What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

How Are AP Exams Scored? Here’s the Breakdown

What’s Covered:


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 break down how AP exams are scored, and offer some tips on how to understand your scores. 


Understanding the AP Scoring Scale


As stated above, the score range on AP exams is 1-5. This five-point scale corresponds to the following evaluations of 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 fours or fives. Each college decides which scores it will accept, and be aware that there may be variation from one department to another. To see a particular college’s policy on a particular AP exam, visit the AP Credit Policy Search.


How Is the Multiple-Choice Section of AP Exams Scored?


All AP tests have a multiple-choice section. This portion of your test is scored in the same way as the SAT or ACT—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 a Calculus AP, the free response questions will require you to write out your solution to a conceptual problem. While the format of the free response section varies dramatically, they are all designed to test your creativity and higher-level mastery of the material, and thus cannot be scored by a computer.


Instead, 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 teachers of AP courses gather to read the tens of thousands of AP free-responses produced by students each year. This practice 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.


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. 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 response questions will be graded on the exams you’re taking, visit the AP Central homepage, navigate to the relevant course, and click on the “Course and Exam Description” document. The information contained here will be your best friend as you prepare for your exams—while there’s no way of knowing exactly what you’ll be asked, you can prepare yourself by familiarizing yourself with how your responses will be graded.


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


After both 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.


College Board, the administrator of AP exams, 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, even though the tests themselves were different. 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 the exact conversion from composite score to the five-point scale will vary from year to year and exam to exam, you can get a general sense of how this process works by looking at this breakdown of a past AP English Literature exam. Your teachers in your AP classes likely also have information about what raw score you’ll need to earn in order to get a 5, 4, or 3—it’s a good idea to reach out to them so you can set your expectations for yourself properly.


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, which can then be used to shape decisions about your class placement or how much college credit you are granted.


For example, the AP Calculus BC exam gives you a Calculus AB subscore, because the BC exam is largely comprised of material that is also on the AB exam, plus some more advanced topics. If your overall score on the BC exam was a 3, but your AB subscore was a 5, that shows colleges that, while you struggled with the most difficult parts of the exam, you still have an excellent grasp of most core calculus concepts. 


The Impact of APs on Your Chances of Acceptance


While AP scores themselves don’t play a major role in the college admissions process, having AP classes on your transcript can be a crucial part of your application, especially at highly selective institutions. College admissions officers want to see that you enjoy challenging yourself intellectually, and that you’re capable of handling college-level coursework, and taking AP classes demonstrates both of those qualities.


If you’re wondering how your course rigor will stack up at the colleges you’re considering, check out CollegeVine’s free chancing engine, which evaluates a variety of factors like grades, course rigor, extracurriculars, and standardized test scores to estimate your odds of being accepted at over 1,600 schools across the country. Our admissions calculator can also give you suggestions for how to boost your chances of acceptance—for example, by taking more AP classes in your junior or senior year.


Finally, even though AP exam scores are unlikely to swing your application one way or another on their own, having some strong scores to send to colleges definitely doesn’t hurt. If you’re aiming high and want advice on how to crush your upcoming AP exams, consider using CollegeVine’s AP Guides. Happy studying!

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.