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Deciding Whether or Not to Take AP Exams

Authored By: 
Maren Holmen, Director, The Tutoring School

As parents and their children worry more and more about how hard it is to get into college, they look for additional opportunities to distinguish themselves from the rest.  Advanced Placement courses and exams have become one of those things high school juniors and seniors take to show that they are competitive.  Every year, however, I field inquiries from frantic parents who are looking for a tutor or a place for their child to take these AP exams, in large part because “that’s what everyone does.”  Before you stress out about where your child can take an AP exam (either because your school doesn’t offer this particular exam or because your child is home-schooled) or commit to paying for endless hours of tutoring, there are a few things to consider:

What’s the goal: to get college credit or create a more competitive college application?  In a perfect world, both things would be nice; however, many people are focused on one or the other.  AP courses can be taken without taking the exam, and vice versa.  If your child wants the possible college credit or score result without taking a course, then take the exam.  If your child simply wants to be able to show that they have taken an AP course and received a good grade to get the attention of colleges, then don’t worry about the exam (it may be a requirement of the course, however, so check first).  Know which is most important to you, because this will influence your overall decision. 

Is your child a junior or a senior?  If your student is a junior, then AP exams can be used to show prospective colleges how Johnny scores against other students across the nation taking the same test (much like the SAT).  For any exams that are taken in a student’s senior year, these scores aren’t seen until the results are released in July (the AP exams are only offered in May).  Unless Jane’s taking a gap year, any AP exams taken during her senior year won’t show up until after most colleges have already sent out acceptance letters.

What is your desired/accepted college’s policy on AP credits?  Even though the Advanced Placement program is widely recognized and accepted throughout American colleges, each university is allowed to accept them in its own manner.  For instance, my alma mater would accept a score of 4 or 5 on the AP English Literature and Composition exam for credit only if you also submitted a portfolio of graded written work.  There are schools that will not allow credit in a student’s field of major because they mandate that each student take all the required courses (thus rendering the credit moot).

AP exams are a big deal, but keeping them in perspective will help make the best decision for you.

Have you decided to take an AP exam?  Here's what to do next.