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Last updated March 21, 2024

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Do Colleges Care About AP Scores? A Complete Guide

Key Takeaway

Course rigor—typically demonstrated through AP, IB, and dual-enrollment classes—is one of the most important factors of any college application. Your AP test scores may or may not factor into your admissions decision. You should consider submitting your scores if they are within the range at which you would earn credit from the institution if admitted.

Most students and families understand that college admissions isn’t solely about GPA. A ton of other important factors come into play–academic achievement, extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores to name a few.

Even within the umbrella of “academic achievement”, selective schools that practice holistic admission are going to consider factors including the student’s high school, the rigor of the applicant’s courses, grades, and grade trends.

Here, I will cover how AP classes and exams factor into college admissions. I’ll also offer my perspective and advice as a former admissions officer and current college consultant on choosing AP classes and submitting AP test scores.

How do AP courses factor into admissions?

Unsurprisingly, colleges want to know that you’ve challenged yourself within the curriculum available at your high school.

The available curriculum is a crucial point here–schools will judge you based on what is possible for you to take at your school. In general, trust that colleges won’t hold it against you if your school doesn’t offer certain courses. See the section further down for more on what to do if your school doesn’t offer APs, and the important caveat in that section as well.

So, the more rigorous your curriculum, the stronger that part of your application is. If your school offers AP courses as the most challenging option in a subject, it will look good to admissions for you to take AP courses.

How many AP courses should I take?

Let’s be realistic. There’s no single correct way to answer this question for every student at every high school. As a former admission officer and a college admission consultant, here’s my advice:

You should take courses that challenge you and interest you. You should be able to succeed (successfully learn from and earn a respectable grade) in those courses, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenging in order to succeed.

At many schools, 10th grade is the earliest you can take an AP course. If your school offers APs in 10th grade like AP World History or AP Computer Science and you feel up for the challenge, taking an AP class in 10th grade can be a great way to try the rigor on before considering multiple APs in 11th or 12th.

When course planning for 11th and 12th grade, you should understand three things:

  • The different AP courses available to you
  • Which classes sound interesting and engaging, and
  • What rigor looks like at your high school.

The first two are pretty self explanatory. But rigor comes into play when considering college admissions strategy. You might consider asking your school counselor for input here.

What does the “most demanding” curriculum look like at your high school? At some schools, that would mean taking 12-15 AP classes. At some, that would mean taking all 4 available APs and a few Dual Enrollment courses through the local community college. What would a “very demanding”, “demanding” or “less demanding” curriculum look like? These are the exact terms your counselor will use to describe your curriculum to admission offices on the Common Application.

So, a student might decide, “I want to challenge myself and learn a lot, but I also want to balance that with good grades, extracurriculars, and enough free time to enjoy high school. The highest rigor at my school would be taking 10 APs between 10th-12th grade, but I think I’ll stick to one in 10th, three in 11th, and 3–maybe 4– in 12th, depending on how 11th goes. That will show colleges I really challenged myself in a “very demanding” curriculum, but I won’t sacrifice too much of the other parts of my life that matter to me.”

Sounds like a plan to me!

Of course, different students might reasonably decide to take all 10, just two, or even no APs.

Look, the reality is that the most ridiculously-selective colleges in the US want to see it all: the most demanding curriculum, amazing extracurriculars, stellar essays, near-perfect (or perfect) test scores, and standout letters of recommendation. That just isn’t possible or feasible for the vast majority of students. The good news is that there are some 3000+ other colleges and universities that have much more reasonable admission requirements.

What if my school doesn’t offer APs?

This is a common question and a situation that admission officers are very familiar with. They’re reviewing applications from all over the country–often all over the world. They are familiar with the wide range of curricula schools offer.

Many schools don’t offer APs. Some offer an IB curriculum, honors, college prep, or their own special curriculum. Whether it’s a private prep school or a public urban school, not every school offers APs. And that is okay.

Remember, admissions wants to know you challenged yourself within the curriculum available to you. They’ll get a school profile along with your application so they can understand what was and was not available at your school. So, if “most demanding” at your school means taking six honors courses, or a full IB curriculum, or 14 Dual Enrollment courses, or seven APs, great! They’ll be able to garner that context and review your application with that in mind.

One quick caveat. I’m going to try to say this in a way that reflects the reality I’ve seen in highly-selective admissions offices but doesn’t freak anyone out:

The most competitive applicants to highly-selective colleges find ways to go above and beyond what their high school offers.

So, if you are a savvy, ambitious student at a school with a truly limited curriculum, you might consider looking for ways to supplement your education outside of what your school offers. For example, your school might offer zero or very limited AP, DE, IB, or similarly-rigorous courses, or not offer advanced math/science courses like Physics C or Calc BC and you’re applying for competitive math or engineering programs that want to see these courses.

If you find yourself in this situation and you so desire, you might opt to take online AP courses, take classes at a local community college or four-year school, or take free courses online (i.e. through EdX or Coursera or study with Kaplan) and self-study and take a corresponding AP exam.

Note that this is absolutely not required and also reflects an inequitable education system. I’m not saying this is how things should be, I’m sharing the reality of highly-selective admissions as I see it from my perspective as both a former admission officer and current college consultant.

How do AP exams factor into admissions?

Grades in AP classes generally matter more than the test score.

AP exams are considered as part of your application when submitted, but are not typically a major factor relative to the other parts of your application. Almost any admission officer will tell you they care more about your performance in a semester or year-long course than your score from one Tuesday morning AP exam. I’ve never heard the opposite sentiment expressed in my decade of doing this work.

Reporting AP exams is optional at many schools. Check the admission website at each school to verify their policy.

Should I submit my AP scores?

Many colleges offer credit for AP exams, which is a large benefit of taking the test and doing well. AP exams are scored on a scale from 1-5. Some schools offer credit for a 3, 4, or 5, and some offer credit for only 4s and 5s. Again, check the admission website for more information.

My rule of thumb is to submit scores to schools that would earn you credit at that school. If a college will award you credit for a 4 or 5 on an AP exam, they are telling you that they value a 4 or 5, so you should submit if you got a 4 or 5. Same rule applies if they offer credit for a 3, 4, or 5.

Generally, more selective schools are more conservative with awarding credit. When I worked at Vanderbilt, we awarded credit for 4s and 5s. At University of Mary Washington, where I started my career, we awarded elective credit for 3s, and waived course requirements plus awarded credit for 4s and 5s. So, my rule of thumb for submitting AP scores would yield different advice for submitting 3s to these two schools.



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