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The Most Popular Question I'm Asked About AP Exams

I got the question over text a month ago from my high school junior. Then I started hearing the same question from families in Application Nation, over and over again.

Does a student have to take all the AP exams they are signed up for?
 
It was like every high school student in America had this moment in the school year when they realized they needed to draw the line. For some students, the AP class hadn't kept up pace with the curriculum and the students were going to need to learn a significant amount of content on their own before the exam. Others were just realistic that no matter how hard they studied, they weren't going to do as well as they hoped. Yet more students than I care to admit shared that they were simply overwhelmed. There was too much on their plate and not enough hours in the day to get it done. 
 
My heart sinks every time I hear this because the reality is that AP scores are typically not required for admission at American colleges. Students can choose to self-report some, all, or none of their AP scores on their applications. One of the only exceptions is Georgetown University, which requires the student to report all the AP scores they have. But if the student doesn't take the exam, there's no score to report to Georgetown or any other college. And that's okay. 
I often get asked what admissions officers think when the student doesn't report some or any of their AP scores. Do they know the student didn't take the exam? Admissions officers have no idea what the student's situation is—whether they were sick that day, the AP teacher left in the middle of the year and a substitute had to fill in, or if the student had to choose their mental health over taking the exam. Admissions officers can't judge a student based on data they don't have. 
 
Not all high schools agree, though. Some high schools require students to take the AP exam if they take the AP class. In fact, sometimes final grades are dependent on the AP score. And in some states, teachers get bonuses for every student who takes the AP exam. In that case, I just tell students to do the best they can and only report AP scores that will strengthen their applications.
Fortunately, most high schools do not require students to take the AP exam if they took the AP class. I am grateful when this happens. I see the stress in the eyes of my own kids and the many students I work with. AP exams are not the gold standard of learning. They can be an added data point. Ultimately, though, the grade the student receives in the class is always more important.


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To my daughter and the many high school students staring down the month of May and wondering how to get through it, remember to do what is best for you. Final projects, final exams, prom, the SAT, and AP exams all happen in the month of May for many students. That is just too much for one person, let alone a teenager, to handle. If your high school, family, or a college tells you that you need to take that AP exam that you are not comfortable taking, send them my way. I have lived long enough to know that an AP exam has no bearing on success in college or beyond.