AP Exams

Competition to get into college has gotten out of control. The playbook on admissions strategies has become fatter than the college textbooks themselves - which is saying something if you've ever had to tote around the Fundamentals of Physics series. Nowadays there are programs that coach students through college interviews, classes that bump SAT scores up X hundred points or more, and paid professionals who ghostwrite admission essays.

Getting a leg up doesn't begin in high school anymore, either; a growing number of anxious parents are sending their four- and five-year-olds to kindergartens that require IQ tests and special observation periods. (Who knew you could learn so much about kids by watching how they eat glue?) If that isn't enough of a preemptive strike, there's always learning CDs that you can play directly into your unborn baby's still-developing ears.

As it turns out, one of the best ways to navigate the college admissions jungle is to take Advanced Placement courses. AP classes not only give you classroom cred and boost your GPA, but also prepare you for the more rigorous academics you'll encounter in college. If that's not enough of an incentive, consider the fact that doing well on AP exams can give you college credit. A four or five on an AP Government, AP English Literature, or AP US History exam can get you out of required freshman courses and into electives. If you play your cards right, they could even mean a faster graduation date.

It's a shame that the goal has become getting through college as quickly as possible, but with tuition rates skyrocketing, fewer and fewer people can afford to become super seniors. And if you think that high tuition only applies to fancy four-year schools, consider the fact that the tuition for a private four-year school has only risen an average 4.4 percent since last year according to the US Department of Education. For public four-year schools, the increase is more like 6.5 percent. Community colleges have been the hardest hit, with the average tuition increase at a whopping 7.3 percent.

At the same time, the US Department of Education reports that the overall acceptance rate at four-year institutions fell from 71.3 percent in 2001 to 66.8 percent in 2007 – and the economic crisis certainly hasn't helped this trend. With all this in mind, it's no wonder that in the last ten years, the number of high schoolers taking the AP test has risen over 160 percent.

The good news is that between 2000 and 2009, the number of AP courses that individual high schools offer has risen an average of 24 percent, meaning more and more students can reap the benefits of Advanced Placement education. In fact, 15.9 percent of the Class of 2009 scored a 3 or higher in an AP course, which is up 3.2 percent since 2004. However, before you assume that the increasing number of AP students will lose you your competitive edge, keep in mind that the larger pool of test-takers has also raised the percentage of non-passing scores by 5 percent since 1999. In other words, it's still not too late – or too intimidating – to jump on the AP bandwagon and save yourself a little college debt.