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Study up: Scoring AP credit for college isn't easy

  • More than 2.7 million students will take AP exams in May.
  • Among top colleges, 86 percent restrict use of Advanced Placement credits.
  • A few colleges don't accept AP credits.

If you're counting on Advanced Placement credits to cut the cost of a college degree, better start studying your school's policies, too.

In the next few weeks, more than 2.7 million students will take at least one AP exam, according to estimates from the College Board, which runs the program. Collectively, students will sit for more than 4.9 million AP exams over 38 course areas including art history, chemistry, psychology and Spanish literature.

Ideally, a good score can turn one $93 test into a three-credit college course worth roughly $1,800 to $3,000, offering a head start on the number of credits needed for a bachelor's degree. Multiply that by several Advanced Placement classes throughout high school, and it's a good recipe for graduating in under four years — or at least, on time.

"They can graduate early, and that can save them time and money," said David Levy, editor of Edvisors.com.

But experts say it's important for families to consider how colleges use such credits. Depending on your school of choice, your efforts might save thousands of dollars — or nothing.

No guarantees

"There's no guarantee they'll receive credit for their AP scores," said Paul Weinstein, director of Johns Hopkins University's graduate program in public management.

In September 2016, Weinstein assessed policies of the top 153 universities and colleges, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. His study found 86 percent of them restrict AP credit in some way.

Three-quarters of colleges limited which AP subject areas they accept for credit, for example, while 38 percent capped the number of AP credits they award per student. Some will only accept a score of 4, or only accept a 5, Weinstein said. (Exam scores range from 1 to 5, with the College Board noting a 3 shows the student as "qualified," or capable of doing the work of an introductory-level college course.)

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Nine schools in the study — including Dartmouth University and Brown University — did not offer course credit for AP work, he said, although some may still use scores to determine course placement. In other words, you won't be a few credits closer to graduation, but you won't have to take Chemistry 101, either.

The College Board says it has seen positive trends in the past year, with more colleges granting credit for AP scores of 3 and accepting a broader array of subject areas.

"What we've seen in the 2017 data is a shift back," said Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and instruction at the College Board.

Much of the change stems from state policymakers passing legislation requiring public colleges to accept qualified AP scores for credit, Packer said. (Nearly half of states now have such a policy.) Among private colleges, he said, many see a liberal AP policy as a good recruiting tool.

"The college knows it's not a class that has been watered down. [Scoring] a 4 or 5 is a real accomplishment." -Mark Kantrowitz, Vice president of strategy, Cappex.com

Here's how to make the most of your advanced classwork:

1) Dig into college policies

Search the College Board database to see how your colleges of choice handle Advanced Placement credit. Reach out to the college to confirm the current policy, or to get details if those publicly available aren't clear, said Weinstein.

"Some schools are very non-communicative about this," he said.

2) Factor credit into aid offers

Nearly three-quarters of students considered college AP credit policies when making their enrollment decision, according to a College Board survey of 2016 test takers. That's smart: A college's willingness to accept AP scores, or not, could shift the value of its offered aid package, Levy said. The value of those course credits might add up to more than a scholarship.

"This should be another tool families are looking at," he said — and another negotiating point.

3) Think big picture

If the college policy is to use credits only for course placement, that can still work to your advantage, said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for college and scholarship search site Cappex.com. That flexibility can free you up to take more advanced classes within your field of study or to graduate with a double major.

4) Ask about alternatives

"Even if your [high] school doesn't offer AP tests, check with the college to find out what other options they offer," Kantrowitz said.

Some colleges may let you take a placement exam once you arrive on campus and use a good score to waive introductory course requirements, he said. They may also be willing to accept scores from other advanced-standing exams, either for credit or placement.

5) Crush the exam

Course credit is only one way a great AP exam score can work to your advantage, Kantrowitz said. Good grades in an Advanced Placement class can boost your GPA above a 4.0, and colleges like to see those courses and scores on applications, he said.

"It benefits you in college admission, because they are challenging classes," he said. "The college knows it's not a class that has been watered down. [Scoring] a 4 or 5 is a real accomplishment."

Private universities that have restrictive AP credit policies tend to value the scores more when it comes to admissions and awarding scholarships, said Packer of the College Board.

Kantrowitz said he's even heard of employers asking job and internship applicants for proof of how they fared on AP exams because the standardized tests speak to knowledge of a specific subject area.

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