AP self-study is when you study for an AP exam on your own and then take the AP test without taking the class. This is possible because the College Board does not actually require you to take the class associated with a given AP exam to take the test!
You might be asking yourself: why do people self-study? Is self-studying right for me? Then, once you've decided to self-study, and you’ve chosen the AP exam you want to study for, you may find yourself wondering how to go about preparing for the test on your own. Where should you start? What do you need to cover? What materials should you use?
Never fear, intrepid self-studiers! My seven-step approach to self-studying, from deciding if self-studying is right for you to taking the exam, will explain exactly how to self-study for an AP test and help you tackle the task ahead of you in a way that is manageable, makes sense, and prepares you for the exam. Onward and upwards!
2020 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests will now be held remotely, and information about how that will work is still evolving. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for you with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
Step 1: Decide If Self-Studying Is Something You Should Do
Before we get into how to self-study, make sure it's the right approach for you.
You might self-study for a variety of reasons: your schedule doesn’t allow you to take an AP course when it’s offered at your school, your school doesn’t offer an AP course in a subject you want to study, you have a pre-existing knowledge base in a subject (like a foreign language you speak at home), and so on. Some students also self-study for an AP exam while they are taking the non-AP version of a course. For example, you might self-study for AP Biology while you are taking Honors Biology and just supplement what you learn in class with the extra material that’s covered on the AP exam.
These are all valid reasons to self-study. When you do decide whether or not to self-study, you’ll need to consider how self-motivated you are, how much time you actually have to do extra studying outside of class, and how difficult the exam you want to take is.
In general, you’ll want to self-study for an AP exam that is limited in scope, not too conceptual (so no Calculus!), and that you are interested in. Some popular self-study choices include AP Environmental Science, AP Human Geography, and AP Psychology.
For further info on self-study, as well as a guide to deciding whether or not to self-study, you can see my introduction to AP self-study. To help you choose a self-study exam, you can also see my list of Best APs to Self-Study.
Step 2: Figure Out What You Need to Learn
I’m assuming you have a general idea of what your chosen self-study exam is about, or you wouldn’t have picked it. But you need more than that to prepare—you need specific, actionable knowledge on exactly what the test is going to cover.
Exactly what you personally need to cover will depend a lot on where you are starting from. If you already have a basic proficiency in the skill or subject, you will not need to cover the material as comprehensively as you will if you are starting from scratch. Similarly, if you are going to self-study for an AP while you are in the Honors (or other non-AP) version of the class, you will only need to cover the material that won’t be taught in the classroom.
No matter your situation, though, you will need to compare what you know with what you are required to know for the exam. So you’ll need a complete list of all of the core competencies necessary for the AP test.
For this, you will want to turn to your trusty College Board website. The first thing you’ll want to look at is the “AP Course and Exam Description” for the course you are self-studying. Find this document on the main course page which you can access from the College Board’s AP Student list of AP courses. This document will include a comprehensive description of the skills and content areas you need to know for the exam.
(Note: for courses that haven’t been revised for a long time, the document will just be called “AP Course Description.”)
Examine this document closely; take separate notes on what things you still need to learn based on the course description. If you have preexisting knowledge in the subject, you should also note content areas listed in the description that you already have a handle on and things that you sort of know but might be shaky on. If you are self-studying concurrently with a non-AP class, it will help you a lot to have a copy of the syllabus for your non-AP course. This will let you see what the exam covers but your class doesn't, and those are going to be the areas to focus on.
You should also look at the teacher resources on the AP course audit page for the course you are self-studying. There, you’ll be able to look at sample syllabi for the course. This may help you clarify some of the competencies in the course description if you aren’t sure exactly what they mean. You can also see textbook recommendations from the College Board on this page.
Essentially, you’ll use the College Board’s resources to develop your own document describing what you need to learn before the exam. It doesn’t quite have to be a syllabus, but that’s more or less how it will function for you—it will help you keep track of what you’ve learned and what you still need to cover.
This can be a working document—if you realize during the course of your prep that there’s a topic area you missed, or one that doesn’t seem particularly relevant for the exam after all, feel free to change stuff around! This is just how you’ll establish a starting point for your preparation.
On your mark, get set, prep!
Step 3: Make a Schedule and Stick to It!
Once you’ve gotten a working document of what you need to cover for the test, divide it up into a schedule. Again, some topics may end up taking you a little longer than you thought, and some may take less time. This is fine, just so long as you keep a steady pace and don’t fall way behind in your schedule.
In addition to having an overall schedule — cover topic X for two weeks, Y for three weeks—make a schedule of when you are going to sit down and prepare every week. Having consistent times each week that you set aside for self-study prep will keep you on track and make it easier to get through the material. To that end, you may also want to decide on a specific place where you’re going to study: your kitchen table, the library, your grandma’s back porch—wherever, but a consistent place where you can work free of distractions will make preparation feel more routine and keep you motivated.
Step 4: Find and Use a Variety of Study Resources
Once you’ve drawn up a rough schedule, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to learn the material: what resources will you use?
I recommend using a variety of resources. Processing the information multiple ways and in multiple formats will help you retain it and keep the studying process interesting (well, as interesting as it can be). That said, do be aware of how you learn best—if you aren’t an auditory learner, for example, podcasts won’t be a particularly useful study tool for you.
Here are four kinds of study resources you might consider.
A good textbook is, in truth, the most important item in your arsenal for most AP exams. It’s your one-stop learning shop that will help you learn the material, structure your preparation, and try out review questions. So, it’s critical that you choose a good one (or good ones! There’s no rule that you can’t use more than one textbook to prepare).
Here are some ideas for finding good textbooks:
- Check the College Board’s list of textbook recommendations on the AP course audit page for your exam.
- If you’re self-studying for an AP course that is actually offered at your school, you might see what textbook is used for the course. Ask students what they think of it and if they find it helpful.
- Read reviews of any textbook you are thinking about purchasing (or getting from the library). Pay special attention to whether or not students felt it prepared them for the exam.
- You can also see our textbook recommendations for AP US History, AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Psychology.
A good review book is probably the second-most important resource a self-studier can have, after a good textbook.
It isn’t necessarily the best way to learn the material in a comprehensive fashion, but a lucid, exam-focused prep book will help you review everything that’s most important to remember for the test. As the day of your exam draws closer, review books will help ensure all the knowledge you learned by self-studying stays in your head.
To find a good prep book, read reviews! We have recommendations for AP US History, AP Biology, AP Human Geography, and AP Psychology, but you can also look on Amazon, College Confidential, and elsewhere for reviews. The Princeton Review and Barron’s are two generally well-regarded AP review book sources, but making sure you’re getting the best book for the specific course you are studying is important.
Don't do this to your books if you got them from the library, please.
Online Content Providers and MOOCs
You will probably get the real meat of your self-study material from your trusty textbook(s) and review book(s), but there are other, supplemental resources that can help you learn and review AP concepts. Online lecture videos and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are an excellent example of a supplementary resource you might use for self-study.
Massive Open Online Courses are online classes created by educational institutions to make their educational resources accessible to a broader audience. They generally involve lecture videos; some also have additional material like practice exercises and assessments. Many of them are free!
You can use online lecture videos and MOOCs to learn all kinds of material. Some will have a more general, topical focus that is not AP-specific; others are specifically for learning AP material and review.
Even AP-specific MOOCs are generally not accredited by the College Board (i.e. they do not have the College Board’s official seal of approval, like an AP class at your high school). This just means that you should stick to the most reputable providers and look for reviews from other self-studiers if you can find them. (You might try to College Confidential forums or the Reddit AP pages.)
Some of the best online content and MOOC providers:
- Khan Academy offers tons of free educational modules on a huge variety of topics covered by AP exams. In addition to awesome video lessons, they have helpful quizzes to check your skills. You can also find most of their videos on their YouTube channel.
- EdX, founded by Harvard and MIT, has tons of free MOOC modules applicable to the AP, including some specifically targeted to AP exams.
- Coursera also offers tons of relevant MOOCs from a variety of colleges and universities.
Podcasts and YouTube Videos
Podcasts and YouTube videos are another great supplemental resource for learning about specific topics and concepts. You can find channels on everything from WWII History to astronomy to foreign language learning—definitely poke around to see what might be useful!
To give you a head-start, here are some helpful resources you might want to check out, sorted by topic:
General (Little Bit of Everything)
TedEd - a YouTube channel from the people who bring you Ted Talks. Videos on all kinds of subjects that could be useful for your AP exam.
ScienceThe SciShow — This YouTube channel explains all kinds of scientific phenomena. Probably of specific interest to AP Bio self-studiers, as there are lots of explanations of biological processes (and answers to some very important questions, like whether or not you have to give up bacon.)
The Naked Scientists — a podcast covering all kinds of science topics. Useful for self-studying any science AP. (But please don’t self-study AP chemistry or AP physics! I’m very serious! See my list of best AP classes to self-study if you don’t believe me).
Biography channel — Their YouTube channel offers tons of “mini-biography” videos for notable historical figures. A good way to learn some key points about the major players in your history textbook.
APUSH review by Adam Norris — a YouTube channel about, you guessed it, reviewing AP US History. He also has videos on AP Government.
The Podcast History of Our World — A podcast series focusing on world history. Most of the current episodes cover ancient history (so, periods 1 and 2 for the AP World History exam).
The History Chicks — A podcast by women about notable women from history. Mostly Euro-centric.
Grammar Girl — A podcast with super-short episodes on grammar and writing tips. If there’s a particular idiom or grammatical rule that trips you up, this is a great resource!
Audiria — A podcast site specifically for Spanish-language learners. You can pick podcasts by difficulty level and topic. How cool is that?
An early podcaster in his native element.
Step 5: Take Notes and Self-Assess
While you’re consuming all of your top-quality study resources—reading your textbook, watching your Khan Academy videos, perusing your review book—it’s very important that you interact with the material. That means take notes!
I know; taking notes is boring and not fun. But you will use your self-study time more efficiently if you take good notes that you can refer back to later. This way, when it’s time to review everything you’ve learned, you’ll have an easy, comprehensive resource to look at. You don’t have to take regular outline-based notes if you don’t want to. You could draw out a mind map or make flashcards for the content you learn instead. (In fact, I highly recommend making flashcards at some point for content-heavy courses like AP Biology or the history APs.) The important thing is that you are making a record of the significant information as you learn it, to help you retain it and to help you review.
On a similar note, it’s also important that you occasionally test yourself to make sure you are actually learning the material. Your trusty textbook probably has practice problems at the end of each chapter you can complete. As you learn more material, you’ll probably want to use AP practice tests to make sure you’re really getting at the essential knowledge for the test (see step seven for more on AP practice exams).
Step 6: Register for the Test!
This is an essential step that you will need to complete in early March. If your school offers AP courses, you’ll need to talk to your school’s AP exam coordinator (probably a guidance counselor) about ordering the exam for you.
If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, you will need to call AP Services (domestic number 888-225-5427) by March 1 to get the information for schools in your area that will test outside students. You will then need to get in touch with the school the College Board directs you to by March 15.
You can see complete instructions for registering for the test here, including registering for an exam your school doesn’t offer.
Registering will set you back $94. If you qualify for financial assistance from the College Board, you’ll get a $32 discount.
You should also remember to make arrangements with your regular teachers since you’ll be missing class the day of your exam.
Not much else to say here except that if you forget to complete this step, all your prep time will be for naught!
Step 7: Exam Prep and Review
When the exam starts to draw closer—I would say around the midpoint of your designated study time—you’ll want to start reviewing material you already covered and prepping for the exam format. This is when you’ll want to bust out your notes/flashcards, your review book(s), and your practice tests. See my article on finding the best AP practice tests for tips on how to find top-quality practice resources.
Practice AP tests will help familiarize you with the exam format and let you know how to adjust your studying and what to focus on going forward. If you keep missing questions about the Enlightenment even though you already covered it, you’ll know to go back and review that some more.
In terms of how many practice tests you should complete, that’s somewhat dependent on how much time you’ve allotted for self-study, but somewhere in the three-five range will work for most students. You may do more individual free-response or short-answer practice questions than that, but in terms of complete practice tests, three to five should be sufficient.
You should plan to wrap up learning new content a few weeks to a month before the exam so you can dedicate the last few weeks solely to reviewing content and practicing. This will help you make sure that everything is polished and ready, and you aren’t scrambling to cram information on the Civil Rights Movement into your head the night before the test.
Once you’re all prepped, all that’s left is to take the test! Be sure to do all the usual test-taking best practices like getting a good night’s sleep and packing everything you need the night before, and then go rock that thing!
Rock it like this stack of rocks!
Staying Motivated While Self-Studying
Even with a solid study plan, it can be hard to stay motivated when you are taking on a pretty big project like studying for an AP exam on your own. So here are three tips for keeping on task when you self-study:
#1: Build in Rewards
If you can think of a reward to give yourself every time you complete a scheduled study session and for milestones in your self-studying process, you’ll have an easier time staying on track. Maybe you’ll watch an episode of your favorite show to close out every study session or bake cookies every time you finish out a topic area. The key is to save that reward for studying—so no binge-watching your show outside of study sessions or baking cookies for no reason! That way you’ll keep the reward tied to your progress.
#2: Recruit a Study Buddy
If you know someone else who is self-studying, study together! It doesn’t even have to be the same AP just so long as you are consistently meeting. This will help ensure that you show up for study sessions. Make a pact to help keep each other on track, though—don’t fall into the habit of goofing off together during your study times instead!
#3: Be Accountable to Someone
Even if you don’t have a dedicated study buddy, you can still make yourself accountable to someone else—a parent, friend, or other trusted person in your life. Tell them your study schedule and ask them to help you enforce it. If you can get them to text or call you when it’s time for you to start studying and ask you about your progress throughout the year, it will help you keep on task. There’s nothing like knowing someone else expects you to get something done to help you push through!
I'm accountable to this donut...for eating it.
Key TakeawaysYou’ll find self-studying much easier if you’re armed with a plan. Here are my six steps to self-study success:
- Figure out what you need to learn.
- Make a schedule.
- Find a variety of high-quality materials.
- Take notes and self-assess as you learn.
- Register for the test.
- Prep for the exam and review what you’ve learned!
Even with a plan, it can be hard to stay motivated. Some strategies that might work for you include:
- Reward yourself for getting work done.
- Find someone to study with!
- Be accountable to someone else.
Now you know how to self-study for an AP exam. If you follow these steps and put in the work, you’ll be sure to hit your target score!
If you want to know all of your AP course and exam options, we have a complete list.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.