Is Your AP Test Score Good Enough?

Benefits of High AP Scores for College Admissions and Course Credit

young woman at exam
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Advanced Placement exams are graded on a relatively simple 5-point scale. The top score is a 5, and the lowest score is a 1. The average score will vary for different subject areas, but for selective colleges, a score of 4 or 5 will often be needed to impress the admissions folks and earn college credit.

What Do AP Scores Mean?

AP scores are much more straight-forward than SAT scores or ACT scores since AP exams are graded on a 5-point scale. However, not every college treats AP scores the same way.

Students who take the AP exam will get a score ranging from 1 to 5. The College Board defines the numbers as follows:

  • 5 - Extremely well qualified to receive college credit
  • 4 - Well qualified to receive college credit
  • 3 - Qualified to receive college credit
  • 2 - Possibly qualified to receive college credit
  • 1 - No recommendation to receive college credit

The five-point scale, probably not coincidentally, can also be thought of in terms of letter grades:

  • 5 - "A"
  • 4 - "B"
  • 3 - "C"
  • 2 - "D"
  • 1 - "F"

What's an Average AP Score?

The average score on all Advanced Placement exams is slightly below a 3 (a 2.86 in 2017). In 2017, of the nearly 5 million AP exams administered, the grades broke down as follows:

  • 5 - 13.3% of test takers
  • 4 - 19.5% of test takers
  • 3 - 25.2% of test takers
  • 2 - 23.6% of test takers
  • 1 - 18.4% of test takers

Note that these numbers are the averages for ALL exam subjects, and that average scores for individual subjects can vary significantly from these averages. For example, the mean score for the Calculus BC exam was 3.78 in 2017 while the mean score for Physics 1 was a 2.4.

Do AP Exams Help with College Admissions?

Absolutely. With the exception of a few specialized schools and programs that rely largely on auditions or portfolios, nearly all colleges rank success in challenging college-preparatory courses as the most important part of a college application. Sure, extracurricular activities, interviews, and essays can play a meaningful role in the admissions process at selective schools with holistic admissions, but none of those qualitative measures can overcome a weak academic record.

Success in AP courses shows colleges that you are prepared to tackle college-level work. Your grade in the course matters, of course, but it is the exam that allows colleges to see how you compare to students from other high schools. If you get 4s and 5s on your AP exams, colleges have a good sense that they are admitting a student who has the skills to succeed in college.

On the flip side, 1s and 2s on the exam can show that you didn't master the subject matter at a college level. So while success on AP exams certainly improves your chances of getting into college, low scores can hurt you. Luckily, the reporting of AP exam scores is typically optional on college applications, so you may not need to share a low score with the admissions folks.

AP courses you take senior year represent another issue. Colleges will be pleased to see that you are taking challenging courses, but you won't have your AP exam grades from senior year until long after college applications are due. Still, take those senior year exams seriously—they can still have a lot of benefit with course placement.

What AP Score Do You Need for College Credit?

Now for the bad news: Although the College Board defines a 2 as "possibly qualified" to receive college credit, almost no college will accept a score of 2. In fact, most selective colleges will not accept a 3 for college credit.

In the majority of cases, a student who scores a 4 or 5 will receive college credit. In rare cases, a school may require a 5. This is particularly true at schools that demand true proficiency in a subject, such as calculus in a strong engineering program. The exact guidelines vary from college to college, and they often vary from department to department within a college. At Hamilton College, for example, a student can receive credit for a 3 in Latin, but a 5 is required in Economics.

More Score and Placement Info for AP

To learn about AP scores in specific subject areas, follow the links below, For each subject, you can learn placement information and see what percentage of students earn scores of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.

A Final Word About Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement classes can strengthen your application, but they are not essential. Colleges want to see that you have challenged yourself academically, but AP is not the only way to do so. Other options include completing an IB curriculum, taking Honors classes, or completing dual enrollment classes through a college.

Also keep in mind that the admissions folks will be looking to see what courses your high school offers. If you go to a small or struggling school, you may have very few AP options. As a result, the admissions officers will not expect you to have many AP classes on your transcript. If, however, you are at a high school that offers a dozen AP classes and you've taken none of them, that will be a strike against you.