Choosing and Taking AP Exams

By Jonathan Charles Ault

(Admissions Consultant at The Edge Learning Center)

So what are these “AP Exams”?

Yes, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. AP (“Advanced Placement”) Exams are very challenging exams which are published and graded by the U.S.-based organization “College Board.” Each AP Exam covers a specific subject; most of the exams are administered in the traditional way, with pencil and paper, but there are exceptions (e.g., AP Art and Design, which requires students to submit a portfolio of their work).

Each exam has its own requirements, but for the most part they are 2-3 hours long and need to be taken in a designated AP Exam Center (usually a school – the College Board website can provide you a list of available testing locations in your area). The first part of most of each exam consists of multiple choice questions. (Note that points are not deducted for incorrect answers – which is to say that if, in a set of six questions, you get five right and one wrong you get a 5/6, not, for example, a 4.5/6. In other words, you’re not penalized for taking a guess rather than skipping a question. So guess freely! But hopefully not too often.) The second part of each exam usually consists of free-response questions, which could take the form of an essay, a solution to a problem, or a spoken response (as for foreign language AP Exams in particular).

AP Exams are issued every year in May; students can take an AP Exam in a certain subject more than once, but keep in mind they’ll have to wait until the following year to do so. The exams are graded with a score of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. Students should aim for a 3 or higher (which translates, roughly, to a C or B-).

The subjects currently covered by AP Exams include:

Social Studies (World History, European History, U.S. History, Human Geography, U.S. Government and Politics, Human Geography, Comparative Government and Politics, U.S. Government and Politics, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomics)
Science and Computer Science (Environmental Science, Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, Physics 1: Algebra-Based, Physics 2: Algebra-Based, Physics C: Mechanics, and Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, Computer Science A, Computer Science Principles)
Math (Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Statistics)
Languages (German, Japanese, Spanish, French, Latin, Italian, Chinese)
English (Language and Composition, Literature and Composition)
Arts (Art History, Art and Design, Music Theory)

Okay, but should I actually take an AP?

That depends. If you’re in an IB program, then your HL subjects are basically equivalent to AP Exams, and will be viewed as such when you apply to universities. If you’re not in an IB program but plan to apply to schools in the U.K., having a set of good AP scores can only help your application. The U.K. schools know what AP’s are, and they respect them accordingly (they’re viewed as roughly equivalent to A-Levels).

If you’re not in an IB program and plan to apply to American schools, then you should definitely take some AP Exams. Most students who are accepted to top American schools (like the Ivy Leagues or Stanford) have taken 7-8 AP Exams by the time they graduate high school. Obviously, it would be insane, and probably impossible, to do that in a single year, which is why most of the highest-achieving students take 2-4 AP Exams each year of high school.

Even if you’re not planning to apply to one of the top several American schools, having several AP Exams on your application will be very beneficial to you, and will help to put you ahead of the pack. I recommend to all my students that they take at least three AP Exams, and more if possible.

If you attend a high school that follows an American system of study and education, it’s likely that you’re already quite familiar with the “AP” acronym, as these are typically the top-level, most challenging courses offered at such schools. Note that taking an AP course is not the same as taking an AP Exam. However, it is expected that by the time you’ve finished an AP course, you will have the knowledge and preparation necessary to achieve a 3 or above on the actual AP Exam in May. (Likewise, you do not need to take an actual AP course to take or pass the exam, but it usually helps. A lot.)

Fine. You’ve convinced me. But which AP Exams should I take?

That depends entirely on you! It depends on a) what you’re good at, and b) what you plan to study in university (which should probably be closely linked anyway). In my case, if I’d tried the Chemistry AP Exam, my brain would have trickled out of my ears halfway through.

However, if you’re a hypothetical student who is good at math and science, plans to major in a STEM-related field, and happen to have taken several years of French, then you might choose (for example) to take Calculus BC, Biology, Chemistry, one or more of the Physics tests, and French. Adjust according to your situation, but definitely take any AP’s that seem relevant to whatever major you plan to pursue in university, and make sure to plan in advance so you don’t have to take more than three AP Exams in a single season (four if you’re extremely courageous and/or a glutton for punishment).

I checked, and my school doesn’t offer AP Exams. So what do I do?

That happens. Go to the College Board website, check for AP testing centers in your area, and see if you can get a slot in one of those. As always, it’s better to act sooner on this kind of thing than later.

All right. Is this going to be stressful and difficult?

Yes, it will! But remember you can contact us here at The Edge if you need help preparing for a specific AP Exam; we can help you to make sure you get the highest score possible. Good Luck!


About The Edge

Established in 2008, The Edge Learning Center has grown into a premier one-stop provider of educational services for Grade 7 through Grade 12, targeting students who intend to pursue overseas education. Our three departments – Academic Tutoring, Test Preparation, and Admissions Consulting – offer a broad range of educational services spanning from SAT and IB Test Prep to colleges and boarding schools application counseling. The Edge Learning Center operates in multiple regions including Hong Kong, China, and Vietnam.