedule was just recieved today, she was placed in an Honors US history class. I was under the impression that to be placed in Honors or AP you had to take a test to get accepted. Could this be a mistake or is it possible that she got this becuase she actually did fairly well in her last history course (B)?

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      Hi Janet,

      Depending on the school your daughter is attending, some high schools (especially “College Prep” schools) may opt to place ALL of their students in an Honors/AP class.

      If she or you feel that she will struggle in that class, it is a good reason to meet with her counselor/advisor and discuss the options for students with learning disabilities.

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      Hi Lamise,

      As long as you are performing well in either AP or Honors courses, you should have nothing to worry about. The problem arises, mainly, when a student takes an AP or Honors course that is accelerated and causes a drop in their GPA. Depending on the college they are looking to attend, the difference between an AP/Honors class versus a normal class may or may not be recognized. If it is not recognized by the college in question, then a low grade in an AP/Honors class looks worse than a high grade in a regular class.

  10. My son is going into 9th grade and was denied access to honors courses in his Florida HS because he didn’t meet their minimum requirements (95% or higher in regular 8th grade classes). This puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to college admittance and I believe it is wrong for the school to deny him access. He received A’s and B’s in 8th grade and is in the gifted program. He is perfectly capable of handing honors courses. I even signed a waiver from the HS and wrote a letter, but he was still denied. Do I have any recourse?

    1. Hello Laura,

      That is so frustrating. I would be feeling the same way as you are and taking the steps I could to get him in.

      In terms of advice, we do not have anything ‘official’ to add to what you are doing because our expertise is not in these types of issues with administration and it sounds like you are doing all the steps needed! Having taught in a high school in Arizona myself, I have experience with schools in Arizona, but not Florida, and I am sure each district is also different. So it makes it tough to have a ‘right answer’ for what to do now.

      However, imagining myself in your position, I might reach out to the district office and ask what next steps you could take. I personally would keep going higher and higher up the chain of command. And I would try to approach it calmly and ‘professionally’ rather than in an emotional way (not saying you aren’t! :)). Just because I think that the administrators have to deal with a lot of unreasonable demands from parents, so showing you have well-thought-out requests and are communicating without anger could help your cause.

      Then I would also ask questions like, “Has an exception ever been made? If so, what is needed to be shown?” Or maybe a solution could even lie with the addition of an online course with the local community college or a summer school class to demonstrate the ‘requirements’ some other way so he could jump back into the Honors track.

      If the school and district are still completely unwilling to work with you, then maybe there are other schools in your area who are more willing to keep the student’s best interest at heart.

      Keep us posted on your experience. I am sure other parents are reading this and encountering the same thing.


      Laura (aka Ms. P)

    2. Wow that’s crazy I’m in orlandos edgewater and I had hard time in 7 and skipped 8 and got algebra marine science and English hon I’m also in 9 try switching schools

  11. I am an incoming sophomore at a new highschool, and I was just wondering about the classes that I should take. In 9th grade at my previous school, I took:
    1st semester 2nd semester
    World History A A-
    Geometry A A+
    Art Appreciation A+ A+
    PE and Health A+ A+
    Biology A A
    Freshman English A A
    Korean 4 A+ A+

    Now for my sophomore year, I am having trouble choosing my classes. I think that it would look good when applying to colleges if I take all Honors in Algebra 2, US History, Chemistry, and English. But the thing is, I never took any Honors classes, and if I do in my sophomore year, it would be my first time. I’m not sure if I should take all honors classes or not, but at the same time I kind of do want to challenge myself. How difficult is taking all Honors?

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      Hi Erin,

      Honors and AP classes are often accelerated material, which means you are expected to retain more information in less time. Taking all Honors classes is definitely going to be a challenge for most students — but it’s not impossible. It depends on you as a student. Do you currently struggle in any of these classes when they are offered at a regular level? If so, you need to consider whether or not it is worth risking a lower grade in an Honors course versus a higher grade in a regular course.

      It will also depend on the college you are looking to attend. Do they recognize the value of an Honors/AP class as opposed to a regular course? If not, a lower grade will put you at a disadvantage for admissions if you find you are struggling in the course.

  12. Hello, I’m going to be a sophomore next year. This school year, I took one AP class (only one is available to freshmen), and I plan on taking AP US History 10, AP Computer Science, and AP Chemistry next year (I plan on taking a lot more during my junior and senior years too!). However, I recently moved to a new district and the new district only offers Honors classes rather than AP. I have the choice of going to the school in the new district or continue in my old district. I’m a little bit of an over-achiever and I’d like to get into a somewhat decent college someday and I don’t know which would look better on my college resumé; having honors classes or having AP classes. The new district does not have a lot of extra classes, but getting to my old district and coming back from it would be a little time consuming, which might not be good for my studying. The older district has more programs than the newer one (psychology, photography, computer programs classes, an orchestra, and etc. All of this isn’t in the area I moved to but is in the old area) but if I’d stay in the new school I’d get to know people around this district and I’d be close to home to study. I’m sorry for the long paragraph, but I think my question overall is: which would look better into getting into a good college, taking Honors classes or taking AP classes? Would it be significant in getting into better colleges or would it be ultimately the same? My gpa throughout all years of middle school was 4.33 and my overall gpa in 9th grade was around 4.1-4.2.

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      Hi Tina,

      As I have told some of the other students commenting on our blogs, we are in the process of creating a new resource which should help to answer the questions you’re asking. If it’s alright with you, we can shoot you an email when it’s ready. 🙂

  13. Hello,
    This year I took all regular classes and I got a 4.0. Next year I am thinking about taking four honors classes, but I’m not sure what to do. What do you think I should do?

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      Hi Shayan,

      First, you need to ask yourself if you could take honors or AP classes and score highly in all of them. 4 Honors/AP courses can be very challenging. As far as college credit, scoring highly in AP/Honors courses will be a nice boost to your college applications. However, with AP courses, some colleges will look down on a low AP score that might have otherwise been an A in a normal class. Depending on the college, different AP scores will carry different weights.

      Another thing to consider is taking your Honors courses for Dual Credit. There are many community colleges that offer Dual Enrollment for courses, and it means that you are taking the course for college credit. This will get you ahead in your college career before you graduate, and open up space in your college schedule for more specialized courses by getting the core courses out of the way.

      It is up to you, but I would say the number one thing to consider is whether or not you feel you can earn high grades in those courses.

  14. Hi, my name is Jake and I am currently a sophomore in high school. Freshman year I started off bad because I was busy breaking bad habits and struggled. I ended freshman year with a 3.64 or something, 4 B’s the whole year. 3 first semester, and 1 last semester in Advanced Spanish (I’m ahead). At the end of the year when I got the hang of it I finished Spanish with an 89 and that was my only B. This year I am in 3 honors, an extra math class to get ahead, and Spanish 3. I am currently in debate, chem club, Chinese club, model UN, and in the process of starting my own club. I have been on varsity swim two years and swim at an elite club (no state cuts yet). As a sophomore I have a 27 on my ACT when I took it blind. When applying to colleges will these B’s hold me back tremendously, even if I never get another B again (the more work or harder the work, the better I do)? This year I did get one B due to my Spanish final and he didn’t round up, but I learned from my mistakes. Currently I have a 3.86. Sorry for the long message, but will those B’s hold me back even if I score high on my ACT? Also what about my schedule this year should I have taken an AP? I have a couple more shirt questions if you get back to me. Thanks

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      Hi Jake,

      Thanks for the comment! The Bs shouldn’t hurt you too badly. Lots of students start off poorly in their freshman year. You should only take AP classes if you can confidently say you’ll get A’s in them. It sounds like as far as extracurriculars you are doing very well, and those are important because they help differentiate you from every other A+, high scoring student out there and show more of your personality and passion. To answer some more of your specific questions, please don’t hesitate to email us at [email protected]!

  15. I am currently a sophomore in high school and I am taking one honors and one AP course. I got one B last year in an accelerated biology course which was extremely challenging. Other than that, I haven’t gotten any B’s and got all A’s this first semester with a weighted GPA of 4.28. Do you have any tips for things that I can do in order to increase the chance that I have to get into a good college? Thank you and great article.

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      Hi Derek,

      If you’re looking to get into a more elite university, you’ll want to also focus on building and tailoring your extracurriculars toward whatever major or program you’re interested in. It sounds like you’ve got a very good foundation for your GPA, and extracurriculars are one thing that can give you that edge you need to stand out on your application. Check out this article: http://studenttutor1.wpengine.com/ivy-league-college-admissions-have-the-extracurricular-advantage/. It’s a really detailed account of how to do this. Additionally, you’ll want to start preparing for your SAT and/or ACT, because the best time to take those tests will be in your junior year.

  16. Our daughter is getting ready to register for high school at Reynolds high school. We are in Asheville North Carolina. She wants to take honor classes in English math, science and social studies. These were recommended and she wants to. She also is involved in volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball. We are more exhausted than her 🙂 she wants to be a veterinarian or an attorney. We want to guide her in the right way. Any advise will help. Thank you

    1. Post


      It sounds like your daughter is very proactive and talented! Being enrolled in a lot of extracurriculars is important if she is interested in applying to more elite universities in the future… however if she is certain that she wants to be either a veterinarian or an attorney, one way to go the extra mile is to look for extracurriculars and summer programs that are relevant to those fields.

      Now… while it’s good to get involved with extracurriculars that will help her stand out in college admissions, you want to make sure that she is not juggling so much at once that she falls behind in her classes. The reason being that since she is just starting high school, whatever classes she takes, it is also important that she builds a solid foundation for her GPA in her freshman and sophomore year. These first two years are critical for this and it can be more difficult to boost a low GPA in your junior or senior year when curriculum is more challenging and other aspects like standardized testing, college applications, and scholarships come into play.

      I hope this helps you, and of course if she was interested in working with us we could really zone in on her skills and help her to carve out the ideal profile for her scholarships and applications. 🙂

  17. I’m in middle school about to go to high school. I really want to get into an Ivy League and I have Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton in mind. I have always been on honor roll and work really hard & do track & field, cross country, cheer, and ANY AND EVERY club possible. I live in North Carolina and also excel in math. I want to be a neurosurgeon. Which courses would you recommend that are probably best for me?? Thank you

    1. Post


      Thank you for commenting and I am thrilled to see that in middle school, you are already planning ahead for college! Since the foundations for your GPA are built in your freshman and sophomore years of High School, you are in the perfect position to really start honing in on the schools and scholarships you want. So let’s talk! We will be reaching out to connect you with one of our academic advisors.

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  18. we r recent immigrants from India and our kids did well in their first sem (all in 98 and 99). The teachers recommend them for honors class. which option is better for them an AP or honors. they r in 10th grade now

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      This can depend on a lot of different factors. Are they trying to get into Ivy league universities, past performance, what school they are in, what state you live in, etc. I would suggest you call one of our Academic Advisors and they would be more than willing to help guide you! 844-50-TUTOR Sorry I couldn’t answer your question I just don’t want to lead you down the wrong path without knowing all the details.

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  19. My son attends a Magnet School, and he is all honors classes and gifted American civics, and he is only in the 9th. He entered high school with 3.5 credits. Thanks for the break down, because I really want him to excel.

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      No problem Bridgetta! Be careful when taking several honors classes though. The unweighted GPA is the most important GPA for colleges and scholarships. Feel free to read other articles to learn more! 🙂

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