The Real Value of Advanced Placement/AP Exams in College Admissions

Every April, high school students and their parents’ stress levels skyrocket. Finals are just around the corner, but even closer, a more terrible kind of examination looms: the Advanced Placement subject exams. Students cram study sessions wherever they can as their parents seek out all the extra support they can muster. APs, they’ve been told, are vital to their children’s chances of getting into a good college. What these families don’t realize, however, is that they are focusing on the wrong half of the Advanced Placement system.

What Do Colleges See?

This question should guide families’ approach to most everything regarding the college admissions process. Students present the best possible version of themselves to their schools, and it is no different with AP Exam scores. So, what do colleges see of them? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “Only what families want them to.” AP Exams are an entirely optional field on college applications. Students can list all their exams, some, or none at all. Usually, such optional fields are advisable to fill if at all possible, but in this case, it is entirely up to the student. Why? Because colleges do not give much weight to AP exam scores when considering applicants. At most, they can serve as an extra little bump to help students stand out from their peers, but lacking AP scores does not negatively impact an application.

If all this is the case, then, why the fuss about APs? Wouldn’t students be better off avoiding them and taking all the associated stress out of their lives? Not quite.

Grades, Grades, Grades

GPA is king in college admissions, but what most families don’t know is that colleges look at grades both quantitatively and qualitatively. A high GPA is only half the battle; a high GPA in rigorous courses is really what admissions officers want to see. In the American school system, AP courses are likely the most difficult courses available at student’s high schools, and so those who wish to attend elite schools should still strive to take as many as possible. Even more important, however, is doing well in those courses themselves. Thus, instead of worrying about cramming for AP exams, students in their spring semester should really be seeking help to shore up their course grades. While they can choose to withhold AP scores without penalty, all colleges will require their transcript, and it is much harder to make up for a poor score on that.

The Real Value of an AP Exam

This is not to say, however, that AP exams are worthless. Far from it! Their real value instead lies in what comes after the college application process. Though policies vary, many schools will give credit for undergraduate courses that correspond to certain AP exams if students reach a certain score benchmark. While it is not advised that students skip classes in their intended fields of study, such policies can help students satisfy core required classes before even setting foot on campus, freeing up spots for more interesting classes, where the value of college begins!

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Tags: Higher Education, College Counseling, College Admissions, College Applications, College Consultant, High School, Academics, College Board, AP Tests, AP Classes, Advanced Placement