AP Tests: The Basics
AP classes are more than just the toughest courses that your high school offers. They test your college-level academic skills, so you can expect your AP teacher's course to be as rigorous as any college professor's. Admissions officers see a student’s scores on AP tests as a proxy for how well they can handle college-level work.
Students in an Advanced Placement program usually take at least one AP exam at the end of the year. All AP exams have both a multiple choice section and a free response section. AP tests are scored on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest possible score, and 1 being the lowest. If you’re taking AP courses, your main goal should be walking away with 4’s and 5’s under your belt. A suite of high exam scores makes you a competitive applicant for college admissions.
An added feature of AP courses is college credit. Most colleges allow students who received a 4 or 5 on an AP test to skip certain introductory courses. This policy varies college-to-college, however, and should not be the main reason you take AP tests. At Brown University, for instance, a student needs high marks on both AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics to place out of the school’s intro Economics course. At other schools, however, this policy is different. So: AP exams are great for padding college applications, with the added benefit of potentially giving you college credit.
Math and Science
In math, College Board offers AP Statistics and two levels of AP Calculus, AB and BC. AB, though difficult, is the easier of the two exams, as it covers less material. Calculus BC covers everything on AB plus some other higher-level topics. In fact, students that take the Calculus BC exam receive an "AB" score in addition to their main score.
In the sciences, College Board offers AP exams in 4 subjects: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Environmental Science. There are 4 sub-exams within AP Physics: Physics 1, Physics 2, Physics C: Mechanics, and Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. The Physics "C" exams actually cover the same material as Physics 1 and 2. The difference is that the "C" exams feature a calculus-based approach to physics.
Uniquely, College Board offers both AP English Literature and Composition and AP English Language Composition. What’s the difference? The former exam presents a student with fictional passages and questions regarding the literary themes and modes of these passages. This test is not dissimilar to the SAT Subject Test in Literature, except that it is broken up into both multiple choice questions and free-response (essay) questions. The latter exam, on the other hand, tests a student on nonfiction and analytical writing.
Similarly, the AP exam in English Literature’s free response questions ask a student to analyze a literary work; the AP English Language's free response questions ask a student to put an argument together from several nonfiction passages.
Arts and Humanities
In the arts, College Board offers AP Music Theory, AP Art History, and AP Studio Art with three sub-tests: 2-D Design, 3-D Design, and Drawing. College Board also offers AP exams covering 7 different languages: Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, Latin, German, and Spanish. There are 2 Spanish language exams: AP Spanish Literature and AP Spanish Language.
Finally, there are nine AP exams offered in "humanities" courses. AP Microeconomics and Macroeconomics are both offered. In political science, a student can take AP Comparative Government and Politics or AP U.S. Government and Politics. U.S. History, European History, and World History are all available as separate courses. AP Psychology is also offered.
Which AP exams are right for me?
This is a difficult question to answer! We encourage all of our students take a few AP tests if they plan on applying to selective colleges.
So as you consider which courses to pursue, be sure to consider the following 3 points:
Which AP exams show of your strengths?
As you decide on which AP exams to take, keep in mind that some tests are very difficult, and the average AP score varies from test to test. Only about 6% of students get a 5 on the AP Biology exam, for example, according the College Board. About 50% of students get a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam, but this is mostly because these students know beforehand how difficult the test is and what they’re getting themselves into. Play to your strengths — if you love history and tend to get A’s in your history classes, consider AP U.S., European, World, or Art History courses.
Which AP exams fit into your larger college portfolio?
If you say in your application that you’ll want to declare a classics major in college, then a 5 on the Latin AP test will fit nicely in building out your larger picture. Alternatively, if you declare physics but only have AP tests in English literature, your application may seem disjointed. If you’re a freshman and have time to plan, try to organize your AP schedule for the next several years; make sure that your suite of AP exams tells a coherent story about your academic career. This means that if you want to declare an Economics major, then a 4 or 5 on Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Statistics looks very strong. If you want to study comparative literature, then a solid score on the Spanish Literature exam would look great.
Check to make sure that the AP exams you select don’t conflict with each other.
You can take AP exams only once per year, and the College Board issues multiple tests during the same time slots. This means that you can’t take certain combinations of AP courses! The College Board tries to minimize conflict between two courses that are often taken together — like Physics and Calculus — but be sure to consult with the official AP exam schedule to make sure you’re not diving into two courses with the same testing time. Check with your high school guidance counselor for testing dates (and to make sure that your high school even offers the AP courses you want). Or, take a look at last year’s AP exam schedule to get a sense of which tests you can or can’t take together.