“go to Modernstates.org and take the class online for free, and just take the AP exam, without having taken the AP class in the high school. It’s got to look pretty impressive if you can get a 4 or a 5 on an AP without ever having taken the class.”
Show me a C-student who has time for a free non-credited online class plus time to study for an AP exam, and I’ll show you someone who, if they are hoping to get into a decent college, has their priorities in the wrong place. Don’t get me wrong - colleges appreciate intellectual curiosity - but the preferred way to show it is to do well in the regular classes (whether they are APs or not) and participate in ECs in a meaningful way.
“Or maybe just sign up as a non matriculated student at a local community college and take gen ed classes for actual guaranteed transferable credit.”
DE’s can be enriching and beneficial, but for a student having difficulty in high school level classes, DE’s are a sharp, double-edged sword. Dual enrollment grades follow the student, sometimes becoming part of their college GPAs. All grades from college classes must be sent when applying for 4-year colleges AND to graduate school. Some state schools make students ineligible for financial aid if their GPA goes below a certain level. Do poorly in college classes taken while in high school and a student could find himself/herself shut out from financial aid at his/her own state’s colleges before he/she has even graduated high school.
Whether a student has 2 or 4, 8 or 17 AP classes is, in large part, a factor of high school policies. Some schools don’t permit freshmen or sophomores to take ANY AP classes. Others do, but limit the number. Others schools are limitless (when you hear of a kid with 15+ APs, they’re probably from this kind of restriction-free school). Some schools have four or five periods a day (block schedule), some have 6, 7, 8 or 9. Some schools have more graduation requirements than others, and those classes aren’t usually APs, or even weighted. Some schools don’t offer APs at all because they are on the IB system or because they believe their own honors curriculum is superior. That’s why the sheer number of APs on the transcript is hardly the most useful point of comparison among applicants.