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AP Tests & European Degrees

study abroadPlenty of students take AP courses as a way to prove to colleges that they are capable of handling exactly the sort of work that universities demand of students.  However, while taking the courses themselves is often quite important in admissions decisions at American universities, the scores often matter more for the purpose of getting advanced credit.  Therefore, for many students, the difference between a 4 and a 5, depending on the university that he or she ultimately ends up attending, is not that vast.

In Europe, things are very different, as subject-specific exams like AP tests often make up the entire rationale for a decision by an admissions committee to accept or refuse an applicant.  After all, European universities base their decisions on academics, meaning that factors like sports, extracurricular activities, jobs, or other attributes have little, if any, impact on whether or not a student is accepted. 

To understand why this is, it is useful to first understand a bit more about how European universities work.  Most obviously, European degrees tend to take only three years, as opposed to four (though some Scottish and Irish universities are the exception).  Similarly, European universities typically focus their degree studies within one or two fields.  In the United States, if someone wants to study economics, she typically takes between a quarter and a third of her courses in economics, another quarter or third in general education requirements, and the rest as electives or towards a minor or second major.  In Europe, upwards of 85% of a student’s courses are taken in the major area, with relatively little room for electives, much less another area of study.

Because of this, European degrees expect applicants to be passionate about a field of study and to have also already learned the basics.  A chemistry lecture in the UK or Germany for chemistry degree students will not waste time going over the basics of the periodic table, as is often the case in the United States; students are already assumed to know the difference between atomic mass and atomic number.  That need to demonstrate passion is where the personal statement and letter of recommendation come through; notice that both of those are singular, as European admissions offices rarely require, or even permit, more than one of each.

So what does that mean for AP students?  First and foremost, if a student is already taking a number of AP classes, she is already on the way to being a competitive candidate for studying overseas.  However, taking the class is not enough.  Instead, it is important to do well on the tests in question, as those are what ultimately will help universities evaluate whether or not a student is up to the required standard.  Just as in the United States, different universities have different AP requirements; Oxford and Cambridge expect their applicants to get fives, while less famous universities are happy to admit students with threes.  As a result, students who want to apply to top European universities should be prepared to focus their efforts on tests that they expect to do really well on; for those students who genuinely enjoy their subjects of choice, this could be especially fulfilling.

Additionally, the subject of the AP tests matters immensely.  Students interested in studying English literature should expect to do well on AP English Literature, AP English Language, and one other related class.  Good choices would be an AP History class, an AP foreign language class, or AP Art History.  AP Calculus BC would likely be wasted on an English admissions committee.  On the other hand, it would be of great interest to someone wanting to study science, engineering, or even economics.  In fact, many medicine programs (which is an undergraduate degree in the UK) require AP Chemistry and AP Calculus, leaving the other option open between Physics and Biology. 

In the end, the effort required to get the appropriate scores to study in Europe can be substantial, but ultimately it is often a smaller headache than balancing many of the other factors that weigh on students applying to American universities.  For students who know what they want to study and show considerable passion, it can be a great way to spend high school focused on learning more about what he or she thinks is interesting rather than attempting to meet an admissions committee’s idea of the perfect applicant.

About the Author

Kevin Newton is the owner of An Education Abroad, a company that helps students who are interested in earning degrees around the world.  To learn more, visit