Advanced placement (AP) classes can help high schoolers gain admission into selective colleges.
Taking advanced placement (AP) classes in high school can help you earn college credit alongside your diploma and lead to tuition savings as an undergraduate. AP classes prepare learners to take tests on college-level knowledge in 38 subjects. Students who receive passing scores on these tests can earn college credit.
This article explains the benefits of taking AP classes, the hardest and easiest AP classes, and how much money you can save by taking AP tests.
What Are AP Classes?
The AP program — offered by the College Board — allows students to earn college credit for taking high school classes. Students can take AP classes in 38 areas, including English, social science, math, and various languages. At the end of the year, students take the relevant AP test for their subject, thereby earning college credit. However, not every school offers AP classes.
Why Should You Take AP Classes?
High schoolers take AP classes for several reasons. First, by passing AP tests, students can earn credit toward their college degrees, saving time and money. Rather than paying college tuition prices for a class, learners pay one exam fee. Similarly, AP credits allow students to skip introductory classes obynce they start college.
Finally, these courses help high schoolers gain admission to competitive colleges. An AP class shows colleges that an applicant can complete college-level work. Learn more about how to apply to college.
How Are AP Classes Scored?
The College Board scores AP exams on a 1-5 scale. These exams are scored by a team of AP teachers and college professors who teach in the subject area. The College Board considers a 3 to be a passing score, and many colleges grant credit for scores of 3 or higher.
Financial Benefits of Taking AP Classes
Taking AP classes can save students thousands of dollars in college tuition. Signing up for an AP exam typically costs $95 per test. If you score a three or higher on the exam, you can often earn three college credits.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in-state public schools charge $4,402 in tuition and fees per semester, while private universities cost nearly $15,000 per semester. Using AP tests, you could earn a semester's worth of college credit while spending only $380 — significantly less than the cost of earning 12 credits at a four-year college or university.
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What Are the Easiest AP Classes?
All AP classes challenge high school students to work at a college level, but some AP classes are more difficult than others.
The easiest AP classes report a high pass rate and a high number of students who score a perfect five on the exam. The AP exams with the highest scores include calculus, physics, and computer science.
AP language exams typically report a high pass rate as well, including Chinese (89.9%), Japanese (89.9%), and Spanish (88.7%).
|AP Class||Percentage of 5 out of 5 Scores|
|Physics C Mechanics||37.7%|
What Are the Hardest AP Classes?
While all students excel in different subjects, there are a few AP tests where most test-takers do not earn a passing score.
The AP tests with the lowest pass rates are English literature (49.7%), environmental science (49.2%), and human geography (49.1%). More students pass the statistics (59.7%) and computer science classes (69.6%) than English literature.
The hardest AP classes also have the highest percentage of students earning the lowest possible score (1). The following table includes the AP exams with the lowest scores.
|AP Class||Percentage of 1 out of 5 Scores|
|Economics - Macro||26.2%|
How Many AP Classes Should I Take?
Unfortunately, when it comes to how many AP courses to take, there's no magic number that applies to all students. To know how many AP classes you need, first consider your goal in taking AP classes.
High schoolers take AP classes to stand out on college applications and to earn college credits. If you're mainly taking AP classes to impress colleges, taking classes in several different subjects can create a well-rounded application. Concentrating your classes in a specific area — like your future college major — can also help. With this strategy, it makes sense to spread out your AP classes over several years.
If you're mainly taking AP classes for college credits, it may make more sense to load up your schedule during senior year. You won't have AP test scores by college application deadlines, but you can still earn credits toward your college degree.
How Many AP Classes Do Colleges Look For?
Colleges often consider the number of AP classes on a transcript when evaluating applicants. The more competitive the school, the more AP classes they expect to see. That's because AP classes demonstrate a high schooler's readiness for college. Many look for an average of five classes, though some prefer up to eight.
When to Take AP Classes
There's no set rule about the best time to take AP classes, and it depends on which classes your school offers. PrepScholar recommends taking 1-3 AP classes in your sophomore year, 2-4 AP classes in your junior year, and 3-5 AP classes in your senior year.
Can You Take an Exam if You Didn't Take an AP Class?
Yes. High schoolers can sign up for AP exams even if they do not take an AP class in that subject. This option allows students at schools that do not offer AP classes to still receive college credit. However, while test-takers in this position can earn college credit, the AP test will not appear on their high school transcripts.
Do You Have to Take an Exam if You Take an AP Class?
No. Students who enroll in AP classes do not need to take the exam at the end of their class. Some may choose to take AP classes for the added academic challenge without planning to complete the exam.
Are There AP Alternatives?
Several states offer AP alternatives. For example, the Running Start program allows high schoolers in several states to earn college credit by taking college courses through local community colleges.
Started in Washington State, the Running Start program now also operates in Hawaii, Montana, Illinois, and New Hampshire. The dual-credit courses count toward high school graduation requirements while also granting college credits.
Remember: you don't need to enroll in an official AP class to take an AP exam. Students can sit for an AP exam and earn credits for passing scores even if their schools don't offer AP classes in that subject.
Finally, high school students can make their college applications stand out even without earning AP credit. Pursuing an internship or apprenticeship in high school might not provide college credits, but it can still help during the application process.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Are the Tests Formatted?
The format varies depending on the subject. In general, students complete a multiple-choice section and a written section. During the written section, a test-taker may write an essay, solve a problem, or complete a spoken exam.
What Is the Scoring Scale?
The score on AP tests ranges from 1-5. Most colleges offer credit for students who earn a passing score of three or higher, but each school differs. Make sure to contact your prospective colleges about specific AP score requirements.
How Long Are the Exams?
Most AP exams take 2-3 hours.
When Are AP Exams?
The College Board administers AP exams in 38 subjects in the first two weeks of May every year.
Can You Take an AP Test Online?
Yes. It is possible to take AP tests online. In 2020, all AP tests moved to an online format due to COVID-19. Current students interested in taking AP classes online for college credit should talk to their school counselors, as this may change in the future.
Can You Retake an AP Test if You Scored Low?
Yes. Students can retake an AP test if they receive a low score. However, the College Board only offers AP exams once per year, so you will have to wait. Learners can also request to withhold or cancel scores.