What Is AP Capstone? – Preparing for University

what is ap capstone

Preparing for university can be a period marked by excitement, but plenty of students feel like they aren’t well-equipped enough to face the challenges that lie ahead. They may feel their research skills could use some refining and that their college application doesn’t look good on paper. Some even have second thoughts about their capacity for critical thinking and may question their ability to perform in a team setting. Then, there are those who believe they simply haven’t gotten enough opportunities to brush up on their areas of interest to feel confident in entering a new academic environment.

Does any of this sound like you? Perhaps you’re parenting a teen who has expressed these frustrations at some point. Then you need to learn about AP Capstone, an opportunity to earn an advanced high school diploma. But what is AP Capstone and how exactly can it help you on your academic journey? We’ve come to answer all of your questions.

What is AP Capstone?

In addition to earning your regular high school diploma, you can also earn an advanced diploma that better positions you for your university years. An example of this is the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, but it’s far from being the only one of its kind. Ever since its debut in 2014, the AP Capstone has been surging in popularity, allowing students to take extra classes so as to stand a better chance of getting accepted at a university of their choice, all while deepening their knowledge on a subject of their choice and mastering valuable life-skills along the way.

The AP Capstone program consists of 2 foundation courses:

  • AP Seminar
  • AP Research

In total, these consist of 6 AP courses. The aim of the program is to cultivate curious, independent, and collaborative scholars and equip them with the right mindset and knowledge to make evidence-based decisions. One of AP Capstone’s major advantages is that it lets you choose the kind of subjects you’re actually interested in, thereby giving you the freedom to pursue your interests while making progress in your academic journey. At the end, you will need to submit a 5000-word research paper that’s quite similar to IB’s extended essay.

5 real-life Skills AP Capstone will teach you

AP Capstone was designed to give you valuable life skills as part of the so-called QUEST framework:

  • Curiosity. You will learn how to research and explore complex topics and expand your horizons along the way.
  • Analyzing arguments and evaluating perspectives. You will learn how to evaluate other authors’ claims objectively and with deductive reasoning.
  • Synthesizing ideas. You will expand your knowledge with other people’s ideas to attain a better and more refined understanding of subjects.
  • Teamwork and collaboration. You will learn what it takes to effectively collaborate with others while brushing on your communication skills, combining your unique talents and strengths to work towards a common goal.
  • Finding solutions to real-world problems. In real life, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution, and AP Capstone will teach you how to weigh the pros and cons of different solutions to determine the most suitable one.

8 benefits of AP Capstone

In addition to the real-life skills we’ve discussed above, AP Capstone will also benefit you immensely as you progress in your academic journey. You will:

  • Become a better researcher
  • Know how to present an argument in an objective manner
  • Communicate your ideas better
  • Stand out among other university applicants
  • Develop a professional excellence
  • Enjoy a flexible curriculum with plenty of room for creativity
  • Receive a widely recognized advanced diploma
  • Demonstrate your academic ability

Now, let’s explore the top academic aspects of undertaking an AP Capstone program:

1. Cross-curricular learning

AP Capstone will teach you valuable concepts and skills you can apply to other academic subjects. For instance, the AP Seminar teaches you to initiate cross-curricular conversations encompassing the subtle nuances of real-world issues from a cross-cultural angle. This teaches you to:

  • Accurately analyze data
  • Evaluate and summarize different sources
  • Foster evidence-based thinking
  • Communicate your perspective in an essay
  • Execute a presentation (either standalone or as part of a team)

2. Independent research

Through research, you will develop a keen sense for critical thinking about real-world issues that are also highly relevant outside the classroom. Keep in mind you retain the freedom of choice to pursue the topics that are of interest to you. As you progress, you will learn valuable research skills that make you a desirable candidate in the eyes of any university.

3. Collaborative thinking

Throughout life, you will encounter situations that call for collaboration and clear communication. The AP Capstone program places you in a role that lets you refine these skills as you work with other ambitious students. Each of the students gets to chime in with their unique problem-solving capabilities as the team works towards a joint presentation.

4. Stand out in college admissions

Upon successfully completing the AP Capstone, you will stand out among other college applicants. Institutional research suggests that AP Capstone diploma favorably impacts the student’s application process in 85% of cases, tipping the scale towards a favorable decision. Such applicants are deemed to have the skills, experience, knowledge, and passion necessary to be successful in their higher education studies.

What does the AP Capstone course consist of?

Before the AP Capstone diploma is yours, you will need to take 2 AP courses:

  • AP Seminar (in your 10th or 11th grade)
  • AP Research (in your 11th or 12th grade)

Note: you can’t take these in the same grade and they need to be in the exact order specified.

In addition to these, you will be required to take 4 additional AP courses (you get to choose based on your interests). You could take them in a manner of one per year, or you could cram them into your last two years of high school. If you want to, you could even take more than 4. To get your AP Capstone diploma, you will need to get a score of 3 or higher on all of your exams. In case you fail to complete the minimum number of courses, you’ll still receive the AP Seminar and Research Certificate, demonstrating you’ve gained valuable college-level skills (however, you still need to get a score of 3 or higher in AP Seminar and AP Research).

Breaking down the two courses: AP Seminar and AP Research

AP Seminar and AP Research are the two main courses of AP Capstone. They will give you valuable academic skills, however, they are not tied to any particular subject per se.

AP Seminar

This course will teach you crucial analytical skills. Together with your teacher, you will receive 2-4 issues to discuss, consisting of:

  • Local issues
  • International topics
  • Concepts from other AP courses

Example 1: Exploring the question of balancing one’s right to privacy vs. the greater national security – which one is more important?

Example 2: Does genetic engineering benefit society?

To arrive at a conclusion, you will need to analyze the subject matter through multiple different lenses. You will also need to complete:

  • A team project
  • An individual paper
  • A presentation
  • Take the final AP exam

The final score will be based on all of the above (1 to 5).

AP Research

After completing the AP Seminar, you can move on to AP Research. This will be a year-long research on a topic that aligns with your interests (yes, this can be a topic you’ve already gotten familiar with in one of the other AP courses). You will learn to:

  • Use the correct research methodology
  • Adhere to ethical research practices
  • Analyze information
  • Defend your argument

You will need to submit a 5000-word research paper and defend it. The final grade in AP Research consists of:

  • Paper evaluation
  • Presentation
  • Defense

You will receive a grade between 1 and 5.

Note: Unlike what is the case with AP Seminar, there will be no formal exam at the end.

AP Capstone program opportunities across the US

Those who are learning about what is AP Capstone need to know that the program has been around since 2014. At the time of writing, more than 300 US high schools offer this program, however, the number of significantly lower in other countries (15 Canadian and 30 international schools). It’s expected that additional schools will start offering it in the near future. Bear in mind that there are US states without a single school that offers AP Capstone. For instance, there are none in Missouri and Utah, but more than 100 in Florida.

Classic AP vs. AP Capstone vs. IB program

The AP program is what you’re probably already familiar with. Oftentimes, it’s limited by how many AP courses your school can offer and you don’t get an average score at the end. Compared to AP Capstone, AP is more flexible and not as strict, whereas AP Capstone gives you a diploma at the end.

Classic AP vs. AP Capstone in a nutshell:

  • AP Capstone is a 2-year program with a fixed structure. It consists of 2 main courses, AP Seminar and AP Research.
  • AP Capstone has a more pronounced interdisciplinary approach. It teaches you to find common denominators across different subject areas all while taking multiple perspectives into account when analyzing complex issues. The regular AP program, on the other hand, is focused on subject-specific assignments.
  • AP Capstone heavily focuses on the research aspect of it, teaching students the correct approach to evaluating sources, constructing arguments, and evaluating their findings.
  • AP Capstone requires you to complete courses (one of which has an exam at the end), whereas classic AP comes with 2 subject-specific exams at the end.
  • AP Capstone rewards you with a diploma, whereas classic AP only gives you college credit.

AP Capstone vs. IB in a nutshell:

  • They are very similar in the sense that they require you to take advanced classes in high school, followed by an exam at the end.
  • Both programs require you to obtain a minimum exam score to pass (24 points in total for IB, a score of 3 or higher for AP Capstone).
  • Both programs require you to submit a research paper (4000 words for IB and 5000 words for AP Capstone)
  • Both programs focus on subject-based skills
  • IB program tends to be more demanding than AP Capstone. In IB, 3 out of 6 courses need to be “higher level”. In AP Capstone, all of your courses can be designated as easy.
  • There are no extracurricular requirements in AP Capstone compared to IB.
  • IB only lets you choose from 6 pre-selected subject areas, while there is no such requirement in AP Capstone. You could even take all science courses if you want to.

How to determine whether enrolling in AP Capstone makes sense for you

Now that you have a better picture of what AP Capstone is, the question is, how to know if it’s right for you?

Evaluate the amount of work required

To arrive at an answer, you must first take a look at the amount of work involved. There are 6 courses in total, each costing roughly $90. However, the great thing about AP Capstone is that you know the exact number of courses in advance and can plan accordingly. Are you ready and willing to embrace the commitment?

Evaluate the teacher who is executing the program

You also need to consider the teacher who’s teaching the courses. If their reputation isn’t that great, you may not want to take these courses at your school. In this case, the solution would be to take the AP Capstone course elsewhere, with Novel Prep being an excellent option that’s highly recommended and getting great reviews. We will help you systematically develop your critical thinking and research skills and the diploma you will earn will open the doors to several universities of high acclaim, letting you stand out among other applicants.

Evaluate whether you’re in the senior high school years

Finally, you need to consider the grade you’re in. If you’re already in the last year of high school, the train has already left the station since you cannot complete both the AP Research and AP Seminar programs during the same school year (they need to be spread out across 2 years). Ideally, you should enroll in AP Seminar in either Grade 10 or Grade 11, and in AP Research in either Grade 11 or Grade 12. If you’re a freshman, take the time to get familiar with the program and see if it’s suitable for you and whether the university you’re aiming for honors it.

AP Capstone gets you bonus points for your college of choice

Similarly to IB, not every school will offer it. Therefore, no university will state it as a requirement. However, candidates who have earned the AP Capstone diploma are generally seen as more qualified for the academic environment and thus more desirable. Bear in mind that, as the program is relatively new, you may need to append further explanation of what it is on your college application. Remember – to get accepted at the most prestigious universities out there, you will need all the extra points you can get!


Your academic environment will test you in a myriad of ways. To be successful in college, you will need to demonstrate sharp analytical skills, the ability to work individually as well as within a group setting, and have a rock-solid way of presenting evidence-based arguments and defend them appropriately. AP Capstone was designed to help you overcome these challenges and become the ideal candidate the universities want to take on.

If you want to secure some extra points for the university of your choosing, consider partnering with a tutoring center like Novel Prep, especially if the high school you’re attending isn’t offering the program or you don’t like their teachers for whatever reason. We’ve received some great feedback thus far and all the teachers we work with hold a high-level university degree. Drop us a line to see if we can be of help!


Do these courses require a recommendation?

Yes. Please talk to your English teacher.

Can I take the AP Seminar individually?

Yes. You can take this course only without taking the rest.

What happens if I fail?

While you won’t get the diploma, you will still get recognition simply for participating in the program.

Does the diploma mean I will get college credit?

Yes, but only for those AP exams you managed to pass with grade 3 or better. Think of it in terms of exams – these will earn you college credit, while the diploma is more like an honor.

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