Self-Study AP Tests: Should We Do It?

By Maxine Seya

A parent in the audience of a recent college admissions presentation asked me this:

“A lot of students at school self-study for AP tests. Should my student be worried about this and self-study for a few tests too?”

For context, the student attends an academically rigorous public high school. Students at schools like that are often on the lookout for ways to be more impressive and better than their peers — especially in the eyes of college admissions officers.

How does self-study work?

Self-studying for AP tests is one of those ways. An AP stands for “Advanced Placement” and refers to a college-level course offered in high schools around the country. These classes usually prepare students for the AP test every May, administered by the College Board (which also manages the SAT).

Scored between 1 and 5, AP tests are a simple way for incoming college freshmen to save on college tuition. Many colleges convert AP scores of 3 and above into college credit. So if a high schooler earns a 4 on AP English Literature, the college may allow him to skip the freshman English class altogether, or skip the intro class and dive straight into the upper-level English course. The specifics vary by college but there’s a way to determine how much college credit you’ll get.

Most students taking AP tests also take the corresponding high school course. But even if a high school doesn’t offer an AP class or if the student doesn’t want to take that class in high school, the College Board allows students to still self-study the test and earn the potential college credit.

For example, if your student wants to be a psychology major, she might want to demonstrate to colleges that she’s indeed passionate about the topic.

One way to do that is to take the AP Psychology course at school and get an A because it shows her academic interests and ability to challenge herself. But what if her school doesn’t offer AP Psychology?

Or what if she simply can’t fit the AP Psychology class in her high school schedule because of her involvement on team sports, marching band, or theater?

Or what if the AP Psychology teacher is a grumpy hater with a short temper and bad breath that everyone hates?

No worries. She can simply find an AP Psychology testing center, sign up for the test, and take the AP tests along with other high schoolers in the region who’ve most likely completed the high school course.

While her high school transcript won’t show “AP Psychology,” she may still earn college credit by getting a 3, 4, or 5 (depending on the college) on the test. Getting AP college credit for psychology means she will either be able to 1) graduate earlier from college saving tuition dollars or 2) skip the intro classes and delve straight into upper-level classes without graduating earlier.

So back to the question. Should students be worried about self-studying for AP tests because their peers are doing it?

Don’t do it just because others are doing it

Firstly, no student should be doing something just because other people are doing it. Our teenagers can spend all day wondering what their competition is doing and waste away hours worrying about stuff that they’ll never have answers to, that’ll never give them peace.

However, if your student is considering self-studying AP tests to save money on college tuition or explore an academic subject of interest to her AND there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing, then yes, do it! The $95 AP test fee can be made back by getting credit for a $1,200 college-level intro class.

Who benefits from self studying the AP test and who doesn’t

Taking the AP test may benefit students who have weak GPAs and want to show colleges their academic strength, initiative, and ability to study independently.

But students with already strong GPAs don’t need to spend time boosting their “academic” profile for the sake of colleges.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.