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Should I Take the AP Exam? With Pros and Cons to Consider

students focused on exam in high school classroom

As a high school student, you have a lot going on. You’re busy keeping your grades up, participating in extracurriculars, building your college list, and possibly studying for the ACT or SAT. When all of that’s done, there’s not a whole lot of time left over.

So it’s understandable that you’re wondering if taking any AP exams is worth it. In this guide, we'll explore the pros and cons of taking AP exams, the differences between AP courses and exams, how many exams you should take, and more. By the end of this article, you'll have the information you need to decide whether or not to take AP exams.

The AP exam: a brief overview

The College Board has offered AP exams since the 1950s. The program aims to introduce high school students to college-level material and prepare them for the rigors of college. As an added incentive, colleges and universities often grant college credit to students who pass an AP exam.

Today, the College Board offers 38 different AP exams, each scored on a scale of one to five. A score of five represents the student is "extremely well qualified" for college-level work in that subject, and a score of one indicates there is "no recommendation" for college credit.

Many colleges consider a score of three or higher as "passing" and will grant credit or advanced placement in the subject.

AP classes vs. AP exam: what's the difference?

The terms "AP class" and "AP exam" are often used interchangeably, but they serve different purposes and offer distinct advantages. An AP course or class is a full-year class that follows a curriculum specified by the College Board. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for the AP exam, which assesses their mastery of college-level material in a specific subject.

On the other hand, the AP exam is a separate test that takes place in the first two weeks of May. The exam typically lasts three hours and consists of multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay or free-response questions. It's important to note that you don't have to take an AP course to take the corresponding AP exam, and vice versa.

It's essential that you not confuse AP classes or exams with honors classes in high school. They are different, but they both provide high school students an opportunity to engage in more challenging coursework and set themselves apart on college applications. 

Now that we've clarified the differences between AP courses and exams, let's discuss the pros and cons of taking AP exams.

Pros of taking the AP exam

There are several benefits to taking an AP exam, whether you're looking to enhance your college applications, earn college credit, or simply challenge yourself academically. Here are some of those advantages:

Boost Your College Applications

One of the primary reasons why you may want to take AP exams is to strengthen your college applications. Top AP scores show admissions officers that you're a hard-working student capable of handling college-level material. This conveys that you're serious about your education and willing to challenge yourself.

These scores are usually self-reported, so this gives you some flexibility in sharing them if you feel they'll help your application. The general rule is only to report tests if you score a three or higher, especially if schools do not require AP tests. But, if you're applying to a selective school, that number should be a four or higher. 

Earn College Credit & Save on Tuition

Passing an AP exam can earn you college credit before you even set foot on campus. These credits can help you bypass introductory classes, save on tuition costs, and potentially graduate early. But it’s important to note that the rules for granting credit vary from college to college. 

Increase Merit-Based Scholarship Opportunities

Strong AP scores can also increase your chances of receiving merit-based scholarships and financial aid. Many colleges consider students' AP classes and exam scores when awarding scholarships, as they prefer to invest in students with a proven track record of academic success.

Develop College-Level Skills & Improve Time-Management

Taking AP exams can help you develop college-level academic skills and strong study habits, which will serve you well throughout your college career. In addition, the rigorous nature of AP courses and exams can improve your time-management skills, making you better equipped to handle the demands of college life.

Cons of taking the AP exam

While there are many advantages to taking AP exams, there are also some potential downsides to consider:

Increased Stress and Workload

AP courses and exams can be demanding, and taking on too many at once can lead to increased stress. Finding a balance between challenging yourself academically and maintaining a manageable schedule is essential.

The Difficulty of the Exam

AP exams are known for their difficulty, with many students struggling to achieve passing scores. Being realistic about your abilities and the likelihood of achieving a high score on a particular exam is important. You should also be prepared to put in the necessary time and effort to succeed.

Uncertain College Credit Policies

As mentioned earlier, each college has its own policy regarding AP credits, and some may not grant credit for specific AP exams or require higher scores for credit. Be sure to research the policies of the colleges you're interested in so you’re not surprised later.

Commonly Asked Questions About the AP Exam

Do you still have questions about the AP exam? Well, we have answers. Read on to learn more about when to take these exams, if you can retake them, how to prepare for them, and so much more.

How many AP exams should I take?

There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the ideal number of AP exams will vary depending on each student's goals, interests, and abilities. Some students may choose to take just one or two AP exams, while others may take several throughout their high school career.

A good rule of thumb is to take AP exams in subjects you're genuinely interested in and feel confident about. Additionally, consider taking AP exams that align with your intended college major or future career goals.

When should I start taking AP exams?

Most students begin taking AP courses and exams in their sophomore or junior year. However, some schools may offer AP courses to freshmen or even middle school students. It's essential to consider your academic abilities and schedule when deciding when to start taking AP exams.

Where can I find the AP exam schedule for 2024?

AP Exams are usually administered in schools each May. For 2024, they’ll take place over the two weeks of May 6–10 and May 13–17, 2024. 

You can see the full AP Exam schedule on the College Board website.

How much does it cost to take the AP exam?

The standard registration fee for each AP exam is $94.

However, there are various fees and reductions that might apply to you, depending on your school, financial aid status, and other factors. One of which is the College Board AP Exam Fee Reduction program, which provides a $36 reduction per exam for students who meet the College Board's income eligibility guidelines or qualify as an "identified student" based on participation in certain federal assistance programs.

How long are AP exams?

According to the College Board website, most exams are 2–3 hours long

How do I choose which AP exams to take?

Here are a few tips for selecting the right AP exams for you:

  • Assess your interests and strengths

Choose AP exams in subjects you're passionate about and excel in. This will increase your chances of success and make the process more enjoyable.

  • Align your exams with your future goals

If you have a specific college major or career in mind, choose AP exams that align with those goals. This can help you build a strong foundation in your chosen field and show colleges you're serious about your future.

  • Research popular and high-pass-rate exams

Some AP exams have higher pass rates and are more popular among students. You may want to consider taking these exams, as they may be more manageable and provide a better chance of earning college credit.

  • Consult with your school counselor

Your school counselor can provide valuable guidance on which AP exams are most appropriate for you based on your academic abilities, interests, and goals.

How can I study for the AP exam?

Once you've decided to take an AP exam, studying and preparing for it is essential. Here are some tips for AP exam preparation:

  • Develop a study plan 

Create a study schedule that allows you to review the material regularly and progressively. This will help you retain information and avoid last-minute cramming.

  • Use a variety of resources

Take advantage of textbooks, online resources, and practice exams to help you prepare. Many students find that using a mix of resources helps them better understand the material and identify areas where they need more practice.

  • Join a study group or hire a tutor

Collaborating with peers or working with a tutor can help clarify complex concepts and provide additional motivation.

  • Practice time management

AP exams often require students to answer questions within a limited time frame. Practice working under time constraints to ensure you can manage your time effectively during the exam.

  • Review the exam format

Familiarize yourself with the AP exam format, including multiple-choice, short-answer, and essay or free-response questions. This will help you feel more comfortable and confident on exam day.

Can you retake an AP exam?

If you don't achieve your desired score on an exam, you can only retake it in a subsequent year. This makes sense because the AP exams are typically administered once a year in May.

Final thoughts on taking the AP exam

Deciding whether to take an AP exam is a personal choice that depends on your interests, strengths, and goals. While there are many advantages to taking AP exams, it's essential to weigh the potential downsides and ensure you're making the right decision for yourself.

Ultimately, taking AP exams should be based on your desire to challenge yourself academically, earn college credit, and enhance your college applications. By carefully considering your options and preparing effectively, you can maximize the AP exam experience and set yourself up for future success.

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