AP Exams: The Who, What, When, Where, Why & How
I was talking to someone at the gym today and when the topic came up, I realized that we needed to talk about it.
In this whole world of “taking the right classes”, you’ve probably heard about taking a “college-level course-load” aka taking AP (Advanced Placement) classes.
But, have you ever wondered, why AP?
I mean, yes, the classes are difficult – some are absolutely insane – but how does doing well on AP exams transfer over to college?
What does it mean to get “college credit” for AP classes?
Brace yourself, this is going to be a decently long post but the info is worth understanding.
I could have chopped this information up, but I didn’t want you to click to multiple emails to find what you were looking for. Now, this will just be the “AP” email.
Okay, starting from scratch:
What are Advanced Placement (AP) exams?
Advanced Placement (AP) exams are annual exams created by Collegeboard. Yep, the same Collegeboard that does the SAT exams.
As the owner of the APs, PSATs, and SATs, Collegeboard has a huge monopoly on our entire educational system.
I have strong feelings about that, but that’s a rant I’d rather not get into.
Now, AP classes are higher-level aka the-most-difficult classes that many high schools around the country have to offer.
Who are AP Exams for?
AP Exams are for students who want to show that they can deal with a college level workload. The AP courses are rigorous – there can be a lot of reading, essay writing, and studying involved – so it’s important not to overload yourself. You could burn yourself out.
As for who AP exams are good for?
Well, if you’re planning to attend competitive universities – the Ivy Leagues or the top 30 Universities in the nation – then it is important to have APs as a part of your coursework.
Again, you don’t have to overwhelm yourself, but maybe 2-3 by the time you graduate would be nice. Preferably 3+ APs if you’re applying to Ivies.
When choosing your APs, play to your strengths. If you’re great at math, then consider taking the AP Stats, AP Calc AB, or the AP Calc BC exam.
It’s also a good idea to take an AP if the course teaches you skills you’d like to learn, like AP Computer Science.
In my case, we were required to take the AP English Language class as a part of the IB program. I failed the test.
But guess what?
That year, I leveled up as a writer.
My skills had been mediocre at best, a solid “B” prior to taking the class, but after all the analyzing, annotating, and essay writing, I pushed through a personal barrier. I became a significantly better writer as I learned not only the importance of language, but the impact that a series of simple, well-placed words can have on an audience.
Now, if you are not planning to attend a competitive university, then it is still important to vary your coursework. If not AP, then challenge yourself with a few Honors classes.
Note: While students can take AP classes, taking an official course is not required to sit for the exam. You can talk to your guidance counselor to sign up for the exams without taking the course- in case you prefer to self-study.
On the flip side, you can also take the course but not take the exam – although I don’t recommend it. If you’re going to put in the effort, then you might as well get college credits out of it.
Homeschooled students can register for the AP exams by talking to the guidance counselors at the nearest public high schools.
AP exams are $96/subject in the U.S.
If you decide to take the AP course but not the exam, then there’s no cost to you. However, you also rule out the possibility of earning college credit.
I recommend testing. If nothing else, then paying for an AP exam is significantly cheaper than paying to take that class in college.
Also, fee waivers are available, just talk to your guidance counselor to see if you qualify.
The AP exams are administered in the first two weeks of May every year.
Unlike the SAT or ACT, there are no immediate exam retakes offered. You’d have to wait a full school year (so until the following May) to re-take the test.
For most people, that’s not worth it because that means you still have to retain and practice all the information you’ve learned.
What subjects can we take AP tests in?
Here is a full list of subjects that students can test in. There are 30+ so I’m not going to type them all out. I fear your eyes might glaze over.
Note: Your high school may not offer all of these courses, in fact most high schools only offer the most popular APs. However, you can always self-prep and ask your high school to order the test for you.
How are AP exams scored?
AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the perfect score.
A minimum of a 3 is required to pass.
For other general information about AP exams, check out Collegeboard’s AP exams page.
Now, onto the most important part:
How do AP scores translate to college credits?
Let’s take a quick look at what college class schedules can look like before we see how APs fit into it.
Most universities use the “credits” system to indicate the number of class hours a student must complete to receive their Bachelor’s.
Each course has an assigned number of credits indicating the # of hours a class will meet per week.
So, let’s say that a Chemistry 101 class is 3 credits.
Well, that means that the class must meet for 3-hrs each week.
As for how that can play out?
Here are two possible options:
- The course meets 3x/week for 1-hr (common approach).
Since introductory classes like Chem 101 tend to be large auditorium classes with 200+ individuals – particularly at large universities – there is usually an additional 2-hr small breakup session once per week with 20-30 students.
That small-group session does not have separate credit hours associated with it. It’s part of the original 3-credits.
2. The class meets 2x/week for 1.5 hrs.
Similarly, a 4-credit course could meet for 1-hr 4x/week or 2 2-hr sessions.
You get the idea.
On average a student takes approx. 15 credit hours/semester, which can be about 4-5 classes.
The minimum requirement to be considered a full-time student is 12 credits (3-4 classes), and the max recommended are 18 credits (~6 classes). Any more than 18 credits per semester will require advisor approval.
Side note: The cost of tuition is also determined per credit. So, the amount you pay for 12 credits will be lower than for 15 credits.
Overall, a Bachelor’s degree will total to 120 credit hours.
Now, of these, there will be a certain number of general education (GenEd) requirements courses that students have to take.
A certain number of history, math, language, and science credits that all students will have to fulfill.
Your AP exam score will chip into those GenEd requirements.
Receiving a perfect 5 on the AP European history exam may wipe out 50% of the history requirements, whereas receiving a 4 may help wipe out 30%.
The number of GenEd credits that your APs will get you varies by university, and a lot of universities do not give credit for just passing (getting a 3) the AP.
Some students go in with so many AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) credits that they can graduate college in 3 years instead of the usual 4.
And while taking these GenEd classes may seem useless (and expensive), it buys students time to figure out what they’d like to major in.
Another note: sometimes you are asked to take the GenEd class anyway if the course you’re trying to cut out is a part of your major.
I’ll give you an example.
When I was in high school, I was a part of the IB program. Now, because of the way the curriculum is designed, I’d chosen to take two years of intense biology in my junior and senior year (in addition to the Honors 9th Biology). Safe to say, I’d taken a lot of Biology.
I passed the international exam at the end of my senior year, so I received whatever college credits I was supposed to….
….BUT, because I was a Biology major – I thought I was going to be a doctor back then – I was asked to re-take the course “at a college level”.
So, basically, I ended up having to do Biology 1 and Biology 2 + labs for each.
BUT, I also went in with English, French, Social Science (in my case, Psychology) credits, so I did not have to take those classes again since they were not a part of my major.
Bear in mind that you will receive all sorts of different advice based on the university’s rules.
Of course, there was also the time when I absolutely refused to follow the university’s advice and signed myself up for an advanced-level class my freshman first semester, but I’ll share that story another day. This email is already long enough
So, there you have it, detailed explanation of what AP exams are and how your AP scores can apply as college credit.
I hope this helped clarify a few things.
Let me know if you have any questions!