Which are better when applying to colleges, AP courses or real college courses taken at the local community college?
I described AP courses in this article on AP vs IB here. Basically, AP courses are Advanced Placement courses trademarked by the College Board, the same establishment that produces the SAT and its many subject tests. These courses are taught at the high school by high school teachers, but are assessed with a standardized exam in early May. This standardized exam, graded on a scale from 1 to 5, 5 being the highest, allows colleges to compare your mastery over the material versus other applicants.
The problem with APs however, is that, though they are supposed to provide you with college credit, college credit is solely awarded at the discretion of the admitting college. So oftentimes, though AP courses are highly desirable indicators of potential college success, they do not necessarily guarantee the college credit that they were initially touted to do. Community college credit, on the other hand, is highly transferable and can help you fulfill your undergraduate credit requirements. This does not mean, however, that you are guaranteed to place out of a course because you took it at a community college. Many colleges still expect you to take certain courses under their tutelage, especially in your major field of study.
Which begs the question, why not just take the college-level version of the course at the local community college, rather than leave it to chance whether your credits will be accepted?
There are, in fact, a couple of reasons why taking the high school AP course is still better than the community college equivalent.
One reason is financial. Even though the cost of community college is much less than that of a four-year private college, it still is more expensive to enroll in a community college course than it is to take the AP exam.
Second, commuting between high school and community college can be burdensome, and can preclude you pursuing other extracurricular interests.
Third, high school AP courses tend to attract the most committed students, including the best and the brightest, who will, in a year or two attend the top universities in the nation. Learning together with other bright, committed students raises the bar for everyone. Community colleges, may or may not have the same level of student body, and will probably a less-intense, less-personal experience.
Fourth, the fact that the AP exam is standardized allows colleges to get a truer picture of where you stand among your peer group. Colleges have little to no way to assess the quality of a community college course, and of your mastery of the material, and therefore cannot assess your performance in the context of the rest of the student body.
Therefore, when choosing between AP and community college courses, if you want to ensure you can transfer some credit, take the community college version. If, on the other hand, your priority is to appear in the best light before the admissions committee, stick with the AP.