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Can You Retake AP Exams? Should You?

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Do you know that it is possible to cancel certain AP scores or withhold them from colleges? In this article, we will discuss the role that APs play in admission, what constitutes a good score, and when you should withhold or cancel the scores you have.


Keep reading to learn more. Or, if you have other questions regarding APs, check out our Guide to AP Testing.


What is the purpose of AP Exams?


Due to different grading philosophies, an “A” at one high school might be a “B+” at another school in the same class. Your AP scores reflect how well you learned the course content overall and are taken nationally. That is why colleges and universities rely on your AP score report to compare your academic achievements against those of other applicants. 


You do not need APs to apply to college. In fact, some schools do not offer any APs, preferring another approach to learning, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) system. However, if your school does offer AP or IB classes, you will want to take those and the official exams for those courses to be competitive in college admissions.


Colleges and universities want to see that you challenged yourself, so typically we advise taking as many APs as your schedule and personal well-being allow. Each exam is scored on 5-point scale, with 5 being the highest score.


How Well Do I Need to Do on My AP Exam to Earn College Credit?


Students who earn a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP are considered as having grasped the material at the college level. In fact, many schools offer course credit or even accelerated tracks to students who have taken AP exams.


In other words, the AP scores you earn now could help you graduate college faster and give you access to more advanced courses. Check the website of the specific school that interests you to discover their policy, since all colleges have a slightly different approach to granting credit for AP courses. Note that the most selective colleges usually don’t grant credit for AP exams, and instead may use AP exams to determine your placement for college courses.

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What Should I Do If I Don’t Get My Target Score?


Of course, that all describes a best-case scenario in which you pass all your APs with flying colors. If you find yourself with a less than desirable AP score, start by asking this question:


Did I pass my exam? Did I earn a 3 or higher?


If you earned a 3, 4, or 5, do not withhold your score. It does not matter what your target score was—that is still a pretty strong score. If you have all 5s and one 4, your one 4 is not hurting you at all. Similarly, one or two 3s in a record do not meaningfully decrease that applicant’s chances. It is more important for you to get recognition for taking that AP in the first place than it is to earn your target score.


If you earned a 2 or a 1, consider withholding your score. These grades indicate that you did not perform at the college level for the subject. 


How Do I Cancel or Withhold My Score? Which One Should I Do?


To cancel a score is to completely remove it from the College Board’s and your record. For that reason, you should not cancel unless you are certain that you never want anyone to know you took the exam in the future. If you want to cancel a score, you must do it by June 15th of the year in which you sat for the AP exam. If you plan to cancel your score, use the score cancellation form.


To withhold a score from colleges simply means that others are not informed you took the exam and are not shown your score. This is the safer option if you do have a score that you want removed from your record, since you can always change your mind.


However, it comes at a price. While cancelling scores is free, withholding scores costs $10 per school report to do in the first place, and $15 per school report if you ever want to reverse your decision. If you decide to go this route, you’ll need to fill out the AP score withholding form and mail it in with payment (check, money order, or credit card number).


That said, you will not need to send official score reports to all the colleges on your list. There is space to self-report in your application, but you don’t even have to do that. If you do, you can simply self-report your higher scores (4s and 5s). You’ll generally only need to send in official scores once accepted and enrolled, especially if you’re looking to receive AP credit. Some scholarship applications might want your official AP report, but this is unlikely. 


When Is It A Good Idea To Retake an AP Exam?


Regardless of your decision to withhold or cancel a score, you may be considering a re-test. We DO NOT RECOMMEND retaking an AP just because you did not like your score. The process is expensive. It costs $94 per AP exam, not to mention the prep materials and countless hours you have to devote to preparing for a retake. Remember that, unlike the SAT, the AP exams are offered only once per year. If you decide to retake one, you are committing to preparing for a whole school year.


You should only retake the AP exam if external factors impacted your test performance the first time AND  you’re near-positive that the extra effort will pay off in college credit. There’s really no other reason to retake an AP exam. They have marginal impact in college admissions, and the AP Scholar awards (granted for taking a certain number of AP exams and getting a 3 or above) will be totally discontinued by May 2021. Even then, the AP Scholar awards were really not impactful in college admissions, as they were pretty common among students.


IF you’re certain that you can get college credit for a higher AP exam score, and that it’s worth the extra effort, here are some scenarios where you could retake an AP exam:


1. Circumstances outside of your control impeded your test-taking abilities on the day of your exam.


For instance, a student with chronic migraines who scored a 1 in AP English Language even though they were getting an A in their class is a great candidate for retaking their AP.


Similarly, a student who had an undiagnosed learning disorder as a sophomore might consider retaking an AP exam as a junior, after additional accommodations have been made available to them for test day.


2. Your study strategy dramatically underprepared you for the exam.


Let’s say a student spent four months self-studying out of a prep book only to discover that it was teaching them material no longer assessed on the updated AP format. This student would be a great candidate for retaking the exam the following year, once they had adequate time to prepare.


In another scenario, the student never did any homework for their AP Chemistry class and only attended lecture. Over the summer, they discovered their love of science and now want to be a biochemical engineer. If this student can commit to studying for the exam for an entire year, they may earn a much higher score the next year.


3. A mechanical error on your exam significantly impacted your score.


Imagine a student who turned in their AP exam materials without including the test booklet containing their essays. Alternatively, picture a student who arrived at an AP Calculus BC exam without their calculator. Both of these students would do significantly better on the test if they retook it the following year.


How Do Colleges Look at Retaken AP Exams?


First and foremost, college admissions officers care about the overall rigor and achievement of your academic profile. Little peaks and valleys in your scores will not draw attention nearly as much as the overall impression that your scores give.


That said, admissions officers are trained to read for missing or incongruous data. A good reader will notice if you have two AP Biology scores or if your AP Statistics score is for a test date a full year after you took the course.


If you have an interesting story to tell about why you retook an AP, try to incorporate that information into your application. You can write about it in an essay, ask one of your recommenders to address it in their letter, or mention it briefly in the “Additional Information” section of your application.


If you think your story will hurt you more than it helps, simply let the score stand without comment. At the end of the day, your overall academic performance matters much more than one test score.


What Steps Can I Take To Ensure a Good AP Score?


Whether you are retaking an exam or simply preparing for an upcoming AP test, here are four tried and true study tips that will improve any student’s performance in their AP courses.


1. Start studying early. 


APs cover more content than many college courses. With that in mind, putting studying off to the last minute is a bad idea. Instead, crack open your textbook in the summer before your course begins for an introduction to the material. Keep up with readings and assignments through the school year. Use holidays to conduct review of the subject matter you recently covered in the textbook. Spend the month leading up to your exam intensively studying for the AP exam.


2. Register for an AP course.


We strongly recommend finding a class, since courses offer the structure and peer support many students need to excel academically. If your school offers the AP, the best way to prepare for it is to take the class. If your school does not offer the AP you want to take or if you have a scheduling conflict, look for online options to take the class. As a last resort, many community colleges offer courses with content that aligns loosely to AP material, so enrolling in your local community college for a class or two might be the best option for you. 


3. Study out of your AP textbook.


While many students use AP prep books to get the gist of the AP content, we recommend sticking to your textbook. Prep books offer lots of great strategies and practice tests, and we enthusiastically recommend using those aspects of the book. However, when it comes to learning the content itself, your best bet is to return to your textbook for a comprehensive review.


4. Get help early.


If you find yourself beginning to lag behind your target level of understanding, take advantage of the learning resources you have. For some, that means hiring a tutor. For others, it means coming early to school to ask your teacher questions. Still others may prefer to use their local library’s study center. Since most APs are cumulative, the earlier you enlist help, the greater the impact that help will have on your overall performance.


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Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.