Greetings Students and Families

This is the concluding piece of my IV-Part series on AP exams.   College Admissions and AP EXAMS

AP classes introduce students to potential academic paths and spark further academic interests and discovery.
with College Consultant Bonnie Rabin, PhD
What inspires your student?
What are you passionate About?
Are you allocating time to deepen that interest?
As I discussed in my recent blogs on academic course planning, nearly all high schools require similar graduation requirements- 20 to 24 units across a core curriculum in math, science, language arts social studies and foreign language. This college prep curriculum aligns closely with the requirements for college acceptances. Colleges aim to assess each applicant’s readiness for college level coursework. While there’s little difference across high schools in the course sequencing- the most significant differences are achieved by enrollment in the most challenging coursework each student can comfortably manage. Coursework may include honors or more advanced leveling in AP/AICE or IB courses.
More challenging courses prepare students for their subsequent post-secondary work and allow students to discover academic interests. I always encourage students to leverage their strengths but also to seek out those courses and challenges that are most joyful.
The single most important goal of high school is for each student to develop a love of learning both within and outside the classroom – often accomplished by creating meaningful connections with others — collaborating on projects at school, in community organizations, and in extracurricular pursuits.

Are AP scores required on college applications?

They’ve NEVER been a requirement but there has for a very long time been a self-report section on the Common App. (In some high schools, your AP and all standardized test scores are also on your transcript.)
AP scores are considered by admissions officers in reviewing your college application as part of the college admissions process.
Since you can submit your AP scores -on the Common Application or Coalition Applications — electing to omit these scores is suggestive that you didn’t do well on your exams.
Again, AP exam scores are NOT a required element on your college application. That said, excluding your scores in the space provided on the Common Application hints indirectly at your score. No one fails to share a “4” or a “5” on their college application.  BEWARE: some high schools actually report your AP score on your transcript and you need to request their removal. Some high schools may refuse your request. Ask me more about this issue.
As noted, AP exam scores may also substitute for SAT/ACT scores at Test-Flexible universities. For example, including three exams of your choice allows subject-specific test takers to reduce test anxiety and increase their chances of college admissions. You do have more control over content and knowledge-based materials related to specific courses in these exams.
The optional self-reporting of AP scores on your Common Application is an opportunity to demonstrate you’ve mastered materials and can even overshadow the high school transcript. AP exam scores level the playing field across students from a variety of public and private high schools. So what to do about those “1s” and “2s”? Ask me – as each situation is unique and there may be a potential explanation for the poor score.
AP coursework has become the gold-standard of an academically rigorous curriculum. Earning a high grade on an AP exam can overshadow the high school transcript. For STEM students to be competitive in the admissions process, AP Calculus, AP Bio/Chem and/or Physics, APCS are invaluable and often expected on a student’s transcript to be a viable candidate in the most selective of universities. Avoiding challenging courses as an applicant is not only reducing your chances of admissions at selective universities. Doing so will impact your preparation in the demanding undergraduate coursework ahead.
There’s very little variation in curriculum options across high schools in that all students will complete four years of English, four years of social studies, complete a foreign language and enroll in the math and science classes at a level they can manage.
The differences across high schools and across students are in the electives taken and in whether students enroll in Honors or AP/IB/AICE levels of classes.


Understanding how AP exams are scored & their role in earning College Credit

The College Board’s exams create an opportunity to earn college credit and/or placement through student’s AP scores. As I’ve already noted — many of the more selective colleges may not necessarily award credit for the 2020 revised format. More likely – we will see an uptick in college-provided course placement exams for a few years. Don’t be annoyed about this change– it’s important that students demonstrate proficiency before advancing to higher level coursework.
If you sat for an AP exam in May 2020 (the wonky abbreviated online exams!), those scores were made available to you in early July by logging into your College Board Account.
Your scores matter!
Having made the decision to complete an AP course is a reflection of a student’s interest in the material and concepts. The actual score is an indicator of whether you’ve mastered the content providing a foundation to subsequent and more challenging coursework.
Regardless of whether you decide to earn the college credit (and colleges have their own requirements for granting credit that varies widely – the less competitive universities accept a “3” and most selective programs require a “5”), taking the class already has increased your chances of college acceptance as AP classes weigh more heavily than other high school classes on your high school transcript in computing class rank and your weighted GPA.
AP Exam scores range from 1-5. The composite score is based on results from all portions of the exam including multiple-choice, free-response short and longer essays and portfolio/projects completed outside of the actual time students sit for exams. With a variety of subjects- math, foreign language and art – the scores reflect the unique requirements that students must complete to convey mastery of the curriculum.
First and foremost- don’t’ think of this as “passing” or “failing” your exam because the university you ultimately attend will make that determination. The College Board simply makes a blanket recommendation- 1 and 2 are a recommendation against earning college credit. 3, 4 and 5 indicate the student qualifies for credit – but again, depending on the university and the actual course, the requirements vary widely.
When advising entering college freshman planning the first semester of coursework, I have always advised students to accept a “3” quite lightly and consider repeating the course – especially if in the student’s major area and/or a STEM AP class. The reason for my recommendation is that the foundational concepts must truly be mastered before attempting more difficult and higher-level coursework.
A “3” is a bare minimum and not a great way to jump into a higher-level class during the freshman year of college. Instead, reinforcing those concepts in a more rigorous university setting is a wise choice. (See my tips for college freshman) This is perhaps reinforced by the fact that selective colleges don’t often accept a “3” for earning credit.
1: This is the lowest score and indicates that the student didn’t learn the materials.
TIP: If you’re consistently earning a “C” or low “B” in your high school class throughout the year, you shouldn’t expect a miracle on your AP exam. It’s probably unwise to sit for an exam for which you anticipate earning a “1” or even a “2”.  Whether you can “skip” the exam may be at the discretion of your teacher or high school.
2: Earning a “2” is marginal and the college board makes no recommendation. If you’ve earned either a “1” or a “2” neither score reflects well and would not be reported on your College Applications.
3: Earning a “3” qualifies you to receive college credit for your AP course work and many universities will give credit for this score. The most selective colleges will NOT provide credit. The choice on whether to disclose the score is a strategic one. As a rule of thumb, I prefer to report all scores or no scores. A combination of reporting sends a very mixed message. Your high school transcript reveals the courses you’ve taken. If you don’t report a single exam score, it signals you didn’t earn a high score – the omission is as good as earning a “1”.
That said, if you’ve earned a pile of “5’s” on AP Calculus, Physics C, Computer Science and Chemistry-a “3” on US History won’t harm your application and is refreshing. Likewise, if you’ve earned “5s” on AP US, World, Psychology, Human Geography, English Composition etc. and have a “3” on AP Statistics- this is worthy of reporting. At no time should some scores be included and others omitted before discussing the potential impact of doing so on your college application fully with your college counselor.
4: Earning a “4” suggests you have learned the materials and many colleges will provide credit for this score. Depending on the subject content and whether you’re attending a highly selective university, you may consider repeating the course as a freshman, especially if the course is in your major area of study. In some university settings, scores can vary across departments. An English major would earn credit perhaps for a “3” on AP Physics while the STEM student would be required to earn a “4” or “5” on that exam.
5: This is the top score and indicative of mastery that is impressive. Be proud of your accomplishment. Earning “5s’ on AP exams isn’t easy and doing so is worthy of inclusion on your college application. If you earn a pile of “2s” and have only one ‘5″ – you need a strategy for handling the reporting of these scores.
Two special exam formats and scoring are those for courses AP Calculus BC and Music Theory. Music theory includes two scores – one for Aural and one for Non-Aural exam content. Calculus BC exam takers receive a sub-score for Calculus AB content- approximately 60% of the exam.


Discover and Explore with College Advisor Bonnie R. Rabin, Ph.D. Guiding her clients to define and realize educational and career goals. With over thirty years experience as a university professor and admissions committee member, you’re invited to leverage her extensive knowledge of university curricula and career opportunities.   Have a wonderful day!


Bonnie R. Rabin, Ph.D. Educational and College Admissions Consultant
Professor Emeritus  – Cornell University Alumni Rep

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