The 2021 AP Exam season is approaching.  College applicants who score high on the Advanced Placement (AP) exams can burnish their college applications and save money by potentially earning college credit before they step foot on campus.

Students hoping that pandemic conditions will mean a repeat of last year’s 45-minute, online, multiple choice AP exams will be disappointed.  That short version was the College Board’s response when campuses suddenly closed right before the 2020 exam season.  For 2021, the College Board has had more prep time.  This year, schools can offer traditional and digital testing options – both taking the usual three hours to complete.  Here’s what you can expect.

Pen-and-Paper and Digital Options for Most Subjects 

Testing according to traditional methods appears to be the College Board’s preference.  Traditional in-school, pen-and-paper testing will be available for almost all subjects.  Digital exam options will be available for 25 of 34 subjects.  Most foreign language AP exams will only be proctored in-school as pencil-and-paper options.  Chinese and Japanese Language and Culture will be the sole tests that will be offered in a completely digital format that can only be taken in-school.

For individual subject exam formats, download the 2021 AP Exam Format Information.

Three Differing Exam Administration Periods

Testing will happen in May to June 2021 over three “Administration” periods.

  • Administration 1 (first half of May): Traditional full-length pencil-and-paper exams will only be offered in-school for almost all subjects.
  • Administration 2 (second half of May): Half of the subjects will be offered in school as pencil-and-paper exams and half are available as digital exams that can be administered in school or taken at home.
  • Administration 3 (first half of June): Pencil-and-paper tests will not be offered.  Most subjects will be offered as digital exams taken in school or at home.

Exams will only be offered according to a schedule set by the College Board.  To give students flexibility, the College Board is waiving cancellation fees.

For the full test schedule, visit the AP Exam Dates website.

Your School will have a say in your Available Test Options

Schools have the flexibility to allow students to take a mix of in-school and at-home options on different dates over the three test administration periods according to each site’s specific needs (such as ensuring enough space for social distancing in available testing rooms).  Check with your schools’ AP coordinator for more details.  You may want to be ready to take a digital version of the exam if health conditions lead to your school’s sudden closure during the first or second testing period.

Don’t Expect the Digital Exams to be Easy

The College Board says the digital exams have been designed with security and fairness in mind.  On digital exams, students cannot return to unanswered questions.  In some cases, the pencil-and-paper exam long-form response questions will be replaced in the digital version with two completely different short-form response questions.  The digital exams will not include questions that can be answered with online searches, textbooks, notes or study guides.  All this means expect digital exam questions may be even more challenging than their pen-and-paper counterparts.

The Full Year’s Course Curriculum will be Covered

Last year, due to early school year closures, the shortened online exams only covered AP course materials that most students would have learned by the time the pandemic started.  This year’s exams will cover an AP course’s entire curriculum year.  So, if you think class disruptions in the last academic year might keep your instructor from covering the full year of coursework, you’ll need to be prepared to self-study and fill in any missing course materials on your own time.

Be Prepared

The College Board prefers that, when possible, students take their exams in-school as they will likely face fewer disruptions in class than at home.  However, school’s COVID exposure rules and continuing pandemic uncertainties mean students might find themselves suddenly stuck at home taking a digital format exam.  Be ready.  Unlike in 2020, digital exams must be completed on a computer with a keyboard because most involve typing answers to free response questions.  No tablets.  Besides a computer, digital testers are also expected to have access to a power outlet and a reliable Internet connection.  The testing computer will require a download of the AP Exam application.


For more details, visit the AP 2020-21 Updates section of the College Board’s website.

 Do you want help preparing to take this year’s AP exams?  Tungsten Prep’s team of experienced AP exam prep tutors are ready to help students earn their best score on these exams.  Click here to schedule a consultation with Sheena Martin, our Parent Outreach Coordinator, and learn more about how we can get you ready to ace your APs.


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