Are AP Exams Still Worth It?

You’re likely enrolled in a AP course, or two, as are roughly 3 million other students.

With the results of your exam in July, you’ll find out just how effectively your high school AP course or personal study (or more likely both) prepared you for the standardized exam, and whether you will be earning college credit for your efforts. But whether the news was good or less-than-good, it’s worth taking a step back and considering how important the AP test really is to college admissions.

The AP exam’s popularity has risen ever since its inception in the 50’s, echoing an increasingly competitive college admissions process—but will loading that one extra AP course onto your schedule really make a difference? As you adjust your schedule in the coming months, there are a few things to consider before heaping a large helping of AP courses onto your plate.

Early Birds, More Worms

In the arms race to have the best, most competitive transcript to send in with your college applications, students have begun taking AP courses earlier in their high school career, and racking up more AP courses than in previous years. This trend has led both high schools and some in the admissions community to question their value. 

Last June, eight elite independent high schools in the Washington D.C. area announced in a letter to the Washington Post that they would no longer be offering AP courses, eliciting strong reactions from every corner of the higher education community. Some came out in support of the move as a step toward “disarmament” in elite college admissions, while others dismissed the move as elitist (arguing that these schools, because of their reputation, can afford to nix APs, while most high schools need APs to establish their credibility).

Reality Check

Wherever you fall in this argument, the reality is that AP courses, and, yes, the exams, are still valuable for most students aiming for elite colleges. While we can argue in theory about whether this should be true—citing the damaging effects of students feeling the need to do more and more to set themselves apart, and the resultant stress—AP courses remain an important standardized measure of a student’s ability, indicating to colleges that they are competitive with applicants from other schools. 

So unless you are lucky enough to attend a high school that has the heft and reputation to throw these courses out the window (and likely replace them with their own carefully designed system of honors courses), go ahead and sign up for more College Board-designed fun. But tread carefully. 

Quality Over Quantity

If you are disappointed by low scores this July, you may consider whether you have overstretched yourself. Colleges value the AP test as a way to measure a student’s ability, and they won’t be impressed by low scores on the 4 or 5 AP exams you’ve been cramming for between piano lessons, sports practice and volunteering commitments. 

When choosing next year’s course load, college admissions will undoubtedly be on your mind. But step back and think holistically about how your file will look to an admissions officer. Having the wisdom to choose just a couple AP courses—ones that you are truly interested in—and balancing it with the other commitments in your life in such a way that enables you to excel (measured by a 4 or 5 in exam scores)—now THAT is a competitive candidate profile. 

Intent matters

While we shouldn’t need to say it, you shouldn’t be taking these classes with earning college credit in mind any more than you should be packing them into your schedule just to impress. While it is a potential bonus, different colleges and universities have different policies about what exams and what scores they give credit for, and angling for this benefit may not even pay. The long and short of it is: take AP courses that you are actually interested in, and don’t overburden yourself.

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