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.

Here are three ways other than AP or IB to get the challenging junior- or senior-year courses you need for college admissions success:

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

Choose Honors-Level Classes

Search your 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 you build your 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 your 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 you cannot develop an entire independent study, ask your teachers for extra-credit projects that you can cite on your college applications.

You can also incorporate massive open online courses, or MOOCs, into your independent study. This will likely require some negotiation and planning, generally with the help of a teacher and school counselor.

As you design your independent study, make sure that you will be able to explain to a college admissions representative what your course objectives were, whether you met them and how you 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 overall college application.

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

It is unlikely that you will be able to tackle all the tests, so select just one or two that best demonstrate your 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 Your Accomplishments

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

This is because your high school counselor may be asked to rate the relative difficulty of your courses when he or she forwards your transcript to a college. Keep in mind, however, that your counselor works with many students and may not be aware of how hard you worked or at what level of sophistication.

Save documents like exams, papers, reading lists and syllabuses. Not only can you use them as you compile your college applications, but you can also share them with your counselor.

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