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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 2022-2023 is $97 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 comes off as impressive to college admissions.

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

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AP Program Overview

The AP Program (run by the College Board, the same group behind the SAT) offers over thirty subjects which are covered in classes that cover “the breadth of information, skills, and assignments found in the corresponding college course.”

Since these classes are supposed to maintain the same core elements but end up varying a lot on a school-by-school basis, College Board offers AP exams which “represent the culmination of college-level work in a given discipline in a secondary school setting.” The exams differ in time (typically ranging in time from a little over 2 hours to around 3 hours) as well as in difficulty. Scores on AP exams range from 1 to 5, 5 being the highest (with 3 being the lowest passing grade).

In sum, you take an AP class in your high school, take the AP exam in that subject, and, permitting you pass, receive college credit. To self-study an exam, simply cross out “take an AP class in your high school” and replace it with “read through an AP review book 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.

  1. Decide whether or not you have enough time to self-study for an AP exam on your own. This will vary a lot on a person-by-person basis, although aim to devote 3 hours/week minimum.
  2. Scope out the available AP subjects and figure out which one you’d like to take. If it is offered by your high school, chances are you’ll be encouraged to take it in the traditional classroom setting. If it isn’t offered by your high school, then…
  3. Talk to your guidance counselor about self-studying for an AP exam. If you need any excuse, just say you have a friend at another high school who was permitted to do this. Most likely, you won’t encounter any problems, since a counselor should be overjoyed to have a student asking for permission to do more work.
  4. One potential hang up is paying for the exam. For the 2022-2023 school year, an AP exam will cost $97 (there is financial assistance available from College Board if that is too high). In the best case scenario, your guidance counselor will offer to have the high school cover the cost of the exam. If they don’t offer and you have to pay for it, that’s still not bad, as the $96 can save you thousands down the road.
  5. Study throughout the year
  6. Take the exam in May (your score will be made available in July)

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:

AP Exam % of test takers with 4 or 5
AP Chinese Language and Culture 75.00%
AP Physics C: Mechanics 64.40%
AP Calculus BC 61.50%
AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism 60.20%
AP Spanish Language and Culture 59.40%
AP Japanese Language and Culture 57.70%
AP Studio Art: Drawing 54.10%
AP Studio Art: 2-D Design 52.50%
AP Microeconomics 52.40%
AP Computer Science A 48.60%
AP Comparative Government and Politics 46.80%
AP Psychology 45.80%
AP German Language and Culture 45.20%
AP Macroeconomics 42.10%

Source: College Board

Remember, every college will weight 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 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 for 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 your 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 for however many minutes during the day and then completing however many minutes of 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.

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.

So, everyone taking CLEP exams has self-studied; there are no courses to prepare. 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 free best resources for students is through edX, which is nonprofit technology company that was created by MIT and Harvard.

edX offers online courses for students to use as they study for their AP exams. The best parts of this is that the courses are free and also self-paced so you can go through them on your time. Every edX course is created by an edX partner university which include top colleges like UC Berkley, Davidson, and MIT!

Here are the free AP courses available through edX:

If you decide to self-study a more technical subject (maths, sciences, 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.

Another great resource (and the major source of help for me when I self-studied for 3 AP exams) is the AP Tests Preparation section on the College Confidential forum. Here, you can find more book recommendations, links to free, online resources, and a community of students willing to assist in your self-studying adventures.

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.