Advanced Placement Exams: What Do The Scores Mean?

Mar 2023

15 Minute Read

Tagged as: Advanced Placement

This post discusses why students may take AP exams, the scoring system, how APs are related to college courses, benefits of higher scores

The Advanced Placement exams are offered near the end of each academic year. These exams can provide students two major advantages for university admissions.

Firstly, high AP exam scores make students eligible for university credit. This is the case for all AP exams a student takes in high school, even those taken after their university applications have been submitted.1 Not all students take AP exams, and out of those who do, not all students get a high score. For those who do, many universities will grant students course credit, which means that they will enter university with some of their requirements already fulfilled.

Secondly, AP courses and exams can fill gaps in a student’s high school curriculum. There are many universities whose minimum requirements for admission are not met by the public schools in certain countries.2 For students attending such schools, they will need to complete some extra classes and advance far beyond their peers in order to meet their eligibility requirements. The AP International Diploma and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programmes are two ways to prove to universities that a student meets or exceeds their stated requirements.

Lastly, high AP exam scores reflect very positively when students apply for university.3 Keep in mind, though, that this applies to exams and courses taken before the last year in high school. This is because universities will not receive final year exam scores before application deadlines. Because there are over 30 subjects to choose from, most students will be able to find something in their stronger subjects, as well ones in challenging subjects.

In this post, we will be talking about what it means to get a high AP exam score according to CollegeBoard. We will also discuss other ways to look at the scores, and how they can help students when they get to college.

What are AP scores, and what do they mean?

CollegeBoard defines Advanced Placement exam scores in terms of how capable the student is of receiving credit for a college course. The scores, on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) are as follows:4

  • - 5 – Extremely well-qualified
    • 4 – Well-qualified
    • 3 – Qualified
    • 2 – Possibly qualified
    • 1 – No recommendation

When we compare this to American letter grades, AP exam scores can be seen somewhat like this:

A table showing a comparison between US letter grades and the Advanced Placement (AP) exam scoring system.

CollegeBoard explains this comparison a little more deeply:

"…the AP composite score points are set so that…an AP score of 5 is equivalent to the average score among college students earning grades of A in the college course [of the same subject]…AP Exam scores of 4 are equivalent to college grades of A-, B+, and B. AP exam scores of 3 are equivalent to college grades of B-, C+, and C." (CollegeBoard)

In summary, comparing AP exam scores to high school grades is a simple yet helpful way to think about it. We can see here that a score of 5 is the best, and a score of 1 is the worst. However, what does it mean that a student is "qualified" to receive college credit?

How are university courses and AP exams related?

AP courses are structured much like a typical university course. This is appropriate, considering that university faculty members help evaluate the course material and the free response portions of the AP exams. This means that students who do well in AP courses and on the exams have developed the following traits:

  • High-level analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Excellent study skills
  • Advanced writing and/or math skills

It is very difficult to succeed in university classes without these traits. Naturally, high school students who develop them early tend to do better when they go to college. Further, the committees who read their college applications can easily determine this in their AP exam scores. This is part of the reason that AP exam scores can be exchanged for college credit.

So what does this mean in terms of being "qualified" to receive credit for a university-level course?

For example, let’s say a student who will attend Purdue University received a score of 3 ("Qualified") on their AP Chemistry exam. According to the dean of admissions, this student is eligible to receive credit for one semester of introductory chemistry.5 What this means is that this student does not have to take this class during their first year, and may move on to a more advanced class. An AP score of 3 means, in this case, that the student could have passed this course had they taken it at the university.

How are higher AP scores more beneficial if a student can get course credit for an average score?

Now, let’s say another student took the same AP Chemistry exam. In this case, this particular student received a score of 5 ("Extremely well-qualified"). This student would be eligible to receive not one, but three semesters of introductory chemistry at Purdue.6 For students majoring in science and engineering, this is an ideal situation.

AP exam scores are an easy and reliable way that schools can tell whether a student would pass a given class. A student starting their university career with some high scores on AP exams is basically starting out ahead in terms of the number of courses that they are already considered to have taken. This also means that they will graduate faster or have more time for internships and study abroad experiences.

This also relates to why most universities do not grant college course credit for scores lower than 3—or as mentioned before, a letter grade of C. At the university level, the minimum grade needed to successfully pass a class and have it count toward a student’s graduation requirements ("major" in the US; "course" in the UK) is a C. Grades of D and F must be re-taken.7 If not, these grades will significantly lower a student’s GPA and make them graduate later.

There are many other universities that require scores of 4 or 5. Some AP subjects, like Microeconomics, Physics, and Music Theory, are more complex and require more work to master. This is why a score of 4 or 5 is a better indicator that a student would pass a class, as compared to a 3.

In a future post, we will be discussing more AP subjects and trends in scores. We will also discuss what they mean for younger and older high school students.

The AP system is a bit complicated, just like the US college application process! To make applying to college easier, our team at Occam created the app Wend. With Wend, you can practice for the SAT and ACT with over 450 free test prep questions, sharpen your essay-writing skills, and track college application deadlines, all in one place. Download Wend on the App Store here.


  1. Each university has its own policy on which AP scores will be considered for course credit. The CollegeBoard’s article "How to earn credit for your AP scores" gives general details on how this works. The AP Credit Policy Search can help you easily find information on what schools in the US recommend. 
  2. Many UK universities note that Russian secondary school diplomas alone are not sufficient for a competitive application. Universities like Oxford and Manchester provide more detailed information.
  3. Hundreds of universities in the US, Canada, the UK, and many others recommend or require that international applicants take Advanced Placement exams before their final high school year to be considered. ("International University AP Recognition")
  4. For more information straight from the source, please see CollegeBoard: "About AP Scores"
  5. Here is Purdue University’s detailed policy for all AP exams: "CollegeBoard Advanced Placement Credit"
  6. Purdue University: "CollegeBoard Advanced Placement Credit"
  7. Loyola Marymount University describes this policy in detail. Nearly all US universities have similar policies. For UK universities, this practice is similar, but it varies a little more between institutions and courses. The University of Kent has a detailed explanation of this.

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