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Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

The College Board’s AP program proudly advertises that taking APs in high school can save you “hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.” Because passing an AP test that costs $92 can count for college credit, students can theoretically complete a solid portion of their general education requirements before even starting college.


Paying $92 for a class that would costs thousands in college tuition might seem like quite a bargain, and students who take enough AP tests in high school might even be able to shave a year off their undergrad. But how often does this idealized scenario actually play out?


Read on for the truth about if — and how — AP tests can save you money.


Your Score Matters

A common misconception about APs is that simply taking the class and the test is enough to get you credit. In reality, the bare minimum for receiving college credit is a score of at least 3 out of 5 on an AP test — which the College Board defines as “qualified” to earn college credit, and supposedly correlates to around a C in a corresponding college course. However, most schools require a score of 4 or 5 to receive credit, which the College Board describes as “well qualified” and “extremely well qualified,” respectively.


Though the College Board is gradually redesigning tests to be more “skill-based” than “content-based” (see recent changes to the US History or Biology tests), for the most part, scoring a 3 or higher requires relatively in-depth content knowledge. This is especially true for history or language tests, which not only require students to retain a large amount of information, but to be able to apply that information in various contexts.


As a result, getting a 5, 4, or even 3 on an AP test is no easy task. It requires either dedication to a challenging AP course or rigorous self-study. Most AP classes don’t quite match the difficulty of their college course equivalents, but passing scores are by no means guaranteed. Check out the score distributions of each test by subject to get an idea of how students typically perform.


Not All AP Credits are Created Equal

Another common misconception is assuming all schools take all AP credits, or that all schools apply AP credits in the same way. AP credit policies actually vary from school to school, and are generally more lenient at public universities than private ones. Additionally, the more competitive a school, the less likely they are to accept AP credits.


Furthermore, every AP class taken doesn’t necessarily translate to an exemption from a college-level course in the same subjects. As stated earlier, some schools will only accept scores of 4 or 5, and will only accept AP tests for credits, not for class exemptions. For example, a student who received a score of 5 on the AP Biology exam may earn 3 credits, but would still be expected to take an introductory biology course.


In addition, you may need to take multiple AP tests in order to receive credits or exemptions for certain courses. For example, to place out of an introductory economics course, you may need to have taken both the Microeconomics and Macroeconomics exams.


Some colleges also place additional restrictions on how AP credits can be applied. Even if AP classes taken are in a student’s field (for example, an American Studies major who has taken the AP US History test), AP credits are not always permitted to count towards the credits required for a student’s major.


Colleges with specialized core classes, such as Columbia, may even prevent AP credits from counting towards GE requirements; in such cases, credits only count towards the total amount of credits needed for graduation.


Should I Rely on AP Courses for Credits?

Even if you’re able to earn credits or exemptions from your AP tests, it may not always be in your best interest to rely on AP courses as sufficient foundation for college-level material. While some courses, like basic writing courses, may resemble the AP classes you took in high school in many ways, there are others that don’t align as well.


Often, the way courses are taught in college differ from the way an AP would be taught in high school. For higher-level college courses that require prerequisites, the assumption is that the prerequisites have been filled by college courses, not APs; therefore, taking the course in college may better prepare you for more advanced material. For instance, a premed student who received a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam may take an introductory-level General Chemistry course anyway to learn the lab methods they’ll need for more advanced courses.


In these cases, it may be in your best interest to take the college course, even if you’ve technically placed out. Because there’s so little standardization in the way AP courses are taught, you may not receive the foundational instruction you need through an AP course, especially if the course in question is in your major track. Taking the college course can offer assurance that you’re well-prepared for successive courses at your college.


Furthermore, some AP tests have curves so generous that even a 4 or a 5 on a test may not be indicative of true mastery of the material. For example, 44.6% of students who take the Calculus BC receive a score of 5; there can be a huge difference in content mastery between a student on the higher end of the 5 range and a student on the lower end. If you feel like your understanding of a subject could use reinforcement, you may opt to take the college course, even if you scored well on the AP exam.

So… Can AP Tests Save You Thousands of Dollars?

The truth is, there’s no one answer to this question. Policy can vary so much from school to school that a student who places out of an entire year of coursework at one college may not qualify for any credits or exemptions at another.


Chances are, if you’re attending a public school, your odds are better; these schools will usually allow for exemptions of introductory courses, or at least credits, for scores in the 4-5 range. Unfortunately, private schools are an entirely different beast. If you’re wondering how far your AP scores will take you at the private school of your dreams, the only way to know for sure is to check the school’s policy.


Regardless of whether they can save thousands, APs are a great investment. Even if you don’t plan to use them for college credit, they provide an opportunity to take challenging courses in high school and gain exposure to college-level material. In addition, taking AP classes is a great way to demonstrate academic ambition and ability to colleges. Even if they won’t count for any credits once you get there, APs can help propel you to the college of your dreams!


Looking for more advice on AP courses and exams? Check out these CollegeVine blog posts:



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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.