How to Graduate College Debt Free – Part 1. AP Classes

Adam Personal Finance 14 Comments

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This is a part of a multi-post series on graduating college debt free. Check out the other posts below:

What are AP classes?

Advanced Placement (AP) is a program in the United States and Canada, created by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. American colleges and universities often grant placement and course credit to students who obtain high scores on the examinations.

Why do you care?

Bottom line is it’s pretty close to free college credit that’s recognized at pretty much every college in the country.

Strategically you can view AP classes as having value in 5 ways:

  • They’re free or just a low cost exam fee.
  • They are recognized everywhere in the US.
  • There’s little opportunity cost. You have to take English whether it’s AP or not.
  • Taking them at all (and especially passing) signals ambition and ability on college applications
  • College credit if you pass

AP classes are not the easiest way to get college credit. They’re HARD. They really are. I took a bunch of these tests as a high school student. I graduated top 3 in my class, and I only managed to pass English/History/Biology out of the 6 or 7 I took. Granted, I was lazier back then and I didn’t put in the effort I could have.

BUT the reason AP is a great way to get credit, is that you have to pass English to graduate high school either way. Why not take the version that gives you at least a shot at credit? This is a great opportunity to kill 2 birds with one stone. If you’re in high school, AP classes

What Courses are Available?

AP offers 36 tests across a wide range of subjects:

AP Classes

What’s the test like?

They suck. It’s like the SAT or ACT but just the morning half and it’s subject specific. Most exams are two to three hours long. Breaks are limited.

The first half of the test is multiple choice questions. The second half of the test is typically free-response. Depending on the subject you are likely writing essays or working math problems within the booklet.


Tests are scored on a five-point scale:

  • 5: Extremely well qualified
  • 4: Well-qualified
  • 3: Qualified
  • 2: Possibly qualified
  • 1: No recommendation

What constitutes each band isn’t public and will vary from year to year based on a large number of factors. It’s also really important to have an idea of what score you need for the schools you are looking at. I had the misperception that a 3 was credit everywhere. This is not the case. It actually varies widely and frequently a 4 or 5 is required.


If you can handle the coursework, AP tests are a great low risk, low cost opportunity to add some credits for all the basics before you head off to college

This is a part of a multi-post series on graduating college debt free. Check out the other posts below:

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Comments 14

  1. Fervent Finance

    AP classes and co-op classes were my best friends in high school. They allowed me to graduate from undergrad in 3 years with only having to take one summer course between my first and second year of college.

    1. Post

      I think I went to school with 9-12 hours in credit from AP classes. I would definitely do it differently if I had known then what I do now. I would have been more serious about the AP classes and added a lot of community college work. I had 4 year scholarship though, so I was in no hurry to leave.

  2. Hannah

    One quick note about AP classes- I came in with 32 credits from AP classes which theoretically took care of all my generals, but with the exception of math, none of my credits counted towards any major, meaning I had to take some entry level classes anyhow, and it took nearly two trimesters of entry level classes before I found a major I liked. As a result, my one year of credits only took a semester off of my graduation time (I went the full four years anyhow).

    I really liked high school, so I don’t regret taking AP classes rather than going to a community college, but the way that my undergrad interacted with AP didn’t make them the best way to get reduced cost credit hours.

    1. Post

      Oh that’s too bad. Ya, I don’t expect too many basics will count toward a major, just toward your basics and electives. Most people have at least 30 hours of basics though, so I would think it could knock out a year if you had picked a major right out the gate. Thanks for the comment thought. The specifics of any given school and path can certainly make a strategy less than optimal.

  3. Pingback: How to Graduate College Debt Free – Part 2. Community College | Adam

  4. Dividend Growth Investor

    Nice series on graduating college debt free. Transferring high school classes to college, living cheaply off campus, getting 1 – 2 – 3 summer jobs to pay for college, working throughout college, applying and getting as many scholarships as you can, maintaining a high GPA, knowing what you want to study from the get go, being involved and having fun along the way is the road to success.

    I followed these simple guidelines, and when I actually graduated college I had $2,000 in my checking account and no debt. Unfortunately, I put most of that cash in an old car, that didn’t work out too well 🙂 But that is another story for another day 😉

    I am waiting for part 3 of your series.

    1. Post

      I did the same type of thing. I believe I took 15 hours of credit to college (and I should have done way more), stayed in state at Arkansas because they offered a full ride, and applied to every random scholarship on the net. I tended to work at least 1 job during the semester. I did spend my first 2 summers studying abroad, which kept me much broker than I would have been otherwise, and I had to put a lot of that on a credit card (which I don’t regret at all). However I did a real internship as a junior that paid adult money, so I managed to pay that off and save quite a bit that summer. I graduated debt free with a couple grand in the bank like yourself.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. No Nonsense Landlord

    I took some CLEP exams when I was in the service. I got most of my general ed credits out of the way with them. I was no rock star in HS either. Middle of the pack, but I did not work hard at it. (I should have though…)

    1. Post
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