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How Are AP Exams Scored? Here’s the Breakdown

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For some students, AP scores seem kind of arbitrary. You prepare all year for a single test that supposedly measures your ability to complete college-level work within a certain subject area, and then your score comes back as a single number between one and five. It does indeed seem like a strange scale if you don’t understand the scoring process.


In this post, we’ll breakdown how the AP is scored and offer some top tips on understanding your scores. We’ll also let you know how to access them and what to do once you’ve received them. To learn more, keep reading.



Understanding the AP Scoring Scale

As stated above, the score range on AP exams is 1-5. This five-point scale reveals the following designations in relation to your ability to complete college level coursework:


5 = extremely well qualified

4 = well qualified

3 = qualified

2 = possibly qualified

1 = no recommendation 


In general, a score of three or above is considered “passing,” which generally means that you’ve proven yourself capable of doing the work. Many colleges will grant credit and placement for scores of three or above, but others will only accept the highest scores. Each college decides which scores it will accept. To see college policies for AP scores, visit the AP Credit Policy Search.



How Are Multiple-Choice AP Exams Scored?

All AP tests have a multiple-choice section. This portion of your test is scored in the same way as an SAT or SAT Subject Test—your answer sheet is scanned by a machine and a raw score indicating the number of questions that you got correct is returned.


These is no penalty for wrong answers on the multiple-choice section of AP exams, so the score that you receive on this section of the test is simply the number of answers you got correct. You’ll never see this score, though. Instead, it is used to help calculate your final composite score. The multiple-choice section of your AP usually accounts for 40-50% of your final score.



How Are Free Responses Scored on AP Exams?

Free responses vary broadly depending on what AP exam you’re taking. If you took the English Literature AP, you’ll be writing an analytical essay for your free response. If you’re taking the Statistics AP, you’ll be writing equations and solving them for part of your free response. The format of these sections varies dramatically, but they all include open responses that cannot be scored by a computer.


For this reason, free responses are scored by readers at the annual AP reading, which takes place in June. At this giant convention, specially appointed college professors and experienced AP teachers gather to read the tens of thousands of AP free-responses produced by students each year. This is one reason why your scores take so long to come back—the AP Reading does not take place until nearly a month after APs are administered.

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As AP readers evaluate your free-response answers, they use a set of universal scoring criteria developed for each specific prompt. Most free-response answers are scored on a scale between one and nine, with one being least effective and nine being nearly perfect.


Some shorter questions are graded on a smaller scale. AP readers will evaluate your response using the scoring criteria provided for that prompt and will award you between one and nine points for your answer.


To review specifically how free responses have been graded in the past for subject areas you’re interested in, visit the AP Central homepage for each course and follow the link to the Free-Response Questions index. Here you can read authentic student responses from past exams, along with scoring criteria and actual scoring explanations from AP readers for each one.   



How Is A Composite Score Calculated From My Multiple-Choice and Free Response AP Scores?

After all sections of your test have been scored, these raw scores are weighted according to the section and combined into your composite score. These composite scores, which you will actually never see, are then translated into a five-point scale using a statistical process designed to ensure consistency. The CollegeBoard wants to make sure that, for example, a score of three on the Spanish Language AP this year reflects the same level of achievement as a score of three on last year’s exam. In other words, AP scores are not graded on a curve but instead calculated specifically to reflect consistency in scoring from year to year.


Although it’s impossible to know exactly what work goes into the statistical design for converting composite scores to the five-point scale, an example of the conversion process for a previous version of the AP English Literature Exam is available here.



Why Do Some Exams Have Subscores?

Two AP exams currently have a subscore: the AP Calculus BC exam and the AP Music Theory exam. Subscores on these tests are designed to give colleges more information about your specific abilities. This can then be used to shape decisions about your class placement or how much college credit you are granted.


If you feel like you need more help with preparing for your AP exams or choosing which AP you’ll take, consider the benefits of the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students.


To learn more about AP exams, see these posts:



To prepare for a specific AP exam, see our complete list of AP study guides available on the CollegeVine AP Guides page.


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.