AP Tests may seem like intimidating obstacles, but if you’ve done well in the corresponding AP classes, you shouldn’t have too much trouble earning a high score. Good AP Test scores can help you in the college admissions process and may even earn you college credits.
In this article, I’ll give you an overview of what AP exams are, why they matter, and how scoring works across a variety of different tests and subject areas.
What Are AP Tests? What’s the Point of Taking Them?
AP Tests take place at the end of AP classes, and they’re used as a means of assessing how much you learned in the class and whether your experience merits college credit. You can also prepare for AP Tests independently outside of the course if you don't feel totally comfortable with the material after going over it in class.
Essentially, AP Tests are a standardized way of validating your course record. They’re a measure used to control for poorly taught AP classes where students earn As but don’t actually know the material. Although AP curriculum is supposed to be consistent at every school, teachers have a lot of freedom in how they teach the subject and grade the class. AP Tests help to ensure that students have actually learned and absorbed the information and deserve the appropriate credit.
You can earn college credits for high AP Test scores at most schools, and your scores may also help you to place out of introductory classes. Doing well on AP tests can mean finishing college early or avoiding college classes in subjects that are repetitive for you. In the next section, I’ll get into more specifics about the grading scale for AP tests and how some of the most popular tests are structured.
What Does the Grading Scale and Format Look Like on Different AP Exams?
There are some consistencies in scoring and format throughout all AP exams, but there are also big differences in the times and score percentages devoted to certain types of questions across different tests. I’ll give you some overall information about the grading scale and then provide details about the specific formats of tests in various subject areas.
AP exams are scored on a scale from 1 to 5, 5 being the highest score and 1 being the lowest. This is how the College Board defines each score:
5 = extremely well qualified
4 = well qualified
3 = qualified
2 = possibly qualified
1 = no recommendation
“Qualified” indicates that you’re capable of doing the equivalent of the work required for a college-level introductory course in the AP subject. Most colleges will give credit for students scoring a 4s or 5s on AP tests, and some will even give credit for 3s. This can vary depending on the test. On an AP test that's considered more difficult, you might get credit for a 3. On a less challenging test, you might need to score a 5 to earn college credit.
Every AP exam has a multiple choice section, which is scored by computer, and a free response or essay section, which is scored by college professors and AP teachers. On multiple choice, there are no point deductions for incorrect answers. (This is a recent policy change in line with the new SAT, which has also done away with point deductions.) Scores on the two sections of AP Tests are combined to form your composite score on a scale of 1 to 5.
One thing you should keep in mind about AP test scores is that you don’t need to get everything right on the test to get a 5 or a “perfect” score. It’s not like the SAT, where messing up on one question can crush your dreams of an 800. Scaling is different for each exam, but in general even if you only get 70% of the questions correct, you can still end up with a 5. Read more details about how AP tests are scored here.
Next, I’ll give you an idea of the specific structures of AP exams in different subjects so that you’ll know what to expect.
Your pencil will be thrilled to spend more time with you on the free response sections of AP Tests. It doesn't know that its feelings may not be reciprocated.
Science and Math APs
The AP Biology exam is three hours long in total. It is also divided into two sections, the first of which consists of a multiple choice portion and a very short grid-in portion. You will have to answer 63 multiple choice questions and six grid-in questions in 90 minutes. The grid-in questions are essentially short answer math and science problems; you will need to calculate the answers and enter them into a grid on your answer sheet.
The second section of the test is also 90 minutes long and consists of eight open response questions (six short response and two long response). Each section on the AP Biology exam is worth 50% of your score.
The AP Chemistry exam is three hours and 15 minutes long. The multiple choice section has 60 questions and is 90 minutes long. The free response section has seven questions, four short response and three long response, and it is an hour and 45 minutes long. Like on AP Biology, each section is worth 50% of your score.
AP Calculus BC
The AP Calculus BC exam is three hours and 15 minutes long. The multiple choice section consists of 45 questions divided into calculator and no calculator sections that last an hour and 45 minutes total. The free response section consists of six questions lasting an hour and 30 minutes, also divided into calculator and no calculator sections.
Your calculator won't be there to support you on every section of the AP Calculus exam. But don't worry, it always has you in its thoughts.
Social Studies APs
The AP Psychology exam is a bit shorter than most of the other AP Tests, clocking in at just two hours total. The multiple choice section consists of 100 questions answered over the course of 70 minutes. This section makes up two thirds of your score. The free response section consists of two questions to be answered in 50 minutes. This section makes up the remaining third of your score.
AP US History
The AP US History exam is 3 hours and 15 minutes long in total. It is divided into two sections, the first of which consists of a multiple choice portion and a short answer portion. The multiple choice portion contains 55 questions and is 55 minutes long. This is worth 40% of your total score. The short answer portion contains four questions and is 50 minutes long. This is worth 20% of your total score.
The second section of the test consists of two longer open response questions. First is the document-based question (so called because your answer will require you to consult a certain primary source document) for which you are given 55 minutes. This is worth 25% of your total score. You will also have to answer one of two long essay questions for which you are given 35 minutes. This question is worth 15% of your total score.
The AP US History exam will take you on a wild ride through the meandering underground streets of this country's past. If you're a thrill seeker, oh boy, look forward to this one!
Language and Literature APs
AP English Literature and Composition
The AP English test is three hours long. The multiple choice section has 55 questions and lasts an hour. The free response section has three questions and lasts for two hours. The multiple choice section of the test is worth 45% of your score, and the free response section is worth 55% of your score.
AP Spanish Language and Culture
This exam is three hours long. The multiple choice section consists of two parts and is 95 minutes long. You'll answer questions about Spanish texts on the first part and audio recordings on the second part.
The free response consists of four parts and is 85 minutes long. You will be asked to write an email reply and a persuasive essay. You will also have to respond to conversational prompts in Spanish and do a mini-presentation on a cultural topic in Spanish. The multiple choice and free response sections are each worth 50% of your score.
That's right, for language AP tests you'll have to actually speak the language. I was shocked as well.
AP Music Theory
The AP Music Theory test is two hours and 40 minutes long. The multiple choice section consists of 75 questions divided into two sections, one of which relies on auditory cues and one that is non-auditory. The whole section is 80 minutes long and makes up 45% of your score. The free response section consists of seven written exercises (70 minutes total) and two sight-singing exercises (10 minutes total). These two sections make up the other 55% of your score.
AP Art History
This exam is three hours long in total. The multiple choice section is an hour long and has 80 questions. The free response section takes up the remaining two hours. It has two 30-minute essay questions and four 15-minute essay questions. The multiple choice and free response sections each make up 50% of your score.
So what are AP exams, overall?
AP exams assess your knowledge of AP course material and determine whether you are qualified to test out of similar introductory courses in college. A high score on an AP Test indicates that you are capable of working at the college level in the subject. The highest score you can earn on an AP Test is a 5, and the lowest is a 1; most schools will accept 4s and 5s (sometimes even 3s) as scores worthy of college credit. All AP Tests have both multiple choice and free response sections, but they are structured differently and may be different lengths depending on the subject.
Keep in mind that AP Tests and classes may or may not be good choices for you based on your academic track record in high school and goals for college. You can read more about which AP classes (if any) you should take in this article. Your ideal AP courses and exams will vary depending on the type of student you are. You shouldn't force yourself to take classes that will drag down your GPA or that don't interest you just for the sake of earning more AP credit.
If you know you'll be taking some AP courses, try to familiarize yourself with the format and timing of the corresponding tests before the end of the school year. Taking practice tests and doing sample questions will help you get accustomed to the way the tests work and enable you to earn college credit!
You may be wondering when the AP Tests are offered so that you can plan ahead. Here's a list of AP Test dates for 2016.
Which AP Tests are more difficult? That can depend on your strengths as a student, but there are certain tests that are notorious for being especially cahllengin. Read more about the hardest AP Tests here.
Does your school offer AP and IB? Are you curious about the differences between the two? Take a look at this article to learn whether AP or IB will be a better fit for your needs.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.