Whether you already have five AP classes under your belt, or if you're just considering whether to take AP classes at all, you may be wondering how exactly getting AP college credit works.
This article will go over how different colleges grant credit for AP, and what you can do to maximize the amount of AP credit you earn. We will explore some different ways colleges grant AP credit, using specific universities as case studies.
2021 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests will now be held over three different sessions between May and June. Your test dates, and whether or not your tests will be online or on paper, will depend on your school. To learn more about how all of this is going to work and get the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what these changes means for you, be sure to check out our 2021 AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
Possibility 1: AP Courses Grant Credit for Real College Classes
The first way your AP credits could be used is to directly substitute for actual college classes. In this case, instead of taking, say, Chemistry 101, your 4 on AP Chemistry will count for that beginning course. So you'll get the credit hours for taking the class—even though you took it back in high school! Plus you will be able to enroll in a more difficult course right off the bat.
To see what this can look at, let's look at my local state school, the University of Utah. They accept AP credit for many courses.
Case Study: University of Utah
AP exams—often with a score of 3 or higher—are enough to grant you credit hours for general education classes at the U of U and also place you into higher level courses.
General Education at the University of Utah means any courses that fall in the following categories: Fine Arts, Quantitative Reasoning, Science, Social Science, Humanities, Fine Arts, or American Institutions.
If you managed to have an AP class for each one of these general ed requirements, you could skip each one. Since the General Education requirements are designed to fill up the first year, skipping them would make it possible to graduate the University of Utah in just two or three years, depending on what you major in. (A degree in engineering will probably take longer than one in history, for example.)
You couldn't apply, say, both AP English Literature and AP English Language, since they waive the same requirement, but if you submit AP English Literature and AP Calculus AB you would fulfill two different requirements.
While these Gen Ed requirements aren't the same at every university, most universities have some variation of them—at the very least they'll require a course each in humanities, social science, science, and math. This is why taking a variety of AP classes can be helpful if you're aiming to complete your generals in high school.
Also, notice that at the U of U, you can often get more credit hours for 5's than 3's and 4s. So even at universities that accept 3s, there are still perks to earning 5s.
Possibility 2: AP Courses Don't Get Credit, but Allow You to Skip Intro Courses
There are some schools—particularly competitive ones—that don't give you credit for AP classes. While they will use high scores to place you into higher-level classes freshman year, they won't give you credit towards graduation. We'll take a look at Dartmouth College to see what this can look like.
Case Study: Dartmouth
One such school is Dartmouth. You can actually read a statement about their policy on AP credit here. To summarize, Dartmouth will use AP classes to place students in higher-level classes, but not for credit towards graduation.
They revised their AP policy because they want students to take full advantage of Dartmouth courses and they're worried AP courses aren't true replacements for college level classes.
So how does the credit work? To take an example, if you get a 5 on AP Micro Economics, you will be placed in an intermediate or advanced economics course right off the bat, but you won't receive any credit for AP Micro itself. This can still be helpful if you're excited to jump into higher classes or want to fit in a minor or double major.
You can also be exempted from the foreign language requirement if you score high on an AP language test. So while AP courses won't get you credit at Dartmouth, they are still worthwhile since they will allow you to skip introductory courses.
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Possibility 3: A Mix of Both
Some schools have a mix of both policies. In particular, some departments (say the history department or math department) might accept AP credit to place students in classes. But the school as a whole might have a policy on AP you can choose to take advantage of—for example Harvard's advanced standing program.
Case Study: Harvard
So what is advanced standing? Think of it as skipping straight to sophomore year when you start college at Harvard. You can apply for it using your AP credits, and graduate in six or seven semesters instead of eight.
You could also just use your AP credits to get into higher-level classes in particular departments or get out of the foreign language requirement, but not apply for advanced standing if you want to stay all four years.
So should you apply for advanced standing? Harvard's website has a lengthy discussion of why or why not a student may apply for it.
Some students may prefer to take four years at Harvard undergrad so they don't have to decide their course of study too soon. Taking the full four years gives you more chances to try out classes in various departments. Others may take advantage of advanced standing to earn a masters within four years.
In short, if you're lucky enough to go to Harvard, you can decide whether you want to use your AP credits to graduate faster, or if you would rather take four years of undergraduate classes to explore different interests. In either case, you can also use your AP credits to skip introductory courses in various departments.
One of the single most important parts of your college application is what classes you choose to take in high school (in conjunction with how well you do in those classes). Our team of PrepScholar admissions experts have compiled their knowledge into this single guide to planning out your high school course schedule. We'll advise you on how to balance your schedule between regular and honors/AP/IB courses, how to choose your extracurriculars, and what classes you can't afford not to take.
Sending Your Scores
Before you can get any AP credit, after you graduate but before you start at your college, you have to send an official AP score report from College Board. While you self-report your AP scores on your college applications, you can only cash in on your AP credits by sending an official score report.
This gives the official record of your scores to the registrar's office. (Think of the registrar as the guidance counseling office of college.) Once the registrar has those scores, they can apply them to prerequisites, general education, or other departmental requirements as the case may be at your college.
Look out for our post on how to send AP scores to colleges if you want a more complete guide.
If you're still in high school and wondering how AP credit will work for you, look up the policies at some of your top choices as well as your safeties. Start with College Board's AP credit database, but also double check college websites to see what they say about AP credit.
The database should provide a link to each college's individual policy, but if not, search "[Name of College/University] Advanced Placement."
By looking up policies, you can get a sense of how the AP credits you have already earned will translate into college credit. This can also help you choose AP classes for future years.
Take notice of AP exams that seem to be recognized at most of the schools you're interested in. In many cases, AP math courses, particularly Calculus BC, can waive a math requirement or get you into higher level math classes. AP language courses are also often accepted as a way to waive a foreign language requirement.
Also notice how high your passing score needs to be (for example, at the U of U, a 3 was fine for many classes, but Harvard only accepts 5s). If most of your schools require 5s to get credit, you have to study very hard!
Also look and see if any AP classes you're thinking about aren't recognized in any way. Sometimes it can be harder to get credit for courses like Human Geography or Art History. This doesn't mean to not take them. It does mean that you should only take them if you are really interested in the subject and would get a lot out of the class.
How many AP classes should you take, anyway? Get an answer to that question here.
AP classes aren't the only thing that will get you into college—far from it. Your ACT/SAT score is a huge part of your application. Read about the ACT/SAT scores you need to be competitive at your top schools.
Not sure when you should take the ACT/SAT for the first time? Find out here.
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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.