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Advanced Placement

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Advanced Placement (website, Wikipedia) is a program created by the College Board in the United States that facilitates students taking college-level courses and getting credit for them while in high school.

Components of the program

Advanced Placement courses

Some schools offer Advanced Placement courses. For each AP course type, the Advanced Placement website provides a guideline as to what topics should be covered in a course on the subject. Schools may offer courses that broadly fit those guidelines, but individual schools and teachers are free to vary the material somewhat.

It is possible to take an Advanced Placement course and then elect not to take the AP test.

Advanced Placement tests

In May of every year, the College Board conducts Advanced Placement tests. Tests are held at schools, so most students take the test at the end in their own school at the end of the AP course. However, people who do not take an AP course are still allowed to take the test, if their school is willing to allow them. In fact, people may take the test at a school they are not enrolled in if the school is willing. In particular, homeschooled students may need to make an arrangement with a local school to allow them to take the AP test at the school.

The Advanced Placement tests have a fee of $89, but various discounts are available.

The syllabus for the tests is consistent with the guidelines for the course, though some skills and topics recommended for coverage in the course may not be suitable for testing and may therefore not be included in the test.

What schools offer Advanced Placement?

  • A large number of schools in the United States offer some AP classes, but they may offer only a limited subset of APs and may have very few seats for AP classes.
  • Some international schools in other countries offer AP classes and allow students to take AP tests. These are generally schools that have a tradition of sending students to US colleges. This includes schools in Korea, Thailand, and China, for instance.

Scoring on the Advanced Placement

AP tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5:

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

College credit policies

Credit is usually offered only for taking the Advanced Placement tests and is contingent on the score obtained in the test. Simply taking an Advanced Placement class does not confer credit. It might still, however, allow people to do well on the University's in-house placement test (if any) and acquire credit through that route.

Subjects where credit is usually offered

  • AP credit is commonly offered by universities for mathematics (the relevant AP courses are AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC). Specifically, universities are willing to recognize AP AB and BC scores in order to allow people to skip out of one or two terms of calculus. However, it should be noted that such credit is usually contingent on getting a good score on the AP test (typically, at least a 4, and for some universities at least a 5 on the AB and 4 on the BC). For more, see Advanced Placement Calculus credit policies and lower division undergraduate mathematics course structure.
  • AP credits are offered in some science subjects, such as physics and chemistry. People who do not intend to major in a natural sciences subject may be able to use AP credit to avoid having to take college classes in those subjects altogether. Those who do intend to major may be able to place into honors versions of the courses rather than the regular versions. Our general impression is that large introductory science classes (the sort one can place out of with AP credit) are not well-taught at most universities. Therefore, if you can place out of these classes using AP credit, you're probably not missing much).
  • For humanities subjects, it is rarer for universities to be willing to offer AP credit, because the goal of humanities courses is often to expose people to general ways of thinking and interaction rather than build on a factual base of knowledge. The situation may vary by university, though.

Scores that would confer credit

  • In principle, scores of 3 or higher on the AP should confer credit.
  • However, elite colleges generally offer credit only for AP scores of 4 or 5. The amount of credit offered may vary based on the AP score.

Reasons to take Advanced Placement courses

Human capital: acquisition of valuable knowledge

To be filled in later

Signaling quality to colleges (for admissions)

The following are worth noting:

  • If you take Advanced Placement courses in your senior year, the test date is after the college admissions and acceptance process is over. So the main significance of taking AP courses as far as college admissions goes is just showing the college admissions officers that you are taking an academically challenging workload. Your intermediate grades in school tests matter more for this purpose. For more, see college statements on the importance of grades and coursework.
  • If you take AP courses and the corresponding tests in your junior year or earlier, then you can use your final AP score at the time of your college application.
  • It's unclear how much weight college admissions committees give to the type of APs you take when seeking admission.

Meeting college credit requirements, reducing the required courseload, allowing one to start off with more advanced courses, and making it easier to graduate early

Note the following:

  • For AP courses you take in your senior year, you can actually decide whether or not to take the test based on whether the college you finally join accepts AP credit in the course. That's because the test is after the college acceptance decisions are done with. However, you do need to take the relevant AP course from the beginning of the year (or semester, if it's a shorter course). Therefore, it is important to have a rough idea of how college in general treat an AP test score in a particular subject.
  • As mentioned above in the section on college credit policies, AP credits in mathematics (calculus) and the natural sciences are likely to be more useful in placing out of required basic courses: those interested in majoring in the natural sciences can take the honors courses, and those not interested in majoring can skip taking college classes altogether. Due to the low quality of large introductory science classes in general, this is not a big loss. In any case, if you later decide that your college science class is really worth taking, you can always take it anyways. It's better to have AP credit so that you're not required to take those classes, and can start with more advanced material if you feel so inclined.
  • Having more AP credits so you can skip introductory courses can be helpful for many types of long-term goals. It facilitates graduating college early, it makes it easier to plan study abroad programs, and it makes other experimentation during college easier.
  • Even if a college doesn't accept AP credits, it may have its own placement test. In this case, taking the AP test doesn't help you, but the AP course could still help you if the material in the course closely matches what is tested on the placement test (or, from a human capital-oriented perspective, if it closely matches with the material in the introductory classes you are trying to place out of). If you already know you are going to a college that doesn't recognize AP credit, you could choose not to take the AP test and therefore save the money on that, or you could still take the AP test but not be too bothered about your performance. Rather, focus your studying energy on the college's in-house placement test, which is the one that actually affects your future.