Image from Pexels.

Image from Pexels.

I will never forget the day my AP U.S. Government teacher insisted that September 11th happened on September 1st, 2001.

Our class was taking a test we were woefully under-prepared for, mainly because her tests were notoriously difficult and nit-picky. As I was trying to make sense of the questions, one student went up to her and told her he could not answer a question because there were no right answers.

“What do you mean there are no correct answers? There’s one right there.” She exclaimed to the class.

“But, Mrs.,” he sheepishly responded, “it says September 1st, not September 11th. I didn’t want to mark it in case it’s a trick question.” Instead of telling the class that it was a mistake, a typo, anything but the truth, she spent the next five minutes drilling into our heads that September 1st was the true date (9/11, she said, was like 9-1-1, which could be 9/1/01. I don’t know either.).

She was a sweet lady–really. One of the most caring teachers I’ve ever had. Hilarious, too. But from that moment on, I knew I had to turn elsewhere.

First thing’s first: choose whether or not you want to take the AP exam. Remember that AP exams are just standardized tests, and depending on your goals, it may not be worth it to you. For example, many people in my AP Chemistry class did not end up taking the exam at the end of the year, mainly because they felt that chemistry was not their strong suit. The AP program generally leaves you with an artificial understanding of the subject. In my opinion, APs end up preparing you for college classes, but are not the equivalent. So if you can devote time to something else that is more important, consider that as an option.

If you do decide to take the exam, here are some ways to self-study (or as I call it, “self-study marathon”).

College Textbooks

According to CollegeBoard, the AP Program is meant to cover the “information, skills, and assignments found in the corresponding college course.” What better way to learn the information like college students than from learning from the textbooks college students use? I highly recommend this method (and an AP exam-specific book as a supplement) if you have a lot of time to study and want a thorough understanding of the subject. Although dense, the right college textbook will explain almost any subject well, and can help you gain mastery of a subject. Keep in mind this method is a real commitment and can be very time-consuming.

One thing to know before you do this: college textbooks are incredibly expensive! If you don’t learn this now, it will definitely hit you when you go to college.

AP Exam-Specific Books

The test-prep companies that have SAT-prep books usually also have AP-prep books as well. Princeton Review, Cliffs, Barron’s, and Kaplan are popular companies, and each have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, it is common to find that Barron’s books are detail-heavy, which may be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the test. It is important to do some research based on which subject you are studying, as some books are better than others (College Confidential is usually a good place to do this).

Once you acquire the book, it is time to come up with a plan. In my experience, outlining the entire Princeton Review AP Government book in a separate notebook led me to be successful for the exam. How you work with the prep guide is entirely on you!

Taking an Online Class

Another alternative is changing teachers. But because this is not possible at all high schools, a viable way to do this is to take the class online instead. That way, you are still taking a class (and can possibly earn credit!) and have a higher chance of doing well. It will also help you master time management, which is vital in a college environment.

Of course, online classes have their down-sides. First, it takes a lot of willpower to keep yourself from procrastinating since, many times, the only deadline is the date you should complete the course. This is a problem with self-studying as well. Second, it is costly! Depending on the class, it can cost several hundred, which may be too much for some. A nice alternative could be Coursera (if the class is being offered), but prep books are much more affordable regardless.

Note that these methods will not make up for the lab time needed for some science APs, especially AP Chemistry.

A Case for Self-Studying

Self-studying means experimenting with learning styles. I attribute my success in college to self-studying for the AP Government exam. I learned how I learn, how to take effective notes, and the importance of fighting for a more-than-superficial understanding of the information. Many people come to college seeing that their old methods of studying won’t work; I was not one of those people. This is an important advantage to have.

Furthermore, you enter college with a foundation in a subject, which makes a difference in college. I did not have to work too hard in my Introduction to Psychology class because most of the material was already familiar to me.

Self-studying for an exam involves time-management skills, some interest in the subject, willpower, and lots of junk food to keep you awake during those nights where it just feels like a marathon. However, in the end, I successfully beat the AP U.S. Government exam. And so can you, as well as any exam of your choosing!

What has your experience been with self-studying in the past? Do you have any tips or experiences to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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the author

Lillian is a member of the Pitzer Class of 2017, where she is an anticipated Biology major. She is a first-generation college student that is interested in dental medicine (floss please!), mental health, visual arts, and political activism. Combining these interests, it is Lillian's life goal to heal communities on a micro and macro scale through medicine, art, and activism. You can learn more about her on her personal website. Since she will be retiring from TP at the end summer '14 in order to prepare for her study abroad in Ecuador, please subscribe to her blog to follow her journey!

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  1. RChapman on June 9, 2014


  2. Athena on November 14, 2014

    Really interesting! Self-studying has been on my mind for a while…

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