If you're a smart young teenager who plans on attending college, consider taking lots of AP Exams.

Advanced Placement Exams are a suite of standardized tests created by the College Board, the same entity that administers the SAT and related tests.  There are currently 34 of them, ranging from Art History to Environmental Science to Microeconomics to three flavors of Physics.

High school students are generally given a limited opportunity to take AP Classes.  If you're in a good school and get good grades, you might get the chance to take as many as six by your senior year.  However, if you're able to pay a small fee, you can take any of these tests at the end of any school year. Any school that administers AP Exams is required (I think) to allow you to take them, regardless of whether you've taken the course or are even enrolled in the school, and you can probably find a school within a few hours that offers any given exam.  Colleges will treat a high score on the test the same whether or not you've taken the formal course.

When applying to a college, if your academic transcript contains, say, twelve passed AP Exams, it will look twice as impressive as that of a high-school valedictorian.  You'll have proven in a very direct and comprehensible way that you are good at academics, that you have taken initiative, and that you are willing to work within the system to appear remarkable.  You'll get into more colleges and get more merit-based scholarship offers.

Furthermore, you'll have an advantage in negotiating the college bureaucracy once you're in.  Some colleges will let you apply all of your AP exams directly as course credit, which means you can enter as a sophomore if you have enough.  This not only shortens the time necessary to get your degree, but gets you access to the advanced classes with high-quality professors faster.  Most will at least let you use some of your tests in lieu of some of the general education requirements: e.g. if you've gotten a 4+ score on both Spanish Language and Spanish Literature, you probably never have to study a language again if you don't want to.

To figure out whether this will work for you, go to the College Board's Teacher's Guide site.  For each subject that even vaguely interests you, download an old test or a practice exam (you may need to identify yourself as a teacher when creating a login account; this is never a lie). You may find that you are already qualified to take several exams, and nearly qualified for many others!  This despite your school (if you have one) claiming that you need to wait three more years and sit through nine months of classroom instruction first.



  • Make sure you schedule your exams well in advance.  Schools can change the deadline for registration at any time, and they can't warn you if they don't know who you are.
  • You don't need to "teach to the test" when engaging in self-study.  One method is to take a quick look at the curriculum at the beginning of the year, check one or two of the recommended books out of a library, then follow your own bliss.  A month or so before the test, take a practice test, and if necessary do some cramming on the bits you've missed.  An afternoon or three with a teacher or professional in the subject can be useful in filling in the gaps, especially with regard to jargon.
  • <EDIT>Per the comments, don't bite on this bullet point; its claims are overconfident.</EDIT>  If you're a voracious reader of fiction and a decent test-taker, you can walk into the English Language and English Literature exams with no preparation and get a perfect score.  I don't know of any others that don't require at least a little prep--you can be a self-taught expert in a subject and still not know the College Board-approved jargon.
  • In written essays, be warned: there are slightly silly quantity-over-quality grading guidelines.  Know them ahead of time.  Almost every essay requires two or three independent arguments or examples.  It's much better to have two bad arguments than one good one.  You'll often want to go in having a few different "case studies" that you know the details of.
Good luck, and have fun!  If you're a nerd, and your high school education is boring you, something is wrong, and it's worth fighting the power a bit to fix it.



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23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:48 PM

In general, teenage LWers should be aware that they can go far, far faster and higher than their peers if they take the initiative and are willing to put in the effort. Schools are just not very efficient. Homeschooled kids appear to reach 12th-grade proficiency at 8th grade.


The linked picture has sadly been deleted, but this paper corroborates.

CLEP, another examination program by the College Board, might also be of interest.

Honestly, just google "self-study APs" and find the huge number of resources available at College Confidential.

Also, if you're highly motivated and aren't prone to video game/social media addiction, dropping out of HS to unschool yourself is an excellent idea. Just self-study APs and contact professors at the local university to do research (and then use this research to enter the Intel STS/Siemens competitions, and also to apply to summer programs like RSI/HSHSP/SSP). You can also then have all the time in the world to self-study for the National Chemistry/Biology/Math/Physics/Computing Olympiads, and easily qualify at least for semifinalist status.

If you're a voracious reader of fiction and a decent test-taker, you can walk into the English Language and English Literature exams with no preparation and get a perfect score.

Data point: I read a whole lot of fantasy and sci-fi during high school and remember only getting a 3 on English Literature. I think that that it asked enough questions about a specific body of works typically read in high school English classes that it substantially affected my grade (I had read enough of these to have something to write about, but my essays weren't much good because I hadn't looked at some of the books I was writing on since freshman/sophomore year.) I got a 4 on English Language, though, because the knowledge required was more general.

I got a 5 on my AP Lit, and I had a similar impression - while I read a ton (not just SF/F; plenty of regular literature) and am a very good test-taker, I still probably would not have gotten a 5 without taking the class. Taking it cold, I'm not sure I could reliably pull off better than a 3.


As a teenage U.S. LW-ers who took and passed ten AP exams and one CLEP exam, I fully agree. This got me a quarter of the credits I need to graduate, thereby making it less embarrassing when I ended up dropping five classes and failing two more out of my four semesters so far.

Based on the experience of one friend and one acquaintance, microeconomics and macroeconomics can be done with a day or two of preparation if you sufficiently clever and generally educated about current affairs (though you may have to talk to someone who understands the grading standards in addition to taking a few practice tests).

Just note that top academic institutions don't accept most AP credit.

I personally would much rather go into college knowing multivariable calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and algorithms than AP bio, AP chem, AP CS, and AP US History.

First point: The very top institutions won't give you much college credit for it, but they will take it into account in admissions, and it makes it easier to lobby for various little goodies.

Second point: This is a bureaucracy hack, not a mind hack. I have no idea whether it's better in the long run for a teenager to prioritize depth or to prioritize breadth.

I was thinking more along the lines of those being the math you need for most non-math disciplines, as opposed to saying people should focus on math.

Most don't accept AP credits, but they do let you place out of introductory classes.

Indeed -- and something not to be overlooked is the fact that credits = $,$$$ and time. I had calculus in high school that was taught through a small local college, but my university didn't want to accept it. Well guess what? They had something called "Credit by Exam."

I took a test, passed with flying colors, and think I maybe paid $150 for my four credits.

Four credits for a typical class, at the time, was about $1,500-2,000 (or maybe even a bit more?). So.. you'll save some dough.

But guess what? Not needing to actually spend the time taking those four credits (or more) will also free you up to take classes you are more interested in or think will provide more utility to your education. Go deeper and take an extra class in whatever field... or go broader and learn something completely unrelated to your field.

There's quite a bit of freedom in this advice over and above what you're getting credit for (the AP this-or-that vs. some-other-subject debate).

I can't overemphasize how true this is. The economic advantages that APs have given me are staggering: I took 14, passed all of them, and started at my local state college with enough credit to obviate all but one of the 30-40 credits of required gen. ed. courses. Since they're effectively paying me to come here, I didn't graduate in 2 years like I could have, but instead am taking the full 4, getting a double major, and actually struggling a bit (even after many courses taken just for fun) to find enough classes to maintain full enrollment. Those tests cost about $1000, but seeing the benefits they were literally worth more than ten times that.

That's freaking awesome. I wish I could go back and do that :) I entered with 16 I think, 12 that counted from AP classes and 4 from that credit for exam test.

the working world, regardless of whether it should be this way, tends to look at education. And a double major and diverse classes plain and simple just looks/sounds impressive. Win-win if you ask me: you get challenged and exposed to a diverse range of materials... and can hopefully leverage the paper you'll get at the end for better pay if you choose. And better pay further increases options for donating, learning even more, etc.

Also, in some states there is the option to take college classes while in high school. Where I grew up it was called Running Start. It was possible to get 2 full years of free college if you took advantage of it fully.

The way in which the AP scores are reported change each year; be certain you know the rules prior to taking an exam. For instance, it has sometimes been the case that scores can be withheld entirely (with no record of having taken the exam); other years, the exam is listed to universities as "score withheld". Still other years, it's been possible to completely cancel the record of having taken the test only prior to receiving your score.

If you wish to attend a university whose admission requirements you easily meet but wish to graduate early, this is of no import: take all the tests you might plausibly pass. If, however, a prestigious university would be highly beneficial to your expected goals in life, you would be well advised to calculate your chances of doing well on an exam prior to taking it along with your ability to hide the results if a poor score is obtained. Naturally, if you are taking a high school AP course, failure to take/do well on the exam will look particularly bad. If you simply decided (as I did) that watching Forrest Gump provides adequate preparation for the US History AP, then this does not apply to quite the same extent.

YES! If you're already going to graduate and look good enough to get into the college you want, this is probably more important than whatever else you're doing right now. Take a few tests, then get an extra year of your life out of school. Worth it.

Some college science classes have lectures, labs, and recitations, so they take up twice as much time as normal classes for only slightly more credit. I'd prioritize science AP tests.

As a high school senior myself, I do not see how 12 passed AP exams is more impressive than becoming the valedictorian. Does this presuppose that the valedictorian took 0 AP exams? Even from a college standpoint, I realize that the focus on the actual grade (1-5) received from taking the AP exam is becoming less emphasized.


Considering that paying for even a single semester of college can be very expensive, being able to graduate college in less then 8 semesters is also a large boon to your early financial situation. When you consider that it also gives you more time to work as well, the effect is further magnified, and it's then made even larger by having the extra time where you can get some of the largest amounts of interest compounding. I think I've probably thanked my Mom a dozen times for making me work hard enough to graduate a semester early by starting college with AP credits from Highschool.

When applying to a college, if your academic transcript contains, say, twelve passed AP Exams, it will look twice as impressive as that of a high-school valedictorian.

Minor nitpick here. At least at my High School, it was impossible to even be valedictorian without taking more AP classes than everyone else.

Otherwise I agree with the general message. When I was doing my college shopping several years ago, I actually found that colleges were far more impressed if you were taking straight up college courses during High School than if you were taking AP classes. Of course, not everyone lives close enough to a University or Community College to pull it off, but it's definitely something worth doing.

I disagree strongly. GTFO of high school ASAP. Take the GED at the absolute earliest allowed and go to community college.

Take the GED at the absolute earliest allowed

The value of that advice is dependent on your locale's tolerance for bypassing school. In Ohio, for example, if the public school district superintendent where you live/last attended school doesn't give you a waiver, the "absolute earliest allowed" is the earlier of "after your class graduated" and "age 19".

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