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How Does AP Credit Work?

How Does AP Credit Work?

AP (Advanced Placement) credit can have great benefits for a student, but it’s important to gain an understanding of what exactly those benefits can be. The credits you can earn through AP depend on both the school you attend and the score you got on the AP exam.

Some students will enter college and place out of a wide variety of introductory classes, but this is not true for everyone. Other students may end up only with generic credits. Some colleges don’t accept AP credits at all. Let’s unpack definitions around AP credit terms, and explain how you can benefit from receiving credits.

Related: 2024 AP schedule

What are AP credits?

Students can earn AP credits by performing well on the AP E\exams. The College Board offers AP exams as a bookend to their AP courses. These courses are taught across the country in high school with standardized curriculums. Students in AP courses receive a higher weighted GPA for their performance. Teachers of these AP courses teach to the test, which is to say, they design their curriculum to help their students do well on the AP exam at the end of the semester.

Although AP exams are written with AP courses in mind, you don’t actually need to take an AP course to take an AP exam. You can self-study, or prepare on your own, and take the test without taking the course. For students whose schedules do not allow for them to take the AP courses they want, or whose schools don’t offer AP, this can be a great alternative.

Also see: How do I get a reduced fee for my AP Exam?

AP Exam scoring scale

AP exams are scored on a 1 to 5 scale. 5 is the highest you can earn, and 1 is the lowest. Almost no schools give any credit for scores of 1 or 2. Scores of 3 and above typically offer credit, placement, or both.

Also see: What happens if I fail my AP Exam?

Placement vs. credit

AP exams can help you earn two perks in college: placement and credit. Some colleges only accept AP scores for placement, and others only accept it for credit. But many also accept them for both. But what is the difference between placement and credit? We’ll break it down here.


In order to graduate from college, students need a total number of credits. At many schools, this total number is 120. Schools also typically have a requirement for the number of credits a student must take in their major.

If you score well on an AP exam, your college might convert this score into credit. That means that you’ll already have credit completed when you start attending your college. You’ll be closer to graduation, set yourself up for academic freedom, and even give yourself some leeway if you were to drop a class.

But remember that in addition to a total number of credits, schools require a number of credits within your major to graduate. Some schools count AP credits as generic credits that would not count towards any major or field of study. Others allow you to count it into your major credit requirements or even your diversification credit requirements. Make sure to check with the registrar to find out how your school treats AP credits.

Also see: Why should I earn college credit in high school? 


Many colleges offer classes that they view as interchangeable with AP courses. In these cases, a college will allow you to place out of these classes if you perform well on the exam. So, instead of starting off in a 100 level math class, you might start off in a 200 level. This puts you closer to meeting all of your advanced class requirements. 

By knocking these requirements out early, you save yourself a bit of money and you create a more flexible college experience. You may be able to change your major, or add a second major, later in your college career than if you hadn’t had those AP scores. 

Don’t miss: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

Credit and placement

The best possible scenario for a student is if a school offers both credit and placement for AP scores. In this case, it will be just the same as if you’d taken the class that you placed out of. Not only do you place out of the requirement of taking it, but you receive the credits for having completed it.

Also see: All about the AP Scholar Award

What score do I need to earn AP credit or placement?

The answer to this question varies on a school-by-school basis. Let’s take the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for example. They are a school that offers both AP credit and placement. On their website, they list how many credits students can earn for each possible score of each possible test, and what classes they would place students out of.

In their section for AP Calculus AB, they state that a score of 3 on the exam places students out of Math 234 and awards them 4 credit hours. A score of 4 or 5 places them out of Math 220 and awards them 5 credit hours.

As you can see, each university has their own specific system for the interpretation of AP scores. Most schools only accept scores of 3 or above. But some schools will view any score of 3-5 as the same, while others award higher credit hours and more advanced placements to scores of 4 or 5.

Also see: Top colleges that accept CLEP

How do AP credits work for transfer students?

If you apply your AP credits to a school and then decide to transfer, you will have to investigate the AP credit policies of the new schools you consider. If your new school offers different placements or does not offer credit, you might have to retake some fundamental courses. Make sure to check in with the registrar of your potential new school before making any decisions.

Don’t miss: How to write a college transfer essay

Liberal arts schools vs. larger universities

In general, larger universities are more likely to apply AP scores towards placement, allowing students to place out of classes. This could be a wide number of factors. One possible explanation is that larger universities typically have a larger number of classes, so there is a better chance that one of their classes is a suitable substitute for your AP course.

So, what does this mean for you? Well, if you already have an idea of what type of school you’d like to attend, this information can help you decide how much to prioritize AP exams. If all the schools you’re considering are larger universities, there’s a good chance your AP scores could help you out a lot and potentially even help you graduate early. If you’re looking at liberal arts schools, it probably won’t get you as far.

Also see: How to graduate in three years

Which schools don’t accept AP credits at all?

Schools are beginning to change their policies around AP credits, so this list might be changing as time goes on. However, here is a list of some of the schools that currently don’t accept AP credits at all.

  • California Institute of Technology
  • Dartmouth College
  • Brown University
  • Williams College
  • Amherst College
  • Harvey Mudd College

Cost-Benefit Analysis

With a cost of up to $98 per test, it makes sense that students would want to ensure that their AP test is worthwhile. Here are a few things to consider before you make your choice.

  • What are the AP credit policies at the schools you are considering?
  • Do you feel confident that you will score a 3 or above on the exam?
  • How much would the extra flexibility of AP credits and placement benefit you in college?

Related: How to pay for AP Exams

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • AP exams can yield college credit or placement for students
  • Credit gives students a number of credit hours to apply towards the total they need for graduation
  • Placement allows them to skip fundamental classes and enroll directly into more advanced ones
  • Different schools have different policies about awarding credit and placement to students based on AP exams
  • You typically need a score of 3 or above to earn credit or placement. Sometimes, a score of 4 or 5 yields more credit hours or higher placement than a score of 3
  • Students can choose to self-study for an AP exam even if they didn’t take the course

 Frequently asked questions about how AP credit works

[s360_widget type="dropdown" title="Do AP scores expire?"] AP scores do not expire! This means you can report your AP scores to colleges and universities years after you’ve taken the exams and they will still consider them for credit or placement. Key Takeaways

Is AP credit recognized outside of the United States?

Some international colleges do recognize AP credit, but policies do vary widely. Therefore, be sure to check with the specific school you are interested in attending to see if they accept AP credit.

What if I don’t pass an AP exam?

If you don’t pass an AP exam, it usually does not negatively impact your high school GPA or college admissions. You can list the AP course on your transcript but you most likely will not earn college credit for that exam.

What is a passing score on an AP exam?

A passing score for AP exams is typically a 3, 4 or 5 (the exam is scaled 1 to 5). However, the required score for college credit may differ depending on the college or university.