An Introduction to Advanced Placement Tests

Adjusting to the fast pace of Advanced Placement curriculum can quickly overwhelm even the strongest student. But, why exactly do AP classes and exams require so much work? Two reasons: 1) Advanced placement exams are hard, 2) Advanced placement exams are content-driven.

Advanced placement exams are hard. The questions are challenging. They are testing you at a college level to see if you have a knowledge-base that qualifies you to receive credit for a class. In other words, this isn’t just another high school test! Gone are the days of just rote memorization (although you will need some of that). Now you need to be able to assess ideas, or as the College Board’s Advanced Placement web site (here) states, you will need to be able to “think critically, construct solid arguments, and see many sides of an issue…”

This means that the questions are particularly challenging because they are asking you for more than just the facts. For example, a high school level U.S. history question on the Civil War might look like:

In what year did the North declare war on the South?

(A) 1776

(B) 1845

(C) 1861


(E) 1888

(The answer is B)

Notice how this question is asking you to remember a date. The question could have asked “What was the first battle of Civil War?” In which case, you would have to remember “The Battle at Bull Run.” This is what we are used to doing in high school level courses, remembering facts.

Now take a look at a question about the Civil War on the AP U.S. History Exam:

In 1861 the North went to war with the South primarily to

(A) liberate the slaves

(B) prevent European powers from meddling in American affairs

(C) preserve the Union

(D) avenge political defeats and insults inflicted by the South

(E) forestall a Southern invasion on the North

(The answer is C)

Notice that several of the answers choices did happen during or as a result of the Civil War, but answer choice C is the primary reason the North went to war with the South. You are being asked to assess and evaluate ideas.

Not only do you have to master answering difficult questions, you also need to know your stuff! In other words, you need to study for your tests, do your homework, and review your material from class. And if you didn’t get something the first time in class, you might need to study up on that subject before the Advanced Placement test. Furthermore, there is no way that your teacher covered everything that could possibly be asked on the Advanced Placement test. But, that’s okay, because really you need to know about 2/3 of the content to still get a passing score.

This brings up another point, what exactly is a passing score, and what does it mean? Advanced Placement tests are given a score of 1 through 5. The score indicates mastery of the subject area and indicate whether you qualify to receive college credit for the subject. Here is the breakdown:

5 – Extremely Well Qualified

4 – Well Qualified

3 – Qualified

2 – Possibly Qualified

1 – No Recommendation

AP Exam scores of 5 are equivalent to A grades in the corresponding college course. AP Exam scores of 4 are equivalent to grades of A-, B+, and B in college. AP exam scores of 3 are equivalent to grades of B-, C+, and C in college. Approximately 59% of students who take an AP exam will pass with a 3 or higher. Some colleges will only accept a score of a 4 or 5 for credit, so be sure to check with your particular college.

Stay tuned for test taking tips on particular Advanced Placement subjects, like my personal favorite, chemistry!

Be sure to check out Revolution Prep’s Advanced Placement small group tutoring programs (

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