USA: Advanced Placement (AP)

Last updated
Last verified

Updated 2016

Education context

While the US government provides funding and national standards for schools, authority over public (state-funded) school education in the US rests primarily with individual state departments of education. As most policies are set at the state and local levels, the school curriculum can vary from state to state and even between school districts within a state.

Formal education is generally mandatory from age 5/6 to 16, varying slightly by state. School-level education is organised into ‘grades’. Grades K (kindergarten) – 12 correspond with years 1–13 in the UK.

Age Level of study US grade UK year

11 – 13

Middle school

6th – 8th

Years 7 – 9

14 – 18

High school

9th – 12th (Freshman – Senior)

Years 10 – 13

Although there is no national curriculum, the general content of the high school curriculum across the country has many consistencies. The state will usually set a list of basic required courses for high school graduation. These may include English, mathematics, foreign language, physical education, art and / or music, general science, and social studies (a subject that combines history, government and geography).

Students continue to have flexibility in choosing the level of their classes and elective subjects.

Many high schools will also have ‘tracks’ for students wishing to attend a four-year university course (BA / BSc), pursue a vocational or technical degree at a two-year college or enter the workforce following high school.

Students are generally assessed continually throughout the semester via a combination of tests, mid-term / final exams, essays, quizzes, homework assignments, classroom participation, group work, projects and attendance. This assessment culminates with a final grade for each course awarded at the end of the semester. Marks can be given as letters (A+, A, B+, B, etc), or as numbers out of 100%. These grades are averaged over the student’s high school career, resulting in a Grade Point Average (GPA). Students may also receive a class rank, ranking his / her GPA amongst other members of his / her grade (year in school). On satisfactory completion of 12th grade and the state graduation requirements, the student receives a high school diploma (the requirements for which are set by each state).

Awarding organisation
  • International

Advanced Placement (AP) exams and courses were introduced to be at first year university standard. They were called Advanced Placement because if students did well enough they would bypass initial university requirements for initial study in relevant subjects. Although excellent performance does still allow for exemption from initial course study on some university courses, this is at the discretion of each US university, and the AP has become more associated with the high school provision for more able honours students – often becoming the de facto honours curriculum, and is commonly used as an admissions tool by universities. All AP coursed are designed to be one-year courses.

High schools may seek AP authorisation of their courses, undergoing an audit process – this allows the use of the AP designation on students’ transcripts. However, this is not required, and schools can develop their own courses for subjects and students can still sit for the AP exam. As a national course and examination the AP provides a national standard at a higher level than most high school courses that are familiar to universities.

Each subject has a Development Committee, composed of college faculty and secondary AP teachers. Their role is to:

  • develop course description / curriculum
  • determine general content and ability level of each exam
  • determine requirements for course syllabi
  • write and review exam questions

They also guide and review research and data analyses undertaken – including curriculum and standard-setting studies to ensure alignment of course and exam content.

Courses are typically taken over a year during the students’ 10th, 11th and 12th grade of school – most commonly in the last two years of high school.

The AP examinations are based on the AP course curriculum and are generally three hours in length. Apart from studio art exams, which have portfolio assessments, AP exams contain multiple-choice and writing (free-response) sections. World languages also have a speaking component and the music theory exam has a sight-singing task.

These are summative examinations, taken in May, with results published in early July.

Subject areas

AP courses and examinations are currently available in 37 subjects:

Art history


Calculus AB

Calculus BC


Chinese language and culture

Computer science A

English language and composition

English literature and composition

Environmental science

European history

French language and culture

German language and culture

Government and politics: comparative

Government and politics: United States

Human geography

Italian language and culture

Japanese language and culture




Music theory

Physics 1 and Physics 2

Physics C: electricity and magnetism

Physics C: mechanics


Spanish language and culture

Spanish literature and culture


Studio art: 2-D design

Studio art: 3-D design

Studio art: drawing

United States history

World history

AP Capstone: Research

AP Capstone: Seminar

Computer Science Principles (starting 2016-17)

The new Physics courses and exams (1 and 2) underwent the AP Redesign process and the exams for Physics 1 and Physics 2 are very different compared to the old Physics B exam.  Students must now demonstrate their mastery of the content, concepts and mathematical routines through application of the science practices.  Students completing Physics 1 OR Physics 2 should be able to go on to the Physics C courses (these are Calculus-based). The College Board recommended that if universities use / used Physics B as an entry credential, they should accept Physics 1 or Physics 2 instead.

Physics 1 and 2 are sequential and Physics 1 has to be taken before Physics 2 (but the exams can be taken in the same year). They are both Algebra-based Physics courses and are both one-year courses. Physics C courses are Calculus-based.


Level 3 – acceptable as a group qualification satisfying HE general entrance requirements.

For further information on the qualification level you may wish to refer to UK NARIC, which is the UK body responsible for providing comparability of overseas qualifications.


AP exam scores are equated to ensure comparability over time and within a given year. They are reported on a 5 point scale:

5 Extremely well qualified*


Well qualified*

3 Qualified*
2 Possibly qualified**
1 No recommendation**

* Qualified to receive college credit or Advanced Placement.

** No recommendation to receive college credit or advanced placement.

These definitions are recommendations that the College Board provides to colleges and universities. However, each college decides for which scores it will accept for credit or placement.


The AP examinations are generally three hours in length. Apart from studio art, which have portfolio assessments, AP exams contain multiple-choice and writing (free-response) sections. These are summative examinations, taken in May, with results published in early July.

Contribution of assessment components to overall grade

The assessment components (generally multiple-choice and free-response) scores are weighted and combined into a composite score. Information on weighting for different subjects is available at:…

Guided/notional learning hours notes

There is no official “guided learning hours” given for AP courses by the College Board. Size is based on a typical course teaching time of 135 hours per year, plus 30 hours study time – a total of 165 hours.

Key issues for UK HE admissions

Please note that UK universities create their own entry requirements using AP exams and generally require a high school diploma in addition.

Universities and colleges may wish to make offers using a range of indicators – including GPA, AP results, ACT/SAT scores – for example requiring an overall GPA of 4.0 together with qualifying scores on two AP tests (3 and above). UK universities generally require a high school diploma in addition to AP exam grades.

Student access to admissions tests: Not all schools and colleges in the US provide AP courses or tests; students may not have had the opportunity to take these. Students taking the AP tests will generally take them in only two or three subjects. It is also the case that it is becoming more common for students to take multiple admissions tests; this may include both the AP and SAT II tests.

Student choice: although a formal system of ‘student choice’ does not operate for AP results students may withhold scores from US universities.

Note that these tests are widely taken in Canada and were offered in more than 120 countries outside North America in May 2016.

Timing of assessments/results for learners

AP tests are administered over the first two weeks in May each year. Scores are reported in early July.

Given the number of exams and differences in state systems, students receive them throughout the month.

Qualification dates notes

Current - AP courses and exams are accredited by the College Board and administered by ETS – the College Board was formed in 1900 to develop common entrance exams for university. The College Board first acquired administration of the Advanced Placement programme in 1955.

Reporting and certification information

~4.7 million AP examinations were taken in 2016 by ~2.6 million students worldwide.

~20,000 high schools in the US and ~1,000 outside the US offered at least one AP course formally.

2014 largest subject grade distribution results:

Exam score

Calculus AB

English language

English literature

United States history


% At

% At

% At

% At


























Students (N)





3 or higher %





Mean score




2.76 – all results available at this source.

Progression information/access to HE within home country

Students are assessed for university entry based on a variety of information including:

Grade Point Average (GPA) – The following is a general percentage / letter grade scale for classes taken at US schools:

Letter grade




90 – 100%



80 – 89%



70 – 79%



65 – 69%


F (fail)

below 65%


class rank within the year group;

rigour of classes taken (AP, honours, regular).

Admissions tests: ACT/SAT I/SAT II (subject tests) / AP subject exams – used to supplement secondary school record and help admission officers put local data – such as grades and class rank – in a national context. Universities often require a threshold score in admissions tests.

Further information

Sources: (course information at subject level) (performance data)

AP Course Ledger (publicly available) listing all authorized AP courses by high school: