Does your student want to boost his or her transcript and get a head-start on college-level work? Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams may be a great option. Not only will your student get the chance to dive head-first into college-level study and testing—college admissions officials will also recognize his or her drive and willingness to tackle challenging work.

We’ve compiled a quick guide to help you see whether AP courses and exams are the right fit. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Get familiar with the structure AP courses and exams

AP courses and exams are designed to boost your student’s transcript and help him or her earn credit for college courses—maybe even bypass some general education courses typically offered during freshman and sophomore years of college. The tests are scored on a 1 to 5 grade scale, and high grades can put your student in the running for college scholarships, as well as the chance to jump ahead in basic course requirements.

Step 2: Explore the selection of AP exams with your student

AP exams are offered in 39 different subject areas. Because they’re only offered once a year (as opposed to CLEPs), it’s important for your student to carefully select which AP exams he or she wants to take. Studying for and taking AP exams is an intense process, so your student will be best served by concentrating on the subjects where he or she performs best and has the most interest.      

Step 3: Find out when your student can take selected exams

AP exams are offered every May. It’s best to familiarize yourself with your local testing location at the beginning of the year, then make your student’s testing arrangements no later than early March. It’s best for your student to take his or her exams during May of the junior year. Waiting until senior year will mean that scores won’t be available in time for college registration.

Step 4: Decide whether your student should take AP courses

While your student isn’t required to take College Board-approved AP courses in order to take the exams, doing so will ensure that your student is adequately prepared for the tests. Instead of taking courses offered by College Board, you can develop your own curriculum to help your student prepare at home. The downside to this is that you won’t be able to list it on your student’s transcript as an AP course unless it passes College Board’s strict audit requirements.

Step 5: Help your student develop a study strategy

You and your student will need to work together to create a rigorous study schedule of 10-15 hours per week in the months leading up to the AP exams. These courses and exams cover a wide range of information and are comparable to college-level courses. Your student will need to be familiar with the landscape of the test and the core subject matter in order to be able to adequately prepare. The College Board also offers free practice questions in each subject area.

Step 6: Budget for exam fees

Exam fees are $92 per test, with a fee reduction available for eligible low-income families.

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Step 7: Arrange a testing site for your student

In January, work with your student to list the AP exams he or she wishes to take. By the end of February, contact the College Board for information on your local testing centers. No later than March 15, contact the test coordinator whose information you obtained through College Board and request testing sites that will accept outside students.

The College Board offers additional in-depth information on the ins and outs of AP here.

Step 8: Include AP courses on your student’s transcript

Only label College Board-approved courses with the AP trademark, even if you’ve developed your own curriculum at home to help your student prepare (you can label courses as “Honors” that don’t carry the official AP label). If the course isn’t approved by the College Board, leave the trademark off. Additionally, bear in mind that you’ll need to list AP courses on your student’s transcript with a weighted GPA. AP courses receive an extra 2 grade points on a weighted GPA scale.

For more in-depth information, the College Board website offers a detailed FAQ section regarding all things AP.

AP courses and exams: Benefits and drawbacks

AP courses and exams carry many benefits, including:

  • Preparing your student for college-level work and study habits (which is especially important for homeschoolers)
  • Making your student’s transcript more appealing to colleges
  • Allowing your student to focus on their area of expertise and best knowledge
  • Helping your student get a leg up on college work by earning course credit

Your student may also have the chance to save both money and time on college by bypassing certain general education classes and moving directly into upper-level courses pertaining to his or her major.

Although AP has many advantages, it’s important to consider the downsides. Here are three:

  • Because the exams are only offered once a year, your student will need to carefully plan for both preparation and testing well in advance to ensure he or she receives scores in a timely manner
  • The rigorous study required in order to achieve high AP scores could take time away from other pursuits that mean a lot to your student, like extracurricular activities
  • Some colleges don’t accept AP credits, so it’s important that you become familiar with the AP credit policies at your student’s colleges of choice.

The bottom line

AP courses and exams are rigorous and challenging, but could give your student a massive academic boost. In addition to practicing stronger study and time management skills, your student will gain experience studying and testing on college-level material. Plus, AP courses and exams look great on student transcripts and demonstrate strong work ethic and effective goal-setting for college admissions officials. This could give him or her a chance to jump ahead in college courses, saving time and money in the long run.