Since freshman year you’ve probably been hearing about AP tests and how they boost your chances of getting into the college of your choice. You might have even taken one or two early in your high school career. By junior and senior year, the importance of AP tests is ratcheted up even more, and many upperclassmen are enrolled in one, two, three, or even more AP courses. But are AP tests really worth it? How much do they matter in the grand scheme of college and college applications for a high school student?
AP courses and tests can definitely help distinguish your college application. In fact, according to the College Board, “85 percent of selective institutions report that a student's AP experience favorably impacts admission decisions.” Colleges recruit by a number of demographics, including geography. Taking advantage of AP courses offered in your school or location will make you look more competitive than those around you who do not. However, colleges want to see that you’re performing to your best ability given your circumstances. If your school only offers a limited selection of AP courses, most colleges shouldn’t expect you to have taken many AP tests.
Needless to say, only passing AP test scores will really enhance your application. There’s no nominal reward for simply attempting an AP test—though taking AP courses and exams can show that you are challenging yourself, which admission committees appreciate. But colleges want to see that you have the intellect and work ethic to succeed at these high-level courses, and unfortunately only 3’s, 4’s, or 5’s can tell them that.
The importance of AP courses and tests also depends on the school to which you’re applying. If you already have an idea of where you want to apply, it’s worth giving their admission department a call to find out how they factor AP test scores into their decisions.
High AP test scores can boost your applications when applying to college, but they also have a few benefits once you’ve been accepted. Most schools offer credit for passing AP course grades and test scores. They won’t excuse you from major college courses and certainly won’t fill many degree requirements, but they could get you out of numerous general education requirements and other 100-level courses or electives. Knocking out these credits allows you to plan a more comfortable schedule, as you won’t have to take as many classes to graduate. More importantly, it allows you to get a jump-start on your degree requirements.
Getting these basic credits out of the way can also grant you the breathing room to experiment. An estimated 20%–50% of students enter college undecided on their major, and approximately 75% change their major at least once, according to The Undecided College Student: An Academic and Career Advising Challenge. You’ll have much more room in your schedule to explore different fields of study and discover your interests if your AP tests cover some of your general requirements. If you already know what you want to study, you might even be able to graduate a semester or two early. This in turn can also save you money. Test fees may amount to a couple hundred dollars, but by filling gen eds that allow you to graduate early and helping you qualify for more scholarships (search for them here!), AP tests can potentially save you thousands in tuition, textbooks, and other school fees.
The amount of credit AP scores can satisfy depends entirely on the university. While most schools will readily give credit, many higher-tier schools like Brown, Dartmouth, and Columbia give next to none. You can use this tool from the College Board to see how the schools you’re interested in treat AP scores.
So…are AP courses worth it? Well, they won’t make or break your application, and ultimately your extracurriculars/leadership experience, SAT or ACT scores, and overall high school progression/GPA are more important. However, they can give you a leg-up on similarly qualified applicants and set you up for success once you begin your college career.