AP Exam Advice: Take the Credit or Leave It?

AP exam advice

When the May 1 National Decision Deadline date comes and goes, you might think high school seniors can finally sigh a breath of relief that they’ve made a decision, sent a deposit, and secured their space in a college campus for the next fall. You might be wrong. For many seniors, May is still a month wrought with anxiety inducing testing that could still have big implications for what their first year in college might look like. You see, May is AP Exam month and we’re here with some AP Exam advice.

AP Exams, offered through the College Board, are the culmination of a year’s worth of college-level instruction. AP classes are increasingly seen as a measure of rigor in the high school curriculum. They are often noted as a desirable factor in the college admissions process given their standardized nature — they’re less susceptible to factors like grade inflation. While your “A” in the class itself won’t earn you any credit, once you pay the $94 fee and take the exam, many colleges will award college credit for a certain score. Generally a 3 earns credit at participating institutions, but sometimes a higher score is required.

The idea of earning college credit before you even attend college is an enticing proposition. Bringing enough credit to the table allows a student the possibility to graduate early, double major in the “regular” amount of time, study abroad without fear of falling behind in credit, explore other areas of interest that weren’t part of your degree program, or just take it easy each semester with minimal credit loads. These can all be compelling reasons to amass as much AP credit as possible. But is that always the right choice?

Credit or No Credit?

The popularity of AP has skyrocketed over the past two decades, showing dramatic increases in all of the following areas: the number of high schools offering AP coursework, the number of colleges awarding credit for certain scores on the AP Exams, the number of students taking AP Exams, and the number of AP Exams taken. As reported in its Annual AP Participation Report, College Board reports that in 2018, 5,090,324 AP Exams were taken. Of those exams, 3,002,628 (about 59%) earned a “passing” score of a 3 out of 5. But only 721,962 (14% of total scores) earned a 5. If you earned a passing score, did you really master the content? Or are you a good test taker who got lucky? So this begs the question, just because you CAN earn credit, SHOULD you? As you might expect, the answer is gray.

For some expert advice from someone who regularly works with college students, we consulted Christi Boone, Director of Academic Support Services for the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. Boone has decades of academic advising experience and offered some pros and cons as to taking the AP credits.

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“There’s no ‘wrong’ or ‘best’ answer when deciding whether or not to accept college credit based on your AP scores; each student has to make the decision based on their level of comfort,” says Boone. “But that doesn’t mean you trust your gut solely, based on how you imagine college classes might be. If your college/major has a specific recommendation, follow it; they’ve got data over years that back up that recommendation, AND they’re not setting you up for failure. If your college/major does not have a specific recommendation, consider these questions as you reach a decision:

7 Questions to Answer

  1. Is the course you’d take AP credit for a stand-alone course, or the first course in a sequence?
  2. If the course is part of a sequence, do you feel comfortable with your ability to jump to “class 2?”
  3. Say you decide to accept the credit, do you still have the ability to change your mind and repeat the course at your college in your first semester, or will you have to wait a semester to do so?
  4. Would you have to wait a semester to then “back up” and repeat the course, and could that mean it will take you longer to graduate?
  5. If you repeat the course at your college and do poorly, will your AP credit still count?
  6. Does taking the AP credit help you graduate any earlier?
  7. Will taking the AP credit allow you to move ahead in your major? Or will you choose a free elective to replace it? “

Short Answer: It Depends On A Lot of Factors

So, it depends. It depends on the student, and also on the college and its recommendation. It depends on your intentions and goals and some honest self-reflection. The most important thing you can do is to make a thoughtful decision about whether to take or waive the credit and not just blindly take the credit because you CAN.

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