Test Prep

Should I Register for AP Exams Even Though I Don't Know the Material Yet?

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I'm a high school junior with a question about AP tests. I am supposed to register for them in a few weeks and I have no idea how I'm going to do in these classes or if I should bother registering. There are three AP classes I haven't even started yet because our school has moved to block scheduling due to the pandemic. I start those classes in January, so how can I decide now if I should be registering for the tests if I don't know how I'll do on the material? Is there a criteria I should use when deciding which AP tests to take, like ones that have to do with my major, etc.? Do colleges care if I take the tests, or is doing well in the AP classes enough for them?


Colleges do care if you take the tests (more on that in a minute), but — even if 2020 hasn't been a lucky year for a lot of folks — it is for you ... at least in this case. Because of all of the confusion and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the College Board has proclaimed that 2020-21 Advanced Placement students can sign up for May AP tests now, but the high schools that order these tests won't be held to the commitment until the spring. So if you register this fall but then don't feel prepared as your classes wind down, you can wheedle out with no penalty. (If administrators or teachers at your school insist otherwise, direct them here.)

There are many good reasons for taking AP exams, and "The Dean" urges you to do so, assuming that you stick with your AP choices. At most (although not all) colleges, you can earn credits ... usually for scores of 4 or 5; sometimes even for 3s. And those credits may really add up — perhaps allowing students to graduate early or to take a lighter course load when they're busy with internships or jobs. AP results could also enable you to get out of required classes or to skip introductory ones and jump into upper-level options.

Do note, however, that policies vary widely on how AP credits can be used — not just from college to college but perhaps even from department to department within the same college. So as you decide which tests to take or which scores to send, don't assume that the AP policies at all of your target colleges will be the same.

Before you register for your AP tests next month, check with the teacher who serves as your school's AP coordinator to find out when you must make a definite decision about testing. Your school may have to tell the College Board by mid-March which tests won't be used, so your teachers or school AP coordinator might want your decision by the start of that month. Also make certain that the AP exams aren't required by your current school. Although the colleges themselves don't require them, at some high schools it's mandatory for all AP students to take the AP exams and those who don't take the exams will not receive the AP designation on their transcripts, no matter how well they did in the class.

Although your AP exam scores won't be a mandatory part of your college applications, admission officials do ask for them and they can play a role in your admission verdicts — especially at the more selective places on your list. Even if you earned a great grade in the class, admission committees view the AP exams scores as a decent standardized way to compare candidates from different high schools. When admission folks see "AP" next to any classes on your high school transcript, they will look for a corresponding test score and might wonder why they can't find it. So your best bet is to take all of your AP exams and then send your good scores to colleges. Of course, "good" will depend on where you're applying and what your academic goals will be. So a year from now, if you're uncertain about sending your scores, write to "The Dean" again with the specifics.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.