The AP Research course guides you through the design, planning, and implementation of a year-long, research-based investigation to address a research question of interest to you. The second of two classes required for the AP Capstone™ Diploma, AP Research takes the skills you developed during the previous year in AP Seminar and applies them to a larger platform. In the AP Research course, you can expect to learn and apply research methods and practices to address a real-world topic of your choosing, culminating in the production and defense of a scholarly academic paper.

Because your score for this course relies entirely on your paper and oral defense, choosing a strong research project is extremely important. If you are enrolled in the AP Research course, you already know the ins and outs of inquiry-based learning and how to conduct a simple research project. Now you will stretch your abilities and put your knowledge to use.

The careful selection of a project is arguably the single most important choice you will make during this course. The process is complex and can seem overwhelming at first, since the possibilities may seem endless. By breaking down your choices and carefully considering your specific AP Research course format, your own interests, and the unique resources available to you, you will be able to choose an AP Research Project that is academically relevant, personally engaging, and feasible for you to complete in the given timeframe.

When Should I Begin the Process of Choosing My AP Research Project?

It is important to keep in mind the timeframe for selecting a project. Many students assume that the selection process begins with the start of the new school year, as most likely every other AP course has in your academic career. However, if you wait until the beginning of a new school year, you may be starting the course off at a disadvantage.

When the AP Research course description specifies a yearlong research project, that most often means an entire 12-month year, and not simply a nine-month school year. Since you will complete the AP Seminar course in the spring, your teacher will likely set the expectations for what you need to accomplish over the summer break, before your AP Research course officially begins in the fall. If you are expected to begin your work over the summer, your course instructor will provide you with additional instruction, assignments, and avenues for continued communication to guide you through the research planning process during the summer months.

Although some schools may opt to delay this process until the fall, the College Board’s sample timeline for the AP Research course, available on page 36 of the course description, begins not in September with the start of the new school year, but in May with the completion of the AP Seminar course, which you must take as a prerequisite before enrolling in AP Research. That’s when you should begin to consider research topics, problems, or ideas. By September of the following school year, it is recommended that you have already finalized a research question, completed an annotated bibliography, and prepared to begin a preliminary inquiry proposal for peer review.   

This might seem like a lot to do on your own over the summer break, potentially without the face-to-face support of your teacher, but using the steps outlined below will help you get started.

How Should I Start to Narrow Down My AP Research Project Ideas?

Initially, your method for narrowing down a potential AP Research project idea will rely on the structure of your specific AP Research course. Although the core content and skills remain standardized for every AP Research course, the implementation of this instruction varies depending on how your high school chooses to format it. Some AP Research courses have a specific disciplinary focus wherein the course content is rooted in a specific subject, such as AP Research: STEM Inquiries or AP Research: Performing and Visual Arts. Other AP Research courses are offered in conjunction with a separate and specific AP class, such as AP Research and AP Biology, wherein students are concurrently enrolled in both AP courses and content is presented in a cross-curricular approach.

Alternatively, AP Research may be presented in the form of an internship wherein students who are already working with a discipline-specific expert adviser conduct independent studies and research of the student’s choosing while taking the AP Research class. Finally, some AP Research courses are delivered independently as a research methods class. In this style of class, students develop inquiry methods for the purpose of determining which method best fits their chosen topic of inquiry/research question, and each student then uses a selected method to complete his or her investigation. 

As you begin to narrow down your project idea, you’ll need to consider the greater context of your AP Research course. If your course is rooted in a specific discipline, you should focus on that subject area. If your AP Research course is presented as more of an internship, you’ll need to consider what feasible options are available to you. Use the course format as the first step towards shaping your AP Research project proposal. If you aren’t sure of the method in which your course will be delivered, make sure to ask your teacher before you leave for summer break.

Once you know your course format, you can move on to the next essential question in narrowing down your project proposal. Ask yourself what you want to know, learn, or understand. Do not skip this crucial step. The AP Research class provides a unique opportunity for you to guide your own learning in a direction that is genuinely interesting to you. You will find your work more engaging, exciting, and worthwhile if you choose a topic that you want to learn more about. It is not often that you will have such an opportunity to take ownership of the direction of your learning during high school. Do not waste such an amazing opportunity.

What Can I Do If I Can’t Come Up with Any Ideas?

If you are stumped for project ideas, try exploring previous ideas with classmates. Ask previous AP Research students what they did, or what other students in their class did. If nothing strikes your interest, do some reading online about possible AP Research topics. One list of potential research questions can be found here and another can be found here. Keep in mind that these lists make great starting points and do a good job of getting you thinking about important subjects, but your research topic should ultimately be something that you develop independently as the result of careful introspection, discussions with your teacher and peers, and your own preliminary research.

Are There Any Subjects That Are Off Limits?

The AP Capstone program states that “facilitating students’ entrance into academic or real-world conversations about complex issues is a key goal of both the AP Seminar and AP Research courses.” As such, there are not any specific topics that College Board prohibits when they are researched academically. In fact, College Board specifies that it “aims to build independent, critical thinkers by empowering students,” so you should not shy away from a certain topic simply because it might be considered controversial. If you’re worried that your project idea could be offensive or inappropriate, speak with your teacher about your specific concerns.

Also remember that there are general guidelines that must be followed by all researchers in order to maintain ethical research practices. If you pursue a research project that involves human subjects, your proposal will need to be reviewed and approved by an institutional review board (IRB) before experimentation begins. Specific instructions about this process are found on page 44 of the course description, and you may find more information here. Talk with your teacher to decide if this is the right path for you before you get too involved in a project that may not be feasible.

What Other Things Should I Consider When Selecting My AP Research Project?

Most AP Research courses will expect you to work with an expert adviser while conducting your research. Some schools will compile a pool of potential expert advisers at your disposal, while other schools will rely on you to find your own. One way to further narrow down your project idea is to consider the expert advisers to whom you might have access. If a list has been provided, familiarize yourself with this distinguished group of professionals and try to identify overlaps in your areas of interest with their areas of expertise. If your school does not provide a list of potential expert advisers, try to brainstorm some ideas of who may be able to mentor you as you work. You can find more advice on finding a mentor in CollegeVine’s “How to Choose a Winning Science Fair Project Idea.”

Another angle to consider is the availability of resources and special equipment. If you have had  access to a specialty lab or other technical equipment through a summer internship or job, you may find ways to use this to your advantage if you can think of a project that interests you. Keep in mind what unique tools and equipment are at your disposal to help shape your project proposal.

What Happens Once I Have Chosen an AP Research Project?

After you’ve identified a research project that interests you, that is feasible given your timeframe, and capitalizes on your access to expert advisers and equipment, you will begin to work on a preliminary inquiry proposal for peer review. Once you have fine-tuned your proposal with classmates, you will also identify and communicate with your expert adviser while working on your formal Inquiry Proposal Form. This will be distributed by your teacher but can also be previewed on page 55 of the course description. Your teacher may ask you to revise certain parts of your proposal. Make sure to allow enough time for these revisions. A final, approved Inquiry Proposal Form is due by November 30. 

For more information about the AP Research course, read CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the AP Research Course and Assessment or CollegeVine’s Introduction to the AP Capstone Diploma.

If you feel like you need more help with the AP Research performance task, or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

For more about information about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist