What’s An AP Exam?

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams are often an important part of a rigorous high school curriculum for many college-bound high school students throughout the United States (and beyond the United States, in some cases). 

If you’re a high school student, you may have heard the importance of AP Exams and AP Scores, as well as how they can lead to college credit, stressed to you on many occasions. But you still might find yourself wondering: “What is an AP Test?” or “How do I get AP Credit?” or “What are AP Exam Dates?” or even “Do AP Exam Scores impact my GPA?”

In this article, we will strive to answer all of those aforementioned questions that may be on your mind and then some, discussing the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) Exams and Courses in detail, including what they are, why they are important, and how they can benefit you as a high school student and prospective college applicant, among other topics.

What Are Advanced Placement (AP) Courses?

AP Exams are generally taken at the conclusion of AP Courses. Before we can discuss the details and importance of AP Exams, we must understand and discuss the details and importance of AP Courses. 

An Advanced Placement (AP) Course is a type of high school course offered by the AP Program from the College Board (the same organization that produces the SAT), and taught by the AP Teachers in high schools across the country. 

Many high schools across the country offer different Advanced Placement Courses/AP Courses (the curriculums for the AP Courses generally have to be submitted to the AP Program at the College Board by your school’s AP Coordinator and approved by the AP Program at the College Board to be considered an official AP course) in a variety of available subjects.

These AP Courses are designed to simulate a first-year, introductory college course in the same subject (and they generally culminate in an Advanced Placement Exam generally consisting of multiple choice and free response questions). Thus, they are considered college level, and are more rigorous and challenging than typical high school courses or even high school honors courses. 

What Are The Benefits Of Taking AP Courses?

Students should strongly consider their schedule, experience and aptitude in the given subject(s) at hand, as well as future goals, when deciding if, when, and how many AP Courses to take. Naturally, you want to be as successful as possible in your courses. However, there are significant benefits to taking AP Courses that generally outweigh the added burden of a more difficult schedule for most college bound high school students. 

The AP Program from the College Board (and thus AP Courses) have been around since the 1950s, and have long been seen as a verifiable sign of academic rigor and increased college readiness by countless students, teachers, professors, other educators, and, perhaps first and foremost in the minds of many college bound high school seniors, they are seen as a verifiable sign of academic rigor and increased college readiness by many college admissions officers. 

As the years have gone on, more and more high schools have begun to offer AP Courses (or similarly rigorous courses, such as International Baccalaureate (IB) Programs and IB Courses or college dual/concurrent enrollment programs), and more and more students are taking a larger number of AP Courses. 

As a result, and as college admissions have become more and more competitive with GPAs (weighted and unweighted), SAT/ACT scores, extracurriculars, and number of applicants increasing every year, it has become critical for college bound students seeking admission to many competitive colleges and universities to take a rigorous schedule including many AP courses.

Taking AP courses can help students by both increasing their weighted GPAs and simply demonstrating intellectual curiosity, time management, and a willingness to challenge oneself. Weighted Grade Point Averages, often viewed as a sign of a rigorous schedule by many college admissions officers, generally increase with more successful AP courses or similar courses.

What AP Courses Are Offered?

Now that you know the details of AP Courses and their benefits, you may be wondering: “What AP Courses/AP Classes are available to me?”

The answer to that depends on the school. You should ask your school’s AP Coordinator what AP Courses are available to students, and if some of them are only available to a limited number of students or only available to students in specific grades or with a certain level of academic success in the past.

However, while every school’s AP Course offerings are different (and in some cases, students can choose to take AP Exams after an honors or other course, although they would have to study more outside of class since, unlike an AP Course, their course would not be designed around preparing for the AP Exam), here is the list of all of the AP Courses (each of which has a corresponding AP Exam) offered by the College Board’s AP Program (thus, the entire list of any AP Courses you could potentially take, if your school were to offer them):

  • AP Art History
  • AP Music Theory
  • AP English Language and Composition
  • AP English Literature and Composition
  • AP Comparative Government and Politics
  • AP European History
  • AP Human Geography
  • AP Macroeconomics
  • AP Microeconomics
  • AP Psychology
  • AP United States Government and Politics
  • AP United States History
  • AP World History: Modern
  • AP Calculus AB
  • AP Calculus BC
  • AP Computer Science A
  • AP Computer Science Principles
  • AP Statistics
  • AP Biology
  • AP Chemistry
  • AP Environmental Science
  • AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  • AP Physics C: Mechanics
  • AP Chinese Language and Culture
  • AP French Language and Culture
  • AP German Language and Culture
  • AP Italian Language and Culture
  • AP Japanese Language and Culture
  • AP Latin
  • AP Spanish Language and Culture
  • AP Spanish Literature and Culture
  • AP Capstone Diploma Program:
    • AP Research
    • AP Seminar
  • AP Art & Design Program:
    • AP 2-D Art and Design
    • AP 3-D Art and Design
    • AP Drawing

Generally speaking, almost all of those AP courses have AP exams that can lead to college credit in a similar college course, such as AP Calculus AB often leading to college credit for a Calculus I course. Credit amount and minimum required AP exam score to earn that college credit, is determined by each individual college’s policies, which you can often find on their respective websites).

The exceptions to that are the courses in the AP Art & Design Program (AP 2-D Art and Design, AP 3-D Art and Design, and AP Drawing) in which you’ll focus on developing skills in those artistic mediums, and the courses in the AP Capstone Diploma Program (AP Research and AP Seminar) which are part of a well-recognized research program that conclude in end-of-course presentations (and also end-of-course exams in some cases).

What are AP Exams?

Now that we’ve discussed what AP Courses are, and their benefits, in detail, we can discuss what AP Exams are, as well as their importance, particularly in terms of potentially earning college credit while still in high school.

When Can You Take AP Exams?

AP Exams are generally administered once a year, near or at the end of AP Courses and thus near the end of the school year, on a date set by the College Board’s AP Program and at many schools across the country. Ask your school’s AP Coordinator about taking the AP Exams at your school or another nearby school, as well as AP Exam registration deadlines, AP exam schedules, AP exam dates, AP exam times, and what to bring to an AP Exam. 

What Do AP Exams Consist Of?

Every AP Exams contains different content specific to its AP course, as well as its own unique structure, so you should research the AP Exams related to your AP Courses on the AP Program section of the College Board website. However, all AP Exams generally share the following characteristics:

  • The AP exams generally last somewhere between 2 and 3 hours
  • The AP exams generally begin with a multiple choice section, with no penalty for guessing (like the SAT)
  • The AP exams then usually consist of a free-response section, usually an essay, but sometimes a solution to a mathematical or other problem (such as on math AP exams) or a spoken response of some sort (on some language AP exams)
  • The scoring scale for AP Exams is generally 1-5. The AP Scoring scale indicates the following, per the AP Program/College Board:
    • 5: A recommendation of “extremely well qualified,” considered to be equivalent to an A+ or A in a college course
    • 4: A recommendation of “very well qualified,” considered to be equivalent to an A-, B+, or B in a college course
    • 3: A recommendation of “Qualified,” considered to be equivalent to a B-, C+, or C in a college course
    • 2: A recommendation of “possibly qualified,” with no course grade equivalent
    • 1: “No recommendation,” with no course grade equivalent

Note that, as mentioned, colleges determine whether or not to offer college credits for AP courses based on those scores and recommendations, and that your grade in the AP course is separate from these scores. Only your grade in your AP Courses impact your grade point average, not your AP Score, which is only relevant for earning college credit (although it generally looks good to follow through and take the AP Exam after taking an AP Course).

Furthermore, as mentioned, each AP exam is different, so you should consult the AP Program/College Board website for information on your specific AP courses/AP Exams and answers to such specific questions like “How long is the AP Gov exam?” or “How long is the AP Physics 1 exam?” or “How long is the AP Bio exam?” 

Because, while we’ve discussed the general structure of AP exams, if you’re looking for the AP exam score distribution for a given exam, or searching for the answer to questions like “How long is the AP Computer Science Principles exam?” or “How long is the AP Environmental Science exam?” or “How long is the AP macroeconomics exam?” you can find that specific information on the AP Program/College Board website, along with other valuable information relating to those AP Courses and AP exams.

Why Should You Take AP Exams? Do AP Exams Lead To College Credit?

The most important reason to take AP Exams after completing their corresponding AP Course (or in general) is to potentially be able to earn college credit.

As mentioned, each individual college and university determines what courses they offer are equivalent to given AP Courses, and what scores to offer college credit or advanced standing for. Even though AP Exams don’t impact your GPA at all (unlike AP Courses), it is critical to study hard and try to succeed on them, since college credit earned before enrolling can save an immense amount of time, money, and effort for many students by avoiding having to retake courses you have already studied for equivalents of.

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About the Author

William Grossman

William Grossman is a student at the University of Florida studying Economics. He scored a 1500 on his SAT and a 32 on his ACT. While it may seem unorthodox, William always reads the last chapter of a new book before going back to read it from the beginning — that way, he can see if the book will be any good before deciding to read the whole thing!

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