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How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

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As of early 2016, the College Board offers 35 AP courses in 20 subject areas. When there are so many courses to take and only four years of high school, it’s important to have a good strategy when selecting your AP classes and deciding which exams to take (you don’t necessarily have to take the class to take the exam, either). Since college is expensive, AP exams are a smart investment to make—they can save you tens of thousands of dollars on college tuition, and who wouldn’t want that? Keep reading to find out how AP classes can cut down your tuition bill.


We’ll be covering 5 topics in this post: about the AP Program, taking AP courses, self-studying AP exams, taking AP exams, and how to prepare for your AP exam. We’ll show you how important each of these components is and how you can make the right decisions in each category.


About the AP Program

Background: The College Board created the Advanced Placement (AP) program to offer high school students college-level classes and exams.


Important because… The majority of colleges in the U.S. allow students obtaining satisfactory/high AP exam scores to gain college credit and place ahead of introductory classes.


As stated in the intro, there are 35 AP courses in 20 subject areas, which are listed as follows from the College Board AP site:


  • AP Capstone: Research, Seminar
  • Arts: Art History, Music Theory, Studio Art: 2-D Design, Studio Art: 3-D Design, Studio Art: Drawing
  • English: English Language and Composition, English Literature and Composition
  • History & Social Science: Comparative Government and Politics, European History, Human Geography, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, Psychology, United States Government and Politics, United States History, World History
  • Math & Computer Science: Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Computer Science A, Computer Science Principles, Statistics
  • Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, Physics C: Mechanics, Physics 1: Algebra-Based, Physics 2: Algebra-Based,
  • World Languages & Cultures: Chinese Language and Culture, French Language and Culture, German Language and Culture, Italian Language and Culture, Japanese Language and Culture, Latin, Spanish Language and Culture, Spanish Literature and Culture



Taking AP Courses

Important because… Taking and performing well in AP courses shows colleges that you’re hardworking, willing to challenge yourself, and ready for college.


Base your decisions on your college major (and prospective degree requirements). If you hope to attend a liberal arts college, you may decide to take a wider range of AP classes at your high school. This will ensure that you satisfy many of the interdisciplinary college requirements you’ll run into. It also never hurts to have more credits than your prospective college will accept; you’ll be able to pick and choose which AP scores you ultimately cash in for college credit.


Note: If your school does not offer AP courses, don’t worry—top colleges use holistic admissions, which essentially means that they consider all aspects of your application and circumstance.

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Self-Studying for AP Exams

Note: Not all students self-study for AP exams—in fact, most don’t. This section is merely to aid those who want to take more AP exams, whether to earn college credit or work toward AP awards.


Important because… You may find that you can get credit for a college-level (AP) class without taking the actual class. Self-studying and taking AP exams can thus save you time while also impressing colleges; you’ll give them the impression that you can self-learn when needed (a big component of a college education) and work diligently.


Base your decisions on how easily you think you can pass the exam. It’s all right—even encouraged—to self-study for an exam that doesn’t fit within your prospective major. The reason for this is that you may be able to cash in some course credit to fulfill your degree requirements, and it can also bring you one step closer to garnering AP awards offered by the College Board. These awards are highly regarded by colleges, and many students who achieve the State AP Scholar Award end up attending top-tier schools.



Taking AP Exams

Important because… If you earn a high enough score (varies from school to school but is often a 4 or 5), then you can cash that in for college credit at many top schools. For the most part*, each AP exam costs $92, with reduced costs available to low-income families. This is a huge discount, considering that each semester-long class at top colleges typically costs around $4,000 to $5,000, including classes that were offered through the AP program.


Long story short, you’re saving a lot of money by taking AP exams! During your senior year, consider taking all your AP course’s’ exams, even if your scores can no longer can be put on your resume. It will still be worthwhile to take these exams as a backup for your college goals—remember, your major and projected career path can change very drastically throughout college, so your degree requirements may change, too.


*There are special circumstances that can change this figure.


Base your decisions on degree requirements, academic goals, and the AP exam schedule. Make sure that you take the exams you believe may be able to contribute to your college degree requirements or your resume. Also check to make sure if your school requires that you take the AP test for AP class credits toward your high school diploma. Since the testing times of some AP exams overlap, you should look up the tests online and determine the dates of the exams beforehand. This way, you can plan ahead and arrange an alternate plan of action if you hope to take two overlapping exams.



How to Prepare for Your AP Exam


Important because… You don’t want to end up cramming the night before an AP exam; this can negatively affect your score and increase your stress levels. The best learning and improvement comes over time.


Base your study plan on a regular schedule. Try to review regularly, i.e. study for 30 minutes each night, regardless of what it is that you study. If you can’t make this kind of commitment, make a point of studying every other day, or every weekend—whatever is regular and best fits your schedule. In preparing for the AP exam, you’re developing your overall knowledge of a subject, which can translate into improvement on other exams like the SAT IIs as well.


Make use of the resources available to you. Take some time to explore the College Board’s website—especially AP Central—for the course you’re taking; there’s bound to be a number of resources there to help you study for the AP exam, including (but not limited to) practice questions and old test responses and scoring guidelines. You may also find a wealth of resources at your school’s testing/counseling center(s), through your AP teacher or subject department, at the library, and more.


Conduct practice exam(s). To mimic real exam conditions, take a practice test to gauge your strengths and weaknesses. You can find practice tests on the College Board’s website, in AP test prep books (e.g. Barron’s, the Princeton Review, Kaplan, etc.), and a host of other places. Be sure to review your answers after checking them so that you learn from your mistakes and can formulate a new plan of action.


The AP’s are designed to be challenging, so don’t be disheartened if you take an AP course and find yourself working harder to achieve grades comparable to those you receive in other classes. With the above tips, we hope you can formulate a plan that best suits you for the AP path.


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Ruth X
Applications Manager

Short Bio
Ruth is a student at Cornell University studying Math, English, and Music. At CollegeVine, she works primarily as Applications Manager and enjoys helping students achieve their unique ideas of success.