If you’re looking to earn college credits and round out your applications, it’s essential to score well on your Advanced Placement (AP) exams. While taking AP classes comes with several benefits, including significant academic enrichment and a weighted GPA, it’s your AP exam score that determines how much college credit you can earn from an AP course.
But how are these exams scored? The answer depends on which test you take, but all AP exams follow a similar scoring scale. By familiarizing yourself with the general scoring process for AP exams, you can structure your study plans accordingly and set yourself up for success.
What are AP exams?
AP exams are standardized tests that measure students’ mastery of the advanced course material they learn in their year-long AP courses.
The College Board offers a total of 38 AP exam options, and exams are held every May. Depending on the subject, most AP tests include a combination of multiple-choice, essay, and short answer components.
While it is possible to take an AP exam without enrolling in the corresponding course, this generally isn’t recommended — AP classes are designed to prepare students for AP exams, so the proper preparation can help students meet their score goals.
College advisors recommend AP courses for three main reasons:
- Taking more challenging courses shows college admissions committees that students are serious about academics and willing to devote extra time and energy to their best subjects.
- Because many high schools weigh AP classes differently, performing well in AP classes can raise a student’s overall GPA.
- Most colleges offer credit for students who pass their AP exams, which can help students skip intro-level courses or even graduate early.
But what exactly does it mean to score well on an AP exam? This depends on a variety of factors.
The AP scoring scale
AP exams are scored on a scale from 1 to 5. According to the College Board, these numbers translate as follows:
||Extremely Well Qualified
Scores of 3 or higher are considered passing scores, but some colleges only give credit in exchange for 4 and 5. Every university awards credit differently for AP exams, so students should consult AP’s college database for specific policies at different schools.
What does this 1–5 score mean? When students take an AP test, they receive a composite score calculated from the total number of points they earned from correct multiple-choice answers and free responses.
After the test, this composite score is converted into the simpler scaled score students receive as their official exam results.
How are AP exams scored?
Every AP exam is different depending on the subject, but most tests have a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. Sometimes these sections are weighted equally, but specific tests may weigh one section more than the other (for the AP English exam, for example, a free-response is worth 55%, and multiple-choice is worth 45%).
Multiple-choice sections are graded by a computer, which awards a raw multiple-choice score for the number of correct answers (unlike in other standardized tests, points aren’t deducted for blank or wrong answers).
Real teachers and professors grade free-response sections during the annual AP Reading during the first two weeks of June. These graders give each free-response a “holistic” score based on its overall correctness or quality. Usually, this score will fall on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being least effective and 9 being most effective. Next, graders add the holistic scores for each response to determine the student’s raw free-response score.
After the AP Reading, the College Board combines each student’s multiple-choice and free-response scores to calculate the composite score, which they then convert into the final scaled score.
Because composite scores usually fall between 0 and 100 or 0 and 150, a range of different composite scores can translate to a specific scaled score. Scaling varies from year to year and test to test, so there are no absolute cutoff numbers for any given score. For example, a test could award a 4 for any composite score between 80 and 110.
Students won’t see their composite score on their final exam results, so the conversions are generally difficult to predict.
AP English scoring walkthrough
AP test scoring is notoriously complex, so it may help break it down with a concrete example. While score conversions typically change slightly from year to year, the following walkthrough provides a rough overview of the process.
The AP English Language and Composition exam have 55 multiple-choice questions and three essays (each graded on a scale from 1 to 9). The multiple-choice section is worth 45% of your score, and the free-response section is worth 55%.
Calculate Your Raw Scores
Of the 55 multiple-choice questions on the exam, let’s say you get 35 right. Because there are no deductions for wrong or blank answers, this means your raw multiple-choice score would be 35 points.
For the essay section, say the graders give you a 5, an 8, and a 6. Your total raw essay score (5+8+6) would be 19.
Calculate Your Composite Score
You can calculate your composite score from 0 to 150 using the following formula:
(Essay Raw Score x 3.05) + (Multiple Choice Raw Score x 1.23) = Composite Score
In this example, your formula would look like this:
(19 x 3.05) + (35 x 1.23) = 101
Your final composite score would be 101.
Convert Your Composite Score to Your Scaled Score
Depending on the year and the subject, every AP exam will have different composite score cutoffs for each scaled score. For this walkthrough, use the following chart to estimate your final scaled AP score:
According to this chart, a score of 101 would translate to a final AP score of 4. Keep in mind that these cutoffs may change year by year, so a number so close to the top of the 4 range could translate to a 5 in specific years.
The AP scoring process is complicated and constantly shifting, so students shouldn’t fixate too much on gaming the system or predicting their scores. No matter the exam, the best strategy is ample preparation and the right support.