study for college entrance exams

Taking AP exams comes at a high cost both in the price of the exam and the stress associated with studying for the test. Depending on your age/grade and where you plan to attend college, taking the test might not be worth the cost to you. See below for a quick guide to help you decide whether to sit for those tough tests at the end of the academic year.

Seniors

By May of your senior year, you’ll already know which college you’re attending in the fall. Because the AP exams can play no role in the admissions process at the time you take them, you should only take the AP exams if you plan to attend a school that will accept AP scores for college credit. Read the fine print of the policy for your school: do they accept AP results for credit? If so, what does it get you? When I committed to Reed College as a high school senior, I noted that AP scores could earn me a unit of credit towards the 30 I needed to graduate, but could not be used to satisfy any prerequisite requirements. I decided to forego the AP exams because they would not practically enable me to take fewer or different courses as a student at Reed.

Exception: If you plan to reapply to schools next fall as a transfer student, you may want to have good AP scores as a part of your updated application.

Juniors & Sophomores

When you register for the AP exam at the end of your 10th or 11th grade year, you likely won’t yet know where you plan to go to college, so you won’t know whether the scores you get will be worth college credit at the school you’ll ultimately attend. Obviously this information can’t impact your decision to take the exams or not.

That said, the results of these two rounds of AP exams will be available to colleges at the time they make their admissions decisions (if you make them available), and earning good scores could provide you with an additional positive on your application. If you expect that you will earn a score of 3 or higher on any given AP exam, I would recommend taking that exam.

It’s important for students to understand that AP exams are credit-based tests, which means their primary role is in conferring college credit to students. While AP scores sometimes play a role in the admissions process, students have control over that role: students have the right to self-report only the AP scores they would like colleges to see. This means you can choose to report only the results that would earn you college credit (i.e. “good” scores) to the colleges to which you choose to apply in the fall. Official results for an AP exam should be sent only to the registrar’s office of the college you choose to attend, and only after you’ve enrolled.

All of the good, none of the bad

In the end, think of the AP exams as an opportunity to do some good for yourself, whether it’s in the application process or in the process of earning college credit. You’ll never be hurt by a bad AP score, even in the admissions process—all you lose is the time, energy, and cost of taking the exam.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.