AP Exams without AP Classes

There’s a lot of talk about Advanced Placement (AP) exams lately, given concerns over the AP U.S. History exam in Oklahoma and, here in Texas, the push for more students to take AP classes and the associated exams.

Recently, I was discussing this topic with some friends in reaction to the article “What Happens When a 38-Year-Old Man Takes an AP History Test?” Many of us are around that age, and I commented that I found it discouraging that the author of the piece didn’t think he could take AP tests back when he was in high school because he wasn’t “qualified” to enroll in AP classes. He was a “B-” student. Several friends replied, well, yeah; you can’t take the tests if you can’t take the class.


Here’s my story: I attended two high schools, the first of which, outside Chicago, was an academic powerhouse. I therefore knew about AP classes and AP tests and the wonderful college credit I could earn. The second high school, outside Seattle, had no honors courses, let alone AP classes. That didn’t discourage me; I decided to take as many exams as I could anyway. When I approached teachers asking for help in preparing, some told me they would risk their jobs if they did so. Another quietly tutored me and another student for the Calculus AB exam down by the guidance counselor’s office, after school, where no one was likely to walk by. It seemed odd, because the school’s only Spanish teacher openly made it known that her goal for everyone in my class was to take — and pass — the AP Spanish exam.

I took 5 AP exams in all, including the most popular ones: U.S. History my junior year, and English Language, English Literature, Spanish, and Calculus AB my senior year. Without any guidance, I didn’t know which English test to take, so I just signed up for both. I re-read Pride and Prejudice and prayed it was an option on the essay response (it was). This was before the internet, so to sign up, I had to call around the school district asking questions, get paperwork sent to me via non-electronic-mail to register, and find the testing center.

Now, I was and still am a nerd. I passed all 5 exams and received the equivalent of a full year of college credit at my private, liberal-arts college. Without AP credit, I wouldn’t have been able to double major in English and Chemistry and still graduate in four years. I needed those exams.

I don’t know how much control high schools now have over who gets to take AP courses and thereby exams…and in the process, control their pass rates and look good. I do know that any kid who’s willing to do the AP work and sit for the exam, even if she scores a 1 out of 5, is better prepared for the rigors of college thanks to the experience. There are all sorts of exams out there, as the figure below shows.

If your high school doesn’t offer AP classes, check out the College Board’s advice. Look into whether a nearby school has AP and whether you can get approval to test there.

If your high school does offer AP classes but you aren’t enrolled, talk with the AP Coordinator anyway. Come prepared with your rationale and any study materials you’ve been using.

If that doesn’t work out, consider CLEP exams, which also earn college credit and are a little cheaper, at $80 a pop (compared to $91 for AP exams, although low-income testers can get a $29 fee reduction).

Often, credit-by-exam from Advanced Placement or CLEP can be used in addition to the maximum transfer hours from a 2-year college. Depending on your major and the university you want to attend, between these tests and careful course selection at a community college, you may be able to keep your time and costs at a 4-year university to a minimum.

College students offer complain about general education requirements and core curriculum courses, but there are ways to avoid them if that’s what you want! Take a good, hard look at your exam options 🙂


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