Once you've decided to self-study for an AP, you'll need to choose an exam that's right for you. With dozens of potential choices, it might seem overwhelming.
I can demystify the choice for you. First, I'll give you four important factors to consider when you make your choice. Then, I'll list the five easiest APs to self-study for. After that, I'll touch on some other solid self-study choices before wrapping up with a few AP exams you should not try to study for on your own.
AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, AP exams for May 2020 will be held remotely, and details on how this will work are still evolving. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for your prep with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
How to Choose Which AP Exam to Self-Study For: 4 Factors
There are four factors to consider when selecting which AP exam you want to prepare for on your own.
Factor 1: What's the Course Workload?
The less material covered by the course, the less you will need to study to ace the exam. It makes sense to choose an AP that is narrower in scope instead of a behemoth.
Let's say you want to self-study a science AP. All things being equal, it's going to be better for you to choose a comparatively content-light course such as AP Environmental Science than a content-heavy class such as AP Chemistry. (Also, don't self-study for AP Chemistry. More on this later!) If you aren't sure how much work is involved in learning all the material for a given AP test, ask your friends, the internet, your teachers ... you get the idea.
You can also look at the College Board's individual AP course pages. On each "Course Overview" page, you'll find a link to a document that describes the general scope of the course as well as the format of the exam.
Factor 2: How Conceptual Is the Material?
Does the AP exam involve applying a lot of abstract and theoretical concepts, or is it primarily based on memorization? Memorization can be kind of tedious, but it's often easier to learn this kind of material on your own than to teach yourself to understand, say, particle physics.
Try to look for APs that are not overly conceptual. This is why I generally don't advise people to self-study for math APs, with the possible exception of AP Statistics. Generally, a course weighted more toward memorization as opposed to complex concepts is more suited to self-study.
Weighing the options.
Factor 3: How Full Is Your Class Schedule?
You'll need to consider your class schedule when choosing an AP test to self-study for. There are a few AP exams that might overlap with your high school coursework, even if you aren't in that particular AP class. These subjects are as follows:
- Biology: If you are in an honors biology class, you might consider self-studying for AP Biology because you will only need to supplement what you are learning in class with some additional competencies necessary for the exam. (See the College Board's AP Bio Course and Exam Description.)
- US History: You'll learn a lot of the AP test material in an honors AP US History class—you just need to push yourself to learn some of the extra information and do dedicated AP test prep. This is what I did, and I got a 5 on APUSH without a crazy amount of outside studying.
- English: If you are a particularly strong student in English, you might consider self-studying for one or both of the English AP exams while you're in an honors English class (I did this with AP Language and Composition). This could be a little trickier because it's very important to be able to get feedback from a knowledgeable person on any practice essays you're writing, but if you have a supportive teacher or mentor, it can definitely work.
Factor 4: What Are Your Strengths?
If you're going to self-study for an AP exam, it makes the most sense to choose a subject you are good at and enjoy. If you rock at social studies, choose a social studies AP. If science is your jam, choose a science AP (but not AP Chemistry or AP Physics!) It will help you stay motivated if you actually like the subject. Don't try to self-study for an exam in a subject you absolutely hate, even if the exam has a reputation for being an easy self-study choice.
If you already have a special skill tested by an AP exam—foreign languages and computer science come to mind—it might make sense to self-study for that AP test. You will need to make sure you fill any gaps in your knowledge and are prepared for the exam format, but it's a good way to make the most of your own personal resources and skills.
With these four factors in mind, we can now move on to my recommendations for the five best AP exams for relatively painless self-study.
The best self-study choice will be almost as easy as pie! But less delicious.
The 5 Best AP Exams to Self-Study For
Let's go through a few of the easiest APs to self-study.
AP Environmental Science is a hugely popular self-study option, and for good reason. The test is considered to be fairly easy, and the coursework assumes no prior knowledge in any environmental sciences, so the material is not particularly advanced.
There is some course material about experimental design, some basic statistics for reading charts and tables, and some historical/environmental trend information. Many questions on the test focus on cause-effect relationships. This test is a solid choice for anyone who is good at science or history and needs something relatively quick and easy.
AP Human Geography is another popular self-study option with a reputation for having fairly easy material that's limited in scope. The test is on the shorter side, clocking in at only two hours and 15 minutes, with 60 multiple choice questions and three free-response questions.
Human Geo is essentially a soft-sciences course about how societies develop (think anthropology). To be successful, you'll need to do some memorization of facts and dates, perform analysis of how cultures came to be and how they might develop, and learn specialized vocabulary.
This test is a self-study home run. If you want to self-study AP Psychology, you'll need to learn some psychological concepts and memorize details about notable scientists in the field as well as seminal experiments. You'll also need to learn discipline-specific vocab.
The test is short, too—only two hours—with 100 multiple-choice questions and two free-response questions. The free-response questions are known for being fairly straightforward.
AP US Government and Politics and AP Comparative Government and Politics
Both the politics exams are decent self-study APs. You probably already have some background knowledge in US government and politics from years of US history coursework. In addition, the exam is fairly narrow in scope. Comparative Government is a little harder to self-study for just because there's likely to be more material you aren't familiar with, but it's still pretty manageable.
The rare self-studying jellyfish, exploring the ocean on her own.
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Other Good AP Exams to Self-Study For
Some exams aren't quite universal self-study slam dunks, but if you have a proclivity for a certain subject, a particular interest, or some prior knowledge, they can be good choices for you. This is particularly true if, for whatever reason, the thought of self-studying for Psych, Environmental Science, Human Geography, or Government and Politics is tedious and repugnant to you.
AP Economics Exams: AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics
Macroeconomics deals with overall economics systems, whereas Microeconomics examines the economy from the perspective of smaller actors within the system. You'll need to learn concepts for this course and there is some basic math, but they are often seen as good self-study options because each exam has a fairly limited scope and there is some overlap in material.
Especially if you took the class for one, you might consider self-studying for the other. Additionally, self-study students found it fairly easy to prepare for the FRQs by looking at old tests.
The general consensus is that taking on AP Biology self-study with no previous bio coursework is not a good idea, but that if you have taken or are taking honors biology, it can be a solid choice. There's definitely a lot of content to cover and a lot to memorize, but if it's a subject you are very gifted in or are very interested in, it could be worth it.
Self-studying for APUSH is considered easier than self-studying for most of the other history APs because most American students will already have some background knowledge in US history. The scope of information is also narrower than AP European History or AP World History, so there's less to learn! It's going to be more content-heavy than something like AP Environmental Science but definitely doable.
If you have a particular proclivity for English, one (or even both!) of the English APs could be a good self-study choice for you. The most important skill you will need to work on is timed analytical essay writing. Your self-study will go much more smoothly if you have a teacher or other knowledgeable person willing to look over your practice essays.
You don't have to self-study in an empty stadium ... unless you want to.
Do NOT Try to Self-Study for These AP Exams
There are three AP subject areas in particular that are not very well suited to self-study. These are the APs that are both very conceptual and content-heavy. In these cases, having an instructor and a structured class are very important. I strongly advise you not to self-study for any of the following AP exams.
AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC
Calculus is hard to learn. This is because it introduces concepts that are much different from any math class that comes before it. In a lot of ways, it involves a massive recalibration of your brain's understanding of math.
It is likely that, in the course of learning calculus concepts, you will get very confused, and this is why it is essential to have a good teacher. In the immortal words of the Legend of Zelda, "It's dangerous to go alone!" You will be extremely frustrated if you try to self-study for AP Calculus.
The AP Chemistry class is known for having a heavy workload, and it's another course for which the guidance of a good teacher is very important. In addition to there being a lot of content to learn, you will also need to understand tons of concepts and problem-solving methods in order to do well on the test.
Having a class to keep you on track and a teacher to explain material you don't understand is going to be essential for most people to succeed on the AP Chem exam.
AP Physics is a double whammy, with loads of math and science concepts to learn. The exams (there are four!) themselves are known for being particularly difficult, even for those who do well in a structured course.
Self-studying for this exam is not an efficient use of your time. Even if you were able to do well on it, you'd most likely need to self-study for many more hours than you would in a guided course to achieve the same level of mastery.
It's dangerous to go alone! Take this—and an AP class.
Look, I don't want to tell you what you can and can't do. Maybe you're the next Isaac Newton and you've been learning derivatives since you were a wee child. Maybe Richard Feynman was your grandpa, and he taught you physics in the cradle. In that case, self-study for one of these APs if you feel that you must.
For most people, though (even very smart people!), the entire experience of learning these subjects will be much more pleasant and effective, not to mention more efficient time-wise, if you learn it in a classroom and not by yourself. Also, the intensity of these classes makes them a bonding experience! The people in my Calculus BC crew became some of my favorite high school classmates.
Key Takeaways: The Best AP Exams to Self-Study For
What makes an AP exam easy to self-study for will vary somewhat from person to person. In general, though, AP tests with narrower scopes, without too many complex concepts, and in subject areas in which you have special interests or talents will be the best choices for self-study.
The five easiest exams for self-study are as follows:
- AP Environmental Science
- AP Human Geography
- AP Psychology
- AP US Government and Politics
- AP Comparative Government and Politics
A number of other exams may also be good choices depending on your situation and background knowledge. Nevertheless, you should not try to self-study for AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Chemistry, or any of the AP Physics exams.
By keeping all these tips in mind, you'll be able to choose the right AP exam to self-study for with ease!
When you're ready to start self-studying, see my article on how to self-study for an AP exam.
If you'd really like to take an accredited AP course but can't make it work with your schedule (or your school doesn't offer it), consider taking AP online courses. We can guide you in the right direction toward the best and worst online AP classes.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.