By Charlene Liebau
College Admissions Editor
AP, Advanced Placement, is the designation given to college level courses taught in high school. AP is a program of the College Board, and includes a standardized curriculum in 35 different courses across 20 different subject fields. AP courses range from art history to studio art, biology to physics, macroeconomics and microeconomics to psychology and world history, calculus to statistics, and six different language. Each high school decides which of the available courses to offer and the level of preparation required for students to enroll.
In May standardized tests in AP subjects are given during school hours. Depending on the subject, AP tests take from two to three hours each and include both multiple-choice and free-response sections. While the multiple-choice section is scored by a computer, the student generated answers are graded by college and high school teachers.
AP tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 5: a score of 5 means the student is “extremely well qualified to receive college credit or advanced placement” in the subject, to a low score of 1 which carries “no recommendation to receive college credit or advanced placement”. For some colleges a score of 3 or better qualifies the student to receive up to one year of college credit in that subject. However, other colleges are more restrictive and limit course credit for AP. Receiving college credit or advanced placement in a course is granted to the student by the individual college not the AP teacher or the College Board. Since policies differ from institution to institution, one should consult college catalogs for specific information.
In addition to the possibility of receiving college credit, students who take AP exams and earn a score of 3 or higher are recognized by distinctions ranging from AP Scholar (grade of 3 or higher on four or more exams) to National AP Scholar (grade of 4 or higher on eight or more AP exams). Such distinctions are conveyed to the student and to his or her designated college but carry no monetary award.
In what ways does the AP exam differ from SAT Subject Test? Both are subject specific but differ in several ways. SAT Subject Tests are geared to the “typical” high school curriculum whereas AP level courses follow a specific, standardized curriculum taught at the college level. SAT Subject Tests are offered throughout the testing cycle and are one hour in length. All AP exams are administered at the end of the academic year (in May) and require two or three hours to complete. While SAT Subject Tests are often required by colleges as part of the application process, AP tests are not. In reporting test score results SAT Subject Tests are scored just as the SAT Reasoning Tests is scored - on a scale of 200 to 800 points while AP test results use a one to five point scale.
For students the often asked question arises: should I enroll in AP level courses? Keep in mind while colleges look favorably on those willing to challenge themselves by choosing the more rigorous level of instruction whether that be honors or AP, students should not invite pressure by enrolling in AP level courses for which they are not adequately prepared. College admission officers do not expect that every course on the student’s transcript will be at the AP level.
Charlene Liebau if former director of admissions for CalTech and Occidental College. She is also a finalist judge of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.