Top colleges want to see that students have taken the most challenging courses available to them, as we discuss in a previous article. What this means for most students is that they will be taking AP classes, and also the associated tests. Many students, however, worry about the difficulty of the tests, what the classes will ask of them, and whether the investment is worth their time.
In this AP exam guide, we’ll explore what the AP tests are, how to gain the most benefit from them, whether you should take AP classes, and how to prepare for the tests themselves. As colleges grow ever more competitive, students correspondingly seek evermore to distinguish themselves, and increasing numbers of students are turning to the AP tests to do so.
What Are AP Exams?
College Board, the same company which runs the SAT, also offers the AP tests. AP stands for Advanced Placement, and the conceit of the classes and tests is that they mimic the content and difficulty of college courses, and thus do a much better job preparing students for college than regular classes.
Due to inherent structural differences, there are limits to how similar any highschool class can be to a college course. Nonetheless, many colleges will accept AP classes for course credits or prerequisites, so long as the student also meets their accepted minimum score on the test associated with the class.
While there are standardized curriculum requirements of what should be taught in AP classes, and the tests are standardized across the country, each highschool will have variation in how difficult the AP classes they offer are, and how useful they are for preparing you for the test. All AP classes offered are certified by the College Board, but that just ensures minimum standards, and variation still exists.
There are currently 38 AP courses and exams offered, although very few schools will offer all of them. Each exam is scored 1-5, with 5 the highest possible score. Scores are decided using a cutoff, which is established every year, with the goal being to ensure a consistent quality. A score of 3 is usually considered to be passing, but many colleges will only give credit for scores of 4 or 5, or even for 5 alone.
Are AP Exams Worth It?
Yes–to a point. While taking difficult courses is appealing to colleges, there comes a point of diminishing returns when taking AP courses. The point of taking AP classes should always be to challenge yourself, and not to show off for colleges. This is because what colleges value most is that you have continually strived to take challenging classes, whether or not they are AP; though for some schools, APs are the most challenging classes offered.
The AP tests themselves are worth taking if you can do well on them, as the college credit you can earn from them can get you out of classes you’d rather not take, and in some cases allow you to either graduate sooner, or take more electives you enjoy. This should be balanced though, as the tests add a lot of stress, and can be a financial and time burden for some students.
While the classes are worth it overall, the more AP classes and tests you take, the less impactful they can appear. There is a diminishing return seen for AP classes after 7, and after 10 additional classes have a negligible impact on admissions decisions. Many schools will also cap how much credit you can count from AP classes.
Overall, your goal in highschool should be to take the most challenging courses you can do well in, which for many students means taking at least a few AP classes. While schools will not penalize you for not taking classes your school doesn’t offer, if your school offers a plethora and you take none, it will raise some questions. Find a balance of classes where you can excel in the classroom, while still maintaining a life outside of it. Don’t devote so much time to AP classes that you can’t participate in other extracurriculars.
If you are doing well in an AP class, then taking the test is an extra cherry on top, to legitimize your academic success and preparation, and should be taken. You do have the option to not report low scores to schools, although they will see that you took the associated class.
Not All AP Classes Are The Same
While AP tests are worth it overall, that does not mean every AP test has the same value to colleges, or that every test is weighed and judged in the same manner. Calculus BC, for instance, is valued more highly than Calc AB or AP Statistics, especially for students who are interested in the sciences. In a similar way, AP Physics C is considered more impressive than physics 1 or 2.
Generally, however, there are no hard and fast rules on which courses are “better,” instead you should focus on what the courses you take say about you to a college. If you are planning to apply as a STEM major, then you should definitely focus on classes in math and science. We’ll give some sample lists of good courses to take, based on what you want to major in, and explain why we recommend those courses.
AP Courses for STEM:
- Calculus BC
- Computer Science
For students who want to major in math or the sciences, their course selection for AP classes should reflect those interests. This includes pre-med students. If you already have a subject you want to focus on, focus more of your effort and attention on it. Calculus BC is recommended for all STEM students, as Calculus is a prerequisite class for every math and science major at most schools.
If you have extra bandwidth, we recommend taking a foreign language AP credit as well, as these are often required as a core class at schools, and demonstrating competency in a language can allow you to test out. History and English AP classes can be nice, but only take them if you can do so without harming your grade in other classes; focus your main energies on the courses more focused on your intended major.
AP Courses for Business:
- Calculus AB/BC
This list can vary greatly, based on whether you wish to integrate other fields into your business education. We recommend the micro and macro economics courses as an introduction to the world of business, so you can better understand what you’re getting into. If you are applying to one of the top business programs, we recommend Calculus BC, as many of these programs rely heavily on a knowledge of math, and have calculus as a prerequisite for the major.
Statistics is a good choice for any student who wants to go into finance or accounting, as those majors often feature statistics heavily. Language is a good choice for students interested in world business, as this will give you a leg up when going into the major.
If you have extra capacity for AP classes, we recommend a mix of both science and humanities classes. As the math classes may be quite difficult, you will want to balance how many problem sets you want to do, and how many essays you want to write. More prestigious business programs will have higher expectations.
AP Courses for Humanities:
- Math or Science
It is more difficult to recommend a set of classes for students interested in the humanities, as the offerings are much broader than those in math and science. You should focus on courses that directly relate to fields you wish to pursue, and should always take the English courses, as being able to write essays well is a key skill for would-be humanities majors.
You should take at least one or two advanced math and science classes, but avoid any which bring down your grade. Taking Calculus AB instead of BC is fine, as is substituting Statistics for Calculus entirely. Taking a language class is always useful if you have the academic bandwidth to manage it.
If you are interested in majoring in art in college, you should take AP Art and Design. This course will help you in constructing a portfolio, which many art programs will want to see as part of your application anyway. While fewer high schools will offer this class, it is helpful to take it if your goal is in the arts.
AP classes can serve a similar, albeit lesser, function to extracurriculars, in that they position your application and interests in the minds of admissions officers. By taking and scoring well in exams related to your major, you show admissions officers you are deeply invested in the subject already.
How to Prepare for AP Tests
The best way to prepare for the AP tests is, of course, the AP class associated with each test. While some students will take an AP test without having first taken the class, this is uncommon, and is not expected. If you have a deep passion for a subject and your school doesn’t offer the requisite AP class, then taking an exam based on your own preparation may be worth it. Most of the time, however, you should stick to taking tests you have had a class to prepare you for.
How well you are doing in your AP class should help you gauge how prepared you are for the exam; which subjects you struggle with, and what concepts you need to work on mastering. Most teachers will structure their tests in class so they parallel what is asked on the AP exam. In this way, you can determine your preparedness for the exam using the tests you are taking in class.
Most students, however, will find a benefit to studying for exams beyond just what they’re doing in class. We recommend beginning this studying during or right after winter break. By this point you will have covered enough material to make review worthwhile, and can begin working on practice tests.
By starting this early, you also avoid the pitfall of cramming. 1-2 hours of studying a week for 20 weeks is far more beneficial, and sustainable, than 20 hours of studying the week before the test. This is especially true if you are taking multiple AP classes. All AP tests are offered in May, which makes cramming for more than one test at the same time a sisyphean task.
This raises the question of how many hours you should spend studying overall. The answer, as it so often is, is: it depends. The more you’re struggling in the class, the more studying you’ll have to do to do well on the exam. The higher a score you want to achieve, the more studying is generally recommended. That said, however, if you are consistently struggling in an AP class, then you should consider not taking the associated exam at all. It can be a better use of time to focus on preparing for an exam you have a chance to do well on, as opposed to dividing your attention between that and an exam which may be a lost cause.
You are not required to take an AP exam if you’ve taken the class, and if your grades in the class indicate you may score lower than a 3, we recommend skipping the exam. Your time is a limited resource, and you should spend it wisely.
What the tests themselves ask for varies greatly by test and subject. There is a general move to focus on an understanding of concepts in place of memorization of facts, but for history tests especially it is still important to have a knowledge of historical events and occurrences.
When preparing for the exam, therefore, you should split your time between going over the material; the concepts, facts, and pieces of information from the class; and the format of the exam itself. This way, you won’t be surprised or tripped up by the kinds of questions you are asked to answer. Most teachers will work to familiarize students in AP classes with the format of the exams, but additional preparation on your own won’t hurt.
Of course, how studying should be approached varies by subject, as different subjects function in different ways. We’ll now give some advice which is specific to studying for certain subjects:
Math classes are cumulative, with every new subject you learn building upon what was covered previously. Because of this, you need to make sure you master each subject as it arises, or you will be increasingly lost as the class goes on. Trying to make up for lost time with cramming won’t help; as soon as you encounter a topic you struggle with, take a while to review it until you feel you have a firm grasp on the underlying concepts.
Science tests have the opposite approach from math. While some of the material will be cumulative, much more will be on disparate and difficult topics. This means fairly continuous review as the course goes on is helpful. Magnetism, momentum, and light may all be covered by the physics exam, but they have very little to do with each other. Review as the year goes along, to ensure you aren’t forgetting what you’ve learned.
These tests rely on both fluency and knowledge of grammar rules, and the best way to achieve both of these is through constant practice. Depending on how intense your language course is, and your prior experience with the language, if any, you may not need to do as much studying for these exams. Brushing up on vocab and grammar rules will serve you well, but consistent practise, if offered in-class, is the best way to prepare.
The most difficult part of the AP English tests for most students is the timed essays. Therefore, getting used to putting your ideas to paper quickly and in a logical manner is one of the best ways to prepare for the test. You may get tests in your English classes which include timed essays, but practising a few on your own as well is a good way to make sure you’re ready for what you’ll face on the test.
The history classes, much like the science classes, will cover a great deal of material which does not necessarily relate. While being able to discuss and analyze historical trends is important, you should also periodically go through and review previous sections, to be sure you keep the details fresh in your mind. While the AP tests are moving away from only wanting a memorization of facts, they do expect a general understanding of them still.
From this, you can see that there are varying ways the AP tests should be approached, based on each specific subject. At base, however, the AP classes themselves are the best way to prepare yourself for the AP test. While the amount and type of studying you need to do will vary, we do always recommend you prepare an amount that sets you up for a good score, while still leaving you time outside the classroom to pursue other activities. AP tests should not become your primary senior year extracurricular, and if you find yourself overwhelmed by studying, consider cutting back on the number of AP classes you are taking.
While AP tests are certainly not mandatory for college admissions, they are a major part of them for many students. While we couldn’t go into every detail of them with this guide, we hope that it was able to give you an idea of what you’re in for when you sign up for AP classes.
If you’re worried about succeeding in AP classes or want help preparing for the AP tests, feel free to reach out to us for a free consultation. We have experience with test prep, tutoring, and helping advise students which AP classes will help their college goals the most.