Frugal Living, Personal Finance 

How To Cut College Costs by 13%-25%

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Carnegie Mellon UniversityWant to know how I was able to shave nearly 13% off my college costs?

Advanced Placement classes.

I was able to graduate college a semester early in part because I loaded up on Advanced Placement (AP) classes while I was in high school. Someone got it into my head that I could take these AP classes for free (not counting the nominal fee for the exam) and get college credit for getting high marks on the AP tests. At the time, my brain wasn’t thinking “oh, I can save money on college,” but rather “I can spend time now and have it count twice – once in high school and once in college,” so it was in part the bit of hustle inside of me that spurred me to action.

I took your standard science and math ones (Chemistry, Physics, Calculus, Computer Science) as well as a few “useless” (from a college credit perspective, not from a learning perspective) classes like Comparative Government, English, Art History, US and World History. The net result was approximately one semester’s worth of electives (and most notably skipping out on an calculus class offered at 8:30am only, you have no idea how happy I was to hear that).

For those of you looking to do this, my advice is that you do your research about colleges ahead of time to ensure that your time is spent most effectively. Also, consider taking classes that you may never get credit for but would ultimately enjoy (I was never getting any credit for Art History, but I learned a lot in that class).

Here are some tips:

  • Check to see if your potential colleges give credit for high scores and in which subjects, then see what those scores are. I didn’t know this but I was never getting credit for Comparative Government or Art History.
  • If they do not but you are still interested, take the class but skip the exam. You only need the exam if you want credit, if you can’t get credit even with a score of 5, just skip the exam.
  • The SAT/ACT and SAT II exams are more important. Given a choice, focus on the standardized tests over the AP exams (that’s not to say you can’t focus on both) because those tests get you into college, AP scores just get you farther along once you get admitted.
  • To take full advantage, you may need to load up on non-elective classes to finish early. My credits were about 50% optional electives and 50% required electives but none applied to my core or foundation-type classes (CMU accepted my AP CS marks but the class was taught in Pascal and I didn’t know C/C++, which was the language CMU used at the time, so I had to take 15-127) so I had to load up on those in the vacuum left by fulfilled electives.
  • Don’t burn yourself out. If you take too many AP’s, you might overload yourself and perform poorly on the exams. Most colleges will only award credit for 4’s and 5’s, so keep that in mind.
  • Enjoy yourself. The point of these AP classes is to expand your mind beyond the typical topics covered in high school. Art History isn’t something most high school students have the opportunity to take, so enjoy the classes and broaden your horizons. Without that one art history class, I would know absolutely nothing about art, I’ve never regretted taking that class (even if I got no credit!).

There you have it, AP classes are your way of shaving 13%-25% (you can get, at most, a year of credit according to the College Board) your college costs.

(photo by steven n maher)

{ 11 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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11 Responses to “How To Cut College Costs by 13%-25%”

  1. tom says:

    AP classes are the way to go. They suck while taking them, but are well worth it when you get into college.

    I took AP Physics and Calculus and ended up getting out of all my physics and 1 semester of calulus prereqs. It turned out that the physics classes at my college were one of the “weeder” classes for engineering so I was thankful to take and score high on the AP exam!

  2. Taking AP courses in high school also has the perk of preparing you on how to study and pass a class successfully in college. This can help you financially by avoiding repeating courses you don’t pass the first time. The transition to reading large amounts of information and the Socratic method of teaching that my college uses in many courses I took was not brand new to me because I experienced this while still in high school in my AP classes.

  3. I did exactly the same thing. I would also recommend that you live off campus.

  4. saladdin says:



  5. K. says:

    I totally agree. I took 5 AP classes, did well, and with two majors, was still able to graduate a quarter early.

  6. That is exactly what I did. I got out of 2 english classes, 1 history class, 1 art history class, 2 sciences classes, and 2 music theory classes. I’m a double major and I only have one semester left. I am going to graduate on time however because of the birth of my son. Since I stay home with him I am only able to go to school part time. But that means that I have technically knocked off 2 semesters of classes. Yay!

  7. zh says:

    AP English got me out of freshman english; AP history got me out of freshman history; and AP German got me out of 2 semesters of german class for my language requirement. Not useless at all. If I’d have taken AP calculus, *that* would have been useless, as I never took anything above college algebra. Just sayin’.

  8. jim says:

    zh: I just meant it had been useless for me, not that it was useless for everyone. 🙂

  9. Steve says:

    I agree! Although more than 9 years ago. I got a whole semester of AP credit, and this let me graduate early by 1 year. My friend who took AP chemistry class but did not take the exam realized how easy the college chemistry class was during his freshman year due to the AP class experience. This gave him a more relaxed freshman year so even then there is a benefit gained.

  10. John Doe says:

    Not so fast. Yes, if you take AP credits, you can skip out of classes or reach the minimum required level of credits needed to graduate quicker. My school requires at least 120 units, before I even step foot on my campus I had 55.

    But VERY FEW OF THEM GOT USED. Sure, there were some extraneous requirements that I got out of. But since I was majoring in a science, all of my AP classes were useless. Why? Because Grad/Professional school hate AP classes look down upon them. If you’re applying to med school and skipped out of Bio 101, it’s over.

    This doesn’t just apply to core requirements either. AP English? Also useless, since Grad/Professional schools require a year of COLLEGE level writing. If I had skipped out, I would have graduated, but no post-undergrad school would have taken a second look at me.

    • Jim says:

      I agree, I wasn’t able to use some of my AP credits and in my senior year I didn’t take some AP exams because they wouldn’t help at the next level. However, when you’re a sophomore or junior, you should try to take advantage of them because you never know what can happen. Plus, good grades and high marks can help when you are applying to schools. In your senior year you can be more selective once you know what school you’ll attend (or not attend).

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