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Almost every applicant to a top university takes AP or IB exams at some point during their high school career; in fact, it’s more of a surprise for these adcoms to find an application without a long list of APs or IBs in their stack.

 

But this isn’t to say that having these exams on your application can’t be impressive feats in themselves — one way to make APs really shine (if you have the extra time) is to self-study for the exams without taking the classes. This way, not only do you get to show off your academic prowess, you also show these colleges that you’re a self-starter who’s capable of setting your own schedule and following your own rules.

 

Another advantage of self-studying AP exams is that doing so allows you to win certain awards from the College Board. Winning the National AP Scholar Award by the end of your junior year is quite rare; in fact, each year on average, fewer than 500 students nationwide will have achieved this feat.

 

Not all AP tests are created equal, however, and we’re here to help you work smarter, not harder. Some AP tests are better suited to self-studying while others are near-impossible, and even this difficulty changes based on your personal learning style. To help you decide which AP tests are the best for you, we’ve compiled a definitive list of all the AP courses that we think would be good to self-study, and the type of person who we think would like self-studying it the most.

 

In alphabetical order, here are our picks for the best AP courses to self-study:

 

1. AP Computer Science A

 

Quick facts about this test:

  • 3 hours long, with 40 conceptual multiple choice questions (75 minutes) and 4 short answers (105 minutes)
  • Tests for basic mastery of Java (programming language)
  • Short answers require writing actual Java code and functioning programs
  • No electronics allowed; this is a pencil and paper test!

Who we think this is for:

  • Logical-minded people who do well in math classes (especially those involving proofs)
  • People who have scored above a 750 on SAT Math II
  • People who have prior programming experience (obviously)

Our weapons of choice:

  • Barron’s AP Computer Science A (for the concepts and review)
  • Litvin’s Be Prepared for the AP Computer Science Exam in Java (for practice problems)

 

Programming is an invaluable skill in today’s increasingly-digitized society, and learning it early can definitely give you a leg up on your peers portfolio-wise. So if you’re confident in your abstract logic, this is definitely a test that you should try and self-study for. The wealth of online coding resources is also a plus — sites like Stack Overflow and Codecademy make it easy to teach yourself to the level of proficiency the test requires.

 

However, like studying any new language, learning a coding language also takes practice; College Board recommends 20 hours of laboratory experience for students taking the course. If you plan to self-study AP CompSci, it is imperative that you give yourself enough hands-on coding experience in Java to get yourself thinking like a computer scientist. By the time you walk into that testing room, you should have quite a few functioning programs under your belt and be comfortable thinking in pseudocode.

 

2. AP Environmental Science

 

Quick facts about this test:

  • 3 hours long, with 100 multiple choice questions (90 minutes) and 4 free-response questions (90 minutes)
  • Tests for knowledge of both man-made and natural ecosystems and the effects of human actions on both
  • Requires knowledge of experimental design and basic statistical analysis

Who we think this is for:

  • People who excel at history classes and recognize cause-effect relationships
  • Critical thinkers who are good at finding prescriptive solutions
  • Observant people who can extrapolate trends from many small details

Our weapons of choice:

  • Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Environmental Science Exam
  • The Smartypants’ Guide to the AP Environmental Science Exam

 

AP Environmental Science is a good test to self-study because the course does not assume any background knowledge in earth science or ecology, so the test is relatively friendly to people starting from scratch. Aside from the experimental design parts of the test, the information you need to know for this test resembles more of a history class than a science class. Many of the questions ask about the effects of a certain action on its surroundings or the correct solution to take to fix a certain environmental problem.

 

Before taking the test, make sure to have a thorough understanding of how field tests and experiments work in the environmental science field. You don’t have to do experiments yourself, but make sure you know all the tools of the trade and when to properly utilize them. It also helps to brush up on basic statistics so that you can identify trends and draw conclusions from a set of data points.

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3. AP Human Geography

 

Quick facts about this test:

  • 2 hours and 15 minutes long, with 75 multiple choice questions (60 minutes) and 3 constructed responses (75 minutes)
  • Tests for understanding of geographic concepts and analysis of geographic data
  • Asks students to interpret the causes and effects of en masse human behavior

Who we think this is for:

  • Big-picture people who look for the “common denominator” between different situations
  • People who are interested in anthropology and the soft sciences
  • People who are good at memorizing highly specialized terminology, events, and dates

Our weapons of choice:

  • Barron’s AP Human Geography
  • Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Human Ecology Exam

 

Put in broad brushstrokes, AP Human Geography is the middle of the Venn Diagram between anthropology and sociology. It paints a picture of what human societies look like on a map, and then asks you to explain how it got that way and what it might look like after some time has passed. Structure-wise, it’s a pretty typical humanities class and tests not only for facts that you have to memorize, but also in-depth analysis of the external factors behind the way people decide to organize themselves.

 

The free response section of this test involves synthesizing information from different sources and using it to draw conclusions about the cultural, economic, and political factors that constitute a society. The length is comparable to the AP Government free-response section and does not involve intensive essays like the AP English exams. However, watch out for vocabulary; it is an important component of both parts of the test and is very discipline-specific.

 

4. AP Macro/Microeconomics

 

Quick facts about these tests:

  • 2 hours and 10 minutes long, with 60 multiple choice questions (70 minutes) and 3 free-response questions (60 minutes)
  • Tests for comprehension of both theoretical and prescriptive aspects of economics
  • Poses hypothetical situations and asks students for the most beneficial course of action
  • Will be calculation involved but doesn’t require a calculator (there is a calculator ban)
  • You are required to memorize all the formulas you use

Who we think this is for:

  • Problem-solvers! People who see the long-term and like playing with strategy
  • People who have a clear understanding of cause-effect relationships and can see how one action may cause a sequence of events
  • People who like rules, structure, order, and definite answers

Our weapons of choice:

  • 5 Steps to a 5: AP Microeconomics/Macroeconomics
  • Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Macro & Micro Exams

 

AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics are the same discipline, but on different scales. Microeconomics focuses on the decisions of one individual, household, or business with respect to their own benefit, while macroeconomics focuses on the decisions of an entire country in regards to its economy. Both tests are similarly structured and teach more or less the same basic concepts, so which one you choose to take is more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

 

An important part of both tests is application; a large portion of both these tests involves hypothetical situations where you have to pick the best course of action in order to maximize someone’s payoffs. To do this well, be sure to understand the general rules and trends of economics and how they operate under different circumstances.

 

5. AP Psychology

 

Quick facts about this test:

  • 2 hours long, with 100 multiple choice questions (70 minutes) and 2 free-response questions (50 minutes)
  • Tests for knowledge of introductory psychological concepts and experiment design
  • Asks students to apply psychological concepts to both laboratory and real-world environments

Who we think this is for:

  • Anyone who has an interest in learning more about themselves and other people
  • People who love fun facts, trivia, and memorizing a lot of diverse information at once

Our weapon of choice:

  • Barron’s AP Psychology (a psych teacher favorite)

 

Psychology is the discipline that connects all people, and is usually a popular choice for self-studying because of its interesting (and readily applicable) subject matter. It’s like a history class in that you have to memorize the work of different psychologists and how they influenced each other, but it’s also like a science class in that portions of the test involve experiment design, theories, and analysis of evidence. Because of these interdisciplinary elements, both left- and right-brained people can find aspects of psychology at which they excel.

 

The test itself is heavy on memorization — you’ll need to know many people, many experiments, and a lot of vocabulary words. But if you practice on your friends (as all psych students love to do), this really shouldn’t be a problem.

 

For more information about AP exams, check out these great CollegeVine posts:

 

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Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si