ACT & SAT Prep and College Admissions Blog

How to Self-Study for an AP Exam

Posted by Luke Liu on Wed, Oct 15, 2014 @ 11:47 AM

how to self study for an ap exam

Unfortunately, not all high school AP programs are created equal. Even though colleges put your AP exams in the context of how many were offered at your school, there are major tuition savings to be had from doing well on more AP exams. If you find yourself wanting to take an AP exam that your school does not offer, here is how you can ace the exams on your own:

Pick Your Textbook

This is an important decision as it will form the basis of your self-study journey, especially for exams that have recently gotten a facelift from the CollegeBoard. For such exams, like AP Biology in the 2012-2013 school year, you will want to Google “SUBJECT NAME textbook correlations”.

For most redesigned exam, the CollegeBoard collects correlation assessments from textbook publishers to ensure that their books align with the exam frameworks.  This is usually the ideal way to pick the best textbook.

If a comprehensive correlations document is not available, then you can look for the “SUBJECT NAME example textbook list”, which is more commonly available. Get the latest edition whenever possible and if you can’t decide, just go with whichever one you think has the most reputable publisher behind it.

Either way, do not spend too much time obsessing over the textbook you use – the important thing is how you will use it. 

Set a Study Plan

Generally, every textbook will have more information than what you actually need to succeed on the AP exam. So to save yourself lots of headaches down the line, look through the chapters and make note of which ones will not show up on the real exam (have a copy of the framework handy).

Once you have determined the chapters that you will need to get through, set a weekly schedule all the way until April 1st, a month before AP exams are administered. You will want the last month before exams start to review and practice.

Allocate at least one hour per day on your self-study. Remember that other kids will be taking an actual hour-long class for this every day plus more time for homework. You need to be putting in at least one hour per day to stay on track.

Be a Note-Taking Fiend

When I self-studied for AP World History, what really made me successful was that as I read every chapter, I took notes on the major points of almost everything I read. It came out to about 2-3 sentences per page read.

This was certainly a significant amount of work to stay on top of, but it paid dividends in two important ways:

  • It reinforces the learning process because you can’t just passively read the textbook and forget things easily. You have to decide which parts are the most important, which forces you to think about what you just read and the act of writing it imprints the knowledge to memory better.
  • You now have a self-made study guide of the points that you thought were important. This was an excellent resource for me when it came time to cram because I had written the notes in a way that I would easily understand and quickly jog my memory.

Practice Profusely

To make sure you are internalizing what you are learning, give yourself frequent assessments along the way. Textbooks will generally have end-of-chapter quizzes and there are a number of online resources as well:

  • Learnerator – We work with AP table leaders and readers to develop the most comprehensive question banks possible and work each year to ensure all content is in-line with the AP exams.
  • Quizlet – You will find many flash card sets put together by teachers and students. The quality will vary
  • 4tests – There are free tests here, although be careful because it does not seem like the content has been updated to match the redesigned exams.

If you want even more practice questions, you can purchased past released exams on the CollegeBoard store:

Physical review books, although clunky to carry around, can also provide additional practice.

*Before going down this route however, it is worth noting that many such books do not have very good content. This is especially true of books written to adapt to overhauled AP exams, as they are often regurgitations of past books that are not truly aligned to the new frameworks.

The Final Push

About a month before the exam, you should plan to have all the necessary chapters read with copious notes. Here is a checklist of things to do before the exam to ensure best odds of success:

Re-read your notes

By this point, it is more than likely that you have forgotten many of the things that you read earlier in the year. Give all your notes a run-through as a refresher.

Practice like Crazy

The best way to really master a subject is to get as many reps as possible. One way to do this is to go to a local bookstore with a notebook and grab as many review books as possible and just take all the practice questions out of the books (if you don’t want to actually buy several books).

Take released exam

The best way to be prepared for the real exam is to take past released exams. This may not always be available the year after a re-designed course is first implemented, such as AP U.S. History in the 2014-15 school year. In those cases, you will have to rely on independent companies and their review products.

In-Person Questions

They say that you don’t truly know something until you are able to teach it. One way to do this is to get a friend, a parent, or a willing teacher to quiz you FRQ-style on various topics. The topics can be pulled from past released FRQ’s, review books, topics found in textbooks, online resources, etc.

The goal is to not know what questions to be expecting and be able to provide thoughtful and confident answers in the moment without the aid of any resources. Through a process like this 

Memorization self-challenge

Starting at the highest level of organization, try to remember everything you can about what you learned. A good way to start is by textbook chapters. If you can recall all the chapter names in your textbook, that is a great start because it means that you can see the big picture of how the course progresses and what it contains. 

Then at each chapter, recall from memory how each one was organized. You don’t need to recall every fact, but if you can remember at an “outline” level, at least two tiers (such as chapters -> sections) and some supporting knowledge in each one, then you are in great shape.

As you do this exercise, you can take down notes of things you struggled to remember and look up the actual book chapters to see which ones you missed.

So there you have it! If you plan it out and stick to your strategy, self-studying for an AP exam is not all that difficult. It may seem daunting at times, but the payoff will be worth it: You have another chance to save on college tuition and admissions offices will love that you put in all that effort to go above and beyond.

Good luck!

About the Author

Luke Liu is CEO and founder of Learnerator Education. When he was in high school, he took 11 AP exams and got 11 5’s. He self-studied for the AP World History exam after having taken the APUSH and AP European History classes. 

Learnerator is the web's leading resource for high-quality academic practice materials. With over 18,000 questions and solutions spanning 37 subjects developed by elite educators in the respective fields, thousands of people trust Learnerator to prepare them for high-stakes exams.

Subjects that can be found on Learnerator include all major AP exams, SAT, ACT, GMAT, and more. All content is meticulously developed and tested before publishing on our platform which makes it as simple as possible to begin practicing and learning by doing.


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