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Self Studying for the AP Tests

Self Studying for the AP Tests

By James H. Choi
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https://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Graphics/APTestLogo.jpgI went to high school in Brazil.  The education system there has three years of high school, as opposed to four years in the United States.  There were no such terminologies as “freshman, sophomore,” to designate the year, either.  We were just called 1st year student, 2nd year student, etc.  At the end of the 3rd (and last) year, we would take a college-entrance exam called vestibular (an actual test) to determine which university we would enter.  Vestibular should not be compared to the SAT.  Vestibular is the only measure with which your college admission was decided.  That’s right.  No GPA, no activities, no recommendations, no nothing.  One total score from vestibular is the only thing the colleges consider.  As with any college exam in any country, the room at the top was limited; few could make it to the colleges of their dream and the whole process was extremely competitive.

The high school I went to was Colégio Bandeirantes.   It was considered (probably still is) one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation at the time.  The mayor of São Paulo (starting in 2013) is my classmate, and there are disproportionate number of professors at the University of São Paulo that are graduates of my high school.

So far so good.  As I was getting used to the school only 12 months after I arrived in Brazil, I basically liked everything, and felt more at home there than I did back in my native land Korea.  The lack of beating from teachers was particularly welcome.  However, there was one practice that intrigued me.  A few 2nd year students would take vestibular and score highly enough to enter top universities even though they could not enroll.  The rule requires students finish high school before any college would admit them.  In other words, those 2nd year students aced vestibular just to deliver one message:

“You can’t make it in three years?  Well, I can do it in two.  I am better than you.”

This glory is further glorified by full page newspaper articles/ads (I do not remember which it was) complete with triumphantly smiling photographs of these high scorers.  Under each picture, it duly noted who were 2nd year students, i.e., the show offs, thus showing them off duly.  These vestibular acers became temporary heroes — which is much more heroic than not being one at all — for everyone around me.  Considering our life seemed to exist to watch the Allan-Poe-esque scythe-pendulum called vestibular descending upon us, timed to hit us at the end of our 3rd year, their transcendence from the worldly worries was indeed admired by all, including me.

Those readers who feel repelled by this blatant display of intellectual arrogance can find some schadenfreude-esque consolation from the fact that many of them went on to flunk vestibular in their 3rd year, when it really mattered, and ended up in some second tier universities.  It sounds incredible, considering they spent another year preparing for the same test.  A Yogi Berra quote: “It ain’t over until it is over” comes to mind.  That is, don’t take a nap before you across the goal line.

When I learned of this practice, half of me was upset at their arrogance while the other half wanted to do it myself so that I can upset others.  Yes, do unto others before they do unto you.  The thought thrilled me, especially because I was not supposed to be able to do it with my very weak Portuguese language that I learned only for 12 months.

To make short story even shorter, I didn’t get to do it. More precisely, I couldn’t do it.  The official reason is the weakness of my Portuguese.  However, the truth is that I have always struggled in geography, literature and history in any language.  So, this Portuguese weakness was just an excuse.  I was just not good enough for such a feat.  Period.  In fact, even at the end of 3rd year, it was not clear if my vestibular score would make it to the University of São Paulo.  I never took vestibular, so I don’t know.   I came to the United States for my college education.


I wonder how you, the readers, are reacting to this story.  If you are an archetypal alpha-male who spends his day scheming to crush other people’s delicate ego, this story might have stirred your interest.  Even if you are a better-balanced, considerate human being, this idea of asserting your superiority might intrigue you because this will give you a great chance flaunt your modesty and boast your humility.  (After all, it is hard to show your modesty/humility when no one thinks much of you.)

I have good news for American high school students of all balances.  You can legally and ethically show off your brain power without heading South to take vestibular in your 2nd year.  You won’t get to show your triumphantly smiling face on newspapers — in the United States, we will see live meditation championship broadcast on network TV before we see pictures of high scorers on newspaper– either, but you will enjoy other numerous benefits.  Benefits such as setting the pecking order straight in your high school life.  Or never having to suffer the indignity of needing to assert that you are actually smart.  After this event, everyone will just know that you are smart.

What is it? How can I do that? 

Take the Advanced Placement tests, a.k.a., AP.

AP tests have two components: the course and the test.  Students take the college-level course at high school, which is of such a high level it can give students a 5.0 GPA, as opposed to 4.0 given to high school level courses.  Taking AP courses used to be a novelty and source of pride 20 years ago, but these days the courses have become so widespread that not taking them is a almost source of shame.   Any and all students aiming for top universities are already stuffing all kinds of AP courses into their transcripts.  Among the students I teach, taking 10 AP courses during their high school is a norm.

What is AP?

Read all about it here: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/about.html

How can I stand out in this crowded field, doing what everyone else is doing?

AP has two components, the course and the test.  Even though those two go together most of the time, i.e., you take the course to take the test, they don’t have to.  You need to start considering them separately.  In fact, you can take the AP test even if your school doesn’t even offer a course, thus this plan is applicable in any high school of any level.  This is how may students show seemingly impossible number of AP test scores — because that many would not fit in their school time table — in their college applications.

How can you take an important test like AP without being taught?  Can you really learn through self studies?   Indeed, this is a revolutionary concept for many students grew up having their knowledge spoon-fed.  But this revolutionary approach of spooning your own food is what you really need to succeed.  As you enter any advanced field in your career, you will find yourself at the edge of human knowledge.  There is no one to teach you because no one knows more than you.  If you read biography of great scholars, you will see that many, if not most, are self taught.  Learning to teach oneself is single most important skill that will determine your life’s success.

How do I self study for such big tests?

You need to start preparing for it in advance before the oppressive course load eliminate all your free time.   You certainly have to use your summer, spring, winter vacation time, and you may even need to prepare for it for two years in order to not sacrifice other courses you are taking at school.  It is not easy, and it is not for everyone.  But it is routinely done every year by smart students.

I will explain the step by step details in subsequent articles for the following subjects that I know well.  Calculus, Statistics, Physics, Economics, Environmental Science.   You can set up to be notified also.

Can Freshmen do it too?

Yes, any high school student can ask for, and take the AP test at their school.  Some school won’t let students take an AP course before 11th grade, but they are not likely to block the test taking.  If they don’t let you take the test, you can take it at another school as explained below.

I had students take the AP Calculus tests in their 8th grade.  That took some convincing and exception-making on the host high school.  After all that arm twisting, the result was not so hot either.  After that experience, I am not so keen on 8th graders taking the AP tests.  If you are an ambitious 8th grader, I recommend you hold onto your knowledge, and take the test after you get into high school.

What if my school does not offer AP test for a particular subject?

That happened to my students, too.  Early planning is the key.  You will be able to find a high school in your neighbor that would allow you to take that test at their school.  Usually, it is only a question of how far you want to travel to take the test because, as your circle of search increases, the likelihood of running into an AP administrator friendly to ambitious students increases.  When the circle is large enough, as in 2 hour drive, the probability of running into an accepting school will approach one.  Seen from another perspective, you can comfort yourself saying that the harder your hardship in finding a hosting school, the more exciting your autobiography will be.

The general approach should be avoiding confrontations while widening the search.  You will find peaceful solutions if you search wide enough.

These are the high schools that have approved syllabi for the AP courses.  Having syllabi generally correlates to teaching courses, which generally correlates to offering the AP tests.  Thus, there are the first ones you should inquire: https://apcourseaudit.epiconline.org/ledger/

What if I am not ready?

You will need to ask your school to order an extra copy of AP test for you by February.  If you are not ready, stay quiet in February.  No one will know you are giving up.

What if I take and flunk the test?  Can I cancel the score?

Your school friends will know you took the test because you were in the same test room.  But scores are reported individually, so if you flunk, you can become a humble student who doesn’t like to talk about one’s accomplishments.  In the meantime, you can cancel the unsatisfactory score, then try it again the next year.  Your school teacher will get your AP score as well, but he/she shall respect your privacy, especially if you specifically ask him/her to.

Is there any reason I should do this other than to show off?

The ability to self-teach is an extremely important skill, the most important skill in succeeding in this constantly changing world.  Your accomplishment with the AP test will give you self-confidence that no self-help books can.  On top of it, getting a 5 on the AP tests not only certifies your ability to self-study, it also brings due recognition from all around you including college admissions officers.

Also, going back to the original question of how to stand out, this is how you stand out.  This self study shows that you are a motivated, driven, creative, smart student because it takes precisely those attributes to attempt anything like this.

But you should attempt this only if you are handing your school work load easily, and are itching to take on more challenges.  Keeping up, and doing well in your school course load is the most important priority.

Is there any tests other than AP that I can silently prepare?

You can prepare for math competitions.  If you are not accepted to your school’s math club, or you don’t want to be seen with them, but you want to crush them anyway, then you can self-teach competition math. Show up at the competition and get the highest score just to set the record straight, then ride into the sunset telling your horse you never liked math that much anyway…  or something similar.  I already wrote How to Prepare for Math Competitions and more will follow in the future.  If you are struggling in math, fix the situation first by reading Six Reasons for a Sudden Drop in Math Grades then proceed to world domination.  Whether you end up dominating the world or not, Solving Hard Problems is a very important activity for your general mental/intellectual greatness.  Even if your school does not support any math activities, you can rise to the top once you understand the system.

If you are interested only in Physics, (I was that type myself) then you can prepare for Physics Olympiad on your own.  You can do this even if your school does not support the Olympiad.  I am going to start writing about this competition shortly. You can set up to be notified when I do.

You can also enter science competitions.  You don’t need your school’s support for this but you will need at least one school teacher who will sign your forms.  Winning at ISEF or STS will have your triumphantly smiling face displayed on newspaper for all to admire.  The winning prizes running into tens of thousands of dollars will also help you smile longer and make you look cooler.  I am a grand prize judge at International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).  I judge Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science avoiding my finalist students, i.e., I don’t judge the subject where my students became finalists.  You can search and find more articles on ISEF judging experience in this blog.

There are many other big tests and competitions, but they lie outside my area of expertise.  You should consult people/teachers in those areas.

Is there any downside trying to self study?

There is a downside.  Like me in my high school days, you may not be able to accomplish the ambitious goal and feel like a failure for a while.  But soon you realize you didn’t lose anything.  And whatever you learned, it is yours to keep.  It will not leave any record.  If you are resilient, it won’t leave any scar in your mind either.

Even if nothing works out, you may write about your failed attempts, decades later with fond memories, advising the next generation students to be aware of new possibilities.  As I am doing now.

Go ahead and do it.


Categories: AP Tests
  1. Al
    March 10, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    This was quite a scathing commentary on Ap tests. I liked it. Always nice to find someone sardonically pragmatic 🙂

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