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Advanced Placement (AP): A Complete Guide

Advanced Placement (AP): A Complete Guide

10 min Read|February 25 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


Have you ever wondered what Advanced Placement (AP) is all about and why it's so important for high school students? AP courses offer a unique opportunity for students to tackle college-level work while they're still in high school. But what makes these courses stand out from the rest? Why do students and educators across the United States place such high value on AP? In this guide, we'll answer all these questions and dive into what AP courses are and explore the significant benefits they offer to high school students aiming for higher education.

What are Advanced Placements?

Advanced Placements (AP) are college-level courses and exams offered to high school students through the College Board in the United States. Designed to challenge high-achieving students, AP courses provide a platform for participants to demonstrate their proficiency in a specific subject area. The programme is widely recognized for its rigorous academic standards and the opportunity it offers students to earn college credit before even stepping foot on a university campus.

  • Broad Range: Over 30 courses available, spanning subjects from STEM to the humanities.
  • Global Recognition: Accepted by colleges and universities around the world as a mark of academic excellence.
  • Skill Development: Focuses on developing critical thinking, analytical, and problem-solving skills.

Millions of students take AP exams yearly, with a significant percentage scoring high enough to qualify for college credit. The AP program as a key tool for students looking to stand out in their college applications, showcasing not only their academic skills but also their readiness for the challenges of higher education.

number of students who took AP exams in the past 5 years

Graph showing the number of students who took AP exams in the past 5 years

Are the Advanced Placements hard?

The difficulty of Advanced Placements (AP) courses and exams is a subject of much discussion among students and educators. Given their college-level curriculum, AP courses are inherently challenging, designed to push students beyond the typical high school academic experience.

  • Rigorous Curriculum: AP courses cover complex concepts and demand a deeper level of understanding.
  • Time Commitment: Students often report needing to devote significant time outside of class for study and project work.
  • Examination Pressure: The final AP exams are comprehensive, testing a full year's worth of material.

Statistics reveal that the pass rate (a score of 3 or above on a 5-point scale) varies significantly across subjects, indicating that some courses may be more challenging than others. However, experts argue that the rigor of AP courses equips students with critical thinking and study skills that are invaluable for college success. Despite the challenges, many students find the effort worthwhile, as success in AP exams can lead to college credit and advanced placement in university courses.

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What are the benefits of Advanced Placements?

Beyond the immediate academic advantages, Advanced Placement (AP) courses offer several additional benefits that contribute to a student's personal and professional growth.

  • Enhanced College Applications: AP courses are viewed favorably by college admissions officers, signaling a student's ability to handle college-level work.
  • Scholarship Opportunities: High scores on AP exams can make students eligible for scholarships, further reducing the financial burden of college education.
  • Global Perspective: Certain AP courses, such as AP World History or AP Environmental Science, provide students with a global outlook, preparing them for a more interconnected world.
  • Interdisciplinary Thinking: The wide range of AP subjects encourages students to make connections across disciplines, fostering a more holistic approach to learning.

Research indicates that students who participate in AP courses are more likely to develop a lifelong love of learning and a curiosity that extends beyond their school years. Additionally, the collaborative projects and discussions often found in AP classrooms help students improve their communication and teamwork skills, which are highly valued in the workplace. These benefits position AP students for success in their future academic endeavors and careers, making AP courses an invaluable part of their education.

What are the Advanced Placement requirements?

The requirements for enrolling in AP courses can vary by high school, but there are general criteria that typically need to be met to participate in this rigorous academic program.

  • Academic Standing: Many schools require students to have a certain GPA or grade in prerequisite courses to enroll in AP classes.
  • Teacher Recommendations: Some schools ask for teacher recommendations to ensure students are ready for the challenge of AP courses.
  • Commitment to Workload: Students must be prepared to handle the increased workload and time commitment outside of school hours.

According to the College Board, there are no set eligibility requirements to take an AP exam; however, it's strongly recommended that students complete the corresponding AP course first. Educational experts emphasize the importance of self-assessment in readiness for AP courses, advising students to consider their academic strengths, time management skills, and overall interest in the subject matter. Successfully navigating the AP program requires a blend of intellectual curiosity, discipline, and a proactive approach to learning, setting the stage for academic and professional success.

AP grade distribution

Graph showing AP grade distribution

What are the Advanced Placement subjects?

Choosing your AP courses is a very important part of your AP journey. The Advanced Placement program encompasses a wide range of subjects across various academic disciplines. Here's an illustrative list of subjects that are commonly part of the AP curriculum:

Mathematics and Computer Science:



  • AP Biology
  • AP Chemistry
  • AP Environmental Science
  • AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics C: Mechanics
  • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  • AP Psychology

History and Social Sciences:

  • AP Comparative Government and Politics
  • AP European History
  • AP Human Geography
  • AP Macroeconomics
  • AP Microeconomics
  • AP Psychology
  • AP United States Government and Politics
  • AP United States History
  • AP World History: Modern

World Languages and Cultures:

  • AP Chinese Language and Culture
  • AP French Language and Culture
  • AP German Language and Culture
  • AP Italian Language and Culture
  • AP Japanese Language and Culture
  • AP Latin
  • AP Spanish Language and Culture
  • AP Spanish Literature and Culture


  • AP 2-D Art and Design
  • AP 3-D Art and Design
  • AP Drawing
  • AP Art History
  • AP Music Theory

AP Capstone Diploma Program

  • AP Research
  • AP Seminar

This list represents a broad overview, and the AP program continues to evolve, with courses being added or updated to reflect current academic and industry trends. For the most up-to-date information on AP courses and to explore specific course content, prerequisites, and exam information, visiting the College Board's official AP Central website is recommended.

How many subjects should I take in Advanced Placement?

Deciding on the number of Advanced Placement (AP) subjects to take is a crucial consideration for high school students aiming to balance academic challenge with personal well-being. While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, several factors can guide this decision:

  • Academic Goals: Consider your college aspirations and the requirements of your desired program.
  • Schedule and Workload: Be realistic about the time you can dedicate to AP coursework alongside other commitments.
  • Past Performance: Reflect on how you've managed challenging courses in the past.

To achieve a well-rounded education, students should consider taking a balanced number of subjects, strategically choosing from both the hardest AP courses and the easiest AP courses. It is reported that students who take 3 to 5 AP courses over their high school career tend to perform well, both in terms of AP exam scores and in their future college studies. However, taking more than this can be beneficial for those who can handle the workload without compromising their mental health. Guidance counselors often advise starting with one or two AP classes in the sophomore or junior year to gauge readiness for more advanced studies.

Tips for studying Advanced Placements

Succeeding in Advanced Placement (AP) courses requires strategic study habits and effective time management. Here are some proven tips to help students excel in their AP studies:

  • Create a Study Schedule: Allocate specific times for studying each AP subject, ensuring consistent progress.
  • Practice Active Learning: Engage with the material through discussions, teaching concepts to others, and applying knowledge in practical contexts.
  • Utilize AP Resources: The College Board provides official AP materials, including practice questions and exam tips, which are invaluable for preparation.
  • Form Study Groups: Collaborating with peers can provide new insights, facilitate understanding, and offer moral support.
  • AP Tutoring: Personalized tutoring can provide targeted support, helping to clarify difficult concepts and improve problem-solving strategies. Experienced AP tutors can offer insights into effective study techniques and exam-taking tactics, tailored to the specific demands of AP subjects.

Best resources for Advanced Placements

Finding the right online resources is crucial for students preparing for Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams. Utilizing a variety of study materials can significantly enhance understanding and performance. Here are some of the best resources available:

  • College Board Official Materials: Offers course outlines, sample questions, and past exam papers, providing students with accurate and comprehensive preparation materials.
  • Khan Academy: Partners with the College Board to offer free online courses tailored to AP subjects, complete with video tutorials and practice exercises.
  • AP Classroom: A digital platform provided by the College Board that includes a question bank and progress checks, enabling students to practice with real AP questions and receive immediate feedback.
  • Study Notes: These study notes from TutorChase provide detailed notes and study guides for various AP subjects, crafted by experienced tutors to enhance comprehension and retention.

Expert opinions emphasize the importance of engaging with diverse resources to cater to different learning styles and needs. Statistics show that students who utilize a mix of official materials, digital platforms, and personalized study aids like tutoring and study notes tend to achieve higher scores on their AP exams. By integrating these resources into your study plan, you can build a solid foundation of knowledge and skills to excel in your AP courses and exams.

Have a look at our comprehensive set of AP Notes developed by expert AP teachers and examiners!

Advanced Placement assessment and grading Methods

The AP grades and assessment methods are designed to evaluate students' understanding and mastery of college-level material. AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with a score of 3 generally considered passing and indicative of college-level proficiency.

  • Exam Format: AP exams typically include a mix of multiple-choice questions and free-response sections, which may consist of essays, problem-solving, or oral responses, depending on the subject.
  • Scoring Process: The exams are scored by a combination of college faculty and experienced AP teachers who undergo rigorous training to ensure consistent and fair grading.
  • College Credit: Scores of 3 or higher on an AP exam can earn students college credit, advanced placement, or both at most colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.
Mean AP scores

Graph showing AP mean scores

Statistics show that the distribution of scores varies by subject, but a significant percentage of students achieve a score of 3 or higher, demonstrating the program's effectiveness in preparing students for higher education. Educational experts highlight the importance of AP assessments in developing and testing critical thinking, analytical skills, and subject-specific knowledge, which are crucial for academic success in college.

Exam dates for Advanced Placements

AP exams are scheduled annually over two weeks in May, a consistent pattern that allows students and educators to plan their academic year around these critical assessments.

  • First Week of May: Typically, exams start in the first week, with tests scheduled across various subjects throughout the day.
  • Second Week of May: The exam period continues into the second week, concluding by the end of the week.
  • Late Testing Dates: The exam board also provides late testing dates for students who cannot attend the regular sessions due to valid reasons such as illness or scheduling conflicts.

DateDay8 a.m. Local Time12 p.m. Local Time
May 6, 2024Monday• United States Government and Politics• Art History • Chemistry
May 7, 2024Tuesday• Human Geography • Microeconomics• Seminar • Statistics
May 8, 2024Wednesday• English Literature and Composition• Comparative Government and Politics • Computer Science A
May 9, 2024Thursday• Chinese Language and Culture • Environmental Science• Psychology
May 10, 2024Friday• European History • United States History• Macroeconomics • Spanish Literature and Culture
May 13, 2024Monday• Calculus AB • Calculus BC• Italian Language and Culture • Precalculus
May 14, 2024Tuesday• English Language and Composition• African American Studies • Physics C: Mechanics
May 15, 2024Wednesday• French Language and Culture • World History: Modern• Computer Science Principles • Music Theory
May 16, 2024Thursday• Spanish Language and Culture• Biology • Japanese Language and Culture
May 17, 2024Friday• German Language and Culture • Physics 1: Algebra-Based• Latin • Physics 2: Algebra-Based

Table showing AP exam dates for 2024

Important things to note:

  • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism Exams will be held on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, 2 and 3 p.m. local time.
  • AP Art and Design: Friday, May 10, 2024 (8 p.m. ET), is the deadline for AP Art and Design students to submit their three portfolio components as final in the AP Digital Portfolio.

Timely preparation for these exams significantly impacts students' performance. Beginning review sessions at least three to four months in advance, allowing the student ample time to cover the extensive material. This strategic approach, aligned with the exam schedule, enables students to enter their AP exams with confidence, fully prepared to showcase their knowledge and skills.

Advanced Placements vs other curriculums

Comparing Advanced Placements (AP) to other curriculums highlights the unique benefits and challenges each educational pathway offers.

  • IB vs AP: AP allows students to pick specific subjects they're interested in, offering flexibility and depth in chosen areas. In contrast, IB Diploma Programme requires a broader range of subjects, including a core component, promoting a holistic educational approach.
  • AP vs. A-Levels: Similar to AP, A-Levels allow students to specialize in subjects of interest. However, A-Levels are more common in the UK and some Commonwealth countries, with a two-year study depth per subject, compared to the one-year AP courses.
  • AP vs. IGCSEs: AP courses provide college-level content aimed at high school students in the U.S., offering a chance to earn college credit. IGCSEs, part of the British curriculum, cater to 14-16-year-olds with a broad global educational focus. While AP focuses on depth in specific subjects, IGCSE offers a wider range of subjects, serving as a foundation for further study, including AP itself.
  • AP vs. Dual Enrollment: AP courses are standardized and recognized nationwide, potentially offering college credit based on exam scores. Dual enrollment courses, taken at local colleges, provide actual college credits but may not be universally recognized.

The rigor and breadth of these curriculums, with AP standing out for its flexible yet challenging course offerings that prepare students for college-level work. Statistics show that colleges value the AP experience, recognizing the effort students put into mastering advanced topics. This recognition can play a pivotal role in college admissions, making AP an attractive option for students aiming for higher education in the U.S. and abroad.

Common challenges and strategies for AP Students

Advanced Placement (AP) students face a unique set of challenges that require strategic approaches to succeed. With the rigor of college-level courses in a high school setting, students often grapple with time management, stress, and the pressure to excel for college admissions. The average score across all exams in recent years hovered around 2.89 out of 5, highlighting the difficulty students face in achieving top scores. Experts suggest several strategies to overcome these obstacles:

  • Effective Time Management: Crafting a study schedule that allocates ample time for each AP subject can help manage the workload. This includes balancing school work with extracurricular activities and personal time.
  • Seeking Help Early: Tutoring and study groups are invaluable resources. The College Board also offers official practice questions and exam descriptions that can guide preparation.
  • Practice Exams: Regularly taking practice exams can acclimate students to the format and time constraints of the actual test, reducing exam-day stress.
  • Wellness and Stress Management: Incorporating relaxation techniques and healthy habits into daily routines can bolster mental and physical readiness.

Incorporating these strategies, as recommended by educational experts, can significantly improve students' performance and overall experience in AP courses.

Here is what an expert AP tutor said:

"To do well in AP exams, start by learning how the test works, including what kinds of questions are asked and how they are graded. Begin studying early, using different study materials and practice tests. This will help you understand the topics better and get comfortable with the exam style."

Career pathways after your Advanced Placements

Successfully completing Advanced Placement (AP) courses opens up a variety of career pathways for students, reflecting the broad and deep preparation these courses provide.

  • College and Beyond: High scores on AP exams can lead to college credit and advanced placement, allowing students to pursue more advanced studies in their fields of interest sooner.
  • Stem Careers: AP courses in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) can lay the foundation for careers in engineering, computer science, and research.
  • Humanities and Social Sciences: AP courses like English, History, and Psychology prepare students for careers in education, law, and social work by developing critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • Arts and Languages: Students excelling in AP Art and Design or Language courses may pursue careers in creative industries or international relations.

Statistics suggest that students who take AP courses are more likely to graduate from college on time, potentially saving on tuition costs and entering the workforce earlier. The skills developed in AP courses, such as problem-solving and time management, are highly valued in any career, providing AP students with a competitive edge in the job market.

Conclusion on Advanced Placements

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are a great way for high school students to take on college-level work and get ahead. These courses help students get ready for college, save time and money by earning college credits early, and build important skills like critical thinking. Even though AP courses can be tough and require a lot of study, there are many resources and tips to help students succeed. Tutoring can provide personalized guidance and support to tackle difficult concepts and prepare effectively for exams. In the end, taking AP courses can make a big difference in a student's education and future career, showing the real benefit of hard work and dedication during high school.


Is AP only in America?

Advanced Placement (AP) programs are predominantly found in the United States and Canada, designed to offer high school students college-level curricula and examinations. However, many high schools worldwide, particularly those catering to American expatriates or international students, also offer AP courses. These global AP courses adhere to the same standards and curricula as those in North America, allowing students from various countries to benefit from this rigorous academic program.

How many AP classes should I take for Harvard?

Harvard University, like many Ivy League schools, doesn't specify a required number of AP courses for admission. However, the competitive nature of its admissions process suggests that taking multiple AP classes can strengthen your application. Aim for 4 to 8 AP courses throughout high school in a variety of subjects, focusing on areas where you show strong interest or exceptional talent. Harvard values depth and rigor in academic preparation, so it's more about the quality of your engagement than merely the quantity of AP classes.

Is AP accepted in the UK?

Yes, universities in the United Kingdom recognize AP exams as part of the admissions process, especially for applicants from the United States. High AP scores can demonstrate your readiness for university-level study, similar to A-levels in the UK. Each university and course might have specific score requirements, so it's wise to check the admissions criteria of the universities you're interested in applying to.

What is a 5 on an AP Exam equivalent to?

A score of 5 on an AP exam is considered equivalent to an A or A+ in the corresponding college course. It represents the highest level of achievement on these exams, indicating that you have a strong grasp of the material and are well-prepared for college-level coursework. Colleges and universities typically award college credit or advanced placement for scores of 3 and above, with a 5 often fulfilling more advanced requirements.

Is AP a one-year course?

Most AP courses are designed to be taught over one academic year. They cover college-level content and skills, preparing students to take the AP exam in May. However, some schools may offer AP courses over a longer period, such as two years, to accommodate different schedules or to allow for more in-depth study.

Does Harvard accept 4 on AP?

Harvard University accepts AP scores for credit and placement purposes, with many departments recognizing scores of 4 and 5. The acceptance of AP scores can vary by department, and in some cases, a score of 5 may be required for credit or to satisfy prerequisites. It's essential to check Harvard's latest AP credit policy for specific score requirements and applicable courses.

Does Yale accept AP credit?

Yale University does accept AP scores for advanced standing and sometimes for credit toward graduation. The policy is department-specific, with some departments requiring scores of 5 for credit. Yale encourages students to use their AP grades and credits to explore a broader range of advanced courses rather than simply graduating early.

Does MIT accept AP credit?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) accepts AP scores for credit in some subjects, particularly in math and science. MIT's credit policy is specific to each department, and AP credits are often used to place students into higher-level courses rather than for graduation credits. A score of 5 is typically required to receive credit.

Is AP harder than A level?

Comparing AP to A-levels isn't straightforward because they serve different educational systems and purposes. However, A-levels are generally considered more difficult and in-depth, focusing on fewer subjects over two years, while AP courses are one-year courses with a broad range of subjects available. Each has its own challenges, and the difficulty can vary depending on the student's strengths and interests.

Does Princeton accept AP credit?

Princeton University has a selective policy regarding AP credit, using scores primarily for placement purposes rather than for credit towards graduation. Some departments may allow AP scores to fulfill prerequisites or to place into higher-level courses. Princeton emphasizes using AP credits to advance to more challenging coursework rather than accelerating graduation.

Does UCLA accept AP?

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) accepts AP scores for college credit, with scores of 3 or higher generally earning credit toward graduation. The amount of credit and how it applies to degree requirements can vary by department and major. UCLA's AP credit policies are detailed on their admissions website, providing guidance on how AP exams can fulfill specific requirements.

Can freshmen take AP courses?

It's relatively rare for freshmen to take AP courses, mainly because these classes assume a high level of knowledge and skills typically acquired in later high school years. However, exceptionally prepared freshmen may be allowed to enroll in certain AP courses, especially in subjects where they have a strong background or interest. Schools usually require teacher recommendations or placement tests for freshmen to enroll in AP classes.

How much do AP exams cost?

The cost for each AP exam in the United States is $98, as of 2024, with a higher fee for exams taken outside the U.S. and Canada. The College Board offers financial assistance to eligible students, reducing the fee to make the exams more accessible. Prices may vary slightly depending on location and administrative fees set by the test site.

Can I take AP exams without the course?

Yes, students can take AP exams without enrolling in the AP course. This option is suitable for students who have studied the subject independently, through homeschooling, or in non-AP classes that cover the same course material. However, self-study students must arrange to take the exam at a participating school and should be well-prepared, as AP exams are designed to assess college-level mastery of the subject.

What happens if I fail an AP exam?

Failing an AP exam (typically scoring 1 or 2) does not negatively affect your high school GPA or college admission prospects, as you are not required to report these scores to colleges. However, you won't receive college credit or advanced placement for the exam. Students often use the experience to identify areas for improvement or to focus on subjects where they have more strength or interest for future AP exams.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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