In the first week of my junior year of high school, I faced a dilemma. My schedule was so overloaded with honors and AP® classes that I couldn’t enroll in AP® U.S. History without sacrificing another class. Mr. Coleman, the teacher for AP® U.S. History, suggested that I take his regular U.S. History course and take the AP® exam anyway. I remember asking incredulously, “Wait, you can take an AP® exam even if you don’t take an AP® class?!”
Your real AP® score is only calculated from the work you do in the three hours of the real AP® Exam—not from your work in school.
Of course you can. An AP® class and an AP® exam are totally separate things. To take an AP® exam, all you need to do is register on time and pay the hefty registration fee, which is now $96. So I followed Mr. Coleman’s advice and took his college-prep U.S. History class. He gave me extra assignments from his AP® class and invited me to some AP® review sessions. A month before the real AP® U.S. History exam, I developed an ambitious study plan. Every day for 30 days I read a chapter from the AP® U.S. History textbook and studied timelines and outlines. I also carried flashcards around with me, took practice tests, and read explanations. I even prepared myself by practicing the timing of each part of the exam. After 30 days of intense study, I truly felt ready to take the real AP® exam. Though confident in my performance both before and after the test, I was anxious to find out how I’d really done. I’ll never forget calling the official AP® scoring phone line and hearing the robot voice say “AP® U.S. History…5.” Despite its monotone delivery, the news was music to my ears. I may or may not have pumped my fists in the air and shouted.
This experience of doing well on the AP® U.S. History exam without taking an AP® class got me thinking about what other AP® exams I could take. During my senior year, I decided to take AP® Art History, even though my high school didn’t offer the class. I had studied a little art history for academic decathlon (the only sport I played in high school), but I had never really taken any kind of art history class. I knew that in order to get a top score, I’d have to study intensely again before the real AP® Art History exam in May. So, about a month before test day, I started using the same study plan I’d used for AP® U.S. History, reading a chapter a day from a textbook, studying lists and flashcards, and taking practice tests. I also watched an old documentary series by Sister Wendy, who rhapsodized about art in a British accent. I got a 4 on the exam and eventually four college credits when I enrolled as a freshman at NYU.
After I graduated high school, I started pushing other people to take AP® exams even when they weren’t enrolled in AP® courses. I encouraged some of my family members to take AP® exams in several history subjects, including AP® World History and AP® European History. They were great writers and passionate about history, so it was a great match. They all performed well on all of those AP® exams. When I became a tutor in 2002, I also started encouraging some of my high-achieving students to prepare for AP® English Language and AP® English Literature exams, even when they weren’t enrolled in the courses. And it wasn’t just me. Many of my students were already being encouraged by their high school teachers and counselors to take AP® English Language in their junior year even if their school did not specifically offer an AP® English Language course.
If you are not good at studying on your own or you don’t do well under the pressure of standardized tests, then you should not be taking random AP® exams. Don’t do that to yourself!
Now this approach is not for everyone. On the humanities exams—including AP® U.S. History, AP® English Language, and other tests—you have to be a confident, fast writer. Finally, if your schedule is already overloaded with too many AP® classes and obligations, then definitely don’t make the situation worse by taking extra AP® exams. Remember that AP® exams are also time-consuming and expensive.
But if you are ambitious and motivated, then don’t let AP® class enrollment affect whether you take a particular AP® exam. If you are interested in taking an AP® exam apart from an AP® class, then keep the following points in mind:
- Make sure you register on time. I can’t stress this enough. You can make all the study plans you want, but if you don’t register for the AP® exam on time, then you can’t take the test in May. Simple as that. Remember that AP® exams are only offered once per year, and that you will need to work with the AP® coordinator at your school to complete the registration. Also, please note that registration policies are changing for the 2019-2020 year, and you will now need to register by October in order to avoid late fees.
- Use the best resources. Take an inventory of all the resources you have at your disposal. Make a list. If it helps, make a big pile of everything you’ve got! Textbooks, flashcards, class handouts, outlines, timelines, practice tests, study guides,a copy of your source reader, or even little color-coded study notes you made in study groups…whatever they are, throw them all on the pile. If you’ve used any online resources, make sure to include those on your list, too. Now take a good look at your list, at that huge pile of stuff. Be honest with yourself: Which of these resources just isn’t useful to you? Class notes spark no joy? Get them off the list. Maybe that YouTube channel is entertaining, but you don’t really learn much from the videos. Count it OUT. Only keep resources that will help you review the necessary AP® content the most, then focus on the best three or so to help you through your study plan. On our website, we offer free full-year AP® courses that each allow you to learn how to thrive in your class and prepare for your AP® Exams.
- Make a study plan and follow through with it. There is no point to paying $96 for an AP® exam if you are going to just wing it on test day. Most AP® exams have very specific grading rubrics that you need to learn before test day. I recommend spending at least a month studying intensely (at least one or two hours per day), learning both content and specific test-taking strategies. It’s only by taking practice tests and reviewing your results that you can really see how to get your timing right. Focus on adapting your natural skills in science or writing or Spanish—or whatever it is—to the specific tasks and grading scales of the exams.
John Moscatiello is the founder of Marco Learning. He has been a teacher, tutor, and author since 2002. Over the course of his career, John has taught more than 4,000 students, trained hundreds of teachers, written content for 13 test preparation books, and worked as an educational consultant in more than 20 countries around the world.