If you’re studying for an AP exam right now, or are thinking about taking an AP class in the future, you might be wondering: how are AP exams scored?
In this post, we'll break down the scoring process, all the way from the raw scores you earn on the multiple choice section and essays to how you get assigned a final score of 1 to 5. Knowing how AP exams are scored can help you do your best on them – especially if you want a perfect 5.
The AP Scoring Scale
Each AP test is given a score from 1 to 5. Those numbers mean:
- 5: Extremely Well Qualified
- 4: Well Qualified
- 3: Qualified
- 2: Possibly Qualified
- 1: No recommendation
Any score 3 or higher is considered passing, though some colleges only accept 4s or 5s for credit. (See AP’s college database for specific policies at each university.) Getting a 5 is especially desirable because, for most exams, it puts you in the top 10-20% of scorers. See our list of AP classes for more info on passing rates.
The 1 to 5 score is a scaled score, converted from a composite score. Your composite score is calculated from the total number of raw points you get from your multiple choice answers and points from the free response. It’s a bit confusing, but we will guide you through the process!
How Are AP Tests Scored?
The majority of AP exams consist of two sections: multiple choice and free response. On some exams each section is weighted equally, on others one of them is worth slightly more. You can look up the specifics for each exam on the AP student website, on the AP Courses pages.
The multiple choice section is graded by a computer. There are no deductions for incorrect or blank answers, so your multiple choice raw score is simply the number of questions you get correct.
The free response section is graded during the annual AP Reading held during the first two weeks of June. The AP Reading is basically a huge convention. Tons of teachers and college professors gather to grade thousands and thousands of student-written free responses for each exam.
This is why you don't get your score until July even though you take the test in May — the written portion of your exam isn't graded until mid-June, and after that College Board has to calculate the composite score and final scaled score for each exam, equating the test so the scores stay even from year to year. (For example, they want to make sure a 3 on the AP US History exam means the same thing from one year to another, even if one version of the test turned out to be more difficult for students.)
(Side note: there is a good chance that an AP teacher at your school goes to the AP Reading each year. It can be interesting and helpful to talk to them about what happens at the convention, how quickly free responses are scored, and the best and worse free responses they’ve seen. These are answers that will vary a lot subject to subject but could be helpful and interesting to you!)
This is a picture from the English literature reading from this blog post over at AP Central. It's worth reading if you are curious about what the AP reading is like!
Each free response is given a "holistic" score, meaning it's evaluated for its overall effectiveness or correctness. Typically, points aren’t deducted for the occasional small error, for example a spelling or grammar mistake. Most tests grade their free responses between 1 and 9, with 1 being least effective and 9 being nearly perfect.
Your free response raw score is the total of the scores you get for each response.
How You Get a Scaled Score of 1 to 5
After your multiple choice is graded by a machine and your free response is graded by a human, your essay score and multiple choice are combined by giving each a composite score. The composite score is just a way of combining the two scores such that they are weighted correctly (for example, for AP English, multiple choice is worth 45% and free response is 55%). Often the composite scores are between 100 or 150.
The composite score is then converted to a number on the scaled score, between 1 and 5. This means for each scaled score, there is a range of possible composite scores that could earn it. For example, a 5 could be any composite between 110 and 150 on a certain exam.
Since scaling varies year to year, there are no exact cutoff numbers for scores for AP Tests, and College Board does not release detailed scoring data. Furthermore, you will not see what your composite score was on your score report — you will only get the number between 1 and 5.
However, many teachers, prep books, and websites have come up with formulas to predict the scaled score for each AP test, which can help when you are grading practice tests and coming up with a target score.
Scoring Example: AP English Language
As we've seen, AP test scoring is not exactly straightforward. To help clarify the process, we will walk through a scoring example using the most popular test, AP English Language and Composition.
Also known as the class where you annotate every. Single. Thing.
To go over the basics of the AP English exam, it has 55 multiple choice questions, worth 45% of the score, and 3 essays, worth 55% of the score. Each essay is graded between 1 and 9.
Before we get into the scoring example, remember that this guide is an estimation since the score conversions can vary year to year based on test difficulty. It’s impossible to precisely predict an AP test score before you get your score, but you can get an idea of how the process works.
There are 55 multiple choice questions on the AP English exam. Let's say you get 40 correct, answer 8 incorrect, and leave 7 blank. Your raw multiple choice score would be an even 40 points.
Out of the three essays, let's say you earn the following scores from the graders: 4, 7, and 8, for a total raw essay score of 19.
Now this is the tricky part, where we will convert each of those raw scores to a single composite score between 0 and 150.
The maximum converted essay score is 82.5, or 55% of 150. The maximum converted multiple choice score is 67.5, or 45% of 150. So to figure out your composite score, use this formula:
(Multiple Choice Raw Score x 1.23) + (Essay Raw Score x 3.05) = Composite Score
In this example, your multiple choice composite would be 49.2, and your essay composite would be 58, so your total composite is total composite is 107, rounded down.
The last step is easy. Use the chart below to estimate your scaled score.
- 5: 104-150
- 4: 92-103
- 3: 76-91
- 2: 50-75
- 1: 0-49
Your score of 107 would earn you a 5 – but just barely!
Again, these numbers are estimates and will shift from year to year based on test difficulty. Since 107 is just over the mark of 104, it is possible in some test years it could earn a 4.
What About Scoring Other Tests?
We’ve learned how to score an AP English Language and Composition exam. However you can’t use the same process for every AP test. Most AP tests have slightly different section weights and question totals, so the scoring formulas are different.
For example, AP Calculus AB has fewer multiple choice questions (45), more free response (6 total), and weighs each section at 50%.
Each AP subject is a unique challenge... and has its own scoring formula.
So how can you figure out how the AP tests you are taking are graded?
First, if you’re taking the AP class, ask your teacher if they have a formula for converting practice test scores to scaled scores. Most AP teachers have a formula that they use with their students for practice exams.
If you’re not taking the class or your teacher doesn’t have a formula, either find a prep book for your specific test, or search online.
Remember that all formulas are estimates. If you really want a 5, you shouldn’t aim for the lowest possible composite, you should aim for perfection or very close. That’s the only way to guarantee you will get a 5. Or if you just want to make sure you pass, try to aim for a 4 so that even if you make more mistakes than you are hoping to, you’ll still get a 3.
Curious about the benefits of taking an AP Exam? See our in-depth guide about what AP tests are and why you should take them.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.