Self-Studying for AP Exams

Self-Studying for AP Exams

What is “self-studying?” Most people take an Advanced Placement (AP) exam at the end of a corresponding AP course. So most students who have taken the AP Biology exam have taken an AP Biology course in high school. However, a small number of students each year choose to take an AP exam in an area where they haven’t taken a corresponding course. These students have “self-studied” for the exam.

How do you self-study? Students self-study in a variety of ways. Most students buy a review book for a given AP exam and spend several months not just reviewing, but poring over each chapter to understand the concepts. It’s likely that if you spend about an hour a day, five days a week from January to May, you will have the foundation to earn a high score. When you self-study, the most important thing is to stay disciplined. Follow a schedule and stick to it. You can’t learn a year of chemistry in three nights. It’s just not feasible. So decide when and how you’re going to study and follow through with it. It might not even be a bad new year’s resolution.

Why would you self-study? There are three primary reasons why students self-study APs:

  1. Show What They Know One student we’ll call Lauren is a psychology nerd. She reads psychology books for fun and plans to study it in college. But her school doesn’t offer AP Psychology. Laura wants to demonstrate to the colleges she’s applying to that even though she hasn’t taken a psychology course before that she knows quite a lot about psychology and has a passion for it. She takes the AP exam knowing she can earn a high score. Laura then reports this score on her college applications.
  2. Save Money AP exams cost $87 a pop. That feels like a lot of money, and it is. But compared to the cost of a comparable course at a college or university, it’s an unbelievable bargain. You can save thousands of dollars per course and graduate over a year early at some institutions with the right amount of AP credits. In addition, many colleges will allow students who have adequate AP exam scores to place out of introductory level courses and into more interesting, advanced courses. Keep in mind though that not all colleges accept AP credits or only accept a few here and there.
  3. Improve Their Transcripts Many students self-study if their high schools don’t offer many AP courses or put a significant cap on the number of they can take. While colleges don’t penalize students for their schools course offerings or policies, self-studying for AP exams shows significant initiative and desire to learn. Students who self-study go above and beyond taking the most rigorous curriculum available at their school — they make their own curricula.

Who should self-study? Any student who has a lot of expertise in a certain subject area that corresponds to an AP course might as well take the exam if the money is available. It will require little to no preparation, will validate your knowledge in the subject area, and will allow you to get credit and place out of introductory classes. As for students hoping to improve their transcripts, this can be a good idea IF self-studying doesn’t prevent them from pursuing really interesting extracurricular activities. If you’ve got the choice to do something interesting outside of school or self-study for an AP exam, do the interesting thing. Remember, colleges don’t penalize you for what your school does not offer. Finally, be sure not to be masochistic. Colleges don’t judge you on how herculean your efforts were in high school. Make sure you’re doing what’s interesting to you and not what you think admissions officers will love. All that said, self-studying can be an excellent option for students who are self-motivated, disciplined, and dedicated to certain subject areas.

Which exams should you self-study? Typically, it’s best to study AP courses that are “non-core.” Core courses would include biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, and perhaps even European and US history. It’s better to study for exams that tend to be straightforward and a more limited scope. These exams are:

  • Environmental Science
  • Psychology
  • Human Geography
  • Economics (Micro and Macro)
  • Statistics

None is a walk in the park to ace, however. All will take concerted effort and understanding. Additionally, ease is relative and depends on the person. Someone who isn’t a “math person” will probably have a very difficult time self-studying statistics. Look over the audits for each course on the CollegeBoard to gauge whether or not you think you could handle the work on your own.

Where do you take the exam? If your school doesn’t offer the AP class, most likely they also won’t offer the AP exam. Visit the CollegeBoard and get the contact information for AP coordinators in your area. They will refer you to schools that do offer that AP exam. You’ll then need to get in contact with them to find out if they’d be willing to let you sit for the exam (most are).

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