Did you know that you don’t have to take an AP course to take the associated exam? Some people think this means all they need is a prep book, the registration fee, a pencil, and a dream. Are they right?
In this article I will go over all the essentials of self-studying for AP exams: what it means, why people self-study, whether or not you should self-study, and five important tips for any self-studier.
What Is AP Self-Study?
As you might infer, AP self-study is when you study the material for an AP exam independently instead of taking the course associated with the exam.
For some people, this takes the form of what is essentially a self-organized independent study. Others just grab a prep book a month before the exam, blaze through it, and hope for the best. Some people taking an honors level of a class, like biology or US history, decide to do extra studying so they can take the AP. (I did that myself with APUSH.)
Still others self-study AP course material because they already have a deep level of knowledge in a subject and taking a course would be repetitive. This is common for people who are high-level speakers of one of the languages offered by the AP exam. They still need to study to familiarize themselves with the exam and brush up on their grammar, but it obviously wouldn’t make sense to take an entire course in a language they speak fluently!
Why People Self-Study AP Material
There are a few reasons people might decide to study for an AP exam on their own instead of taking a course. It could be because their school doesn’t offer a particular AP course they are interested in, or any AP courses at all.
It might be because they don’t have room in their schedule for another AP course, but they still want to get as much AP credit as possible. This is common among people self-studying the more content-light AP exams like AP Human Geography or AP Environmental Science.
Similarly, students sometimes feel that they can cover ground more quickly on their own than in the classroom. This may be especially true if they already have a certain baseline level of knowledge in the subject, like in a foreign language.
Essentially, people self-study when they either can’t or don’t want to take the AP course associated with the exam, but believe they can still do well on the test through some amount of work on their own.
This man is self-studying the river. Good idea? You decide.
Should You Self-Study for an AP?
Whether or not self-studying is the right approach for you depends on five key factors.
#1: The AP Exam You Want To Self-Study
The material you are considering self-studying makes a big difference here. It’s one thing to self-study AP Psychology, and quite another to try to self-study AP Chem. The more demanding the coursework is in the classroom, the less sense it makes to try to learn the material yourself.
People in classes like AP Calculus, Physics, and Chemistry have a hard time getting 5s on the exam even when they take the course, so it’s not really feasible to expect you’ll be able to learn the material yourself. On the other hand, AP Psychology, AP Environmental Science, and AP Human Geography are frequently self-studied because the course doesn’t cover enormous amounts of complex material.
See my article on the best AP exams for self-study for more info.
#2: How Much Time You Have For Studying
Assuming you’ve chosen a reasonable AP to self-study, the next main concern is, will you have time to study the material on your own? If you’re taking a challenging course load and have a slate of time-consuming extracurriculars, it might not make a ton of sense to try to study for a demanding exam on top of all of that. If, on the other hand, you already have late arrival and early dismissal built into your senior spring schedule and you just want to see if you can get some extra credits for college with exams, self-study could be for you.
#3: Your Studying Motivation Level
Even if you have enough time, you need to consider if you are self-motivated enough to do the extra studying. It’s important to be honest with yourself before you register for the exam. If you think it’s more likely that you’ll volunteer to clean the bathroom for your dad than to crack open a textbook with no one there to check your progress, AP self-study may not be a particularly useful or beneficial approach for you.
#4: Your Ability to Stay on Track
Similarly, if you think you won’t be able to keep on a relatively stable prep schedule, it may not make much sense for you to self-study. If you know you’re the kind of person who keeps a New Year’s resolution very diligently for about six weeks and then completely falls off the wagon, it might be difficult for you to stay on a self-study schedule. If you get too far behind, trying to cram to catch up will be very stressful.
If you feel you really need some level of accountability to get work done for an AP on your own, you might consider taking an AP course online. In general, you will have weekly deadlines for the course, which may help motivate you to stay on track and actually learn the material.
#5: Access to Study Material
A final thing to consider before you commit to the self-study route is whether or not you have access to high-quality material for studying. As useful as a copy of the Princeton Review can be for AP prep, you’ll have a much easier time prepping for the exam if you have a variety of resources available to you: you’ll want practice problems or questions, maybe some explanatory videos, possibly a copy of an up-to-date textbook from your library, and so on. So before you decide to self-study, you may want to do some research to make sure there are adequate high-quality resources available for you to learn the material.
If all of your textbooks did this, you would ace every exam.
5 Key Tips for Effective Self-Studying
Once you've decided to self-study for an AP, you might be wondering how exactly you should go about it. I've laid out five important practices that will maximize your self-study success.
#1: Stay On Track
The most important thing you can do for yourself when self-studying is to stay on track. Learning the material throughout the year will make you much less stressed in the months and weeks leading up to the exam.
#2: Make a Schedule
To help you stay on track, I advise you to make a study schedule and stick to it! This means you should both have a general plan of how much material you will cover every week or month, and that you will have consistent, scheduled times to learn the material and prepare.
Of course it might take you a little longer or shorter to learn some material, so you can adjust your schedule as you go, but you’ll be much more successful with a plan of attack for learning all the material.
#3: Find the Best Material
Try to read reviews of any study resources before you commit to using them, especially before you spend money on them. You want to make sure that any material you use is actually relevant to what’s tested on the exam, and that other students have found it helpful.
#4: Take Practice Tests
Be sure to take practice tests! This is probably even more important for self-study students than for students taking a regular class, because the syllabus for regular AP classes have to be approved by the College Board. You’ll be flying by the seat of your pants in some respects, so practice tests will really help you gauge what you still need to learn and where you still have gaps.
Of course, you want to use as many official College Board tests as you can, but these are somewhat limited, so if using non-College Board material, be sure to carefully read reviews.
#5: Register for the Exam
Make sure you register for the test! This probably seems really obvious, but it’s easy to forget, especially when you don’t have a teacher to remind you to turn in the form! You’ll need to talk to your school’s AP exam coordinator about registering for the exam. This takes place early to midway through the second semester for most schools.
If you are self-studying because your school doesn’t have AP exams, your school won’t have an AP coordinator. Never fear! You can still take your exams at a school close to you that offers the tests. Here's how:
By March 1st of the year you want to test, you will need to get in touch with AP Services. You can contact them by phone, e-mail, or fax.
Phone (domestic): 888-225-5427
Phone (international): 212-632-1780
AP services will give the phone number for local AP coordinators from schools who are willing to test students from other schools. You will need to call the AP coordinator of a local school by March 15th at the latest to make testing arrangements.
Go forth and conquer, you majestic self-studying unicorn.
Final Thoughts on AP Self-Study
Can you take an AP exam without taking the course? YES! Studying on your own for an AP exam is a viable course of action if it doesn’t make sense to take the course, and it is definitely possible to get a five. You just need to choose the exam wisely, make sure you are diligent about studying, and use high-quality, relevant study material.
So you probably do need more than a prep book and a dream, but you can definitely succeed at self-studying for APs!
Trying to decide what AP class to self-study? Look at our complete list of AP classes and exams.
If you're self-studying AP US History, look at our expert review of APUSH textbooks. For AP Psychology self-studying, see our comprehensive list of practice exams. Self-studying AP Bio? We have a list of every AP Biology practice test available.
Taking the SAT or ACT? Check out our expert advice on the pros and cons of all the popular study methods.
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:
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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.