Are there any AP classes that your school doesn’t offer that you wish you could take? Have you taken a non-AP course in a subject that there is an AP exam for? Do you like to inflict (academic) suffering onto yourself? If so, you may want to self-study for an AP test!
Why Should I Do This to Myself?
Self-study for an AP exam, as the name implies, means teaching yourself the content of an AP course outside of school in order to take the exam at the end of the year. While this may seem like overkill to some, there are several reasons that a student may elect to take on this extra responsibility. For one, most universities offer college credits in exchange for certain AP scores; the specific number of credits you’ll get for a certain score can usually be found on the university’s website. Furthermore, if you are applying to a selective college, it may be beneficial to self-study a course to strengthen your application by highlighting a special interest area and demonstrating your academic initiative. However, self-studying is something I would recommend primarily to people who attend schools that don’t offer a lot of AP courses, as if you have the opportunity to take a good selection of AP classes in school, there is likely a way to better spend your valuable time outside of school. For those who don’t have access to such a course load, this can be a great way to get ahead with college credits and/or bolster your application.
Finding the Right Exam
In general, the best course to self-study is one in a subject in which you have already taken a non-AP course. Having this foundation will make the process of preparing for the test much easier. But, if there’s no exam of which you have a particularly strong prior knowledge, then all you need is an interest in the subject. Additionally, courses in humanities, such as World History or Human Geography, are much easier to self-learn than more technical tests, like Chemistry or Calculus, unless you’re a particularly STEM-oriented student. This decision is also one you should ideally make at the beginning of the school year.
How Do I Self-Study?
After you pick a course to self-study, the first thing you should do is take a trip to your school counselor and ask them if they can order an individual test for you as well as get somebody to proctor your test. If they say they can’t get one, try asking a teacher or school administrator that you are close to if they would be willing to proctor your exam on the date of the test you want to take, which can be found on the official AP website.
Once you get approval, it is time to start learning! Everybody learns differently, so I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all regimen to effectively self-study for an AP exam, but I can give you an example of the schedule I followed self-studying for AP Physics II during my junior year to give you a basis.
- Start Sept 7
- By end of month, finish Unit 1: Fluids
- By October 21, finish Unit 2: Thermodynamics
- By end of month, take practice test 1
- By end of month, finish Unit 3: Electric Force, Field, and Potential
- By Dec 21, finish Unit 4: Electric Circuits
- By end of month, take practice test 2
- Start Unit 5: Magnetism and Electromagnetic Induction
- By February 15, finish Unit 5: Magnetism and Electromagnetic Induction
- By end of month, take practice test 3
- By March 7, finish Unit 6: Geometric and Physical Optics
- By end of month, finish Unit 7: Quantum, Atomic, and Nuclear Physics
- Review month!
- Take as many practice tests as possible until you can consistently get a score that you want
- Final studies and the exam!
This set schedule of topics I needed to cover each month established a system of accountability that kept me on track and made sure that at no point I felt overwhelmed or behind. Also, I personally am not the type of person who can micromanage my learning week-by-week this far in advance, so I leave it up to me to determine my specific study schedule unit by unit. If you know that you prefer to learn with more structure, don’t hesitate to set a more strict schedule for yourself. A way to do this would be to set up a schedule based on the specific topics in each unit; here’s the topic breakdown and percentage of exam questions per unit for Physics 2, for example. Furthermore, the practice tests should come either from official tests released online, although these are sadly rare, or from prep books, which I will discuss soon. You should take these tests not with an expectation of doing well; instead, they should be used to gauge whether or not you have understood the content that you have been taught so far, as well as for getting used to the system of the test. So, feel free to skip over questions that are on content that you haven’t seen at all yet. The important part of these tests is to review the questions related to material you have already covered to ensure that you are truly solid on them; addressing these weak spots early is important given the fact that you are independently studying.
Now, let’s talk about how to actually make a self-study schedule for an AP exam of your choice. To see the topics a given course covers, you can visit the official AP website. Once there, click on a course, and you can see the units it covers and what percentage of the exam’s questions are dedicated to that topic. With this, create a schedule of topics to learn by a given week spaced between when you want to start studying and April 1. Make sure to adjust according to the question breakdown by unit shown on the website, so you don’t overstudy any given topic. Moreover, you want to be done learning by April so that you can spend that month revising and doing practice exam materials, which is much needed given the fact that you are learning the material all by yourself.
How Do I Self-Study?
Official AP Materials:
Now that you have a self-study schedule, you’re probably wondering how to actually learn the material. The first thing I recommend is to familiarize yourself with the primary materials which AP provides (again, here’s Physics 2’s page). These materials include information about the exam format and content, tips for answering both multiple choice and free response questions, and other information directly related to the test.
The next step is to use Google to find a textbook that goes along with the exam you plan to self-study for. If buying a textbook is an obstacle for you, options such as your public library or Thrift Books are an easy way to find affordable physical copies of textbooks. If you need an even cheaper option or prefer virtual texts, you can probably find a way to obtain textbook PDFs for free by searching something like “free textbooks reddit.” Using your schedule as a guide, you can use this textbook as your primary source of learning material. As you work through the textbook, take good notes, work through the exercises, and do some practice problems from each chapter.
Since you are ultimately preparing for a test, I highly recommend that you supplement a textbook with a couple of prep books from companies like Barron’s or the Princeton Review. While I suggest that you use these books throughout the year to reinforce your readings from the textbook, the practice exams and summary materials in these books will become vital in the month before your test.
If you are someone who doesn’t learn the best from reading, you can use online resources and videos to help you learn the material. Of course, there is Khan Academy, which offers full courses for select AP exams. On YouTube, one can find lectures from universities in courses that correspond to your AP exam (like MIT OpenCourseware) in addition to more traditional channels that provide supplementary material for AP classes.
Don’t think that just because you’re self-studying it means that you can’t get help from others. If there is a teacher at your school knowledgeable about the exam you’re taking, consider reaching out to them and asking them if they would be willing to overlook your studies and see if you’re on the right track. A teacher in this role could be very helpful in explaining concepts you’re confused about on your own and in evaluating your free-response answers on the practice tests you take. If a teacher isn’t an option for you, then consider seeking help online from people who have already taken the course, or you can look into tutoring services.
Lots of practice tests 🙁:
During the month of April, you should have already covered all of the material of your course. Since self-study is usually not as robust as class learning, we want to dedicate this time to making sure that we are at the very least very prepared for the test itself, since, at the end of the day, our priority is getting the best exam score possible. Across the two or more prep books you should have obtained, you should have at least four practice tests available to take, especially if you haven’t been doing any intermittently throughout the year. I recommend taking at least one test a week during this month, for a total of four. After each test, use the following week to address weaknesses that your mistakes indicate in preparation for next week’s practice exam. By test four, you should be able to accurately assess whether or not you are prepared for the test and whether you are about to spend your remaining time cramming, or praying, for your desired score on the test.
What Now?: After Self-Study
If all goes well, you should do great on your exam and wonder “what now?” To receive those precious college credits, all you have to do is send your scores to the school you’re planning to attend, if you haven’t already. As far as using self-studying as a boost to your application, you can accomplish this in several ways. For one, you can list your score on the Common App alongside your other AP scores. But, more importantly, you can use your experience of self-studying as material for certain admissions essay prompts. For example, a common prompt for supplemental essays is to “describe a challenge you overcame;” you can use this prompt to write about how you overcame the lack of academic offerings at your school by teaching an AP course to yourself. If you don’t want to use this as the basis of a whole essay, you can also use it as a strengthening detail. For instance, as you respond to the common prompt of “why this major,” you can speak to how your passion for this subject led you to dedicate yourself to teaching it to yourself outside of school.
Above all, as you embark on your journey of self-studying, remember to pay attention to your mental health. This process will be difficult, but if you treat yourself with kindness and embrace the fun in learning, it’ll all be worth it!
If you have any questions about studying for an AP test, you can contact a tutor at Dewey Smart!