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    Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams 

    By Brian Geiger

    Brian Geiger is a co-founder of Scholarships360. He previously worked on the growth team of a hypergrowth startup and in investment banking. Through a combination of private grants, outside scholarships, and income from freelance writing, Brian earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University with $0 in student debt.

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    Reviewed by Cari Shultz

    Cari Schultz is an Educational Review Board Advisor at Scholarships360, where she reviews content featured on the site. For over 20 years, Cari has worked in college admissions (Baldwin Wallace University, The Ohio State University, University of Kentucky) and as a college counselor (Columbus School for Girls).

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: July 1st, 2024
    Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams 

    Self-studying for AP exams is a great way to  reduce your tuition bill by thousands of dollars. AP courses allow you to receive college credit for the cost of an AP exam (which in 2023-2024 was $98 per exam). This represents an incredible opportunity for students to save money on college tuition.

    As opposed to just taking an AP class through your high school, self-studying lets you study whatever subject interests you most, allows you to structure the learning around your schedule, and can be impressive to college admissions.

    Related: Honors vs AP Courses: What is the difference?

    Jump ahead to:

    AP Program Overview

    The AP Program (run by the College Board, the same group behind the SAT) offers standardized exams and classes that high school students nationwide can take and use to earn college credit. Below are some details about the exams.

    Related: 2024 AP test changes: what you need to know

    Exam scoring

    Exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the highest (with 3 being the lowest passing grade).

    Exam length

    Each AP exam will have its own specific length, but, generally, these exams last between 2-3 hours depending on the subject.

    Also see: What are AP classes? Everything you need to know

    Number of AP exams

    In total there are 39 different subjects covered in AP exams and courses. They range from art and drawing to computer science. 

    Related: Easiest AP classes you can take 

    Steps to taking an AP exam

    Usually, a student will take an AP course at their high school, take the AP exam, and, permitting you pass the exam, receive college credit. To self-study an exam, simply cross out “take an AP class in your high school” and replace it with “read an AP review book and take practice tests on your own.” Simple, right?

    Don’t miss: Why should I earn college credit in high school?

    How to self-study for AP exams

    Studying for an AP exam isn’t a terribly complicated process. However, it does require some thought and planning in order to set yourself up for success. You’ve hopefully already put time and thought into the AP exams you want to take, but now how do you begin actually studying? 

    Also see: Why you should take advanced placement tests

    Identify your resources

    The first important step is knowing what materials you have access to. You should talk with your school counselor or your teacher of the subject you will be taking an AP exam for, about what materials they might recommend you use. Additionally, you should spend some time researching online resources, ordering test prep materials, or even working with a test prep tutor, if possible.  

    Create a game plan

    Once you know what materials are available to you, it’s time to identify a plan of attack for when you are going to study. The number of hours students study per week will vary. You should aim to devote 3 hours/week minimum. 

    Now, find the time in your schedule for those hours. The best way to do this is to be realistic. If you’re not really a morning person, don’t say that you’re going to get up every day at 5AM before school and study for one hour. Instead, devote two of your lunch periods each week to studying and one to two days a week studying for one hour before bed. It’s important to be flexible with yourself. Somedays might not be conducive to studying for a number of reasons, that’s okay. Take studying one session at a time!

    Possible exam outcomes

    Your last step in the process is the simplest, but also quite possibly the scariest. There’s no need to worry though. Let’s talk about why!

    “Worst” case scenario

    The worst case scenario in your head is that you will fail the exam you have studied so hard for, but the truth is that nothing bad is going to happen. Hence, why the word worst gets quotation marks above. No, you won’t receive college credit, but aside from that and potentially being out nearly $100, your academic career will move on as planned. Colleges won’t see your score if you don’t want them to, and even if they did, many college admissions officers have said that a bad score on an AP exam doesn’t actually hurt you. And you are still that much smarter, wiser and more experienced for having tried to self-study for an AP exam, something that is not an easy task!

    Related: How many AP classes should you take in high school?

    Best case scenario

    The other outcome is that you pass your exam! YAY! You receive the score you want, college credit, and move on to the next step in your academic journey. 

    Whatever the outcome, remember that failing an exam does not define you or the efforts you made to pass that exam. Give yourself some credit and try again! You’ve got this!

    Also see: Applying to college as a homeschooler guide

    The best AP exams to self-study

    What are the best AP exams to self-study? Check out the full list of subjects/exams offered by College Board for an idea of what you can take. The College Board also provides useful data about score distribution for specific AP exams. Here are the exams where the highest percent of students scored a 4 or a 5 in 2024 or 2023:

    AP Exam% of test takers with 4 or 5
    AP Chinese Language and Culture70%
    AP Japanese Language and Culture57%
    AP Calculus BC59.4% (2023)
    AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism57.1% (2023)
    AP Studio Art: Drawing48.6% (2023)
    AP Spanish Language and Culture32%
    AP Physics C: Mechanics52.7% (2023)
    AP Computer Science A49.2% (2023)
    AP Studio Art: 2-D Design43% (2023)
    AP Microeconomics42%
    AP Comparative Government and Politics40%
    AP Psychology41%
    AP German Language and Culture43.1% (2023)
    AP Macroeconomics37%
    Source: College Board

    Remember, every college will weigh AP scores differently. Generally, an AP score of 3 is the minimum score that students can expect to receive college credit for. Many colleges and universities will require even higher scores of 4 or 5 to receive credit.

    Don’t miss: Which AP classes are the hardest?

    Self-study vs. School AP Classes

    If you want to take an AP history test and your school offers World History but not European, you might just sign up for World History and not think twice about it. And this is fine. It’s important to note, however, that self-studying for an AP exam has numerous advantages over taking an AP class in your high school. For example:

    You get to pick the subject

    This one is fairly self-explanatory. Although my high school didn’t offer AP U.S. Government and Politics, I decided to self-study for the exam due to an interest in the subject. A second, obvious benefit of this is that it’s much easier to study a subject that you’re naturally interested in.

    You get to set the pace and learning style

    One of the major problems of education today is that you can have a room of twenty students with twenty different learning styles who are all being taught in the same way. Do you like to pace out your learning, maybe read for 30 minutes each night? Or do you prefer to cram the week before? Do you like to read through a textbook and skip all the exercises? Selectively do just some of the exercises? Watch instructive YouTube videos? As long as you can cover all of the material in time, these questions are yours to answer!

    It’s more time efficient

    I get it. As a high school student, you’re pretty busy. School, sports, clubs, sleep and a social life all take their toll on the 24 hours you are allotted each day. Despite how it may immediately seem, self-studying for an AP exam is an innovative way to save time during the day. Yes, you’ll need to devote a half hour to an hour each day to going over the material. For me, this is infinitely better than both going to class during the day and then completing homework each night. And, at least at my school, 60 minutes of class could be covered in 30 minutes of focused reading. Also, this enables you to go a bit easier on yourself at school. Since you’ll be taking the “hard class” on your own, try exploring some subjects that you normally wouldn’t in school.

    It’s impressive

    Despite the fact that you won’t be subject to countless homework assignments and a year’s worth of class, self-studying (and passing!) an AP exam is perceived as fairly impressive. Crazy, right? Self-studying shows that you have the initiative to arrange the test with your school and think outside the box, as well as demonstrating the maturity and self-discipline necessary to teach yourself a college-level course. That being said, you won’t get the weighted GPA boost of taking an AP course, if your school weights GPAs. Additionally, it won’t add to the rigor of your overall curriculum on your high school transcript when colleges review it.

    Don’t miss: What is dual enrollment?

    AP self-study vs. CLEP

    If you’re investigating AP self-study, you may have heard of a somewhat similar program called CLEP. For certain students, CLEP might be a better fit than AP self-study. Students who are returning to college after a break from studies tend to take CLEP rather than AP; they offer CLEP exams throughout the year, and unlike AP Exams, CLEP is not designed around a corresponding course.

    Both help students earn college credit and help their chances of graduating from college early. However, admissions offices often weigh AP Exams more significantly than CLEP exams. CLEP is better applied as a mechanism to graduate early and save money rather than to help admissions chances.

    Don’t miss: Easiest to hardest CLEP exams

    Free AP Resources for students

    So, how do you actually prepare for your AP exams? There are books, courses, and other resources available to students. One of the best free resources is through Khan Academy. Khan Academy partnered with the College Board in 2017 to become the official practice partner for AP exams. Check out their website for tons of free study materials!

    edX is also a great resource that offers online courses for students to use as they study for their AP exams. The best part of this is that most of the courses are free, or offer a free version, and also self-paced so you can go through them on your own time. Every edX course is created by an edX partner university which includes top colleges like UC Berkeley, Davidson, and MIT!

    If you decide to self-study a more technical subject (math, science, etc.) you probably want to get a textbook. Instead of purchasing one, I’d recommend asking your high school teachers if they have anything that might be useful, in addition to checking out any local libraries.

    Related: How many AP classes should you take in high school?

    Next steps for students

    After you study for your AP exams, you can start preparing for college in other ways! Scholarships360 offers a wealth of resources for every step of the college admissions process. That includes writing college essays, finding the right school, deciding on a major, and custom-matching you with scholarships. Good luck with the process and make sure to check back on our site to help you with any other questions!

    Next Steps

    Next Steps

    • Look closely at your schedule and identify if you have enough time in your schedule to study for an AP exam on top of things like homework, extracurricular activities, athletics, and any other commitments you have
    • If you’ve decided that you have enough time, take a close look at all the subjects you can take exams for
    • Once you decided what you want to study, gather all your study materials and create your game plan
    • Your last step is to take your exam when the time comes and do your best!

    Frequently asked questions about self-studying for AP exams

    What AP exams are easiest to self-study for?

    Which AP exams are easiest to self-study for can be measured in a few ways, but for now, let’s just consider two factors, passing rates, and your academic strengths! If you are a strong student in math or reading, then taking a calculus exam or an English literature exam is probably a great idea. On top of already having a solid base in those subjects, you’ll do additional studying and should be well set up for the exam. Passing rates are important to look at as well. They shouldn’t be the ultimate deciding factor, but choosing to study a brand new subject that also has a very low passing rate might not be the best combination.

    Is it good to self-study AP Exams?

    Self-studying AP exams can be a great way to try and earn college credit for a fraction of the cost. It also demonstrates that you are a disciplined and hardworking student. Before committing to taking an AP exam, be sure to assess if you have the time in your schedule to study without overworking yourself.  Self-studying can be a great thing as long as you have the time and tools you need!

    Do colleges look at self-study AP?

    The grade you receive in an AP class and the score you receive on a final AP exam are independent of one another. That means that one does not impact the other. It also means that colleges will see the AP classes you’ve taken on your high school transcript along with your grade. Colleges will only see your exam grade if you choose to take the corresponding exam for that class and then send your score to that school. So, if a college sees you have three exam scores, but does not see those classes reflected on your transcript, they will see that you self-studied for them. College admissions officers like seeing anything to do with AP exams. It means that you are willing to challenge yourself and work hard even when it’s not convenient. However, there’s no guarantee that seeing you self-studied will ensure any sort of admissions offer.

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