There are two signs of the success of a student’s college admissions campaign: being accepted by targeted colleges and being able to afford them. The achievement of high grades on Advanced Placement (AP) exams fosters both outcomes.

A proven way for students to stand out academically is to use AP courses to strengthen their academic profile. The benefits are twofold in that a student not only receives high school credit for an AP course but can also earn college credit. Moreover, AP courses also enable a student to significantly reduce their college costs.

The College Board’s AP Program

The College Board, a non-profit corporation owned by member colleges, operates the AP Program. It maintains guidelines for the teaching of AP courses in high schools and it administers the exams in May.

A high school may teach none, some, or all of the AP courses. The College Board allows any student to take any examination regardless of participation in an exam’s associated course. This affords home-schooled students and those in schools that don’t offer AP courses an opportunity to benefit from the Program.

AP courses are offered for free but the fee to sit for an exam is $96 in the U.S., U.S. territories, and Canada. The fee is $126 per exam everywhere else. Students with limited financial resources may request a full or partial waiver of the fee.

A student may send their AP grades for free to one college every year by submitting their request prior to June 20. Students may order additional AP grade reports at any time by paying a fee of $15. Reports include results from all AP exams that the student has taken, although he or she may choose to withhold any grades that they don’t want colleges to see.

The AP grades that are reported to students, high schools, colleges, and universities in July of each year are on a five-point grading scale, as follows:

• 5: Extremely well qualified
• 4: Very well qualified
• 3: Qualified
• 2: Possibly qualified
• 1: No recommendation

In 2022, more than four million AP tests are administered to over one million students. The number of students who take at least one AP test has risen from 25% a decade ago to almost 40% now. Students who achieve high grades is also on the rise, with more students scoring a 3 or higher than in any other year in AP history. All signs indicate the AP program will continue to grow in size and influence in the coming years.

AP Exams as a Factor in Admissions

A student’s GPA is their most important academic credential. However, GPA’s are dependent on the rigor of high school curricula, so they inhibit a college’s ability to compare applicants equally. The College Board administers identical subject-specific AP exams to all high school students who elect to take them. This allows colleges to compare applicants who have taken the same exam.

A student’s final grade in an AP class can boost their GPA by 1 point because AP courses are graded on a five-point scale. Excellent students can achieve a GPA higher than a 4.0. The 5.0 scale is meant to reward students who excel in AP courses, as well as to avoid penalizing students who want to challenge themselves with more difficult courses. It’s possible to get a B in an AP course while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. The AP Program can be used to burnish a student’s academic profile by raising GPA and demonstrating readiness for college work.

College AP Credit Policies Differ

Colleges find AP courses to be a valuable tool in assessing the readiness of applicants to perform at the college level. In order to encourage students to take AP courses, many colleges honor the intent of “advanced placement” by granting college credit for courses.

AP credit is awarded by colleges, not by the College Board. Students should learn the AP policies of the colleges to which they plan to apply. This will enable them to determine how many college credits they can earn.

Families often assume that every college will value AP credits in the same way. In fact, AP policies vary significantly from school to school. Policies are more likely to be generous at public institutions, whereas private colleges tend to be more restrictive in granting credit. In a publication titled, “Diminishing Credit: How Colleges and Universities Restrict the Use of Advanced Placement”, the authors state that, “The prosaic reason for the increasing denial of student’s AP credits is boosting tuition revenue. It’s no secret that U.S. colleges and universities depend increasingly on tuition to keep their doors open.”

Some departments in a college may grant AP credits while others within the same college do not. The number of credits granted may also differ. For example, a student who takes the AP Computer Science exam may receive four credits from the College of Arts & Sciences but only two from the School of Engineering.

Some institutions consider a score of 3, 4, or 5 on an AP exam as sufficient for college credit, some consider scores of 4 or 5 to be satisfactory, and others will give credit only for grades of 5. Certain colleges will grant credit but won’t exempt the student from taking their introductory course in that subject. For example, if a student scores satisfactorily on the AP American History exam, they may receive credit for it toward their bachelor’s degree but must still take American History 101, the college’s introductory course.

At certain colleges, a student might be required to receive a satisfactory grade on more than one AP exam in order to receive credit and an exemption for only one course. For instance, to be able to skip an introductory college course on economics, a student may need to score satisfactorily on both the AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics exams.

Saving Money By Graduating Faster

Undergraduates typically need 120 credit hours to graduate. Since AP exams can substitute for college credits, it’s common for a student to begin freshman year with college credits.
As noted above, taking AP classes and doing well on exams can help a student skip over introductory freshman courses, allowing them to save money on tuition and living expenses. This is particularly important if the costs associated with college are barely affordable. With this in mind, studying for and taking AP exams is well worth the money and time invested in them.

In order to make optimal use of the AP Program, students should take the following steps:

• Determine if desired AP courses are offered at their high school.

• Take any courses considered necessary prior to the desired AP courses.

• Choose a college major early to avoid taking AP courses that will be unhelpful.

• Fully understand the AP policies of colleges being considered.

• Earn a score of 4 or 5 on AP exams (although a 3 is sometimes sufficient)

• Submit AP exam grades to colleges by their deadline.


A summary of the advantages afforded by AP Program includes:

• Studying a favorite subject in high school in greater depth.

• Preparing for college level work.

• Improving the chances of getting admitted to target colleges.

• Raising grades with AP via its grading system.

• Reducing the cost of a college degree.

• Shortening the time required to graduate from college.

• Freeing up credits to take more electives in college.

• Increasing the opportunity to take upper and graduate level courses in college.