The Why And How Of AP Prep
The onset of spring tends to bring not only warmth and thaw, but also that annual anxiety about the Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Whether you are officially enrolled in an AP class or simply registered alongside your peers, we wanted to reach out and provide a bit of clarity about the reasons to prioritize an AP score, as well as suggestions for how to do that.
On one hand, this point should provide relief:
- An AP score is not required by universities—and a student doesn’t need to report the score if the test goes badly. So no matter what, if you think your child has a shot at a good score, it only costs the registration fee and the time.
On the other hand, while you should always defer to a college consultant, an AP score can have a significant impact on college admissions. So given the complexities of college admissions, there are several reasons that a student would want to study both the material as well as the format and structure of a given test:
- An indication of subject mastery that can help frame your student profile in admissions, or set you apart from others of a similar profile
- The general expectation of admission officers that students provide additional academic metrics on top of an SAT/ACT score, especially given the 2021 demise of SAT Subject Tests
- The validation of your AP class study, which may seem a red flag without a corresponding test score
- The possibility of securing college credit or more challenging, interesting class placements
Below, we discuss these in more detail, as well as provide suggestions on how one might best prep for an AP exam.
An Indication of Subject Mastery
As we and others have detailed before, the reports of the demise of standardized testing in the wake of the pandemic have, alas, proven to be wildly overstated. The competition for top scores from top schools has only increased.
The AP score thus offers an excellent addendum to the academic portion of a student’s college application, particularly if a student can boast several strong scores across different subject areas. Especially given the 2021 demise of the SAT Subject Tests, the AP remains the only benchmark outside of I.B. curriculum to demonstrate subject mastery, and APs are increasingly normal and expected.
Finally, it’s worth noting again that, as competition increases, top schools arguably expect students from a certain profile to have taken an AP exam (or several!), and so while the test might not be explicitly required, its absence may well be explicitly noted.
Supplementing Your Academic Profile
Universities are looking for students to both demonstrate an appetite for academic rigor and display a sense of personality through notoriously de-personalized metrics like resumes and transcripts. Especially if students are not in an AP course, a strong score can demonstrate a level of both academic commitment and personal interest. For instance, a student who is interested in politics can supplement that image by taking an AP Government exam, and then perhaps demonstrate a deeper curiosity and range by submitting an AP Chemistry score as well. The same would be true for someone applying to a Physics program with both a strong AP Physics score and impressive AP World History performance.
Especially given that, again, scores do NOT have to be reported, AP exams offer an excellent opportunity for a student to further demonstrate who they are and set themselves apart from others who might seem similar on paper.
The Validation of an AP Class
As mentioned above, any student with a talent for a particular subject should consider taking the AP exam, but for students who are registered in AP classes, the lack of a test score will seem particularly conspicuous. It is always advisable for an ambitious student to get those AP lines on the transcript, but that designation may be viewed as incomplete without a corresponding test score.
In a nutshell, if you've taken the AP class, you’ll want to show colleges you took the exam. And if you haven't taken the AP class and you do well, it distinguishes you further, especially if you come from a school that doesn't offer AP classes (which is often true of elite private schools whose students must prep for the test without directed classroom instruction.)
Traditionally, the College Board, who designs and administers the AP’s, built their brand around the possibility of earning college credit through high AP scores. This certainly remains a large part of the draw – in some cases, a strong AP score can ensure a student starts college with more challenging, rewarding courses, and in others, can actually earn them credit towards their degree.
There are two important notes here, however:
1. Not every school awards AP credit. You can search the value any AP test carries for any particular college via the College Board search tool. We also recommend verifying any information there directly with the college you’re interested in. This information is usually easily accessible via a Google search.
2. With very few exceptions, students must earn at least a 4, and often a 5, in order to secure credit.
What all this means is that even students with a strong background in their given subject need to master not just the material, but also the particulars of how the hours-long test will assess that material.
So What To Do?
Luckily, with few exceptions, strong teachers and a fixed curriculum means a student doing well in an AP course (or even in an equally rigorous alternative) will likely be primed to succeed on the test. However, even strong classroom teachers often don’t “think like the testmaker” and might reward independent thinking that does not conform precisely to the College Board’s rubric. So whether you are enrolled in a course or not, it’s important to study exactly what the graders are looking for so you know how to provide it. For example: many essays across the AP spectrum employ rubrics that award but do not eliminate points, so it serves students to say as much as they can even if they are not certain about the accuracy of all information. Many students underwrite from fear of being incorrect but as a result miss the chance to earn additional points from the rubric. Learning to perfect this skill—which is quite different from most writing rubrics in academic classes—is an important part of AP prep.
In the search for those 4’s and 5’s, some suggestions include:
1. Begin the cumulative review early! Very few of the AP exams work chronologically with the school year, so earlier material often falls by the wayside until the cram period.
2. Find outside support, either with a tutor, a highly reviewed prep book, or online prep materials. Read about how others have mastered the test, not only the material but the structure. Study the test, not just the content.
3. Practice practice practice! Particularly for the more writing-heavy tests (which do not only exist in humanities subjects!), use accessible online practice tests to assess not only your command of the material, but your ability to demonstrate that command under timed pressure. Many of those former exams have student models with scores that are useful to look over.