Professional Experience and Personal Reflections
by Lisa Bowstead, Founder

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Do you have to take the AP exam
if you take an AP class? 
 May 3, 2013

“Advanced Placement” classes were originally intended to give high school seniors an opportunity to get a head-start on college courses. Colleges like to see AP classes on a student’s transcript. Because AP exams are AFTER most college acceptance decisions, the only thing at stake for a senior is whether they might get college credit for the class.

In recent decades, fewer students are waiting until their senior year to take AP courses. The college admissions race is pushing students to take on more ambitious academic challenges in an attempt to get a leg-up on their peers: juniors and even sophomores are taking multiple AP courses. The younger students, who are still developing academically, carry a much heavier burden: if they don’t do well on their AP exams, they will tarnish their transcript! 

Looking at it from the perspective of a college admissions team, if a class is called "AP," the expectation is that the AP exam is part of the course. If a student doesn't take the exam, the logical deduction would be that the student didn't fulfill the course. If a student has opted-out of an AP exam, it might be prudent to offer an explanation to the academically competitive colleges.

To make matters worse, students who have taken-on multiple AP classes might have the unfortunate luck of being scheduled for two AP exams in one day. This in itself is a huge undertaking, and undoubtedly has a detrimental result on the student’s performance on both exams. I am sure that most students facing this prospect have debated at length whether it is better to do your best on one test, or less than your best on two.

Well, it depends...

Whether an AP exam "matters" is a question to ponder separately for each college that the student is considering. Every college is different, and every student application is unique. A student transcript can be “strong” for a competitive college without a single AP class, some colleges are looking for very specific classes and exams (SAT Subject and AP), and still others are shifting their review process away from exams and towards other aspects of the student’s application. The bottom line: each student needs to present a strong application for each college, as measured by each college's specific criteria. 

A final comment: Many High Schools offer AP courses under the name of "Advanced." This gives students the option of taking the AP exam.  I'd like to see more high schools do this, as it gives students (especially those who may not test well) an opportunity to pursue challenging classes without the worry of damaging their transcript for college admissions.