What you need to know about AP exams

Everything You Need to Know About AP Exams

March 28, 2022

This blog post was originally published on Feb. 23, 2021, and has since been updated.

There are no shortcuts on the road to earning the required number of credits to graduate college.

But there are head starts.

By earning a sufficiently high score on an Advanced Placement exam, students can receive college credit before even setting foot on a college campus.

In subjects ranging from AP Art & Design to AP World History, these tests allow students to demonstrate what they've learned during yearlong AP classes. If they receive a 3, 4 or 5 on the AP exam at the end of the school year, students may qualify for college credit.

But how can students learn which schools offer credit for the specific AP exams they're planning to take? Does Bucknell offer credit for AP exams? And are SAT Subject Tests similar in any way to AP exams?

Let's take a complete look.

Everything You Need to Know about AP Exams

What Are AP Exams?

AP exams, sometimes referred to as AP subject tests, are standardized exams that assess how well students have learned the skills and content of a specific AP course.

They're typically administered in May at the end of a year of classroom instruction. Most schools that offer AP courses will administer AP exams on school grounds. Other students will need to visit an exam center to take their AP exams.

The exams are written and graded by AP teachers and college professors on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. In 2021, more than 60% of all exams taken received a score of 3 or higher.

Wondering about the average score for a specific exam? This College Board chart shows how many students earned 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s for each AP subject. In 2021, the most difficult AP exam, as determined by the exam with the lowest percentage of students scoring a 5, was AP English Literature and Composition (4.9%).

You can take AP Exams even if your high school doesn't offer AP classes or you haven't taken the AP class that corresponds with the exam you wish to take. The first step in that process is to visit the College Board's AP Course Ledger to find a nearby high school that's authorized to offer AP exams.

After that, you'll want to start studying!

Why Would Someone Take an AP Exam?

High scores on AP exams allow students to skip some corresponding introductory classes in college, meaning they could graduate early, add a second major or take higher-level courses sooner.

At Bucknell, for example, a student who earns a 4 or 5 on the AP U.S. History, AP European History or AP World History exam would be able to skip a 100-level history elective and move directly to higher-level courses.

Earning college credit for AP exams is a transaction that takes place with a registrar after students enroll at college. But many students wonder whether a high score on an AP exam can help them get into an elite school in the first place.

While some schools offer a place on their application for students to self-report AP exam scores, these scores typically won't be the deciding factor on whether a student is admitted.

That said, schools like Bucknell do look for what's called "academic rigor," and Advanced Placement courses certainly qualify. Students who maintain a strong GPA in difficult courses, such as AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, will have a better chance of admission.

How Much College Credit Will I Receive for My AP Exam Score?

Schools vary greatly on how much credit, if any, they'll give students who score a 3, 4 or 5 on an AP exam. Scores of 1 or 2 do not receive college credit.

To search specific schools or exams, your best bet is to use this handy tool on the College Board website.

You can use it in one of two ways:

  1. Choose your AP exam. Select an AP exam subject to generate a list of schools that offer credit based on score. You can sort and filter by college name, city, state and minimum score required. Search for AP Chemistry, for example, and you'll see a list of more than 2,000 colleges that offer credit for a score of 3 or higher. Narrow your search to schools that only offer credit for a 4 or higher, and the list shrinks to about 700 schools.
  2. Choose your school. Search for a specific school and see which AP exams will earn credit at that institution. Type in "Bucknell University," for instance, and you'll see a list of AP exams and their required minimum scores.

How Much College Credit Will I Receive for an AP Exam at Bucknell?

Bucknell awards college credit to students with high scores on AP exams. This PDF chart outlines the number of credits offered and the minimum score required.

Most qualifying scores will earn the student one Bucknell credit. For example, a 4 or 5 in AP Psychology equals one credit and the ability to bypass PSYC 100: "Introduction to Psychology."

The exception is AP Calculus BC. A 3 on that exam will earn the student one credit and the ability to bypass MATH 201: "Calculus I," while a 4 or 5 will earn two credits and the ability to bypass both MATH 201 and MATH 202: "Calculus II."

When you see "one credit," keep in mind that almost all semester-long classes at Bucknell are worth one credit. Other schools might consider these courses worth four credits (or semester hours), but the difference is semantics.

To earn a bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, bachelor of science in business administration, bachelor of science in education or bachelor of music, students must earn 32 credits — the equivalent of four one-credit courses per semester for four years.

To earn a degree in the College of Engineering, students must earn 34 credits.

It's easy to see how a qualifying score on two or three AP exams would prepare a Bucknell student to graduate early, add a second major, or take a lighter courseload for a semester or two. (Remember, though, that a student must earn at least three credits per semester to be considered a full-time student at Bucknell.)

Keep in mind that transfer students cannot double-dip. That means that for any course in which a student has earned both a satisfactory AP test score and college credit at another institution, transfer credit will be awarded only for the AP score or the college credit — not both.

Do Colleges Prefer AP Exams or SAT Subject Tests?

We should start by noting that, as of Jan. 19, 2021, SAT Subject Tests have been discontinued.

That makes this question pretty easy to answer, since there's only one option remaining: AP exams.

As a quick background, the SAT Subject Tests were a series of multiple-choice exams offered in 20 different subjects, including Literature, World History, Physics and a number of foreign languages. The one-hour timed tests were scored on a scale from 200 to 800.

Some schools — and some specific programs within those schools — required students to take SAT Subject Tests as part of their application process.

But AP exams have always been much more popular. In recent years, the number of students who took AP exams outnumbered the number of students who took SAT Subject Tests by more than four to one.

One main reason: AP exams are often taken in conjunction with an AP course at a high school. Students in an AP class know that if they do well on the AP exam, they might qualify for college credit. SAT Subject Tests, in contrast, were not connected to a class and often did not earn college credit.

Some Final Thoughts

While college credit is one reward after a year of hard work in an AP course, it should not be considered the only byproduct of these tough classes.

Students who take AP classes experience a level of academic rigor that more closely matches what they'll find at college. Whether the AP exam score reflects the student's hard work — or they had an off day of testing and didn't get the desired score — the work put forth in an AP class will pay dividends at college and beyond.

List of AP Exams

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