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Articles / Applying to College / Are Low AP Exam Scores an Elite-College Deal-Breaker?

May 3, 2020

Are Low AP Exam Scores an Elite-College Deal-Breaker?

Question: 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.

 

Written by

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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