A Scoring Guide to AP Exams

Students are often so wrapped up in performing well on an AP exam that they forget what the score actually means. AP scores can be difficult to interpret, especially because scoring varies between exams. For students who are in their first AP course, we’ve put together a scoring guide to AP exams to help you plan and study for your exam and understand your results.

A breakdown of the AP exam score

It has likely been emphasized to you that your score on an AP exam is important—but why? First, it demonstrates your actual achievement on the exam and your knowledge of the subject. Perhaps more importantly, it helps postsecondary schools evaluate your readiness for certain subjects. It also doesn’t hurt that a high score on the AP exam can mean you earn college credit before even being accepted to a college. Many colleges accept AP exam scores as being equivalent to introductory college coursework, allowing you to save money and time by advancing to different courses.

You can earn a 1-5 score on an AP exam (a “5” being the best score), based on your performance on a weighted combination of multiple-choice and free-response questions. A score of five indicates that a student is “extremely well qualified” in a subject, while a score of one offers “no recommendation” for student advancement in a subject. A score of three is still “qualified” and means that you will likely advance (although it is up to your prospective college whether you’ll earn college credit for your score). The full meanings of each AP score are defined below:

5 = extremely well qualified

4 = well qualified — the minimum score many selective colleges require for college credit

3 = qualified — generally considered as “passing” an AP exam (but will likely not qualify a student for college credit at a selective college)

2 = possibly qualified

1 = no recommendation

Ultimately, students should check with schools they wish to apply to in order to verify the score they need to receive for advanced placement.

[RELATED: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking an AP Course]

AP exam scoring breakdown

Each AP exam consists of a combination of multiple-choice and free-response questions—although, the type of free-response questions differ based on the test you take. For example, the free-response section of an AP U.S. History exam may involve a document-based essay, while the free-response section of an AP Calculus exam will involve solving complex problems.

A computer scores the multiple-choice section of each exam, which usually accounts for between 45 and 50 percent of your total score. However, college professors and experienced AP teachers grade the free-response section of each exam during the annual AP reading in June.

Your multiple-choice and free-response scores are combined to determine your  composite score. Your composite score is then translated into a five-point scale that is designed to ensure that the standards for a particular score are consistent from year to year (for example, that a “3” this year reflects the same quality of work as a score of “3” did last year).

How to study for AP exams

Each test will require a slightly different approach, as they have different requirements. Ultimately, the best way to study for any AP exam is to take the accompanying AP class, which will be specifically geared toward establishing the knowledge base for the subject.

[RELATED: 4 Myths About AP Prep]

It’s also important to be very familiar with the AP exam’s structure and content before sitting down on test day. Seek out practice tests for the AP exam in your subject—taking these in advance can help you adjust to the exam’s level of difficulty and pacing.  Similarly, (if it applies to you), be sure to practice writing timed essays. Perhaps your AP tutor or AP teacher would grade a few of these practice essays against the standards of the actual exam. This is a great way to learn how to answer free-response questions on AP exams.

There are previous versions of AP exam essay prompts available online, and this practice can make you more comfortable with articulating your ideas under a time constraint and on the fly.

After you’ve completed your AP exam, you’ll be able to compare your scores to others in your area and also to the historical trend in scores for your subject test.  In addition, you’ll be able to decide which schools you send them to (though a good score will translate well in every school). While the five-point scale approach to AP scores may seem complicated, each number corresponds directly with how many answers you answered correctly. Focus largely on performing well on your test and feeling prepared for test day—this can provide you with a confidence that is invaluable when testing.