Should You Self-Study for AP Exams?

Padya Paramita

Should You Self-Study for AP Exams?

If you’re in high school and hoping to gain admission into a top college, you may be challenging yourself by registering for AP courses. APs are well-regarded by colleges and students often use these to highlight their strengths. However, whether because of uncertainties such as school closures due to COVID-19, or from the lack of course offerings from your school on the topics that interest you the most, you might be wondering whether you should self-study for AP exams

To guide you through whether this is a good call, I’ve elaborated on why APs matter, why students self-study for AP exams, alongside the reasons why you might decide to take the plunge—as well as cases in which it’s a bad call.

Impact of APs on College Admissions and Why Students Self-Study

One of the primary factors college admissions officers consider when evaluating applications is the rigor of subjects in school. AP exams literally contain the word “advanced” in their name and usually offer more of a challenge to high school students over regular or honors courses. If you’ve scored a 5 or a 4 in a certain AP exam, colleges are reassured that you’re strong in that area. This is particularly helpful to demonstrate whether you’re equipped for intensive majors such as physics or math when in college—especially now that the College Board no longer offers SAT subject tests.

AP exams are primarily offered by high schools themselves. However, sometimes if a student doesn't have space in their schedule—or their school doesn’t offer the particular class—they might choose to self-study for AP exams instead. This is a risky call, as learning under a more constructed and organized system that the classroom offers is a far more reassuring option. However, if you’re really interested in a topic and you have no other option, you can look into self-studying! 

Why Should You Self-Study for AP Exams?

Choosing to self-study for AP exams is certainly a brave call. Many students might decide to take the plunge if a certain subject isn’t offered at their school, and it can help demonstrate to admissions officers that they’re talented in that field. However, not all AP exams are of course equally easy to self-study. If you’re wondering whether to self-study for tests such as AP Environmental Science, AP Psychology, or AP Human Geography, these subjects tend to be easier to understand without the help of a teacher rather than courses such as AP Calculus, AP Physics, or AP Chemistry.

If you think you have a lot of time in hand, that may be another reason you should self-study for AP exams. The life of a high school student is packed with classes, standardized test preparation, extracurricular activities, and more. If on top of these, you believe you’ll have time to take on time for studying a subject outside your scheduled school time, that’s awesome! Another factor to consider when wondering whether to self-study for AP exams is what the material requires from you. If it’s a course that leans more towards memorization, that might be easier than picking up new concepts. 

Of course, you should keep in mind that being a high school student, you might not always have the motivation to push through and take on content after a long day of school. Carefully weigh your options and think about how much time you have in hand, whether you can stick to a schedule, and whether you have access to proper study material. If you’ve browsed through textbooks or videos, whether from The Princeton Review or Khan Academy and decided that this is a responsibility you’re able to take on, the decision to self-study for AP exams can pay off. 

Why You Might Not Want to Self-Study for AP Exams

If you don’t have a lot of time in hand, it’s important that you only sit for the AP exams in which you are enrolled at your school. Don’t try to self-study for AP exams, as extra scores are not seen as a good use of your time in most cases. Even a couple of extra 5s won’t help you stand out. It would be far better to use that time to make an impact in your community. 

In addition, studying under an instructor will prepare you far better for your exams and be more efficient; your teachers have lots of experience! Plus, remember those letters of recommendation? Your teachers can’t write them if they haven’t taught you directly. 

If you take a practice exam and it turns out that you’re not really scoring high, that might also be a reason to avoid self-studying. Moreover, if you fall on the opposite side of many of the factors discussed in the previous section such as not having much time on your hand, not having access to the best study material, or a lack of motivation (senioritis is very real and most students get it), it might not be the best decision to self-study for AP exams

Tips for Deciding Whether to Self-Study

  • Reflect on Past Courses and Performances - As you decide which AP course to self-study for, you should consider based on the courses you’ve excelled at during freshman or sophomore year. If you’re not really a great STEM student, it’ll be increasingly hard to self-study for AP Physics or Chemistry. On the other hand, if you’re really great at memorizing, AP Biology might be the way to go.
  • Think About Your Future Plans - This is key in deciding whether or not you should self-study for AP exams. What do you want to major in once you’re in college? Do you have a dream career? What academic areas are you passionate about? Asking yourself these questions can help you decide which direction you want to head. If you plan to study environmental science in college, excelling in AP Environmental Science is a great way to show your prowess.
  • Consider if It Will Give You A Balance - If the courses offered by your school skew too much towards a certain subject area, self-studying might be a good call. Not all schools have every AP course. So, it’s common to turn out that your school may have way more AP STEM options rather than history. Admissions officers will want to see that you’re not only focused on a certain field. While colleges want to know if you excel in the field of your interest, they also like to know you’ve got skills in other areas. So, if taking an exam for a class that isn’t offered by your school shows that you have a good balance when it comes to your grasp of course materials, you should consider self-studying! 


Deciding whether or not to self-study for AP exams is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Our counselors do tend to discourage it as it might distract you from other amazing opportunities that could help you stand out even more. However, it varies completely from student to student. If you are really passionate about a particular subject, it’s definitely something you shouldn’t write off. Weigh the pros and cons and make the best decision for yourself. Good luck!

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