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What Should I Know About the AP Program and the AP Tests?

If you’re a middle school or high school student, or the parent of one, chances are high you’ve been hearing about this quasi-mysterious “AP” for quite awhile.  But what do the AP program and the exams mean, what are they used for, where do they differ, and how can you participate in and prepare for the APs?  My goal is to answer some of these basic questions in the following article.

The Advanced Placement Program has been around since 1952, offering college-level classes to high school students – with a culminating exam as the finale to the class, which would allow the student to accrue college credit for his or her work.  Not only would this let those more motivated students advance as quickly as they were willing to work, it would avoid repetition in required coursework when the student entered his or her freshman year of college.

The courses are designed to be more rigorous than other course offerings, and the tests are standardized.  In 1955 your favorite organization, The College Board (which also runs the SATs), took over the administration of the AP program, which has grown exponentially since. Over one million students take the AP examinations every year; most of them take more than one.  Great majority of colleges and universities in the US accept good scores for college credit, and even those who don’t are still likely to want to see your scores as an additional boost to your application packet.

So why should you care about these tests? 

Firstly, they allow you to explore a number of concentrations that are likely not available to you in your high school – Music Theory, Latin Literature, Human Geography, Chinese Language and Culture, Macroeconomics, and Studio Art are among your many options: for the complete list see the College Board site.  The range of subject possibilities is wide, and you’ll be able to study subjects you have perhaps always been interested in but unable to study in depth.

Secondly, these exams might allow you the opportunity to earn some form of credit or advanced status (likely through exemption of course prerequisites) at your college or university of choice: some schools will accept scores of 3 or higher; many more will accept scores of 4 or 5 for college credit (U.C. schools, for instance, frequently accept scores of 4 or 5 for course credit).  Of course, it’s best to check the standards of individual universities, as credit is granted entirely at the discretion of the school.  You can check each school’s AP standards here.

Having the advantage of a head-start on college work will save you a significant amount on coursework and tuition fees: in fact it is conceivable that a student could knock off a full year of coursework (which means knocking off a full year of tuition) if he or she scores well on a number of AP exams. Even the fact that you’ve taken these exams will demonstrate to admissions officers that as a student willing to engage in rigorous coursework and study, you are a better candidate than some of your peers.

Lastly, these exams are one more way in which to develop positive study habits critical to rigorous coursework, sharpen your testing and writing skills, and hone your problem-solving skills before college begins.  Even if you don’t pass the exam (which we know, of course, you will), you will be far more prepared for your college courses.

For those of you who aren’t currently enrolled in AP courses, don’t fear!  You can still take an AP examination if you’re not enrolled in an AP course in that subject. There is no particular coursework you are required to complete before signing up.  Of course, the best way to prepare for these exams is enrollment in a full-year course in which the teachers focus entirely on AP-level work.  However, if you want to take an AP exam and are not enrolled in a course, simply go to the College Board’s list of “course descriptions”, download the description, purchase an AP study book and begin studying. It might be best to put yourself on a study schedule as if you were taking the year-long AP class – start thinking way ahead!

All AP Exams are offered only once a year, in May – This means you’ve really got to be on top of signing up when it’s time – and it means that the AP process really begins a full year before the test itself.  In the spring of your Junior and Senior years (and for some of you, perhaps even before Sophomore year), you should be thinking about the AP courses you want to take in the fall.  Discuss your options with your teachers, parents, and counselors. The College Board has a list of current exam schedules and specific registration deadlines here.

Most of the exams take somewhere between two and three hours to complete. All except one of these exams is a combination of multiple-choice questions and a free response section, and the latter will either be in an essay format or a problem-solving format (AP Studio Art, which is the only exception to this rule, requires a portfolio be submitted for review).

The scoring process for the exams is as complicated as the process of constructing the exams themselves, but what you should know is that the multiple-choice sections are scored by computer according to a system that confers one point for every correct answer, subtracts one-fourth of a point for an incorrect answer in a five-choice question, and subtracts one-third of a point for an incorrect answer in a four-choice question.

The free response components are scored by thousands of readers every summer at a week-long “AP grading camp.” The AP tests are scored on a numeric scale, from 1 to 5 (where a 5 is equivalent to an A (“extremely well-qualified”), a 4 is equivalent to a B (“well-qualified”), a 3 is equivalent to a C (“qualified”), a 2 is equivalent to a D (“possibly qualified”), and a 1 is equivalent to an F (“no recommendation”).  While each exam has its own curve, a 5 (the highest score you can receive) is equivalent to around 75% accuracy on the exam questions.

So which exams should you take? Choose the exams based on your abilities, interests, and objectives. Think about the path you plan to pursue in college or in a future career, or the subjects you are altogether good at.  You can take as many AP exams as you want in any given year, with the exception of Calculus AB and Calculus BC.  The best way, of course, to determine how you’ll fare on the real thing is to take a practice test.  This will give you a pretty accurate representation of where you are and what aspects of the test you need to focus on.  It will also give you a pretty good idea of how many hours you should put in before test day.

Formulating an organized study schedule is critical from here.  Even if you’ve done brilliantly in the AP course you’re in at present, this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook entirely: remember your teacher might not be covering all the material you’ll be expected to know come exam time.  While diligence to your studies throughout the year is an advantage, the practice tests are the next best thing for you – since the AP test always follows the same format, the more familiar you become with it, the more laid-back you’ll feel on test day.  These tests are both included in the prep books and can be found on the College Board’s website.  And be sure you check the answer explanations for every practice question you do – otherwise you’ll never learn why you’re getting certain questions wrong.  As you come closer to test time, begin simulating testing conditions by timing yourself (consider what time your exam is going to be – if it’s an early morning test try that as a testing condition also).  If you’re taking a number of tests, remember you’ll have to adjust your speed to each accordingly.

Most importantly, know what your goals and your intentions are.  If you plan on attending your local state university, you might not need to worry about taking any AP exams.  If you’re thinking Ivy League, you’ll probably want to take somewhere around 8 or more, with an average score of at least 4.  Make sure you start checking in with your schools of choice early (certainly by the middle of junior year, if not well before) to see what their expectations are.  Once you’ve decided which exams to take, the rest of the registration process is quite simple.  Every high school distributes a list of AP exams it will host sometime during the spring semester.  If your high school does not offer one or any of the AP exams you are interested in taking, you can either take those exams at another high school near you or ask your school about the possibility of providing those exams.  Finally, remember that the registration is done at and through the high schools in March.  Since the exams take place in such a short span of time, there is also a late-testing period in case you want to take two exams that are happening concurrently.