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The Advanced Placement (AP) program offers high school students the opportunity to take college-level courses. It is organized by the College Board, the same company that administers the SAT. It is designed to better prepare high school students for the material they will encounter in college and to offer advanced students an accelerated pathway.
Currently, there are 38 different AP courses (with two more in development) covering Science, Math, History, English, Foreign Languages, and a range of other subjects.
Most American universities strongly consider a student’s performance in Advanced Placement classes when granting admission. Furthermore, high scores on AP examinations can often be exchanged for college credit.
AP Exam Highlights
AP Exams are administered every May by the College Board. Typically, the exams begin on the first Monday of the month and last for the next two weeks. Usually, there is at least one test administered in the morning and one in the afternoon. It is possible to have two tests at the same time, in which case students are given the option to take one of the tests during Late Testing. This generally takes place in the third week of May.
In the 2020/2021 school year, tests were administered over a larger window of time to allow teachers and staff more flexibility to work around the difficulties posed by COVID-19.
AP Exams are scored on a scale of 1-5, with a score of 5 representing mastery of the subject matter.
The Advanced Placement program was created in the 1950s in response to perceived failings in the educational system. The Fund for the Advancement of Education (FAE) was created in 1951 to improve high school and college education in the United States. One of their earliest studies investigated the records and testimonies of college students at America’s elite colleges, like Harvard and Yale, who had previously attended elite private schools. The FAE found that many students were simply repeating material they had learned in high school during their first couple of years of college. The recommendation was made to offer an accelerated pathway for high achieving students, and the AP program was born.
The first AP tests were administered nationally in 1956 and included Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and English Composition. Subsequent years have seen a process of continual growth and evolution as subjects are added or taken away. Today there are almost 40 subjects to choose from and they include such wide-ranging topics as Computer Science, Art History, Microeconomics, and Psychology.
The AP program has previously been criticized for teaching rote memorization and failing to encourage proper engagement with the subject matter. Recent years have seen numerous changes to the AP program in response to this criticism, including the introduction of the AP Capstone Project and other updates that try to focus more on research, analysis, and critical thinking skills.
These days more than four million AP tests are administered each year to over a million students. The number of students who take at least one AP test has risen from approximately 25% a decade ago to closer to 40% now. Furthermore, the number of students who are scoring highly is also on the rise, with more students scoring a three or higher than at any other point in recent history. All signs indicate the AP program will continue to grow in size and influence in the coming years.
Most AP exams follow a similar format—a multiple-choice section followed by a free-response section—although some differ significantly to reflect the nature of the subject being studied (e.g., Studio Art).
AP exams are typically between two and three hours long.
The multiple-choice section almost always comes first. It requires you to choose from one of four or five answer choices for each question. You will not be penalized for incorrect answers or for failing to answer a question (as such you should always at least guess every single multiple-choice question).
The free-response section can vary significantly. On most written tests you will likely be asked to respond to a series of short answer topics or an essay prompt. Some tests may ask you to do both. Depending on the subject you are studying, you might also be asked to outline the solution to a problem, draw or label an image or graph, or produce a spoken response.
Many colleges will allow students who score highly on AP exams to place out of first-year classes. Specifically, most schools require students to score a 4 or a 5 on the relevant test in order to issue credit. However, some schools will accept a 3 as partial or full credit. Some others will award a full “A” grade for an entire semester of college work for scoring a 5 on the test. Be sure to check the exact specifications of the schools you are considering and keep this in mind once you start college and are choosing your freshman year courses.
History, Science, and Foreign Language classes at college are particularly likely to allow you to exchange AP scores for college credit. If you feel prepared to study these subjects at a high level, scoring well on the AP test may allow you to skip repetitive foundational courses and jump straight to more advanced material. Conversely, if you are less interested in studying one particular subject, and frustrated by your college’s mandatory courses, you can use your high scores from your AP exam to relieve you of an additional academic burden.
How do you sign up for an AP test?
If you attend school, in-person or virtually, you should talk to your guidance counselor or a relevant teacher. Many high schools these days have a specific counselor whose job is to serve as AP Coordinator. They will register you for any Advanced Placement test you wish to take. Be mindful of the fact that some schools may not offer classes for all AP subjects or might only allow a select number of students to take those classes. However, whether you take the class, you are entitled to sign up for any test you like.
If you are homeschooled, contact a local high school. A guidance counselor or someone who works in the relevant academic department will be able to help you register for the test.
As of 2021, it costs $95 to register for an AP test. That cost jumps to $125 for international students, $135 for late registration (after November 13th), and $143 for AP Seminar exams. This can really add up if you are an exceptional student and end up taking four or five AP tests in a single year.
The College Board acknowledges that the costs of the test can be prohibitive for many students and offers a fee reduction of $33 to students with “significant financial need.” Additionally, many states, particularly larger states like New York and California, offer extra financial aid; some students may even qualify to take the test for free. It is very important to talk to your guidance counselor about what opportunities and options are available to you.
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How many times can you take an AP test?
Unlike most other standardized tests that you will encounter throughout high school, each AP test is administered only once a year. Therefore, it is of particular importance to ensure that you are well prepared come test time. The College Board notes that students can repeat any exam the following year if they wish.
Both scores will be reported to colleges unless you specifically request one of the scores to be withheld. If you do choose to take the same test twice, it makes sense to withhold the inferior score. However, if you demonstrate significant improvement—by jumping from a 3 to a 5, for example—it might make sense to report both scores to colleges as then you can demonstrate determination, growth, and academic improvement. Use your discretion.
Why is it important to take AP classes and tests?
Taking Advanced Placement classes demonstrates to universities that you are a strong student who challenges yourself and can handle the rigors of a college curriculum. Many elite colleges have stated that one of the first things they check on a student’s application is whether that student took the most difficult classes available to them at their high school. If your school offers AP classes (or equivalent International Baccalaureate level classes), you should try to take as many as you can.
Additionally, as previously noted, many colleges will give you credit for certain classes if you score a 4 or a 5 on the AP test. This means taking AP classes and doing well on the tests can help you skip over introductory freshman courses. This can allow you to save money on tuition and, if you want, graduate college a semester or two early. This is particularly important if the costs associated with college are prohibitive for you—high scores on a few AP tests can save you thousands of dollars in tuition costs! With this in mind, the costs associated with studying for and taking the AP tests seem comparably a worthwhile investment.
Finally, you shouldn’t underestimate the value of the soft skills and practical knowledge gained from taking AP courses. They represent an opportunity to challenge yourself and pursue the mastery of knowledge from a young age. If you have aspirations to work with technology, taking AP Math and Computer Science classes will give you access to a wealth of resources and allow you to connect your ideas in ways you could never have previously imagined. If you are fascinated by history or literature, taking classes like AP European History or AP Literature and Composition can unlock new worlds and provide you with the foundation needed for a lifelong love of learning.
How are AP exams scored?
AP exams are scored on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being the highest. The College Board notes that the scores reflect the following:
5 – Extremely well qualified
4 – Well qualified
3 – Qualified
2 – Possibly qualified
1 – No recommendation
The mean score varies quite widely from subject to subject with some courses having mean scores around 2.5 and others (usually Foreign Language) having mean scores higher than 4. This does not necessarily reflect the difficulty of the test, but it is worth considering when deciding which tests to take. On average, roughly two-thirds of students who take an AP exam score a 3 or higher.
The multiple-choice portion of the exam is scored electronically and the free-response section is graded by “Readers” at the annual AP reading, usually held in June. High school AP teachers and college professors are invited to work as readers and grade according to a predetermined set of criteria.
The scores on the two sections of the exam are combined to produce a composite score. The College Board and the Educational Testing Service (ETS), alongside a few university faculty members, then determine the cut-off point for each grade on each test. According to the ETS, the decision is based on a number of factors, including how well students have scored in recent years, how well students scored on repeated MC questions, how university students who tested the exam scored, and how strong the readers felt the overall quality of the free responses were compared to other years.
Though the stated intention is to produce an objective ranking through which it is possible to compare students across different years, this process naturally produces a fluid and subjective ranking. In general, it seems that 10–15% of students will score a 5 on each test.
When do AP scores get released?
In recent years, AP scores have generally been released in the first couple of weeks of July. Usually, students receive their scores for all the exams at the same time. There is some variation on when students get their scores depending on where they live, but most students will receive their scores in the second week of July.
In 2021, tests were administered in two windows (one in May and one in June), so test scores were released in two separate periods of time. Students received their scores for tests taken in May on July 21st. The June administration scores were released on August 16th.
AP award winners and recipients of capstone diplomas are notified in Early Fall, usually in September.
AP scores are posted online and can be accessed through your College Board account. They are NOT sent in the mail. They are only released online. You will need your username, password, and the student ID number you used when taking your AP tests.
How to prepare for an AP exam
If you are able to take the related AP course at your high school, then the surest way to prepare for your AP exam is to keep an organized folder of notes and homework throughout the school year that you can return to when it comes time to study for the test. Approach the material you study throughout the school year as preparation for the AP test at the end of the year.
If you are unable to take the course at your high school for whatever reason but still want to take the test at the end of the year, you should not be discouraged. You can prepare for the test independently if you are sufficiently motivated and give yourself enough time. You should begin studying by January at the latest. Use textbook material and online resources to test yourself and determine your areas of weakness. A tutor or willing high school teacher can be particularly helpful for identifying what things you need to study and giving you the framework to master them independently.
Remember that the most effective strategy for deep learning and memorization is to work at something regularly. It is much better to spend 10–15 minutes reviewing each night for six months than it is to spend five hours reviewing each night one week before the test. Cramming is tempting, but if you are serious about scoring highly, you should avoid it as much as possible.
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