A parent of a student who wants to study at college in the United States asked me about AP's. She knew about SAT reasoning and subject tests as requirements for most US colleges but could not figure out the relevance of AP's.
AP actually means Advanced Placement. It refers to Advanced Placement tests administered by the good old College Board. If you examine the admission criteria for colleges you will not see AP tests as a requirement for entry BUT most students do actually take AP classes in many subjects at several schools in the United States. Indeed in some cases AP classes are available from as early as 9th grade. The courses are regarded as college level courses and colleges often give credit to students who gained the equivalent of an A or B in their AP examinations.
According to the College Board site, 34 subjects are offered for the AP exams. You are invited to download course descriptions and sample test questions for a diverse range of subjects including Art History, Japanese Literature and Culture and Human Geography. The site gives you all the information you would need about the tools neccesary to take AP exam including registration, costs, subjects and grades. There is even a link to access information about the credit policies of individual US colleges in relation to students with high AP test scores.
By now many of you must be wondering what is the point of doing college level courses before college. The fact of the matter is that the college application process is getting more and more competitive and here is the kicker: while the colleges do not require AP's for entry they do explore whether or not you take rigouros courses at your school. If your school offers a wide range of AP courses the college admissions officer will question your failure to take the classes and sit the exams. You see, if the opportunity is available and you ignored it, it may work against you and you may be regarded less favorably than the other applicants. This is why college advisors often guide kids down the AP path, especially if they are applying to Ivy League and other top tier colleges.
While college advisors may encourage students to load up on AP's however, it seems to me that it is important for students to get a lot more information than the need to increase their workload. This post from an MIT adcom may be helpful. He points out that perfect scores and tough classes are not a guarantee for entry. In fact while it may indicate a strong work ethic it does not necessarily demonstrate what colleges love to see: kids with passion. So I say go ahead and take AP's but don't just take them to impress college admissions; take them because they provoke your interests, take them because they are consistent with what you love, take them because heck you've done everything else so why not, but remember AP's are not the only indicator of your worth to a college they are looking for something more.