AP Exams: The Ultimate Guide

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At the end of every AP course is an AP exam, designed to measure how well you’ve mastered the skills and content taught in the course.

These challenging exams are very different from the other tests you’ve taken in high school. If you’re wondering what to expect, we’ve got you covered! This guide will explain everything you need to know about AP exam format, test dates, scoring, the benefits of acing your AP exams, and more.

What AP Exams Are Offered?

The College Board offers 38 AP courses, each with a corresponding exam. These include:

  •       Art and Design: 2-D Design
  •       Art and Design: 3-D Design
  •       Art and Design: Drawing
  •       Art History
  •       Biology
  •       Calculus AB
  •       Calculus BC
  •       Chemistry
  •       Chinese Language and Culture
  •       Computer Science A
  •       Computer Science Principles
  •       English Language and Composition
  •       English Literature and Composition
  •       Environmental Science
  •       European History
  •       French Language and Culture
  •       German Language and Culture
  •       Government and Politics (Comparative)
  •       Government and Politics (US)
  •       Human Geography
  •       Italian Language and Culture
  •       Japanese Language and Culture
  •       Latin
  •       Macroeconomics
  •       Microeconomics
  •       Music Theory
  •       Physics 1: Algebra-Based
  •       Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  •       Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  •       Physics C: Mechanics
  •       Psychology
  •       Research
  •       Seminar
  •       Spanish Language and Culture
  •       Spanish Literature and Culture
  •       Statistics
  •       US History
  •       World History: Modern

Which AP Exams Should I Take?

The range of AP classes and exams is huge, so it’s tough to decide which ones to take. Ultimately, it depends on:

  •       Your academic strengths and weaknesses
  •       Which subjects you most enjoy
  •       Your college plans
  •       Your school

Most schools don’t offer all 38 classes, so start by finding out which AP courses are available to you. Consider which courses—and exams—align with your academic interests and strengths. Take classes that will prepare you to excel in your future major (if you know what you’d like to major in). Colleges like to see that you’re prepared to succeed in your desired field.

Your skills and interests are most important, but you may also want to consider AP exam pass rates. Pass rates range from as low as 42% to as high as 88%.

Exams with the highest pass rates include:

  •       Art and Design: 2-D
  •       Art and Design: Drawing
  •       Chinese Language and Culture
  •       Seminar
  •       Research
  •       Spanish Language and Culture

Exams with the lowest pass rates include:

  •       Physics 1
  •       English Literature and Composition
  •       U.S. History
  •       Environmental Science
  •       Government and Politics (U.S.)
  •       Chemistry

The most popular AP classes are:

  •       English Language and Composition
  •       English Literature and Composition
  •       U.S. History
  •       World History
  •       Psychology
  •       Government and Politics (U.S.)

Some of these popular courses likely have lower exam pass rates because of the wide range of ability levels in the students who take them.

So, take exam pass rates and course popularity with a grain of salt. Choose the classes and exams that most appeal to you and best fit your strengths and interests.  

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When Are AP Exams?

AP exams are given every year in May. For instance, the 2022 AP exams took place over two weeks in May: May 2-6 and May 9-13. Students who missed exams or had scheduling conflicts can take the test on a second date in late March.

Most exams start between 8-9 a.m. or 2-3 p.m. local time, and they are usually administered as paper-and-pencil exams in schools.

However, the Chinese and Japanese exams are taken on computers, and AP Art and Design students submit portfolios for scoring. AP Seminar, AP Research, and AP Computer Science Principles require students to complete presentations and/or performance tasks as their final exam. Like the test date for paper-and-pencil exams, the deadline for these portfolios and tasks is in May.

What to Expect from an AP Exam

The skills and content covered on each exam vary. Aside from the nontraditional exams, however, AP exams share several common qualities.

Most exams are 2-3 hours, beginning with a multiple-choice section and ending with a series of free-response questions.

For the multiple-choice questions, you’ll choose one of 4-5 answer choices. Some questions stand alone, while others are grouped around the same passage or prompt. These questions will test your knowledge of the content and skills you learned in your AP class.

Depending on which exam you take, the free-response questions may require an essay, a solution to a problem, or a recorded spoken response. Whatever the form, these questions measure abilities like thinking critically, synthesizing and analyzing information, and justifying responses with evidence.

For in-depth information on specific AP exams, visit the exam pages on The College Board’s website.

How Are AP Exams Scored?

AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. Scores of 3 or higher are considered passing.

After you take an AP exam, your multiple-choice responses are scored by a computer. The answer sheet is scanned, and the total number of correct answers equals your multiple-choice score. This means that you don’t lose points for incorrect or incomplete answers. You should answer every question because you have a 20% or 25% chance of guessing correctly and earning more points.

The free-response section is scored by college professors and experienced AP teachers at the annual AP Reading held during the first two weeks of June.

The total scores from each section are combined to form a composite score, which is then converted to a five-point scale.

The College Board uses a statistical process to ensure that the scale is based on the same level of achievement each year. For example, a student who scored a 3 in 2020 demonstrated the same level of knowledge as a student who scored a 3 in 2021.

When Do AP Scores Come Out?

AP exam scores are usually released about two months after the test, at the beginning of July. Sometimes, students in certain states receive their scores a bit later than students in other states. If you don’t get your scores by Sept. 1, The College Board recommends contacting AP Services for Students.

When the scores are released, you can view them by logging in to your My AP account through the College Board website. Your score report will only include the exam name, the year you took the exam, and a score from 1 to 5. Unlike SAT score reports, it won’t feature breakdowns of the two sections or information about specific questions or skills.

Your scores will also be sent to teachers in your school and district, including your AP teacher, and to the college or university you designated in My AP. You can submit an online order to send your scores to more schools for a fee.

How Do AP Scores Help Me?

Strong AP scores look good on your college applications. These scores demonstrate that you’re academically talented and prepared for the rigor of college-level coursework.

Many colleges will also give you college credit for a 3 or higher on an AP exam. The College Board says students who score a 5 are extremely well qualified for college credit. Students who earn a 4 are well qualified, while students who earn a 3 are qualified.

University policies vary, however, and some colleges will only award credit for a 4 or 5. Often, colleges have different minimum score requirements for different subjects. For example, the University of San Diego will give credit for a 3 in AP Biology, but only for a 5 in AP U.S. History. You can find individual university’s policies on their school websites.

But what exactly is college credit? To earn a college degree, you will need to get a certain number of credit hours, typically 120. The credits you earn for AP exams count toward your degree, and you don’t have to take the equivalent college course when you arrive on campus.

The more college credits you can earn, the better. They will save you time and money toward your degree. For example, some students earn so much credit from their AP exams that they finish college in three years instead of four. That can save you a full year of tuition—thousands of dollars!

What Is a Good AP Exam Score?

“Good” is subjective. Some students may define “good” as above average, while others may define “good” as a top score.

In 2021, the average AP exam score was 2.80. Of course, you’ll need at least a 3 to pass and earn college credit. And depending on the university you attend, you may need a 4 or even a 5 to receive credit. We recommend researching AP credit policies at your top choice schools, then aiming for scores that will earn you college credit. If your dream school thinks your score is worthy of credit, then it’s certainly a good score!

Can I Retake an AP Exam?

So, what happens if you’re unhappy with your AP exam score? You can retake an AP exam, but AP exams are only given once a year. That means you’ll have to wait a year to retake the exam, and both scores will still be reported.

However, you do have the option to cancel or withhold your exam scores. Here’s how it works:

Canceling AP Scores

If you request cancellation, your exam won’t be scored. If it has already been scored, your score will be deleted from The College Board’s records. Scores can be canceled at any time, but you must request a cancellation by June 15 of the year you took the exam if you don’t want colleges to see your score. The tricky part about this deadline is that it occurs before you know your score.

To cancel a score, fill out the AP Score Cancelation Form and send it to AP Services. There is no fee to cancel a score, but your exam fee won’t be refunded.

Withholding AP Scores

Alternatively, you can request to withhold one or more scores from a university or scholarship program that you designated as a recipient. When you withhold a score, it is not permanently deleted. If you wish, you can later release the score by sending a signed written request to AP Services. Again, you must request to withhold your score(s) by June 15 if you don’t want colleges to see it.

To withhold a score, fill out the AP Score Withholding Form and send it to AP Services. It costs $10 per college to withhold an AP exam score.

Is It Worth Withholding Or Cancelling My Score?

You should never withhold or cancel a score of 3 or higher. Even if you aren’t personally happy with a 3, it won’t ruin your chances of getting into college, and you may even earn credit for it.

But what if you feel certain that you didn’t pass your AP exam? If you’ve already been admitted to a college and are just submitting your AP score report, don’t worry about canceling or withholding a score. Your chosen university won’t revoke your admission for one low AP exam score.

If you’re applying for admission to colleges, you may choose to cancel or withhold a score of 2 or lower. Universities won’t see your score, but they may notice you’re missing an exam score for one of your AP classes.

Ultimately, the decision to cancel or withhold a score is up to you. But you should only consider it if you feel certain that you didn’t pass the exam.

Final Thoughts: Complete Guide to AP Exams

AP exams are lengthy, challenging tests, but taking them is highly beneficial for both college admissions and your college career.

It’s helpful to choose AP courses that align with your strengths and interests. If the subject is enjoyable and you’re good at it, you’ll have an easier time in the class and on the exam. Classes related to your future college major will look good on your applications, and they can help you prepare for the courses you’ll take in college.

AP exams are given in May, and you’ll receive your scores in July. If you’re unhappy with a score, you do have the option to cancel or withhold it so colleges won’t see it.

The best part of AP exams is that you have the chance to earn college credit if you score a 3 or higher. College credits help you graduate faster—and save a lot of money in the process.

So, if you’re confident you can handle the coursework, go for it! AP exams provide valuable preparation for college and your career, look impressive on your applications, and can give you a head start on your college education.

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