What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

This is the foliage of destiny.

In this installment of What does it really take to get into the Ivy League?, we continue our discussion of standardized tests, turning now to subject based tests such as AP, IB, and SAT II exams. How many AP Exams should I take? Do I need an International Baccalaureate diploma? What about SAT II exams? Read on, gentle reader, read on!

When it comes to AP/IB exams, the more you take (and get top scores on) the better. As I mentioned last time, you want to take as many AP/IB courses as you possibly can, and you always want to take the exams at the end and get as high a score as you can. When I was applying to college, many of my friends would even take AP exams for courses they didn’t take: for instance, the European History exam was very popular, since much of the material was already covered in the World History exam they were going to take anyway. They would just buy a prep book and study all the parts that weren’t covered in World History, then go take the exam without ever having taken an AP European History class (they got 5s, too). I never resorted to such methods myself, but I still ended up with 5s on seven exams (World History, U.S. History, Micro/Macro Economics, Physics B, Biology, English Language, English Literature), and 4s on two others (Calculus BC (Calculus AB counts that as a 5, I believe) and Music Theory (took this one freshman year – ear training is hard!)).

Some schools offer the IB (International Baccalaureate) program instead of AP courses (mine offered both, so I did both). From what I understand, the International Baccalaureate program is a relic of the Cold War that allows students who complete IB courses and pass IB exams to qualify for college admission in countries all over the world (mostly NATO countries, for practical purposes), and while it is still useful for students who want to study in Europe (I don’t know why you’d want to – the US is widely recognized to have the best university system in the world), today it is mostly an alternative to AP. If you do the IB Diploma program, you want to get as many 7s as possible, especially on your higher-level exams.

Just as a side note, after you get into your Ivy, AP scores of 5 and HL IB scores of 7 can often be used to place out of entry level courses and may count toward graduation requirements (my credits from AP and IB exams helped me graduate a year early from Columbia – although that may or may not have been a wise decision…).

A scholar’s work is never done.

Ivy league schools generally require you to take at least two SAT II subject exams as well. You can find a list of available exams here. In general, you want to take one humanities and one math/science. I believe I took three exams, actually: U.S. History, Math II (Math II includes precalculus and trigonometry in addition to the algebra and geometry covered on the Math I, so it’s better to take the Math II), and Literature (perfect score on that one). You definitely want above a 700 on each of these exams, and the closer you can get to a perfect 800, the better. These exams are more competitive than the regular SAT, because generally only students aiming to get into elite schools take them. Of course, you do have the advantage of only testing on your best subjects. It’s also wise to take an SAT II exam immediately after you finish the relevant course so all the material is still fresh in your mind from the final, AP, and/or IB exam you just took.

Hopefully, your high school teachers, coursework, and independent pre-test cramming will prepare you for these exams. If, however, you desire more preparation or an extra edge on the competition, you can get extra help from professional experts (Literature SAT II prep, anyone?), and many of the same companies that offer SAT and ACT prep services provide tutoring in these subjects as well.

Now that we’ve covered the nitty-gritty of grades and exams, next time we’ll start to turn to some of the more touchy-feely aspects of your application: extracurriculars.

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

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20 Responses to What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

  1. Christine says:

    Which years did you take which AP/IB classes?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Christine,

      The short answer is…all of them. I took AP Music Theory freshman year; AP World History sophomore year; AP Physics, AP English Language, AP French, and AP US History junior year; and AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics, AP US Gov, AP Calculus, and AP Biology senior year. All of my non-AP classes were pre-AP classes. As for IB, I don’t really remember which years I did what or whether I did some subjects higher level or lower level, but I also did all that stuff while I was doing AP stuff as well. I had some friends who would take AP tests even though they didn’t take the classes that went with them; European History, Psychology, and Comparative Gov were popular choices with that crowd. Needless to say, by junior year I was spending more time taking exams than I was actually in class during the month of May.

      Hope that helps,
      Calvin

  2. Masha Yaroshenko says:

    I’m from a small town with less AP opportunities, how does that affect my chances of getting selected? I am not sporty, nor am I artsy; however, I do have a 4.0 GPA and 31 on the ACT (my first time taking it). I am also an immigrant from the Ukraine, and will have an AA in Psychology the same time I will graduate from high school. Should I get into sports and arts to improve my admission chances? Or should I just hope for the best without trying too hard?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Masha,

      Well, how hard is “trying too hard?” The most selective schools basically expect you to try as hard as you can and to push yourself as far as you can go: it’s one of their favorite traits in prospective students. Basically, if you have free time, then you’re probably not doing enough to get into the Ivy League. In response to your specific situation, I would say yes, do pick up some extracurriculars, but be aware that admissions officers value skill, depth, and commitment over dilettantism. So, pick one or two things to really focus on, and maybe a few others that you can stick on your application without exerting yourself too much. Even if you aren’t set on Harvard, adding a few extracurricular activities will improve your application to any college. Aside from showcasing your talents, extracurriculars also make it easier to stand out from all the other students with great grades. They are more unique than grades and help admissions officers relate to you better as a human being, which definitely increases your chances of being admitted. Whatever you do though, don’t sacrifice your amazing grades for extracurricular glory – grades are still the most important part of your application. As far as AP classes go, just make sure you are taking the hardest classes that your high school offers. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

      -Calvin

  3. Cosmo Politan says:

    Calvin, you never said if you needed an IB Diploma or not. I go to an IB school that offers AP and Dual-Enrollment opportunities as well. However, I am am thinking of switching to a different, closer high school tjat offers Cambridge AICE. Does one need an IB Diploma or an AICE Diploma? Do colleges (and Ivy Leagues) prefer IB over AICE or AP/Dual-Enrollment?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Cosmopolite,

      Ivy League schools realize that different high schools offer different programs. Because not every high school offers the IB diploma programme, it is not technically “required.” What they want is for you to take the most challenging academic courses available to you. If your school offers AP and IB, then that would probably include both AP and IB. If your school offers only AICE, then that would include AICE (if it offers AICE and AP, then you should do both). It doesn’t matter which program you do as long as you do the hardest one(s) possible at your high school.

      When considering transferring to a new high school, there are a number of things you should think about. Which high school offers the most academically rigorous program? Which high school sends the most students to your target schools each year? If the two schools are equally rigorous, then it probably doesn’t matter. If not, I would advise going to the more rigorous one. While you might think that transferring to a less competitive school could give you an advantage in terms of class rank, this isn’t always true. Highly selective colleges understand that being #40 at a very competitive high school can mean more than being valedictorian at a not so great high school. Also, being in a highly competitive environment can help you achieve more than you would otherwise, since you are surrounded by students with the same goals (and the strongest bonds of friendship are those forged through shared suffering…I mean, shared studying). It sounds like both schools you are considering are academically rigorous, but in case in the back of your mind you were thinking about transferring from a harder school to a slightly easier one, remember – no pain, no gain!

      Best of luck,
      Calvin

  4. Apple says:

    What do you recommend for students taking A levels?

    • Calvin says:

      Dear Apple,

      Study really hard and make top marks on all of them! Universities in the United States usually count A Level exams the same as AP or IB tests, but it’s important to get top marks if you want be a competitive applicant and possibly receive credits for your exams. Keep up the good work, and good luck!

      Best,
      Calvin

  5. Cherry says:

    Will it still be possible to be accepted if you do not get 5s or 4s on some APs?

    • Bill says:

      Cherry,

      The most competitive applicants will all be able to submit 5’s or 4’s along with their applications. While being unable to submit a 5 or 4 on any AP test will not automatically disqualify you from admission, it will hinder your prospects (especially if admissions comes down to you versus a student has been more successful on APs).

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  6. Sky-Lyn says:

    Your post was very informative.I am an incoming sophomore in highschool and sadly my school is a private catholic school which offers no AP courses. Although I do take the most rigourous courses offered will it be enough or should I look into taking some AP online even though my school only lets you take 1 online course a year.

    • Bill says:

      Sky-Lyn,

      Often times private schools with a limited AP offering will make up for this with other options. For example, I went to a extremely competitive private Catholic high school, which was similarly limited in terms of the AP classes they offered (they were fond of saying “our regular classes are AP level classes”). Instead, they offered courses known as “AC” – these course offering were unique to my high school, but were regularly considered college level classes (like AP classes, they became available to most students starting sophomore year). If your school has a track record of graduating seniors being accepted to specific schools, then the admission officers at these schools will undoubtedly be familiar with whatever unique course offering your high school provides. The most important thing here is that you take the most competitive course load you can (while still maintaining a high GPA). I recommend you talk directly to your high school counselor about this if it is a concern.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  7. Sayira says:

    What if your school offers very little AP’s? For sophomores they only offer world history. I got a 3 (sick the entire 2 weeks of the exam :// ). I’m entering junior year and they only offer APUSH but I can’t take it because of a schedule conflict. If I don’t take APs junior year will that hurt me? Senior year I will take AP Lit, AP Calc, and AP Bio. Should I self study for APUSH or another AP test junior year to make up for it?

    • Bill says:

      Sayira,

      First, if you weren’t aware, you should know that you are able to specify which AP scores are sent to which universities. This means that if you are not satisfied with any of your AP scores and believe they will be detrimental to your chance of admission to any particular college, you can simply choose not to share those scores.

      Second, if you are limited by the options offered at your school, you should know that there are other options available to you. Many students, for example, pursue an associate’s or two-year degree while simultaneously completing their high school studies. In fact, many high schools have programs that facilitate this type of study, so you might check with your high school guidance counselor for more information on this. If this, or some similar type program, is not available, then the most important thing you can do is take the most challenging course load that is available to you.

      If you have time to study for and take an APUSH test outside of your other extracurricular and academic obligations, that is fantastic! However, beware of letting this derail or negatively impact your other endeavors. You only have so much time in a given day, week, and semester – just make sure you are managing your time appropriately.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  8. Angelina says:

    I am a junior and am currently taking APUSH, AP English Language and Composition, and AP Spanish Language and Culture. I wanted to take AP Physics at first but I became afraid by previous AP Physics students warning me about how difficult it was and how significantly their GPAs were affected. As a result I’m taking honors level physics. Math also isn’t my strong suit. Was this a bad choice?

    • Bill says:

      Angelina,

      No! Particularly if you are not planning on pursuing a related subject at the undergraduate, graduate, or professional level. Remember, while it is important to take challenging courses, which demonstrate intellectual acuity and a strong work ethic to admission officers, it is more important that you maintain a competitive GPA. If you were concerned that AP Physics could negatively impact you GPA, then you made the right decision.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  9. Bob says:

    I have attended three High school. I changed at the beginning of sophomore year and at the end of sophomore year. I had a 2.9 gpa freshman and my first half of sophomore year. Since the second half of sophomore year, I’ve gotten straight As, I’ve taken 5 AP courses in my junior and Senior year and I am also taking classes at my local community college. My school calculates rank by the number of quality points a student receives based on the number of credits he’s earned and the grades in the classes he’s taken. Since I’ve only attended the school since the spring of my sophomore year,my rank is 150/835.My dream is to go to either Yale or Stanford.Do I still have a shot at these schools? My SAT score is 2200.

    • Bill says:

      Bob,

      While your early poor performance in high school will negatively impact your chances of admission to a top 10 college, those grades will not necessarily or immediately disqualify you from admission. Ivy League schools and similarly competitive colleges typically conduct what is called a ‘holistic’ admission review process. In this context, holistic means that they will consider every aspect of your application, including improvements in GPA and class rank. Your SAT score is right on the cusp of median admission standards to Ivy League schools, although you might try improving upon it a bit (a good score goal should be 2250+ – also, don’t forget about the Subject Tests!).

      If you can maintain the high level of your most recent academic performances, one tack you might consider taking is that of the transfer student. If you are not admitted as a first-year freshman, remember that many students successfully transfer to their school of choice at the end of their first or second year of college.

      Hope this helps!
      Bill

  10. Sophomore's Mom says:

    My daughter’s school offers IB where students try to earn their IB diploma. This requires enrolling in at least 3 subjects in HL. There is much confusion about whether or not to do AP (not offered at school, must do independently), and how much. I hear that IB HL courses are more in-depth than AP, so doing AP over IB doesn’t make sense. Then there are SAT IIs. Doesn’t seem to make sense to do SAT II and AP in same subjects. My daughter (interested in pre-med) will be doing Chem HL, Bio HL, Psychology, Math HL, Eng Lit, Spanish. With these subjects towards IB diploma, what would be the best choices for AP and SAT IIs? Assuming AP is a good to have in addition to IB.
    Thanks

    • Bill says:

      Priya,

      Taking AP exams can only improve your application – if your daughter does not score well on an AP exam, you can always choose to simply not include that exam score with the rest of your application. Learn more about the AP score select options here. Generally speaking, you should take as many AP exams in as many topics as your student can score well in – again, if she doesn’t score well then you can simply withhold her scores. The only downside to this approach is the cost of registering for these exams. You’re absolutely correct about being cautious about in regards to taking SAT II’s and AP exams in the same topics; what is most important here is that you are fulfilling the requirements of the universities you intend to apply to. Double check with those universities (either call them or check their Prospective Students FAQ page online).

      As a potential pre-med student, you should definitely consider taking the AP or Subject Tests in Chemistry, Biology, and Math, and in English Lit. as well. As you might have seen in other posts/comments on this site, we generally recommend taking and submitting SAT Subject Test scores in topics that pertain to your degree path and also satisfy university application requirements, and then also taking a Subject Test/AP exam in an academic discipline that does not pertain to your the academic discipline that you will pursue as an undergraduate. The reason for this is that it demonstrates academic versatility.

      To be clear on which type of exam you should take – the first concern is to meet the university requirements. In the event that the university is flexible in terms of which type of exams they will accept to satisfy their application requirements, you should then ask which exam type may be used to place out of certain classes or earn college credit. Many of these types of schools will not allow you to use AP or SAT Subject Tests for this reason; however, that is one of the purposes of these exams, so it is worth asking. If neither exam may be used for the purpose of earning college credit, then it is really simply a matter of taking whichever exam your daughter will be more comfortable with.

      Hope this helps!

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