Core Idea 1: Take as many Advancement Placement (AP) courses


By Rajkamal Rao

Go back to Basics of US College Education

This page is dedicated to undergraduates - that is, those that want to pursue a traditional 4-year US education to get a BA/BS degree.

Earning a college degree in the United States is all about earning credit hours towards the degree.  Luckily, US colleges don't insist that all of the academic work you do towards earning the degree MUST be completed at the college you eventually graduate from.  Most colleges permit you to study at other institutions (or even online) and allow you to "transfer" those credits to your destination college.

Before you get excited at this idea, note that the process of transferring credits is highly mature and sophisticated.  Strict rules apply and unless you meet all the governing standards of transfer, your credits will likely be worthless.

If you are an international student wishing to go to the US to obtain a 4 year BA/BS degree, we will assume that you are ambitious, hard working and even smart.  You already know that US colleges charge by the credit hour and charges for out of state students, including international students, are extremely high.  So, if there's a way to knock off some first year college level courses when you are still in your home location, should you explore the idea?  This is what this page is all about.

Enter Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  The College Board is a not-for-profit membership organization of American colleges and universities that began in the early 1900's.  It's sole mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity.  Recognizing that many students in US high schools are gifted and talented but are not challenged enough in their high schools, the College Board decided to roll out Advancement Placement courses for high school students to complete before they even enter college.  The best incentive for such students was that by passing an exam conducted by the College Board after paying a small fee, they would earn credit hours that would directly transfer to the college that they would enter.  These students could then either spend less to complete their required 120 SCH degree by taking fewer college credit hour classes, or, for the same money, take additional courses and graduate with a double major (which requires 140-150 credit hours).

There are other benefits too.  By completing these standard AP courses, students are able to highlight their achievements on their college application showing that they are gifted, talented and motivated - traits that college admissions officers look for in an applicant.  You will see that applying to US institutions is all about differentiating yourself - what better way to do so than earn college credits when you are still in high school?

The AP program is highly structured and monitored.   The College Board offers 34 courses/exams in various topics under the AP program. 

For a US high school student, participating in an AP program requires that he first talk to a counselor at his school.  If admitted, he is allowed to take AP classes in his high school along with his regular school work.  This is tough but motivated students can handle the burden.  Then, the student appears for the AP exams conducted by the College Board typically in May.  If the student passes the exam, his credit record can be applied to the college that he will be going to.

Because not all US high schools offer AP programs, the College Board has made it possible for students to take AP classes online and take the AP exam.  It is this idea that we will exploit for you, the international student.

Out of the 34 AP courses authorized by the College Board, the following eight courses may be most relevant to an international student.  Based on the level of training in the student's home country, some of these topics may already have been covered, or the content may not be so hard for the enterprising, motivated student.

Calculus AB for AP*
Calculus BC for AP*
Biology for AP*
Physics B for AP*
Physics C for AP*
Environmental Science for AP*
U.S. Government and Politics for AP*
U.S. History for AP* 

Where do you get the content for the above courses?  And how much does it cost?

The truth is that the College Board does not require you to enroll in any course at all.  In fact, AP Exam registration is open to all eligible students, including those not currently enrolled in an AP course.  If you are confident of taking the an AP exam without any preparation, go for it!

But most international students are nervous about attempting an exam without knowing what the course contents are.  Luckily there is plenty of free information available online.  The best resource is the AP website itself.

Start by going to the main course page of the AP.  This lists all the different AP courses available.  Clicking on any one of them will take you to the home page of that course - which will give you every detail that you need about the course including course descriptions, overviews and in some cases, practice questions.  For example, here is the Calculus AB home page.

Once you have topic descriptions, check to see if your favorite text book covers all the topics.  If not, there are excellent free online resources.  For example, the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC) is an Open Educational Resource (OER) that is made available at no cost via public websites like HippoCampus.   User log in is required.  Also check out the Khan Academy to bridge gaps in a particular knowledge area.

You may even be able to take a free online course although you may have to plan well in advance.  For example, the online MOOC courses giant, edX, offers an AP Physics course for 17 weeks that starts in January.  Remember that all AP exams are held in May.

Assuming that you are already familiar with most of the content for the course, all you may really need is to review material for the test.  Consider registering for online guides such as from Schmoop most of which are free.  If you want test preparation material including full length practice tests, Schmoop charges a nominal fee but you will have access to the material for a whole year.  One problem with this site is that it is ad supported.

Suppose that you don't like the content on these free websites.  You can go to commercially available websites which charge you to take the course.  One such organization is Red Comet which is authorized to offer high school and AP level courses to students in the State of Washington.  Red Comet has promised specialized pricing for Rao Advisors students.  If you are interested, please contact us.

For more information about other commercial online AP course providers, click here.

When you are ready to take the AP exam, you need to sign up with the College Board to pay the fee ($89 for US students; a little higher at international locations) to register and take the exam. Check with AP in your country for exam dates, number of exams offered and locations. Click here for information about AP in India.

Finally, you want to be sure that all this effort does not go a waste and that the US college you intend to apply to will accept AP credit.  Two top schools which do not provide AP credit are Dartmouth and Brown.  At Harvard, you could be placed into what is called Advanced Standing that allows you to gain credit although AP credit is not automatic.  Stanford, Columbia, Penn, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and MIT all provide AP credit but restrictions apply.  Click here to see the credit policy of your college.

So, how much money did you save by taking AP exams?

Suppose an out of state student decides to take 5 AP tests - two tests in May during his 11th grade and three tests in May during his 12th grade.  Assume no course preparation fees because content was available at no cost via public websites like HippoCampus. Assume that the AP exam was $125 per test.  Total cost = $125 x 5 = $625.

If this student can get credit for these five classes when he joins a US college (say, the University of Texas in Dallas) at 3 Semester Credit Hours per class, this amounts to 15 credit hours - fees for an entire semester.  UT Dallas charges an out-of-state tuition fee - for the Fall semester 2013 - of $15,189 per year.  Net savings for this student: $15,189 - $625 = $14,564.  This is significant. Even if the student signs up with an online provider such as Red Comet for course content and pays its fees, the savings will likely be well in excess of $12,000.  Not bad at all!

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services

Our promise is to empower you with as much high-quality, ethical and free advice as is possible via this website.  But students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors and involves a fee.   We suggest that you review our Note on Premium Services for more information.  Or you may contact us directly for more information about our Premium offering.

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