Will It Hurt My Admission Odds to Skip Some AP Exams?


I'm in an accelerated program that relies heavily on AP classes -- students usually take 11 or 12 APs throughout high school. I have five AP classes this year (11th grade) and we're encouraged but not required to take the tests. I'm interested primarily in selective liberal arts colleges that are less likely to offer meaningful credit, although I understand the potential credit and placement benefits from good scores. My question is about how admissions officers view students who take AP classes but don't take all of the exams. Would it matter if I only took three or four exams, even if I'm in five classes? I've taken three AP exams and done well in my first two years, if it matters.

When admission committees see that you're in a high-powered, AP-laden program, and they note that you've reported scores from the corresponding exams for most of your AP classes but not for all of them, what do you suspect they'll assume? Yep, the admission folks are going to figure that you screwed up the tests you didn't mention. Thus, if you don't want your adjudicators to make that assumption, you're going to have to explain that you actually did not take the missing exams and you ought to tell them why.

Some reasons for bailing out on AP exams will sit better with admission committees than others. For instance, do you and your parents think the tests are too pricey, especially if many of the colleges on your list won't even give you credit for high scores? Cost is the best reason for skipping AP exams, but the cost excuse won't play so well if you hail from a well-heeled household.

Another valid reason for omitting an exam or two would be schedule conflicts. Students who are heavily involved in certain extracurricular activities may find that their major culminating competition, whether it's a national debate tournament or a state track meet, is scheduled head-to-head with AP season in May. While some admission officers can seem a little snooty when an applicant chooses fun and games over schoolwork, the majority will understand, especially if the activity leans toward the academic, and if the student has good grades in the AP class and is performing at a high level in the extracurricular.

Occasionally students may opt to skip an AP exam because they're already signed up for a Subject Test in the same field and feel that the AP exam is superfluous, especially if they're not expecting credit for their results. Most admission officials will view this as a sound excuse, once the student explains it.

But, most commonly, students who avoid AP exams do so because they feel shaky in that subject and worry that, even if they can eke out a decent grade in the course, the exam could be a whole different story. Similarly, some students may view preparing for five AP tests in a single month as ridiculously and unnecessarily stressful. While "The Dean" finds both of these reasons to be sensible, admission committees may not be so sympathetic, especially at the most competitive colleges where candidates are expected to welcome challenges.

Bottom line: Before deciding which tests to take — or not take — ask yourself these questions:

1. Which of the above reasons (or others) will you provide to admission officials so that they don't assume the missing exams were lousy ones?

2. How strong an applicant are you at each of your target schools? If you estimate that your admission odds are high, then don't worry about missing an exam or two. But if you like a school that's highly selective and where you put yourself somewhere around the middle of the pack, then skipping an AP exam without a sound reason could hurt you at least a little bit, especially if it's in one of the more rigorous subjects (e.g., Calculus or Chemistry, rather than Psychology or Economics).

But before making any decisions, talk to your AP teachers and guidance counselor to find out what students in your shoes have done in the past. Because your accelerated program demands so many AP classes, perhaps it's standard operating procedure for students to bypass an exam or two each year, and your counselor may routinely report this in her or her letters of reference.

Finally, your mental and physical health are more important than anything else. So if you feel that those fourth or fifth AP exams next spring could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, then no amount of extra application oomph is worth the anxiety that this testing might cause.


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