AP Exams and College: What You Need to Know

Student in yellow shirt studying for AP Exam
October 27, 2022
Do You Need AP Classes to Get Into College?When to Take AP TestsPros and Cons of AP Tests During Senior YearAP Score DistributionsRecommended AP Courses for EveryoneAlternatives to AP TestsFAQs: Should You Take AP Tests During Senior Year?


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/27/22

Most high schools in America offer upper-level classes under the Advanced Placement (AP) Program. Taking AP courses can boost the competitiveness of your college application, offering you early access to college-level courses. If you are wondering whether to take AP courses or if colleges really care about them, the answer may be surprising.

At the end of every school year, high school students often worry about their upcoming AP exams. You may wonder whether colleges really care about AP classes. Some may even ask: do you need AP classes to get into college? Should you take AP tests during senior year? Would it be better to focus on your GPA? Should you waive the exam to not worry about the test? 

Worry not, because even though colleges do pay attention to AP exams, your scores, and the number of classes you’ve taken, they are not the deciding factor on whether you get into college or not. 

However, that does not mean that you should avoid taking AP courses altogether. You should take an AP course if you have the time, know you can handle the extra work, or if you are passionate about the subject matter. Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about the AP tests, including the pros and cons of taking them in your senior year and whether you need to take AP courses for college. 

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Do You Need AP Classes to Get Into College?

No, you do not need AP classes to get into college. AP courses work best if you can handle the extra work and course intensity. If you can only just scrape by in an AP course, you probably should not take it.

Consider the damage it could do to your GPA. Do not be discouraged, as dropping an AP course is understandable and does not count against you if you do. If you can’t handle taking AP courses, there are other ways to stand out on a college application. However, that does not mean you should avoid AP classes altogether. 

AP classes show where your strengths lie, which can be a significant advantage for your college applications. Colleges want students who can handle a challenge. AP courses should help you prepare for college since they function as early college classes.

Even if you struggle with school, aim to take at least three AP classes. Taking any amount of AP courses can only help your prospects for acceptance. If your school offers them, focus on taking some of the easier AP classes if you are prioritizing a less stressful senior year. 

When to Take AP Tests

The AP exam schedule is released every year ahead of the test dates. All testing dates occur within the first three weeks of May. Different semester schedules exist in the United States, with some school systems ending their school year in May and others in June. Keep this in mind as a student since your study time and strategy could change based on your final exams.

College board releases the dates for AP exams ahead of time, making you able to work everything out early. Note that you can take AP courses anytime during high school, and the reward for doing so is optional college credit. If you’re worried about having a stressful senior year, you can always take your AP courses in your junior year; many students load up on them then. However, don’t spread yourself too thin.  

You do not want to miss an AP exam. All students take the test nationally at the same time to help prevent cheating. There are a couple of other reschedule dates posted by College Board, but options are limited. In most cases, the AP exam will supersede other school activities, so don't plan on being out of school unless an emergency has occurred. AP exams will likely take up school time but don't worry; taking the exams excuses you from your missed classes. 

Keep in mind that College Board does schedule some exams at the same time. Though it’s rare, if you fall into a scheduling conflict, talk to your exam coordinator about the rescheduled dates and plan accordingly. The exams take several hours to complete and come in several parts. However, you may be allowed to leave early depending on how quickly you finish the last exam portion. Do not take this for a reason to rush. Take your time.

Pros and Cons of AP Tests During Senior Year

Many high school students wonder if they should be taking AP courses in their senior year. Disadvantages and advantages exist in either case. What you do is entirely up to you, but your schedule may be at the mercy of how your school sets up its curriculum.  

By saving all the AP courses you want to take for your junior year, you may have an easier time focusing on college applications and raising your GPA. The lack of stress may be better for you, as seniors have to take on graduation preparations or want to spend that time focusing on extracurriculars. Again, scheduling depends on what is available. 

The greatest downside to taking AP tests is that they are hard, and many of the tests have low pass rates. If your high school offers a decent variety of AP courses, you could focus on the few that are relatively easy.

AP languages, environmental science, and computer science exams tend to be easier than the advanced sciences, literature, and history classes. Otherwise, you have to contend with that level of difficulty. Earning at least a three is passing, but in some cases your university may not offer credit if you do not make a four on the exam or better.  

AP courses may be heavily advantageous to take during your senior year. Some schools only offer specific classes for seniors. Some years you may not have the chance to take a specific class due to teaching situations and availability. Maybe you want to take a class with a specific teacher, or the current teacher does not offer you the correct type of experience. Frontloading AP courses in your junior year may also make things more stressful for that school year. 

Overall, splitting AP courses throughout high school would help you to better plan your workload. Colleges prefer that you challenge yourself, so taking one or two courses during senior year may be more advantageous than none during senior year. When it comes to scheduling, each student will be faced with their own unique situation,  so think about what is best for you.  

AP Score Distributions

To help you see how students performed in recent years, here are some of the 2021 AP score distributions categorized by subject. Reviewing these figures can help you decide which AP tests to take in your senior year. They reveal which tests are easier than others.


2021 AP Arts Score Distribution


2021 AP English Score Distribution


2021 AP Sciences Score Distribution

History & Social Science

2021 AP History & Social Science Score Distribution
2021 AP History & Social Science Score Distribution

Math & Computer Science

2021 AP Math & Computer Science Score Distribution

World Languages & Cultures

2021 AP World Languages & Cultures Score Distribution
2021 AP World Languages & Cultures Score Distribution

Recommended AP Courses for Everyone 

If you’re wondering if you should take some AP tests your senior year, the answer is a resounding yes. You don’t want to front load your AP courses during junior year, as it may overwhelm you. However, if you would still like some recommendations for easy AP class options after assessing the score distributions, here are a few. 

AP Psychology

Psychology is just an all-around fun class. The subject is interesting and the exam is pretty straightforward. Anyone interested in this course should consider taking it. Don't be alarmed by the high rate of 1s on the exam. Since this class has such a high number of students nationwide, many of them have never taken an AP exam. 

Your score does not count towards the grade in class. The subject and test are easy, and as long as you studied and reviewed all the vocabulary and material, you should do well. Take this class any year; it makes a good introduction to AP for freshmen. 

AP Art Classes

Note that this recommendation does not include art history. The AP art classes you want to take with high pass rates are AP 2D and 3D art and drawing. All of these have at least a fifty percent pass rate. 

Overall, if you're interested in art classes, these make for a great AP experience, especially if you're planning on going to an art school for college. The quality of an art class largely depends on the teacher, but the test should be a breeze if you prepare. During your junior or senior year, take these classes later to make the most of your art classes.

AP Foreign Languages

Excluding the literature classes, foreign languages tend to have a higher passing rate. Many high schools require at least a couple of years of foreign language credits, so you should be pretty well prepared for the class. 

Take AP languages during your junior and senior year, as you may have requirements to take prior levels of the class before you take the AP courses. Subjects of interest include: Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese. Japanese Language and Culture also has the highest rate of 5, well over fifty percent. 

Alternatives to AP Tests

The primary purpose of the AP exam is to award potential college credit based on the score you receive. If you think that AP classes aren't something you could handle or that the test at the end is too intimidating, there are several alternatives to taking AP.

The higher your score, the more credit your college will award you. If you don't pass the exam, you don't receive any credit. To obtain the maximum amount of credit, you will need a score of 5, which equates to about 80% on the test. If you wonder if colleges care about AP tests, the answer is they do, but they are far from the only thing they look at on an application. A few alternatives to AP exist if you want something less study-intensive or struggle with tests.

Dual Enrollment

The best way to earn college credit is to enroll in Dual Enrollment. High school students under this program take college-level classes that count towards both  high school and college credits. Dual enrollment takes the best of high school classes and AP courses without the extra difficulty. This program helps students knock out their core college classes to move on to their major right away and potentially graduate faster. 

Dual enrollment programs change on a state-by-state basis. What classes you can take will depend on your enrolled college. As long as you can maintain the minimum GPA requirements, which also vary by state, you will meet the minimum requirements to stay in the program. 

Some states will go the extra mile and pay for all of your dual enrollment classes like they were a part of your high school education. The only requirement is that you will need transportation to be able to attend your on-campus classes. If this is an issue, online classes can be taken from anywhere, as long as your college offers them. 

Honors Classes

Another alternative you may be able to take are honors level classes. Honors classes offer an easier experience than AP classes, without the test at the end. High school freshmen and sophomores tend to take these classes as a stepping stone for the AP versions. 

However, you can take them anytime in high school, helping you stand out on your college application. Keep in mind that you will have to maintain a higher grade to stay in the class. Picking these classes as a subject of interest is a great way to ensure you are helping your GPA. 

Independent Study 

In many cases across the US, students do not have the opportunity to take AP courses because their school doesn't offer them. Consequently, you may be able to take on an independent study using school time to build your class. Showing this kind of effort and dedication to your academic advancement looks good to admission committees.  

Depending on how well you document your independent study and make use of available resources, you may be able to stand out as much, if not more, than if you just took an AP course. More competitive colleges look at you more favorably if you take on an independent study to substitute an AP class. 

Extracurricular Activities 

Say that you don't think you can handle an AP course or do not have access to them; the answer may be taking up outside school activities. Programs like debate and leadership programs, sports teams, music, and arts can all help you stand out on an application. 

Some of these programs may prepare you for taking AP classes that fall into the same subject. If you can, include what you have done in some way on your application. You never know who will see your application and what they may see as your merits.

FAQs: Should You Take AP Tests During Senior Year?

Underclassmen looking to start their first AP classes always have a few questions. Some of the more common questions include how the test works, when you should take which classes, and a few other specifics.  

1.  When Do Most High School Students Take AP Exams?

Most students take AP exams during their junior and senior years. Your school should have a list of available classes based on the curriculum. A few classes may be available during your first and second year to introduce some of the workload required for an AP class, but the higher availability is for upper-class students. 

2.  Is a 3 an Okay Score?

A three is a passing grade on the AP exam. However, you may not receive the college credit for taking the class with a 3. It may take a score of 4 or higher to receive any, depending on what college you go to. Talk to your college counselor when you get accepted to determine what kind of credit you have ahead of enrollment.  

3.  How Do You Study for an AP Test? 

Taking AP classes is the primary method to prepare for the AP exam. Your teacher should also review the course material as they would for a final exam to help better prepare you for the test, usually over the month before. Outside of school, there are plenty of test prep books, videos, and online resources for studying. Typical study methods, like flashcards, review tests, and mock essays, are great resources. Review previous tests from other years as a study guide. 

4.  Which AP Tests Are the Hardest?

The most challenging AP exams typically fall into the math-based science and the upper levels of statistics and calculus. Few students ever go in-depth with these subjects as the AP exam requires unless they choose to go into the subject as a college major. Literature and History exams also tend to be complicated. The essay writing portions of these exams take a fundamental skill set with specific requirements you will have to memorize as part of the class. 

5.  Can the AP Exam Affect Your GPA?

No, the AP exam does not affect your GPA. However, your class grade will count towards it and your overall high school credits. 

6.  If You Fail the Exam, Can You Retake the Test? 

Yes, but you will have to wait a year to retake the test. If you do, make sure to inform College Board of the new score or cancel sending your previous score. Keep in mind that you will probably have to review for the test over again.

7. When Do You Receve AP Scores? 

Check out or blog on when AP Scores are released!

Final Thoughts

Advanced Placement classes make for one of the most optimal ways to stand out to colleges and potentially earn some extra credits. While you do not need them to get into college, taking AP courses can potentially save you money in the long haul by reducing the amount of time you spend in college. Though AP exams require a lot of effort, they are worth the reward. 

If you are wondering when would be the best time to take your AP courses, cramming them all in your junior or senior year wouldn’t be a wise decision.  Spread your AP classes as much as you can throughout high school, and build your schedule based on what you can manage. Keep in mind that college pays close attention to when you take your AP exams, scores, and academic GPA to know better if you fit the school. Good luck on your exams!

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