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Articles / AP Exam Results and Scores: Your Questions Answered

May 6, 2021

AP Exam Results and Scores: Your Questions Answered

AP Exam Results and Scores: Your Questions Answered
Photo by javier trueba on Unsplash

AP exam time is upon us! Take a look at some of our top Ask the Dean questions about AP scores and tests from over the years.

Have more questions? Want to share what you know? Join the discussion about APs in the CC forums!

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

Have more questions? Want to share what you know? Join the discussion about APs in the CC forums!

Are Low AP Scores a Deal-Breaker for Top Colleges?

Will failing 1 or 2 AP exams affect admissions to top tier schools or Ivy League colleges?

Sadly, yes… or at least maybe. AP exam scores are not a part of official admission requirements (except at some overseas universities), so many admission officials –even under torture–may not concede that these scores really matter. But the truth is that applicants to the Ivy League and other "top tier" colleges often look very similar "on paper" (not that anyone uses paper these days), so admission committees are always looking for tie-breakers. Thus a candidate whose transcript shows 5's on multiple AP exams is ultimately going to appear more attractive than a candidate with 1's, 2's and even 3's.

Commonly I advise students with 1's and 2's who are applying to the most competitive colleges to omit these scores on their applications. The admission officials may assume that the student took the tests, especially if they know for sure that the high school requires it (some do; some don't). But if the scores are already as bad as what the admission folks might imagine, then it probably makes sense to say nothing and keep them guessing.

Occasionally, high school students get saddled with a really awful AP teacher … one who is so bad that all of the students in the class do poorly on the exam. If that's the case in your school, you should discuss it with the guidance counselor. He or she might mention on your recommendation that a low AP score was epidemic due to poor teaching. However, this information should only come from the counselor. If it comes from you, it's likely to seem more whiny than helpful.

Note, however, that low AP results aren't an automatic deal-breaker, even at the pickiest of places. When a candidate has something ELSE that the college really wants (e.g,, exceptional talent in athletics or arts, underrepresented minority background or any sort of unusual background, VIP status … ), then it's pretty easy for the admission team to overlook the AP exam scores, especially because they weren't even required in the first place.

This Ask the Dean was originally posted in July 2015

Should I Take Online AP Exams If I Know I’ll Get Low Scores?

My school sent out an email saying that they strongly encourage us to fulfill our commitment to taking AP tests, but they understand if we don't want to take them due to the online format. I don't want to take mine and I now want to back out, but I'm not sure what I might be missing. Other than college credit (which I really don't think I'll get because I expect to bomb my three), what are the advantages of taking these?

There are four main reasons that students take AP exams:

1. To earn college credit when offered ... although you may need a college degree just to figure out how much credit you'll get for each AP score, since this varies not only from college to college but sometimes from subject to subject within a college. (And, increasingly, there are colleges that award no AP credit at all.)

2. For exemption from college-wide or major requirements or to gain permission to take an upper-level class without completing a prerequisite.

3. To fulfill an obligation to your high school. Some high schools require that AP students take the corresponding exams or the course will lose the AP designation on the transcript. (This year, however, because of the pandemic, many high schools have amended this policy and have made the exams optional.)

4. To impress admission committees with your ability to master college-level material as demonstrated by high AP exam scores. (This is only relevant to current juniors or those younger. For seniors, admission decisions will have been made before AP exam results are released.)

So if you're convinced that your AP scores will be low, then perhaps none of these reasons apply to you. Note, however, that some colleges will award credit for 3s, while others demand 4s and 5s or sometimes only 5s. So if you think you could eke out a 3 on a test, it may be worth a shot. Even if you're a senior heading to a college that doesn't accept 3s, is it conceivable that you may decide to transfer down the road and you could land at another institution that does?

Finally, have you paid for your exams? The College Board is not issuing refunds (although some high schools are). If you've already paid and don't expect to see your money back, and if you're a senior who doesn't have to worry about reporting poor scores to admission committees next year (or hiding them!), then you don't have anything to lose if you try the tests, except maybe a few hours of Netflix!

This Ask the Dean was originally published in April 2020

Are AP Exam Scores Accurate?

I don't think my AP scores indict how well I know the material. Are AP scores fairly accurate? How can we check?

I'm not sure what you mean by "accurate." Are you worried that your exam was not graded properly or merely that the score doesn't reflect your true ability?

If you suspect that there might have been an error in the scoring of multiple choice section, you can order a rescoring of your answer sheet. See this link to order yours. This service costs $30 per exam, must be requested by October 31 (in the fall after the test was given) and can take up two months (!) to be completed.

You can also request a copy of your "Free-Response" booklet. This costs only $10 per exam (and is only available for the most recent exam administration), but it does NOT include any comments or grades. There is no re-scoring service offered for free responses nor is there any avenue offered for appealing your score. You can find additional information about this service and its deadlines here.

If you suspect scoring mistakes, you might want to spend the 30 bucks on the Multiple-Choice Rescore Service, even if the odds are slim that errors were actually made. But, given what college costs these days, the price of a pizza or two could bring you some peace of mind … or perhaps even some "I told you so" satisfaction.

Good luck!

This Ask the Dean was originally published in May 2019

Does a Good AP Exam Score Make Up for A Bad Class Grade?

Does a good AP test score make up for a low grade, like a C or D, in that AP class? How will this situation affect the admissions process?

While a good score on an AP exam is obviously always a plus, admission officials will wonder why you did poorly in the class itself but learned enough to be successful on the test. A brief explanation, if there is one (e.g., I missed two weeks of school due to mono and had trouble catching up) can be submitted with your applications. You can also ask your counselor to include this in his or her recommendation.

If you are applying to the most elite colleges in the country (the Ivy League and a handful of equivalents like Stanford and MIT), then even one poor grade could affect your admission outcomes because you will be competing with so many others who will have straight-A transcripts. A low grade will also affect your rank (if your school is one that does rank). In some schools, in fact, only a fraction of a point separates the number 1 student from number 10 or 12, so a C or D could bump you down the list quite a bit. This is also something that you should ask your guidance counselor to point out at recommendation time by saying something like, Griselda's rank would have been far higher had she not gotten that C- in AP Physics when she was only a sophomore. Moreover, most admission officials will be more forgiving of low marks in 9th or 10th grade than they would be of those earned in your junior or senior year. Indeed, once you look beyond the hyper-competitive level of the Ivies, the majority of admission folks will be understanding when it comes to a single aberrant bad grade.

This Ask the Dean was originally published in April 2003

Willer a low AP test score in a hard AP class hurt my college application?

I'm in 10th grade and just took the AP Calculus BC test. I'll probably get a 3. Will this in any way affect my admission to college? Will admission officials make note of my age and fact that I switched into BC calculus mid-year rather than staying with the AB course because I found BC more challenging?

You've already answered your own question. You seem to understand that elite-college admission officers are more gleeful when they see scores of 4 or 5 than 3, however, they will also take into account that you were a mere sophomore when you tackled the daunting Calc BC exam. While the dates of your AP tests will be included when you submit your scores to colleges, if you indeed score below a 4, you might want to enclose just a brief supplementary note with your applications and point out to colleges what you've just told us: in other words, that you jumped up to the more challenging BC class in mid-year - and all of this when you were just a 10th grader.

Moreover, we can only assume that, since you've now completed what is typically the highest math class offered to most high school students, then perhaps you will continue math by either taking classes at a local college while still in high school or via distance learning. If you do elect college math classes in your junior and senior years, admission officials will most likely be very impressed by the mathematical heights you will have scaled by graduation, and this will be far more significant to them than the AP score you earned as a sophomore.

Best of luck to you - both on this exam and throughout the rest of your school career.

Can I Take an AP Exam Without Taking the AP Class?

I am currently in an accelerated/honors chemistry class with an A+ average. I had signed up for the AP version of the class at my school, but I changed my mind at the last minute because I got worried about the possibility of messing up my class rank and GPA. Would there be any way for me to prepare myself to take the AP exam in May even though I haven't had the class?

There's a good chance that you will be able to succeed on the AP Chemistry exam even though you didn't take the AP course. You need to talk to whomever teaches the AP chem class at your school and ask what sort of preparation you can do on your own to take that exam.

If this is the same individual who teachers your accelerated/honors class, he or she should know exactly where to direct your independent study and will probably encourage your efforts. Hopefully, any other teacher would do the same. However, you need to steel yourself for the possibility that some teachers may resent the fact that you avoided the tougher course and now want to try the test anyway. Nonetheless, it's certainly an idea worth pursuing. In fact, you may find that there isn't a lot of difference between the materials covered in your chem section and those studied by the AP students.

This Ask the Dean was originally published in January 2003

How Much Credit Do Colleges Give for AP Exams?

My son, a high school senior, was told by one college on his list that he would get credit for the three 3's he earned on AP tests. Do all schools have this policy? It sounds too good to be true.

Yep, you nailed. When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Indeed, some colleges do award credit for 3's. But many don't. Some award credit in some subject areas for 4's and 5's but in other areas for only 5's. Likewise, colleges may give varying amount of credit for the same test result, depending on the AP subject. Confused? You should be!

At one Ivy, for instance, you'll find that a score of 5 on the AP Biology exam is worth 1 credit, but no credit is awarded for the AP Environmental Science test, regardless of score. Those who earn a 4 or a 5 on AP Computer Science AB will also get 1 credit but nothing for AP Comp Sci A. French stand-outs will be happy to know that a 4 or 5 will provide 2 credits at Yale; ditto in German. You get the picture.

In other words, not only does each college or university make its own rules, but often individual departments within an institution get that right, too.

This College Board has a tool that allows you to type in a school's name for more information on what AP credits it takes.

Then, once you've figured out how many credits the test scores are worth, it's a whole other project to decipher what the students are allowed to do with them ("Can be applied only to major-field classes;" "Cannot be applied to courses in the field of concentration;" "Can be used to make up deficiencies but not to accelerate ...")

Good luck and happy hunting!

This Ask the Dean was originally published in June 2007, but was updated with more recent info in May 2021

How Many Times Can An AP Exam Be Taken?

Is there a limit to the number of times I can take an AP exam, if I want to improve my score?

Here's the scoop on repeated AP Exams straight from the College Board Web site:

You can take an AP Exam each time it's offered. Exams are administered once a year in May. Your score report will include your scores for all the AP Exams you have taken unless you request that one or more scores be withheld or canceled.

Of course, few students will get a shot at an AP test more than twice, unless they try it the first time in the spring of sophomore year. In most cases, it probably doesn't make sense to go for more than two rounds, anyway, since your score is unlikely to improve after your second attempt, and the tests are costly. If however, you take an exam at the end of your junior year and you score a 3, and you plan to attend a college that gives credit for 4's and 5's, it may be worth trying again the following spring. This is particularly true if it's a subject you're continuing to study even after completing the AP course.

The College Board Web site has answers to other AP questions that may arise. If you haven't found it already, visit their FAQs.

This Ask the Dean was originally published in March 2003, but was updated with the more recent information in May 2021.

Do I Need to Send Official SAT and AP Score Reports?

Can you explain self-reporting test scores to me? I am putting all my SAT and AP scores into Common App but now I am not sure if I also need to send official scores for both or either of those tests to the colleges. When I went to College Board's website to see what the process was to send AP scores, it didn't seem to allow me to send just the good ones — it seemed like I had to send them all. Do I need to send official scores for these tests?

Good question, but stand by for a potentially confusing answer. So — with the hope of making it less confusing—"The Dean" will discuss SAT and AP scores separately.

First, the SATs ...

Up until several years ago, all colleges that required the SAT (or ACT) also required students to send official scores from the testing agency — even though it often cost extra money to do so. Sometimes, when the official scores didn't show up, the college folks would look the other way and work with scores submitted by a guidance counselor or on a high school transcript. But eventually, the scores from the testing agency were necessary before an admission verdict could be finalized.

Now, however, a growing number of admission officers have decided that students can initially "self-report" their SAT or ACT scores on applications. Then — only if the student is admitted and decides to matriculate — would it become necessary to follow-up with official scores from the agency. (And if the student had applied via a test-optional policy, then official scores would be rarely required at all, although some colleges do ask for them once the decision is set in stone, if the student will enroll). This quasi honor-system approach saves many families time and money.

The change is mostly good news but it's also where some of the "confusing" part comes in. It can be hard to keep track of which colleges require official agency score reports from all applicants right away and which only demand them once the applicant has been accepted and plans to attend. So it's up to you to determine which of your colleges will accept a self-report until post-decision and which ones need your official scores from the get-go. If it's too much of a treasure hunt to find this info on websites (and it sometimes is), a phone call to the admission office should do the trick.

In addition, here is a current list of colleges that claim their applicants can self-report SAT and ACT scores. The list is compiled by Compass Education group — an outfit that I've repeatedly found to be helpful and reliable. The Compass roster even includes links to admission web pages, so if you spot any of your target colleges here, you can just click on the name and get the inside scoop straight from the horse's mouth!

Here's the Scoop on AP Scores

AP exam results, on the other hand, typically don't ever need to be sent to colleges from the College Board until the summer after you've finished high school, which will also be after you've made your final choice. Then these official scores should go only to the one college where you've decided to enroll. Although there are ways to cancel low scores, there's no reason to do so because you're already IN! Colleges have relied for years on self-reported AP exam scores, and you need not send your official ones until you know where you'll be heading next fall.

There's an Exception

Some colleges are "test-flexible," meaning that they will accept AP scores in lieu of SAT or ACT scores. This year, in particular, many colleges that are newly test-optional have encouraged applicants who haven't been able to take the SAT or ACT to submit any scores that they do have, such as from APs or Subject Tests. Thus, if you're applying to one of these colleges, you may be expected to send official AP scores now, if you wish them to be considered when your decision is made. In these cases, if there are low scores that you don't want to include, you should follow that cancellation link above. In most cases, you don't need to send official AP results until after you've matriculated. However, if you're applying anywhere without SAT or ACT scores and expect your AP scores to be used in place of them, check with the admission office to see if they need the College Board score report pronto.

So, as "The Dean" said earlier, this process is not a straight line, but it's definitely worth a bit of your time to determine which schools don't need official score reports right now, which could actually end up saving you a lot more time ... as well as money!

This Ask the Dean was originally published in April 2020

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

Have more questions? Want to share what you know? Join the discussion about APs in the CC forums!

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Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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