Should I take an AP exam? How many exams should I take? And is it ever a good idea to dodge the exam at the last minute?
Advanced Placement classes can be a rewarding capstone to a student’s high school career. Top AP scores offer major perks, including the chance to burnish your college applications and earn college credit while still in high school. But is it worth the effort to take an AP exam?
After all, AP courses are demanding. What’s more, on most AP exams, roughly one-third of students don’t receive a passing grade.
In this blog we’ll explain the advantages of taking an AP class and the benefits of passing an AP exam. We’ll also flag the differences between an AP course and the AP exam itself (take note: you don’t have to take one to take the other!).
Table of Contents
The AP Program Explained
The College Board, parent company to the SAT, has administered AP exams since 1952. The mission of the program has always been to introduce students to college-level material in high school and prepare them for the rigors of college. Over the years, most U.S. colleges and universities began granting college credit to students who successfully passed an AP exam.
For decades, only a small share of graduating seniors ever attempted an AP course. But in the past decades, some metropolitan school districts — led by New York City Public Schools — have championed the “AP for All” initiative. The aim is to open up access to AP courses to a wider population of high school students. As a result, schools introduced new AP courses, and minimized pre-requisites or prior honors classes.
Today, the College Board offers 38 exams each year. In 2020, 1.2 million graduating seniors took at least one AP exam. That’s one third of all American high school graduates.
At the same time, the share of students passing each AP exam has remained steady. The College Board scores AP exams on a scale of 1 to 5. A 5 means a student is “extremely well qualified” for college-level work in that subject, while a 1 means a student receives “no recommendation” for college credit. Many colleges recognize a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam as “passing,” and will grant credit. Some highly-selective colleges only grant credit for a score of 4 or 5.
AP Course vs AP Exam
Oftentimes, students use the terms interchangeably. But the AP course and the AP exam serve different purposes. Moreover, each one comes with its own advantages.
An AP course typically lasts the full academic year. The College Board specifies the topics and academic skills that will be tested on the exam. It also provides teaching guides and practice tests to help schools prepare students for the exam. However, schools themselves are free to design the curriculum of their choice.
On the other hand, the AP exams take place during the first two weeks in May. Each exam lasts three hours and consists of multiple choice, short answers and longer essays or free response questions.
What that means in practice is that some schools or teachers will better prepare their students for the exam than others. For example, it’s common for an AP U.S. History teacher to fall behind and fail to reach World War II before the May exam. That leaves students with the hasty task of independently mastering eight critical decades that make up 20% of their AP exam grade.
Clearly, those students would be at a disadvantage on the AP exam itself. But they may still get top marks in the class. That’s because individual teachers assign a grade based on class assignments and in-school tests. That grade is unrelated to the AP exam score. In short, it’s possible for a student to get an A in AP Chemistry but a 1 on the AP exam. Equally, the reverse is also true. That said, it’s far less common for a student to sail through the AP exam but stumble through his or her high school class.
Fully one-third of AP test-takers do not pass an AP exam, but it would be the rare high school teacher who gave a third of his or her students a D or F.
Enjoy the Immediate Benefits of Taking an AP Class
There are good reasons why AP courses have become so popular. Of course, there are the well-publicized incentives of a top score on the AP test itself. But don’t neglect the more immediate upside of challenging yourself with an AP class.
The good news is that ALL students – whatever their eventual AP score – can gain from an AP class.
Here’s a look at the many positive benefits of taking an AP class.
Boost Your GPA
Even if college isn’t on your radar right now, you can still benefit from taking AP classes and preparing for AP tests. Most schools understand the extra rigor these classes entail. That’s why many schools offer a weighted GPA for students who take these higher-level courses. That bump can, in turn, help your overall GPA. For example, in some schools, a B in an AP class is calculated as an A for purposes of GPA and class rank. So enjoy the win-win. Take harder courses than your peers and still enjoy a strong GPA.
The rigor of AP classes parallels an introductory college course. These classes offer more than just the benefit of college credit. They offer students exposure to new ideas and higher-level thinking. Students dive deep into the subject matter and learn skills they might not experience in a standard high school class.
Develop College-Level Skills
A difficult AP class gives you a taste of what’s to come and prepares you for the hard work ahead. You’ll develop college-level academic skills and strong study habits. And this will help you adapt to college life with confidence. Many students start college without understanding what it takes to succeed. Unfortunately, it’s a common problem and a major reason students drop out in their first year of college. Taking AP classes readies you for the high standards and continuous effort it takes to succeed in college.
Improve Time-Management Skills
Many first-year college students struggle with time management. The sudden freedom of college life, along with more responsibilities, is more than many students can handle. Fortunately, students who’ve taken AP classes are familiar with hard work and challenging subjects. They know that simply cramming for a test isn’t enough. To succeed on an AP test, students have to work steadily throughout the year.
The Long-Term Benefits of Passing an AP Exam
Whether you’re destined for a 1 or a 5, tackling an AP course yields undeniable benefits. But the College Board defines a passing score on an AP exam as a 3 or higher.
Read on to learn how passing an AP exam can help you earn college credit, save on tuition and accelerate to more advanced college courses!
Strengthen Your College Applications
Taking an AP class may earn you some recognition from college admissions officers. But what really impresses them is strong AP scores. Top AP scores show you’re a hard-working student capable of handling college material. It sends a message that you’re serious about your education and willing to challenge yourself.
It also tells admissions officers about your willingness to invest in your interests. For example, a student who intends to study pre-med and has taken AP Biology may be a more credible candidate than one who has not taken an AP science course.
For the majority of colleges, AP success matters and favorably affects admissions. The flip side, of course, is that a string of 1s and 2s on AP exams can adversely impact your chances at selective colleges.
Earn College Credit
Passing an AP exam allows you to earn college credit before you step foot on campus. The rules differ depending on the college. Some colleges accept a 3 for college credit, others require a 4 or 5. Some allow you to skip introductory courses and head straight into more advanced classes. Others allow you to forgo a language or math requirement entirely.
Whether you choose to skip a basic class or graduate faster, earning college credit gives you more flexibility to choose your own path.
Save Tuition Money
College is expensive. So, any way you can cut costs is a plus. Your AP credits may allow you to bypass introductory classes or avoid a fifth year of college. That translates into thousands of dollars in savings on tuition.
For many students, the ability to graduate early or avoid some basic college classes is a big plus. Any college course you don’t have to take saves you or your parents time and money.
Increase Merit-Based Scholarship Opportunities
Beyond just tuition savings, there are other financial benefits to strong AP scores.
AP classes may increase your opportunities for various scholarships and merit-based financial aid. Many colleges consider students’ AP classes and AP exam scores as a factor for scholarships. Naturally, universities prefer to award scholarships to students with a strong potential for success. And what better way to demonstrate college readiness than with top marks on college-level exams?
Enjoy Flexibility in College
Earning college credit may mean you can skip required classes that may be less interesting. That frees up time in your schedule to add an elective and explore a new interest. Or you might be able to jump straight into an upper-level course in your major.
An important part of college is discovering your interests and future career. Taking AP exams gives you the wiggle room in your schedule to explore something new and unexpected.
Graduate College Sooner
You may assume that most students finish college in four years. In fact, fewer than half of students graduate in less than five years. Sometimes life and its responsibilities get in the way. Receiving college credit for passing AP exams can take one or more classes off your list of required courses. As a result, you move through your courses faster and graduate sooner.
So, those AP credits bring you huge cost savings and the chance to move on to work or graduate school sooner.
When Should I Take APs? (And When Should I Gracefully Exit?)
Both AP courses and the AP exams themselves offer numerous benefits, in high school, college and the long-term. But that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for every student.
Think carefully and talk to your school counselor before you jump into a demanding commitment.
Read on to discover some of the questions you should ask before and during your AP courses.
When Should I Take My First AP Class?
In the arms race of college admissions, some schools now allow freshman to take AP courses. Typically, freshmen take AP courses such as AP Human Geography or AP Psychology that require a lighter reading load or less cumulative knowledge of science or math.
But is there any advantage to taking an AP class so early?
The answer is usually no. Advanced Placement courses are intended to prepare students for college-level material. Not 10th grade material. Apart from exceptional circumstances, you are better served spending your freshman year building core study habits, critical reading and writing skills and math abilities.
It is more common for students to take their first AP course sophomore or junior year. For many sophomores, the AP World History course is the entry point to the AP program. It’s a course well-suited to the AP novice – it trains students to understand large historical trends and think critically about political, economic and social forces that shape our modern world. But it is not as detail-oriented as AP U.S. History. It also doesn’t typically require as much reading and analysis of historical texts, relying instead on visual prompts such as art or cultural artefacts.
How Many APs Should I Take?
We’ve all heard the myth of the overloaded student with 10 AP exams. But the reality is that the vast majority of graduating high school seniors take no more than two AP exams in all of high school. In 2018, the College Board reported that, among students who ever take an AP exam, 40% take one test and 20% take two.
Bear in mind that only one third of American high schoolers ever takes an AP at all. So what that really means is that roughly one of ten seniors will ever take three or more AP exams. And one out of 25 will take four or more.
So don’t feel you are falling behind if you don’t pack your final two years of high school with a dozen AP classes.
Performing well on one or two exams will serve you well – both in college admissions and in your preparation for college course work. It’s better to tackle a few subjects deeply than to skim across the surface of a dozen APs. That’s a recipe for stress, poor scores and superficial learning.
That said, if you are a motivated student shooting for admission to highly selective colleges , it’s possible to finish high school with five or more AP exams under your belt. But think carefully about whether you can handle the workload, engage deeply with the material and score well on all your AP exams.
In an article aptly called “AP Overkill,” the Independent Educational Consultants Association emphasized that there’s “no magic number” for how many AP classes a student should take. A student with strong extracurriculars, a compelling personal essay and stellar grades who attends a high school that offers only a handful of AP classes can still rise above the pack and demonstrate the ability to tackle the most demanding college courses.
Can I Take the AP Class but not the AP Exam?
A few schools require students who take an AP course to take the AP exam. But most schools do not. In fact, nationally, only 80% of students who take an AP course sit for the exam.
So if you’re thinking of avoiding the AP exam, you’re not alone. Whether it’s fear of scoring a 1 or a 2, a cold that keeps them home on test day, or a deliberate decision made early in the school year, many students take an AP course but not the exam.
But before you let those last-minute jitters keep you from giving your all on test day, consider the facts.
When the city of Houston required all students in an AP course to take the exam (and then paid the test fees), scores shot up. The thinking is that students who know – from the early days of the school year – that they must take an AP exam will keep on top of coursework and prepare continuously for the big day.
On the other hand, students who know they have an opt-out may not feel the urgency to master the material. After all, if they’re unprepared, they can avoid the test and eliminate the fear of receiving a 1 or 2.
If you feel unprepared for an AP exam, talk to your teacher or counselor. Get extra help, form a study group or hire a tutor. But deciding to skip the exam because you think you won’t do well is counterproductive.
Better still, plan in advance. Recognize that the AP exams arrive in May every year, like clockwork. If you’re taking an AP class, commit yourself early to a regular study plan and avoid the last-minute panic.
Is it Ok to Get a 1 or 2 on the AP Exam?
That fear of failure may keep some students from taking the exam on test day. But even a low score isn’t the end of the world.
In 2020, 41% of students got a 1 or 2 on the AP U.S. History exam! In fact, nine AP exams (out of 38) had passing rates below 60%.
What that means is that an AP exam score that doesn’t get you college credit is quite common.
The good news is that the College Board reports even students who receive a 1 or 2 on an AP exam still do better in college than those who did not take an AP class. In other words, just taking a rigorous class – even if your exam score isn’t ideal – prepares you to tackle more challenging material in the same subject when you encounter it again in college.
Can I Take an AP Exam Without Taking the AP Class?
The easy answer is yes. You can take an AP exam even if you did not take a corresponding AP course. The College Board does not require students to take a specific AP course in order to take the exam. Any student may register independently and find a testing location near them.
That’s good news if your school doesn’t offer a particular AP class, but you want to show mastery of the material. In fact, there’s no reason to fear that you will fare any worse on an AP exam just because your school doesn’t brand a specific class as “AP.” It’s the rigor that counts – not the AP name.
The College Board clearly outlines on its website the curriculum for each course and which topics will be covered on the exam. Brush up on any subjects you didn’t cover in your own non-AP class.
AP exams test critical thinking, analytical reasoning and strong writing skills more than memorization of specific facts. If you’ve developed these skill sets, you shouldn’t shy away from taking the AP exam.
Think About the Big Picture
One of the main goals of high school education is to prepare you for college. Studying for an AP test may not top your to-do list. But working steadily throughout the year and taking the time to prepare for the AP exam increases your chances for success. While learning is its own reward, without a passing score, you won’t receive college credit.
Be sure to consider the benefits of taking these higher-level classes while you’re in high school. As a college student, you’ll be happy that your efforts paid off and you earned credit for one or more introductory courses. This will save you time and money. It looks great on any college application and is an accomplishment you can be proud of.
Make Sure It’s Right for You
Although there are many benefits of taking AP classes and exams, it’s not for all students. If you struggle in standard academic classes, AP classes aren’t a good option right now. It’s a better idea to strengthen your current skills before taking on harder courses and more work. If you’re interested in AP courses, it’s a good idea to start with one class. If you handle the workload well, you can add more, depending on what classes your high school offers.
While AP courses are the right choice for many high-achieving students, they aren’t the best choice for all students. Bear in mind that two-thirds of high school students will never take an AP exam. So if you decide to pass, you’re in good company.
Extra Prep for the AP Exam
Whatever AP class you’re taking, it’s a good idea to study on your own and get a little extra help. You want to choose a prep program or course that has experts in the subject leading the way. They can offer insight into the test, AP exam scores, and the best strategies for achieving a great score. Without a passing score, you don’t get the perks of college credits. So, it’s well worth the effort to do some extra preparation.
Ace Your AP Exams
Anyone who’s taking an AP class now or planning to take one soon can benefit from a quality prep program. There’s nothing better than one-on-one tutoring to prepare you for testing day. We offer highly individualized tutoring to help you achieve your academic goals. We understand how AP exams are scored and how to help you prepare for and pass your exam. Taking an AP class is a great experience. Passing the test is the ultimate goal.
We’re here to help. Contact us today to learn more.