by John Moscatiello
AP® exams are a great way for homeschool students to show colleges that they are ready to succeed in college. High AP® scores can help homeschoolers satisfy freshman requirements, earn college credits, and even graduate early.
My alma mater, NYU, will even accept three AP® exams in place of an ACT® or SAT® score as part of its test-flexible policy. When I went to NYU twenty years ago, their AP® credit policy was so generous that I was able to graduate from NYU in three years!
Since then, I have helped thousands of students as a tutor, teacher, author, and homeschool instructor. I’ve seen firsthand how all the recent changes to the AP® program have put homeschool students at a disadvantage. These changes include earlier registration deadlines, new software for classrooms, and comprehensive changes to the format of the exams. In this article, I’m going to share all the ways I have helped homeschoolers succeed on AP® exams and provide a number of practical tips and links to resources.
Before I do, let me dispel a common misconception. You do NOT need to take an AP® class in order to take an AP® exam. All you need to do is register at a testing site before the final deadline of March 12, 2020 and pay the exam fees. There are no other requirements to take an AP® exam. When I realized this back in high school, I started taking AP® exams without taking AP® classes, an experience I wrote about in “How to Skip the AP® Class and Still Get a 5.”
1. Figure out which AP® exams to take.
The first step in this process is to figure out which, if any, AP® exams you will take.
It’s not as easy as it seems. There are 38 AP® Exams in a wide variety of subjects.
Some AP® exams are better suited for homeschool students than others. For example, there are no required texts for AP® English Language and AP® English Literature. Students who are really talented readers and writers can do well on these exams even if they are not enrolled in any AP® class. Other AP® exams test content covered in typical high school classes, especially AP® U.S. History, AP® Biology, and AP® Spanish.
But, be careful! Some exams require you to know specific content and have narrow requirements that make it difficult for homeschoolers to just walk into the exam with little preparation.
One such exam is AP® U.S. Government and Politics. The AP® Govt. exam requires you to know 15 required Supreme Court cases as well as essential foundational documents and required key terms. You have to spend time preparing for these specific requirements in order to do well on the exam. To learn more about what’s on this exam, read “What’s on the AP® U.S. Government and Politics Exam?”
AP® Art History will test students on a list of 250 required works of art. You can’t just walk into this exam without seriously studying these required works. Fortunately, Khan Academy has released a free course in partnership with The College Board on this subject that you can use to prepare.
Before you make a final decision about whether to take one of these exams, there’s one more crucial step…
2. Learn about the exam format.
AP® exams have undergone a series of dramatic changes and redesigns in recent years. This means you can’t necessarily trust every article online or even a test prep book from two years ago.
The history exams, including AP® U.S. History, AP® European History, and AP® World History, are good examples of how test format matters. These exams have become less focused on mastering tons of historical facts, dates, and names and are much more focused on reading primary sources provided to you on the exam. The AP® history exams are basically open-book tests. These changes have opened the door for homeschool students to take AP® exams with less intense preparation in conjunction with the non-AP® classes they are doing at home.
At Marco Learning, we have a number of great articles that break down the format of several exams, including AP® English Language and Composition, AP® English Literature and Composition, AP® U.S. History, AP® European History, and AP® U.S. Government and Politics.
Another great resource is the official website of the College Board. It’s called AP® Central, and it has information about what’s on the exams, their formats, as well as updates to the exams.
Again, make sure that whatever information you are consulting is up-to-date with this year’s AP® exam! See my article about the specific changes to AP® English Language that are debuting for the first time in 2020.
3. Register for the exams.
First, check out the dates for the AP® exams, which run during the first two weeks of May. Make sure that you know exactly when your AP® exams are and that none of the exams you plan to take overlap with another one. Then, you need to contact the AP® coordinator at an AP® testing site near you. (Usually, your local public high school is your best bet). For more information, check out the College Board’s website directly and be sure to contact them directly with any questions.
In order to register for the exam, you will need to pay a $97 exam fee. Unfortunately, the College Board moved the registration deadline to November 15, which is several months earlier than normal. If you have not registered for the AP exams yet, you will need to pay an additional $40 fee. The final deadline is in March.
Why are AP® exams so expensive? The major reason is that all the free-response questions (i.e., short and long essays) need to be scored by hand by teachers. Every year, thousands of college professors and AP® teachers travel to grade millions of essays.
So you are all signed up for AP® exams! How do you prepare well for test day? That’s what these next steps are all about.
4. Organize all your resources.
This is an important step in the process that most of my students skip. You should take an inventory of all the resources you have. Make a list. Maybe you have a copy of a textbook, a test prep book, or a box of flashcards. Add to that any study notes from your homeschool classes, a copy of a source reader if you have one, and any handouts or outlines or timelines you have, or little color-coded study notes you made in study groups. Add them all to the pile and to your list. Now add all the online resources you have found helpful. Maybe there is a really good YouTube channel or some old history documentaries that have helped you. Add them too.
Now take a look at your list. Be honest with yourself. Which of these resources just aren’t useful to you? Class notes no good? Cross them off the list. Maybe that YouTube channel is entertaining, but you don’t really learn much from the videos. Cross that off your list. Now look at what’s left and ask yourself which ones will help you review content the most? Then focus on the best three (or so) resources you have. Maybe it’s flashcards, class notes, or a series of documentaries.
We also have some free practice tests and study guides on our website and many videos on our YouTube channel to add to your list.
5. Develop a study plan.
Once you’ve identified the most effective resources you have, develop a study plan with them. Customize a plan around how much time you have until test day and how many hours you can study. Let me share with you the plan I used back in high school. It’s not perfect, but it worked for me, for my learning style, and it helped me get a 5 on the real AP® U.S. History exam without enrolling in an AP® course.
My APUSH Study Plan in high school: I really started studying for the APUSH exam about 30 days before the real test. It doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but 30 days is actually plenty of time to really commit yourself to intense study. I made a calendar and grabbed my copy of the American Pageant textbook. I told myself I was going to read a chapter a day. And I did. I skipped the early stuff and started around 1750. The textbook was boring at times, but reading all those pages helped solidify the narrative in my head. Then I used Kaplan’s test prep book and went to the timelines at the back of each content chapter and studied from them. I didn’t really use my notes from class because I don’t study well that way.
For practice tests, I took multiple-choice sections from The Princeton Review’s book. I took the sections in two ways. Sometimes I would time myself and complete the section in full. After grading the test, I would study my performance, reading explanations for the questions I got wrong. But other times I would take the section question-by-question, one at a time. After each individual question—no matter whether I got it right or wrong—I would then read the explanation in full. I was using the explanations to study content and study questions, and it really helped.
But I’m going to repeat: this is just ONE WAY to study content. It was my plan back in the day, and I would probably do it differently now. You have to find your own plan with videos, flashcards, or notes. Stop worrying about how other people study and work the way that you know is best for you.
6. Start early!
I have worked with thousands of students, and if there is one thing I know about all of you, it’s that you procrastinate until the very last second.
AP® exams are different, though. They are supposed to reflect an entire semester or year of college-level work, so you need to start earlier than a few days before the exam!
This is especially important for homeschool students because you probably don’t have access to the College Board’s new AP® Classroom platform and you may not have had a teacher assigning free-response questions and grading them.
7. Take full-length practice tests.
One of the most common mistakes I see in test preparation is the failure to practice well. You may know all the presidents and all the facts and all the words, but if you don’t perform well on test day, all your hard work will be in vain. You have to be prepared to bring together your knowledge and skills on test day. The best way to do this is to take full-length practice tests. For more on how to incorporate practice tests into your study plan, check out my article on how to take practice tests effectively.
It’s not just about sitting down and taking tests, though. You have to practice well. Whenever possible, read the explanations that come with the questions so that you can identify your mistakes and learn how to improve. This is why every multiple-choice question in Marco Learning courses contains comprehensive explanations.
8. Get your essays graded.
For the majority of AP® exams, the most important section is the free-response section, which can consist of short-answer questions and longer essays.
While it can be useful to look over scoring guidelines, nothing can replace scoring and written feedback from an expert grader. That’s why Marco Learning offers full grading services. For more about this resource, click here.
9. Don’t go it alone.
Studying for one or more AP® exams by yourself for weeks can be daunting. The homeschooling parents I work with are especially overwhelmed by all the nuances of the format and scoring of AP® exams (never mind the challenging nature of the content).
This is why a homeschooling consortium or live online study sessions can be so valuable for homeschoolers. When I was in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, I taught at a homeschool consortium and saw first-hand the benefits that studying with others in this format provided to homeschooling families.
At Marco Learning, we have free live online events just for homeschool students so that you can get your questions answered by expert tutors and hear how others in the homeschool community are working their way through this process.
10. Prepare for test day.
There are specific requirements about what you are allowed to bring to a testing site. See our Test Day Checklist article and articles about what you can bring to various AP® exams.
At Marco Learning, we help homeschool students prepare for AP® exams. Learn more about how our essay-grading services can help you get ready for test day.
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.