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Anamaria Lopez
8 AP Guides

The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams

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If you’re a high-school student who plans to attend college, you’re probably already somewhat familiar with the Advanced Placement (AP) system of courses and exams. APs allow you to access college-level academic materials while still in high school and demonstrate your willingness and ability to take on scholastic challenges.


However, you may not have realized that, while APs are usually offered as a high-school course culminating in the standardized AP exam, it’s also possible for you to study for and take an AP exam on your own. Self-studying for an AP exam takes a considerable amount of work, but doing so can have major benefits for your future college applications.


Curious about self-studying for an AP exam? Read on for more information about what self-studying means for you, how to choose your self-studied AP exam(s), and how to set yourself up for success when studying for an AP exam on your own.

The AP program: a brief review


The AP program is administered by the College Board, the organization that also administers the SAT. Its purpose is to allow you to take on college-level academic work while you’re still in high school. To this end, the College Board has created a range of standardized tests, offered near the end of the school year, that measure whether you’ve mastered a certain unit of college-level material.


AP tests are available in subjects across the academic spectrum, from the arts to world languages to the sciences. Currently, there are 38 different AP subjects offered within the program, though the selection of courses has changed somewhat over the years. Typically, an AP test covers material that would be taught over the course of one semester in a college setting.


Most frequently, a student who wishes to take an AP exam will first take an AP course offered at the high school they attend. AP courses, which count for high-school credit, take the material tested on an AP exam and teach it over the length of the school year. Usually, these courses will also include information about the format and methods of that particular AP exam, such as what types of questions will be asked and how to go about answering essay questions.


Students choose to take AP courses and exams for a number of different reasons. APs are often among the most academically challenging courses offered at a high school, so colleges like to see that you’ve put in the work to take them. At some high schools with weighted GPA systems, AP courses are worth more than others, and can improve your academic standing.


The most compelling practical benefit of taking APs, however, is that if you do well on AP exams, you may be able to receive college credit or placement for those scores, depending upon the college you end up attending. Each college has different policies regarding AP credits, so you’ll need to research schools individually to find out how your AP scores might benefit you there.


While getting credit or exemptions for your high AP scores is not guaranteed across the board, at some colleges, you might be placed in higher-level courses in your first year, allowing you to skip less interesting introductory courses. At others, you might actually receive credit toward graduation, which can end up saving you considerable time and money. Either way, APs can end up being a major boon to your college options.   


Here at CollegeVine, we’re quite familiar with the challenges and benefits of the AP exams. For more information on various aspects of the AP program, you can check out the following blog posts:


Why would I want to self-study for an AP exam?


While AP courses are common at high schools in the United States, they’re far from universal. Some schools may not offer AP courses at all. Even those schools that offer AP courses will likely only offer a limited selection of subjects; it’s very rare for a school to offer all of the courses and exams currently included in the AP program.


Scheduling can also become an issue for AP students. Even if your school does offer the AP courses you want to take, a given AP course may conflict with another AP course or a different course that you need to take, forcing you to make a tough choice.


As you can see, the traditional route toward taking AP exams has practical limits, and sometimes taking a particular AP course just isn’t an option for you. However, there’s an important caveat: the College Board does not require you to have taken an AP course in high school in order to take the associated AP exam.


What this means for you is that, if you have the time and inclination, it’s perfectly possible for you to study for an AP exam on your own and take the exam when it’s offered in May. The flexibility that the self-study option offers may allow you to take more AP exams overall, or to take the AP exams that are the closest fit to your area of interest, regardless of what your school offers.


Being homeschooled can also limit your access to classroom-based AP courses, and the same applies— homeschoolers are welcome to take AP exams. Though online courses are sometimes available, you may decide to simply make your AP test preparation part of your ongoing study schedule, in which case much of the advice we give below will also apply to you.


This flexibility and ability to optimize your AP involvement can have substantial advantages for you when it comes to your future college applications. You get all the usual benefits of the AP program, including possible college credit, while also demonstrating to colleges that you’re willing to think outside the box and take responsibility for your own intellectual development.

How do I choose which AP to self-study?


We at CollegeVine have addressed this issue before, in our blog post “Which AP Exam Should You Self-Study?” In short, you should consider two main questions when choosing an AP to self-study: which AP exams are the best fit for your interests, and which AP exams are best suited for self-studying.


First of all, take a look at the current slate of available AP exams and decide which of these subjects you’re most interested in studying. You’re much more likely to be able to stay on track when self-studying an AP subject that you enjoy and are actively engaged in.


You might also choose to take an AP exam in a subject that you’re already familiar with due to your life experiences. For example, if you studied abroad in Japan and have a strong grasp of Japanese, you might choose to take the AP Japanese Language and Culture exam. A familiar subject will be substantially easier for you to self-study.


Besides being more fun for you, AP exams that fit your interests are especially good for your college application. As we discuss in our blog post “Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?”, colleges like to see specialization on your application –that is, they want to see that you’ve engaged deeply with a particular subject and become something of an expert. High AP scores can contribute to your specialized profile in a particular field.


Second, you should take into account which AP subjects lend themselves particularly well to self-study. The answer to this question depends not only upon the requirements of that particular AP exam, but also upon your own learning style and academic strengths – again, you’re more likely to stick with a self-study program in a subject in which you do well.


Some AP exams are generally considered to be easier to prepare for on your own. CollegeVine’s recommendations for self-studying AP subjects include the Computer Science A, Environmental Science, Human Geography, and Psychology exams. However, the best choices for you are those that highlight your particular abilities.

How should I self-study for an AP exam?


Once you’ve decided to self-study for an AP exam, you’ll need to make a plan for approaching the subject. AP courses and exams can cover a great deal of material, and you’ll need to start early and work diligently in order to fit in everything you need to learn.


Here are some specific steps you can take to successfully self-study for an AP exam:


  • First, figure out what you’re going to need to learn. Check the College Board AP website for descriptions of each AP course and exam. In the Teacher Resources section, you’ll find a sample syllabus for that AP course, which you can use as a basis for your study plan.
  • Create an outline of the core competencies required by this particular AP subject. This list will guide your studies and make sure that you cover all the material and skills that might appear on your AP exam.
  • Make a schedule for studying. Map out what subjects you’ll cover and when over the course of the year so that you can stay organized and on track. If you can, get a friend to join you in studying for this particular AP— this will keep you accountable and motivated.
  • Assemble a variety of study materials to be your sources. These can include textbooks, test prep and review books, and online resources such as edX and Khan Academy. Your materials will depend on what subject you’re studying, of course – if you’re taking the AP English Literature and Composition exam, for instance, you’ll probably end up reading some novels.
  • Study frequently in short sessions. This is a winning preparation strategy for many students, and is much more effective than marathon study sessions that occur infrequently. Review what you’ve learned the same day that you learn it.
  • Take practice tests as your test day gets closer. Use your performance on these practice tests of an indication of what you most need to study more. Practice tests also help you get used to the structure of the exam as well as the content. Time management under pressure, for example, is an incredibly important skill for AP success.


Lastly, don’t forget to arrange to take your AP exam! If your school offers any AP courses, there will already be a designated person who acts as the AP coordinator for your school. You’ll need to speak to this person in order to arrange for your exam and pay your exam fee. Ask your guidance counselor if you don’t know where to find your school’s AP coordinator.


If your school doesn’t offer any AP courses at all, or if you’re homeschooled, you’ll need to contact the College Board directly by March 1st of the year in which you intend to take an AP exam. They’ll give you the contact information of AP coordinators from schools in your area who may be able to set up and administer the exam for you. Be aware that your test fees may be higher than usual to account for that school’s expenses in administering the test.


Obviously, self-studying for an AP exam is not for everyone. Not only does it represent a considerable amount of academic work in addition to your existing courseload, it also requires  you to be proactive, organized, and in charge of your own educational experience. If you’re willing to put in the work, though, you’ll have something to add to your college application that speaks highly of your abilities as a student and also your willingness to go above and beyond to get the most out of your education.


Good luck!


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Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.