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What Every Homeschooler Needs to Know About AP's

AP class on computer with homeschooler legs

The ultimate homeschool guide to AP classes and exams. What you need to know about selective college admissions.

If you have an 8th or 9th-grade homeschooler, you’re probably overwhelmed with trying to plan the high school years.

I remember it well. You hear that APs are important to selective institutions. But you also hear they’re just another way to turn your homeschool into the confines of a traditional school, lacking the freedom and exploration that is at the core of your homeschool philosophy. Your homeschooler wants to pursue intense passions, yet wants to pursue selective schools.

Placement classes are college-level courses which expose high school students to the rigor of college work.

The exams are offered by the College Board, the makers of the SAT, Subject Tests, and CSS Profile. Offered once a year in May, there are now 38 exams in a variety of subjects from which to choose.

Traditionally, APs were used to accumulate college credit which lessened the cost and the time spent on lower level college courses.

While this still holds true for many schools, it is not much of a reality at selective institutions. These days, strong applicants are taking AP classes and exams to be competitive with the other strong applicants, taking anywhere from 5–10 APs during their high school years.

A vicious cycle? A money making scheme from the College Board? A contributor to the levels of anxiety this generation is facing?

Yes, to all of the above. But that doesn’t diminish the benefits of taking to the exam (and scoring well) as a homeschooler.

The reasons are plenty.

APs are sometimes given a bad rap in the homeschool world.

I mean - your homeschooler came home to learn in their own way, following their own interests. Why would you suddenly take standardized tests to satisfy admissions officers? The truth is, you don’t have to. For most schools in this country, you don’t need to play that game. SAT or ACT scores and GPA are enough.

But what if your homeschooler wants to attend a top tier school? An ivy? A super selective liberal arts college? Then, you should have a plan in place. And the earlier the better.

“We have found that the best predictors at Harvard are Advanced Placement tests and International Baccalaureate Exams, closely followed by the College Board subject tests. High school grades are next in predictive power, followed by the SAT and ACT.” - William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College

And if you don’t have a homeschooler headed to the Ivies? APs are still a great way to support the grades on your homeschool transcript and possibly earn college credit.

boy stressed computer

There are a few ways to take advantage of APs as a homeschooler.

1. Take an online course.

Ten years ago, there was only one online provider for APs. Now, there are many more options. Some offer a variety of subjects - check out PA Homeschoolers, CTY, and Blue Tent. Others offer classes in a specific subject - check out Derek Owens, Lukeion Project, and Edhesive.

2. Create your own AP course and get approval by College Board.

Yes, you have the same opportunity as every other high school teacher does. Check out College Board’s page for the AP Course Audit process. Here is a PDF with deadlines for homeschool teachers.

3. Self-Study for the exam without taking an official class.

There are great books and great online resources that can support your homeschooler while studying for the test. Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy, and practice tests through the College Board are free and accessible to all. Reviewing the guidelines and syllabi for each course on College Board’s site is another great way to understand the test. In addition, search Google for brick and mortar high school AP class syllabi - there are some fabulously generous teachers who upload every video, assignment, and test for all to benefit.

4. Take an approved class without taking the exam.

Why would you do this? Some want the challenge without the pressure of studying for the exam. Some are seniors already accepted to a college and just don’t need the backing of an AP score. And…each exam costs a whopping $94! Another reason you may want to skip the exam.

AP Exams are offered one time only - for two weeks each May.

They tend to be at a time that is already stressful for high schoolers - it’s a common time for prom, spring sports championships, SAT, ACT, Subject Tests, and college visits. It’s imperative that you consider your homeschooler’s schedule when planning out which AP courses to include in your year. Additional Note: If your high schooler plans to take Subject Tests (which certain institutions require for homeschoolers), plan to take them around the same time as the AP. That way, the material is fresh in their mind.

So how does a homeschooler go through the process of signing up for AP Exams?

It is up to each homeschooler to find schools that offer a particular AP exam. Not every school offers every exam. And not every school will allow homeschoolers to take AP exams. Be prepared to drive a distance if your homeschooler is taking AP Art History or AP Japanese!

  1. Begin your search at the beginning of the school year! For the 2019–2020 school year, the new deadline for schools to order AP exams is November 15th (a far cry from the current March 15th deadline). Plan ahead and call local schools. Ask if they offer a particular exam and if they welcome homeschoolers.
  2. Inform the school of any accommodations your homeschooler may need.
  3. Follow the school’s registration process.
  4. Arrive at the test site with photo ID that is government or school issued. Or use this handy ID form that has been notarized. Plan ahead for this!
  5. Use your state’s homeschool code given by the coordinator on the day of the exam.
  6. Await your homeschooler’s score report, which will be available in their College Board account - usually in early July.

​​​​student taking test

During what years should your homeschooler be taking APs?

Taking an AP class or an AP exam is dependent upon the motivation and maturity and preparedness for a particular class and exam. Some are ready in their niche subject in 8th or 9th grade. Some aren’t ready until later in their high school years. Do note that if AP scores are more than four years old, they have been archived and no longer viewable online. You will need to request scores to be sent to schools via mail or fax.

Which ones should your homeschooler take?

Some AP exams are considered easier than others.

Of course, it depends on the student and the quality of preparation, but exams such as Psychology, Human Geography, Environmental Studies, and US Government are generally considered easier exams. The more difficult exams tend to be Calculus BC, Biology, Chemistry, Physics C, and US History. Remember that the class and the commitment are key to doing well on the exams!

And what does it mean to do well?

AP exams are scored between a 1 and 5. A 3 or above is considered passing, but some colleges and universities will only accept a score of 4 or 5 for credit and placement.

5 = extremely well qualified
4 = well qualified
3 = qualified
2 = possibly qualified
1 = no recommendation

Once upon a time, only the elite few took AP courses. And they did it to earn college credit. Nowadays, it’s not so much about saving money and graduating early. It’s more about getting in. That is not to say that schools no longer offer credit. Many still do. It’s just not common among the selective schools. Selective schools, however, tend to use good scores as a way to place out of introductory level courses.
College Board has a convenient tool for you to determine which category a college is in - credit or no credit. Placement or no placement.

How many APs do highly selective schools and the Ivies want to see?

I don’t like the answer I’m about to give you. But, the reality is that your homeschooler is going to be compared to highly competitive applicants - many of whom come from the most elite of private schools. It is common for those applicants to have between 5 and 10 AP classes. Admissions officers do look at the context within a school, which is obviously impossible as a homeschooler. So, unless your student has a desired hook, you might want to consider shooting for 5 or more.

Am I saying that your homeschooler has no chance without a large number of APs?

Absolutely not. Many times, accepted homeschoolers with fewer APs are additionally qualified with dual enrollment or college classes or a national/international accomplishment in some academic or extracurricular pursuit. Or perhaps they fulfill an institutional priority such as race/ethnicity, legacy, or athletics.

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How should you report AP classes and scores on the homeschool transcript?

Where else in the application should AP courses and scores be addressed?

Hold up! What did I say about AP Scholar?

Did you know that, if your homeschooler scores at least a 3 on three exams, they are recognized as an AP Scholar? If the average score is even higher, the award level changes. You can view confirmation of this on your homeschooler’s score report. Check College Board for the various award levels and requirements.

APs vs. Dual Enrollment vs. College Courses

Ah, the question with no clear-cut answer. I ask every admissions officer I meet. Many say they like to see DE or college courses. And the reason? Social interaction! We just can’t escape the stigma! I always inform them that there are many AP courses online now with live, interactive classes. And they’re always surprised. They assume our homeschoolers are self-studying and never leave the house. In my experience, a mix of both AP and college courses is best. AP courses and exams are an easy way for colleges to compare apples to apples when it comes to their applicants.

​​​​girl in grad cap

The bottom line is this.

Selective schools regularly say they want to see students take the most challenging courses. In a sea of highly-qualified applicants, high scores on standardized tests like the AP exams put homeschoolers on an even playing field. For top-tier schools, that’s the minimum needed to get into the “consider” pile.

As Amherst College’s website states, “If you have taken International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or college courses during secondary school, we view this as significant evidence of your academic ambition, accomplishment, and preparation.”

If your homeschooler is committed to a certain academic path, plan ahead and enjoy the ride!

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How is your homeschooler taking advantage of AP classes or exams? Share in the comments below.