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How to Self-Study for AP Exams

By Joey, IvyWise Master Tutor

In light of the dissolution of the SAT Subject Tests by the College Board, many students in the U.S. and around the world are wondering how now to demonstrate their academic knowledge to universities. While stellar grades, internships, and independent research will always remain a core part of this process, we also know that some colleges still value being able to compare student achievement in standardized test settings. If you’re already enrolled in AP or IB courses at your school, good news! The exams that cap off these curricula are likely to speak more powerfully to admissions officers than ever. But what if your school doesn’t offer many (or any) such classes?

Up till now, SAT Subject Tests were the solution for students looking to “show what they know” from any of a variety of academic topics in a straightforward (and short!) multiple-choice setting. In their absence, it’s clear that the College Board is expanding opportunities to take AP exams. If you’re considering self-studying for an AP exam, read on for considerations when choosing which AP exams to take and tips for studying and registering for these exams.

Deciding Which AP Exams to Self-Study For

Before committing to studying and registering for an AP exam, there is one crucial question to ask yourself: How closely does it align with a class you are taking in school? AP exams are the culmination of a detailed curriculum that teachers are expected to cover with their students over the course of the school year. That’s a lot of learning to pack into a few months. Instead of starting from scratch, examine how the current courses you’re taking can align with your independent AP exam prep. For example, if you’re studying calculus in school, take a look at what the two different AP calculus exams expect you to know to determine which will fit you best and what material you might need to learn on your own.

Independently Registering for AP Exams

Registering for AP exams independently does take some legwork, as registrations are typically handled by AP coordinators at individual high schools. So if you’re planning to study for and take an AP exam that’s not offered at your school, you will need to find a school that does offer it and arrange to take the exam there. You should do this ASAP, as schools need time to register students and order materials. Here’s how to register for AP exams when self-studying:

  1. Search the AP Course Ledger for schools that offer the AP subject for which you are planning to take the exam. You can search by school name, city, state, and AP subject. You can also reach out to the College Board’s AP Services to learn how to register for AP Exams when self-studying.
  2. After you’ve identified some schools that offer the AP exam you’re looking to take, contact the school’s AP coordinator. You can do this by searching for the school’s main phone number or any individual phone numbers or emails listed for the school’s AP coordinator on the school’s website.
  3. Once you’ve contacted the AP coordinator, ask if they’re allowing homeschooled or independent students to test at their school this year. If so, let them know which exam you plan to take and ask what steps you need to take to register to take the exam there. The AP coordinator will be responsible for getting you registered, collecting you AP examination fee, ordering the testing materials, and letting you know when and where to arrive for the examination.
  4. If the school is not allowing non-enrolled students to take AP exams there, continue reaching out to the schools you identified on the AP Course Ledger until you find one that is.
  5. Reach out to AP coordinators no later than March 15, as slots for independent test-takers can be limited and as mentioned previously, they need time to order the testing materials and make provisions for additional test-takers on campus.

How to Self-Study for AP Exams

Once you have a target AP exam in mind, it’s time to hit the ground running with your test prep.

  • Start studying early: To reiterate, you’re preparing for a year-long exam curriculum that might not always match closely with the curriculum run by your school. You ideally should begin preparing months in advance, completing AP-focused work alongside your regular schoolwork for the course!
  • Distinguish between studying course material and prepping for the exam: While there are strategies that can, say, help improve your performance at the multiple-choice section of the AP English Literature test, they should not be your only focus during the first month of study. As you learn more material, you can begin to incorporate practice at the long-form responses (essays, calculations, etc.) that distinguish AP exams from Subject Tests — and work your way into more specific test-taking strategies from there.
  • Select resources wisely, but don’t limit yourself: Even if your class in school resembles an AP curriculum closely (or if you are enrolled in an actual AP course!), you’ll almost certainly want to get at least one prep book to supercharge your studying. Keep in mind, though, that different publishers have different audiences and goals in mind that you’ll want to match with your own through some research. Which books really review the course material, and in how much depth? Which ones are receiving plaudits from test-takers? But don’t stop there! You’ll also want to thoughtfully integrate the wealth of past official exams from the College Board into your prep — and consider dipping into the video content, gamified practice material, and even podcasts the internet offers.
  • Look to a tutor or teacher for guidance: Navigating everything I’ve laid out here need not be a task for you alone! Breaking down an AP curriculum, understanding college-level concepts, learning test-taking strategies, incorporating the right resources—these aren’t easy. Working with an experienced tutor to develop the AP study plan right for you can help turn a difficult topic into a rewarding experience. Meanwhile, your teacher can also be of support in evaluating the quality of study materials or in pushing you further in the coursework you’re already doing together.

Self-studying and registering for AP exams can be a big undertaking, but it can greatly pay off in the college admissions process if you plan ahead and create a plan of action to maximize your test prep. Pick the right exam for you and study early and smart and you’ll be on your way to a successful test experience in no time. If you’re interested in boosting your transcript by independently studying for and taking AP exams, we can help you develop a plan of action from start to finish. Our tutors are subject-matter experts with extensive experience preparing students for every AP exam available, and we can guide students through the registration process. Contact us today for more information on our AP exam test prep.

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