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AP Exams: Who, What, When, Where, & How Much?

AP Exams: Who, What, When, Where, & How Much?



Note: This is a general diagram of commonly offered tiers of class difficulty across most high schools. Your high school may have a completely different approach or philosophy.

What are AP Exams?

Advanced Placement (AP) exams are standardized tests that that allow students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school.

The exams are created and administered by College Board, the same educational nonprofit that also does SATs and PSATs, and cover over 30+ subjects across the maths, sciences, history and social sciences, languages and more! Here is a full list of subjects that students can test in.

Note: Based on demand and resources, your high school may not offer all these courses. Most high schools only offer the most popular APs, such as AP Biology, AP English Language, etc. If the subject you want to take is not offered at your school, you can always self-prep and ask your high school to order the test for you. It’ll require a lot of work and discipline on your end, but it’s doable.

Self-study and homeschooled students, you can self-prep/hire a tutor or take an online course (i.e. Khan Academy) but talk to your local high school’s guidance counselors to order the exam(s) and use the high school as your testing location.

Usually, students take the relevant AP subject class(es) during the school year then take the corresponding National exam(s) in May. Students testing in the Arts create portfolios throughout the year to be sent in for scoring, and those taking language exams may have a written and oral component their test.


Who are AP Exams for?

Overall, AP exams are good options for students who want to:

  1. Show academic preparation for college: AP classes are designed to be challenging, and they can help you to prepare for the intensity of college-level coursework.

Colleges and universities look favorably on students who have taken AP exams and earned high scores.

  1.  Earn college credit: AP exams can help you to save time and money on college tuition by allowing you to earn college credit while still in high school.

    While there is a cost to the AP, it’s a fraction of what you’d pay to take the same class in college, so it is to your advantage to have a few AP credits stocked up. 

  1. Getting ahead/graduating early: Walk in with enough AP credits and you could graduate a semester or even a year early.

See, in the U.S college system, students take a certain number of General Education (GenEd) classes. These are the Maths, Sciences, Histories, Languages, English, etc. Some of these classes may be required by your major, but not all will be.

Yes, even though you did these in high school, universities have their own additional criteria.

The intention is to allow students time to explore various classes before they have to declare their major. Basically, these GenEd classes serve as buffer periods and since universities have significantly more subject options than high schools, students are likely to find classes & topics they enjoy.  

Every university designs their GenEd requirements differently, but ultimately, walking in with high AP scores will help you knock some of those requirements out.

For example, if the university requires that students take 2 History/Government-based classes, and you came in with high scores in AP U.S History and AP European History, then you may not have to take any history classes in college.

If you took AP Biology and received a great score, then you may have knocked out one of your science requirements and may have another pending.

So, walking in with a few college credits will save you time and money once you’re in college. Since you won’t have as many GenEds to take, you’ll be able to advance to the higher-level, major-related classes that much faster.

It is important to note that APs are not for everyone.

Depending on the AP, the workload can be intense, with a lot of reading, memorizing, essay-writing, and testing. It’s tempting to feel obligated to take APs or even load up on APs, but keep in mind that you don’t want your grades to take a hit. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with so much work that you just end up crashing and burning. Keep in mind that you have not only your grades, but your extracurriculars to manage was well.

And, even if decide not take APs, you can always opt for the Honors classes, dual enrollment, or any other opportunities that your high school or community may have available.

If you do decide to take APs, it is important to be strategic about the APs you pursue because they could end up being the best learning opportunities or your worst nightmares.

Which AP Exam should you take?

When choosing your APs – especially in the beginning- play to your strengths. If you’re great at math, then consider taking the AP Stats, AP Calc AB, or the AP Calc BC exam.

Alternatively, choose APs that have the best support system, meaning the APs that either have the best and most helpful teachers or the greatest number of students taking them. That way, you’ll have an easier time asking for help, forming study groups, or sharing notes. 

It’s also a good idea to take an AP that teaches you skills you’d like to learn, like AP Computer Science.

In my case, we were required to take the AP English Language class as a part of the IB program. 

The teacher was one of the best for the topic and it was honestly an interesting class. 

With that said, I’ll admit, I failed the AP test.

But guess what?

That year, I leveled up as a writer.

My skills had been mediocre at best, probably a solid “B”, possibly even a “B-”. However, after all the analyzing, annotating, and essay writing, the ongoing practice and the detailed feedback I received, I broke through a personal barrier. I became a significantly better writer as I learned not only the importance of language, but the impact that a series of simple, well-placed words can have on an audience. Even though I didn’t do well on the AP, in the end, it didn’t matter. From that year onward, I never looked at language the same again. 

So, when you’re choosing your APs, think about the subjects that are in your areas of strength, of genuine interest to you, or consist of skills you’d like to acquire. 

How are AP Exams scored?

AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the perfect score.

A minimum of a 3 is required to pass. 

Keep in mind that it’s passing the AP exam that gets you college credit, not taking the AP class itself. While taking the AP class can be a great boost to your GPA (if you do well), the class is independent of the exam. 

So, students have to pass the AP exam with at least a 3 to get college credit. Ideally, you want a 4 or a 5, because not all universities will count a 3 towards college credit. 

How many APs should I take?

Okay, the two factors to consider when determining the number of APs to take: 

1. Your High School’s Rules.

Some high schools only let juniors and seniors take APs. If that’s the case, then – unless you decide to self-study and test – you would only have two years of AP opportunities. 

That’s a limited amount of time to accumulate a long list. 

Side Note: Policies created by high schools will not count against you during the college applications process. You didn’t have a choice and the university will be made aware of that. 

2. The universities you want to apply to. 

Depending on how the rest of your application fares, the most competitive universities may prefer 4+ APs. 

It trickles down from there, so the less competitive universities are okay with fewer or no APs. 

Again, keep in mind that APs are not the only way to create strong college applications. However, you do want to ensure that you have a varied course load – Honors, dual enrollment, IB program, etc. – to show that you are capable of handling what’s to come. 

Of course, coursework in only one part of your application, so even taking and passing 8-10 APs does not guarantee admission. 

Confusing, I know. 


AP exams start at $98/subject in the U.S, and can vary per exam.

If you decide to take the AP course but not the exam, then there’s no cost to you. However, you also rule out the possibility of earning college credit.

I recommend testing. If nothing else, then paying for an AP exam is significantly cheaper than paying to take that class in college. Score well and you could save hundreds, if not thousands, in college tuition. 

Also, fee waivers are available so talk to your guidance counselor to see if you qualify.

AP Exam Retakes

The AP exams are administered during the first two weeks of May every year.

Unlike the SAT or ACT, there are no immediate exam retakes offered. You’d have to wait a full school year (so until the following May) to re-take the test.

For most people, it’s not worth it to retain all the information you learned a year ago. 

information about AP exams, check out College Board’s AP exams page.

Resources to help you prep for your AP :

A couple of resources to help you in your APs journey: 

    • Khan Academy: Khan Academy has online lectures for a lot of the AP test subjects. If you want extra info to supplement what you’re already learning in class or if you’re self-prepping and want help, it’s worth checking out the free lectures to see if they’ suit your style of learning.
    • AP Central: AP Central is College Board’s AP portal. Not only will you find in-depth descriptions of each AP subject, but you can find past exams to help you quiz yourself. 
  • YouTube: Seems too obvious, but at this point, there’s not much you can’t find on YouTube. If you’re struggling with an AP subject, it may be helpful to watch the relevant videos before reading the textbook chapters. Just reading is not everyone’s preferred way of learning, and there’s no reason to limit yourself to your textbook. 
  • Prep Books: Test prep companies like The Princeton Review, Kaplan, Barron’s, etc. have prep books for the majority of AP subjects. As your teacher if they have a preference. Alternatively, check out a few from the library to see which one covers the content & has your preferred style. Buy the book that you then like. 


When it comes to varying your academic course load, APs are an option. They are the most difficult classes that most high schools have to offer, and as such, they definitely look great on a college application. 

Even if it’s not for college application purposes, APs can be great ways to dive into subjects of interest to see what they have to offer. Who knows? You might discover that you’d like to learn more about it in college.  

But with all that said, it’s important to be aware of your time and energy constraints. Most students have extracurriculars that occupy significant amounts of their time, so adding in several rigorous classes could be the perfect recipe for overwhelm. 

So, if you do decide to go the AP route, just be sure that you’ve left yourself a lot of potential study time. Talk to your AP teachers to get more accurate estimate of the time commitments per class, because it’s nothing like your other classes. 

It’ll be an interesting experience either way. 

Good luck and talk soon!