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Understanding Your AP Scores

By Lisa Freedland

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: December 1st, 2023
Understanding Your AP Scores

Every year, millions of students take Advanced Placement (AP) exams. For those who have never taken one before, it can certainly be a struggle to understand your scores. Lucky for you, there’s no need to fear. We’ve gone through and created this article to help you interpret your AP scores, no matter what exam you took or score you received.

So, if that sounds of use to you, keep on reading to learn how exams are scored. We also cover what each AP score means and look at the most recent score distributions (for every exam)!

How are AP exams scored?

Before we get into the actual interpretation of your AP score(s), it might help to know how AP tests are scored first. Let’s get into it.

Once students finish their exams, they are collected by test proctors, and given to the school. One’s school will then return all paper AP exam materials to the AP program. All paper exams are then scored. Here’s how:

  1. Multiple-choice questions are scored by a computer, which will scan each answer sheet. Students’ multiple choice scores equal the total number of correct responses on their answer sheets.
  2. Free-response questions are scored at the yearly AP Reading which takes place the first two weeks of June. Specially chosen college professors and AP teachers meet to grade these sections.
  3. The multiple-choice and free-response scores are combined to form a composite score. These composite scores are then “translated” into the 5-point scale. Statistical processes are used to ensure that each score (a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) reflects the same “level of achievement” as previous years. For example, a “3” one year should reflect roughly the same or a similar score as any other year.

And that’s how AP exams are scored (most of them, at least)! However, if you took AP Seminar, AP Research, AP Computer Science Principles, or one of the AP Art and Design exams, the grading works a little differently. 

If you’re curious about how any particular exam is scored, we would highly recommend checking out the College Board’s AP courses and exams page.

AP exams with special score structures

We’ve now gone over how most AP exams are scored, but there are a few exams that have “special score structures.” Most notably, these include the AP Music Theory and AP Calculus BC exam. Let’s take a look at how these are scored.

Music Theory

Those who take the AP Music Theory exam should expect to receive two different subscores, both of which are scored on the typical 1-5 scale. The first of these subscores is the aural component subscore, which is based on one’s answers to (1) multiple-choice questions about recorded musical excerpts, (2) melodic dictation questions, (3) harmonic dictation questions, and (4) sight-singing questions. ‘Aural’ refers to the ear or the sense of hearing. 

The other subscore is the nonaural component subscore. This score is based on one’s answers for (1) score analysis and multiple-choice questions unrelated to recorded musical excerpts, (2) free-response questions about realization of a figured bass, (3) realization of a chord progression from Roman numerals, and (4) the composition of a bass line to fit a given melody. 

If you’re perhaps wondering why these scores are divided in this way, it’s simply to help college music departments make decisions about credit and placement when there are separate courses offered for written music theory and aural skills. To learn more about the AP Music Theory exam (or the course itself), we highly recommend checking out the College Board’s AP music theory page! 

Calculus BC

The AP Calculus BC exam is another test scored differently than most AP exams, in that it also gives students a subscore. This subscore, the Calculus AB subscore, is unique in that AP Calculus AB has an AP exam of its own. However, it is included as a subscore on the AP Calculus BC exam because around 60% of the Calculus BC exam is devoted to Calculus AB topics. So, besides receiving their typical 1-5 score for the entire Calculus BC exam, students taking the exam will also receive a 1-5 score for how well they performed on the Calculus AB topics specifically. 

To learn more about the AP Calculus BC exam (or the course itself), we highly recommend checking out the College Board’s AP calculus BC page! And, if you’re interested in how Calculus BC differs from AP Calculus AB, consider checking out the College Board’s AP calculus AB page as well.

Interpreting your AP Scores

Now onto the fun part: interpreting your scores! Before we get into what each score means, though, from earlier in this article that AP exams are scored on a 1-5 scale. This means that while the lowest score you can earn is a “1”, the highest is a “5.” And, while any score of 3 or above is considered “passing,” many universities will require scores of 4 or 5 for students to receive college credit for their AP exam scores. 

So, with that said, what does each score mean?

Also see: How does AP credit work? 

AP score of 1

A score of “1” is the lowest score students can receive on an AP exam, and typically indicates that a student was largely or entirely unfamiliar with a course’s content. While receiving a score of “1” is very rare on some exams, it is quite common on others (you’ll see what we mean when you get to the score distributions later!). However, either way, students will unfortunately be unable to receive college credit with an AP score of 1.

AP score of 2

According to the College Board, students who receive a score of 2 on an AP exam are considered “possibly qualified” to pass a college course focusing on the same subject matter. However, since students who receive a 2 are only deemed “possibly” (and not certainly) qualified to pass a similar college-level course, they are unable to receive college credit with an AP score of 2. 

Although students who receive a score of 1 or 2 on an AP exam will not be able to receive college credit for their scores, we want to reassure these students that this is certainly not the end of the world. AP scores are not factored into college admissions, and students often go on to have great college careers even if they weren’t able to “pass” a few of their AP exams.

For now, though, onto the next score!

AP score of 3

An AP score of 3 is the lowest score one can receive in order to “pass” an AP exam. The College Board deems students who receive a 3 on any AP exam “qualified” to pass a college course on the same topic. Despite this, since “passing” is often equated with a grade of a B- or C, more competitive schools may not give students credit for an AP score of 3. A 3, however, is the most common score achieved for the majority of AP exams. 

AP score of 4

Receiving a score of “4” on an AP exam indicates that a student has a strong grasp of the course material and is able to use that understanding to effectively answer questions about the topic. It is often equated with receiving a grade of “B” and suggests that students would have no issue passing a college course testing the same material. The vast majority of colleges, besides those that are deemed the “most selective,” will typically give students college credit for an AP score of 4.

AP score of 5

And last, but certainly not least, is an AP score of 5! A score of 5 suggests that a student has studied hard and has a very solid understanding of the subject matter. All colleges, except those few that don’t allow students to receive college credit for their AP scores, will generally give students credit for an AP score of 5. 

2023 AP Score Distributions

You now know how to interpret your AP scores, but how do your scores stack up compared to your peers? Well, that’s what the score distributions are for! Every year, the College Board releases score distributions for each AP exam, giving students an idea of how many students got a score of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on each exam. While this isn’t essential information to know you, you may be curious to review the distributions to learn more about which AP exams are more or less challenging to help you prepare. So, keep on reading to see how students performed on each AP exam for the 2020-2021 school year.

Before we get into the distributions, though, we would like to note that these numbers have been “released” (tweeted) by the College Board’s head of Advanced Placement, Trevor Packer, himself. Despite this, they are only preliminary breakdowns and may slightly differ from the official 2021 distributions that will eventually be posted by the College Board. This is because the official distributions take into account the scores from late or make-up exams, while the preliminary score distributions do not.

For now, here we go!

Arts 

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
2-D Art and Design 11.5% 31.5% 40.7% 14.4% 2%
3-D Art and Design 7.1% 25.2% 39.9% 23.5% 4.4%
Art History 13.8% 23.8% 27% 23.8% 11.6%
Music Theory 19.8% 16.9% 24% 24.1% 15.2%
Drawing 15.7% 32.9% 36.1% 13.1% 2.1%

English

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
English Language and Composition 10.3% 19.7% 26.1% 29.5% 14.4%
English Literature and Composition 14.9% 27.8% 34.5% 14.4% 8.4%

History and Social Sciences

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
Comparative Government and Politics 16.4% 23.2% 31.2% 16.2% 13%
European History 12.9% 21.3% 25.2% 29% 11.6%
Human Geography 16% 20% 18.4% 14% 31.6%
Macroeconomics 17.1% 22.9% 24.7% 21.6% 13.7%
Microeconomics 21.3% 26% 20.6% 19.9% 12.1%
Psychology 16.9% 23.2% 19.5% 12.4% 28%
United States Government and Politics 12.8% 11.3% 25.1% 24% 26.8%
United States History 10.6% 14.8% 22.1% 22.7% 29.8%
World History 15.3% 21.9% 27.4% 22.3% 13%

Math and Computer Science

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
Calculus AB 22.4% 16.2% 19.4% 21.7% 20.3%
Calculus BC 43.5% 15.9% 19% 15.2% 6.3%
Computer Science A 26.8% 22.4% 18.8% 9.5% 22.5%
Computer Science Principles 11.5% 20.6% 31.1% 20.5% 16.4%
Statistics 15.1% 22.2% 22.7% 16.2% 23.8%

Sciences

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
Biology 14.3% 23% 27.2% 23.6% 12%
Chemistry 16% 27.1% 32% 16.9% 8%
Environmental Science 8.3% 28.4% 17% 26.4% 19.9%
Physics 1: Algebra-Based 8.8% 18.3% 18.5% 28% 26.4%
Physics 2: Algebra-Based 16.5% 18.5% 34.9% 23.8% 6.4%
Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism 33.6% 23.5% 13.1% 17.9% 11.9%
Physics C: Mechanics 26.4% 26.3% 20.7% 14% 12.5%

World Languages and Cultures

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
Chinese Language and Culture 54.2% 18.8% 15.4% 5% 6.6%
French Language and Culture 13.2% 25.1% 36.4% 19.8% 5.5%
German Language and Culture 21.8% 21.3% 24.9% 19.2% 12.8%
Italian Language and Culture 23.2% 22.8% 26.9% 17.1% 10.1%
Japanese Language and Culture 50.8% 8.6% 17.5% 8.2% 14.9%
Spanish Language and Culture 24.3% 30% 29.6% 13.5% 2.7%
Spanish Literature and Culture 8.5% 23.3% 35.6% 22.5% 10.1%
Latin 12.3% 16.5% 28% 24.9% 18.4%

Capstone Diploma Program

Exam 5 4 3 2 1
Research 13.3% 26.4% 44.7% 12.5% 3.1%
Seminar 11.4% 19.7% 53.9% 11.2% 3.8%

Do AP scores impact college admissions?

We hope that the 2023 score distributions were able to give you a good idea of how you performed against your peers. If you’ve taken the test(s) and did particularly well, congratulations! If you didn’t perform exactly how you wished, however, there’s no need to worry! 

Ultimately, students can choose whether or not to send in their AP scores to colleges they apply to. So, for students who did perform well, it may be beneficial to send your scores off to colleges and give your application that extra little “bump” (and possibly get you some college credit if you’re accepted). However, if you didn’t perform up to your expectations, you don’t need to send your scores in at all – and they will not be seen by college admission panels. 

While your AP scores certainly won’t be a defining factor in whether or not you’re accepted to colleges, you can definitely reap the benefits of performing well on them (they look good on your application plus are a potential to earn college credit!). Thus, we highly recommend students study hard and try their best on their AP exams.

So, if you’re not exactly sure how to practice for your AP exams or need some advice on how to do so, we highly recommend checking out the College Board’s Practice for the exams page.

Additional resources for AP exams

If you’ve recently taken AP exams, you might have questions about how your scores will impact your future. We’ve got a guide to help you understand how AP credit works, so you can get an idea of what to expect for college. If you have more time left in high school, we can show you how to self-study for your next AP exam, and show you the easiest exams to self-study for.

If you’re considering finding a new way to earn college credit, we can also walk you through the steps of dual enrollment. Finally, for students who are wondering whether their AP-boosted GPA will take precedence over their standard GPA, check out our guide to weighted vs unweighted GPAs. Best of luck, and now that AP tests are behind you, make sure you apply for all the scholarships you are eligible for!

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Frequently asked questions about AP scores

Do colleges prefer AP or honors?

Ultimately, colleges like both. AP and honors courses are both considered more rigorous or “higher-level” than their regular course counterparts and show universities that students are making an effort to challenge themselves. However, if students plan on applying to top colleges and universities, we may recommend trying to take more AP exams (just don’t overwork yourself!). These culminate in AP exams, and good AP scores will both (1) show colleges that you’re ready for college-level work and (2) potentially give you college credit!

To learn more about the differences (and similarities) between AP and honors, be sure to check out Honors vs. AP courses: What are the differences? And, if you’re interested in learning about the differences between the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, consider checking out IB vs AP: What you need to know!

Can I use AP scores for college credit?

The answer to this question varies based on the score you earn and the college you attend. Some schools will offer placement for AP scores, which means that you will be placed out of classes. Other schools offer credit, which gives you credits that count towards your total graduation requirement. Some schools offer both of these. Oftentimes, the score you need to earn either of these varies based on school and even by class.

What is a good AP score?

You can score between a 1 and a 5 on an AP score, and the score that is considered “good” can vary by class. Some classes have a higher average score, while others have a lower one. Typically, you’ll need a 3 or above to gain placement or credit at a college.

What happens if you fail an AP exam?

The short answer is – nothing! You won’t lose or gain anything, so it will basically be as if you didn’t take the test. You won’t be faulted or favored by admissions officers. Additionally, you can also choose not to send your scores to colleges, as long as you don’t pre-select colleges to receive it before taking it. 

Can you take an AP Exam without taking the class?

Yes, you can! It’s called self-studying and many students do it in order to earn college credit and build up their college education. Our guide to self-studying AP Exams is a great way to start and learn how to make a study plan.

Do you have to take an AP Exam if you take an AP course?

You don’t! Keep in mind though, many AP teachers use a sample AP Exam as their final exam. So, you might have to take a very similar test in order to earn a good grade in the class.

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