Tests: an unavoidable fact of life. In addition to enduring anxiety-inducing school testing, we face daily drilling of our knowledge and abilities. We test our limits. We test the waters. Although test results are always important, oftentimes it’s what we do with those results that matter most. Take Advanced Placement (AP) test scores, for example.
AP courses can not only help students earn college credit, but a good grade in an AP class can bolster a grade point average and increase chances of getting into a dream college. But what about actual AP exam scores? Is it necessary – and advisable – to report them on your Common App? Let’s read what the experts have to say.
Judi Robinovitz, a Certified Educational Planner with more than 30 years of experience, says that most applications – including the Common App – provide a space to self-report AP test scores if you wish to do so.
“Generally, when students are applying to highly selective colleges that accept 30% or fewer applicants, I recommend that they self-report only AP test scores of four or five,” she said. “When students are applying to somewhat less selective schools, I suggest that they report threes, fours, and fives.”
Because this involves making adjustments on the Common App to add and delete scores before submitting it to particular colleges, Robinovitz suggests listing scores from high to low to make the process simpler and less tedious.
The Lowdown on AP Test Scores
When students take an AP course, they receive both a grade for the completed class and a score for the AP exam taken upon course completion. The grade they receive in the course is factored into a teen’s GPA and will be included in his or her transcript. The AP exam scores, however, do not count toward the GPA and usually are not part of a student’s transcript – which means admissions advisors won’t see the scores unless a student self-reports them.
After accepting an offer of admission, students do need to submit an official AP score report to receive credit for those courses; however, they aren’t required to submit an official AP score report to be considered for admission. In fact, admission officers don’t even get involved in determining which AP courses the college will award credit for – that happens after a student is admitted.
So, to submit, or not to submit, that is the question.
Christopher Dahlstrand, Director of Communications and Visitor Engagement in the office of undergraduate admissions for the University of Central Florida, believes that in general, it’s a good idea to submit as much academic history as possible during the application process.
“At present, UCF does not consider AP test scores for admission purposes for first-year applicants,” he said. “While the use of AP scores varies from the admissions office to admissions office, submitting official test scores early eliminates one more “to-do” item off a student’s checklist and provides the institution with a fuller picture of the student’s academic abilities and incoming exam credit.”
The good news is that you can report the ‘good,’ and withhold the ‘bad.’ For example, if your son gets an A in a class but scores a ‘2’ on the AP exam, he would likely be better off not reporting the exam score on his college application. In this case, less is more. But would it look like you were hiding something if you reported certain exam scores and not others? According to Dalhstrand, not necessarily.
“The existence of exam credit is not known until the student self-reports a score or sends an official score report,” he said. “The university may presume that a student enrolling in AP courses will take the exam at the end of the year, but that’s not always the case. Therefore, at UCF, having scored on file for some – but not all – doesn’t appear ‘bad’ or ‘good.’”
Conversely, if you receive a high AP exam score, could it help increase your chances of getting accepted into your best-fit college? The experts we interviewed say that in many cases the answer is yes.
AP test score distributions are a good indication of course difficulty. In general, the more difficult a course, the more impressive a high exam score might look on your college application. For example, according to College Board, only 7.4%% of students scored a 5, and 16.8%% of students scored a 4 on the Physics 1 (Algebra-Based) exam in 2022. For AP U.S. History (“APUSH”), only 10.7% of students scored a 5 and 15.6% scored a 4. If you’re among the small percentage of students who score a 4 or 5 in a difficult course, by all means – report it! In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Hege Ferguson, Director of Admissions at Florida State University (FSU), concurs.
“If a student earns an A or B in an AP course, we would expect that the student is proficient in the subject,” she said. “If, in addition, they score a 5 on the AP exam, it’s a validation that the student has indeed mastered the subject.”
Some college admissions officers may pay closer attention to AP exam scores that relate to a student’s intended major. For example, if you’re a physics major and you score a 5 on the AP Physics 2 exam, it could enhance your potential for admission. But if you get a 3 or less on the exam, reporting it could hurt your chances.
According to Ferguson, admissions officers generally care more about a student’s final grade in an AP course than they do about his or her score on the exam. She said FSU takes a holistic approach when reviewing college applications, and they don’t put too much emphasis on any one aspect – such as an AP exam score.
“Our focus is more on the rigor of the curriculum the student has taken, and when they take an AP course, we are primarily looking at the grade they earned,” she said. “We often see students with fabulous grades who didn’t do well on the AP exam – so many things can have an impact on students and their performance on one specific day. Their exam score is something we look at in our holistic review – we look at everything – but an AP exam score is not going to be a deciding factor on whether a student should or should not be offered admission.”
The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s NACAC Admission Trends Survey, 2018-2019 supports Hege’s viewpoint. The survey reports that academic performance in high school is the most important factor in determining freshman admission, with 73% of respondents rating grades in college prep courses as having “considerable importance.” Only 5.5% believed AP and IB exam scores were of considerable importance.
College Credit for AP Courses
Technically, you don’t even have to take the AP exam – it’s not a requirement. If you hope to receive college credit for the course, however, you must take – and pass – the exam. According to College Board, most colleges and universities give students credit for passing AP exams in high school. This could mean taking fewer classes in college, because earning a score of 3, 4, or 5 may allow a student to bypass certain introductory courses. Some colleges only award credit for scores of 4 or 5, and other colleges award only advance standing, so it’s a good idea to check with each prospective school to understand their policies for awarding AP course credits.
Students can take an AP exam as many times as they wish – but the exams are only offered annually in May (and it’s typically best to take the exam when the information is still fresh in your mind). Because AP test scores are usually not included on transcripts, students must contact College Board to request that their official AP score reports be sent to their colleges of choice after they have accepted an offer of admission.
The bottom line? The amount of consideration college admissions officers give to AP exam scores may vary by school, so be sure to review the admissions information on college websites to determine if reporting your scores makes sense. If you’re having trouble deciding which scores to submit, an independent educational consultant can help you strategize, complete, and strengthen your application and determine when to report – and not report – your scores.
According to Robinovitz, even if a student chooses not to report his or her AP exam scores, successfully completing an AP course is likely to have a positive impact.
“Earning a good grade in an AP course demonstrates that a student can handle the challenge and academic rigor of college classes,” she said. “Your main goal is to include pertinent information that strengthens your application, makes you stand out from the crowd, and shows college admissions officers who you are as a student.”
Now that’s the true test.
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