May 12

How AP® Self-Study Boosts Your College Application

by Trent Baumbach

AP Self Study

How AP® Self-Study Boosts Your College Application

Elite universities expect high school students to show they have challenged themselves with AP® and other college level courses when applying. For example, students applying to the top 20 universities in the U.S. should have passed anywhere from 7-12 AP® exams just to be competitive.

Unfortunately, many international school students find their school does not offer AP® courses, a potential con when applying to colleges abroad.

To stand out in the highly competitive college application process, many international school students opt for self-studying for AP® exams.

Why should I self-study for AP® exams?

When applying for college, consider that admissions officers focus primarily on the following four factors:

     1. Academic Performance and Rigor of Curriculum: Courses taken (especially challenging classes like AP®, IB, or honors level) and performance as demonstrated by GPA.

     2. Extracurricular Involvement: Leadership roles, sustained involvement, and significant accomplishments in extracurricular activities.

     3. Essays and Personal Statements: Well-written, sincere, and impactful essays giving insight into a student’s personality, values, passions, and writing ability.

     4. Letters of Recommendation: Letters from teachers, mentors, or counselors which provide third-party insight into a student’s character, work ethic, intellectual curiosity, and potential for success.

In addition to these, some colleges may also consider factors like demonstrated interest, diversity factors (geographical, socio-economic, cultural, etc.), and special talents or skills (like athletics or music).

Accordingly, when taken as a supplement to strong performance in the factors above, self-studying for AP® exams can demonstrate the “wow factor” to college admissions officers by showing that you are capable of taking on challenging coursework in an area of interest to you, and can succeed without the daily guidance of a teacher or mentor. College admissions officers know that self-studying for AP® exams requires a high level of initiative, motivation, and discipline to pass each exam independently, especially if the student is also successfully balancing a full course load and extracurricular activities.

Do you want to improve your chances of getting into a top-tier university? Schedule your consultation with Tokyo Academics today!

See below for more specific reasons why AP® self-study makes international school students’ college applications strong.

     1. Offers college credit and advanced standing

Top universities such as Harvard, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and MIT offer college credit and advanced standing to students who score well on AP® exams. Additionally, according to the College Board, students who earn a 3 or higher on an AP® exam are more likely to graduate from college on time than students who do not take AP® courses. Universities seek students with a high likelihood of success, meaning scoring well on AP® exams can help you stand out as a high-achieving student.

     2. Supplements IB Studies

One of the major limitations of the IB curriculum is that it only allows for the study of 6 subjects over 2 years. On the other hand, the increased flexibility and single year timeframe of AP® courses means AP® students can study 14+ subjects before graduating high school. Self-studying AP® classes can be an excellent way to diversify students’ academic portfolios, demonstrate interests beyond the scope of the IB program, and distinguish themselves from their classmates. Since IB students can apply the learnings from IB courses to self-study, they can pass many AP® exams relatively easily. Pairing IB studies with AP® credits will make IB students particularly impressive when applying to US universities.

     3. Demonstrates academic excellence

Self-studying for and scoring well on AP® exams shows that you have a deep understanding of college-level subject matter. This is especially impressive to college admissions officers, who are looking for students willing to push themselves and take on challenging coursework.

     4. Shows initiative and independence

Self-studying for AP® exams demonstrates to college admissions officers that you are capable of taking on challenges and succeeding independently. It also provides a clear example of your resourcefulness in seeking out academic opportunities beyond your school’s curriculum. Both these qualities are essential for university, where independent academic pursuits become a primary focus.

     5. Highlights your strengths

Self-studying for AP® exams allows you to focus on subjects aligned with your passions and strengths, which will help showcase your unique talents and abilities to college admissions officers. This is particularly true in courses that may not be offered at your school, like AP® Psychology or AP® Comparative Government. If you are interested in marketing, having a 5 on AP® Psychology can support that. The same is true for AP® Comparative Government and a student interested in Political Science or International Relations.

     6. Provides evidence of your English proficiency

For international students whose first language is not English, scoring well on AP® English exams will, naturally, demonstrate English proficiency. By scoring well on the AP® English Language and Composition and AP® English Literature and Composition exams (which are administered in English), you show that you have the ability to succeed in a college-level English environment. In fact, in 2020, 61.8% of international students who took AP® English Language and Composition scored a 3 or higher, indicating college-level proficiency in English.

Which AP® courses are best for international students to self study?

In general, the best AP® exams to self-study for are those with the easiest content which will accordingly require the least amount of study hours. See below for our top 3 recommendations, supported by data directly from the College Board.

     1. AP® World Languages (Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Spanish)

With a focus on language proficiency over memorization, students with a good foundation in the language can rely largely on prior knowledge to pass these exams with a small amount of study time required, and may even find them easy. 

Taking AP® mock exams independently or with support from a tutor can also help students get familiar with common culture and history questions that appear on the actual exam.

     2. AP® Psychology

Even if your school only offers an introductory psychology course, this exam can be passed by supplementing your studies with AP® Psychology practice tests and other online resources to help memorize various psychology concepts. It is particularly valuable for students who are considering marketing, consulting or counseling as their potential career path.

With a 71.3% pass rate, self-study students are likely to find this exam relatively easy, especially if paired with a tutor to help clarify concepts and guide on expected question types.

     3. AP® English Language / AP® English Literature

International school students who enjoy reading and writing outside of class have a high chance of success on both of these exams, and may even find the content interesting to study.

With a 77.9% pass rate for AP® English Literature and students commonly citing AP® English Language as being easier than other exams, even students taking non-AP® English can pass this test by working through AP® practice tests either independently or with a tutor.

     4. BONUS

International school students can stand out when applying to college by showing a demonstrated interest in a particular major area. Your previous knowledge and subject interest can make the relatively straightforward content of a few AP® subject tests much easier. 

Consider studying for AP® Human Geography, AP® Comparative Government and Politics, AP® Environmental Science, AP® Microeconomics, or AP® Macroeconomics if it aligns with your personal interests!

What Japanese international schools offer AP® Classes? How can I sign up for exams?

Please see this link for College Board information of all Japanese international schools offering AP® courses. The table below summarizes availability for several schools in the Tokyo area.

School Offers AP® Classes?

Aoba Japan International School


American School in Japan (ASIJ)


Canadian International School Tokyo


Global Indian International School


Horizon Japan International School


International School of the Sacred Heart


Seisen International School


St. Mary’s International School


Tamagawa Academy


Tokyo International School


Yokohama International School


For non-AP® school students

For international school students whose schools do not offer AP® classes, certain schools (such as Canadian International School in Tokyo) will allow a student to take AP® exams even if they are not enrolled at that specific school. Additionally, for families who are able to travel, there are several international test centers in places like Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and India.

Since non-AP® school students will be unable to join a daily class, working with a tutor can be particularly helpful in creating a thoughtful self-study plan and ensuring clarity of all concepts on the AP® exams.

While signing up for self-study AP® exams can be a bit complicated, Tokyo Academics is glad to assist in registering for tests, preparing for the exam, and securing an examination center. 

Do you want to improve your chances of getting into a top-tier university? Schedule your consultation with Tokyo Academics today!

What should international school students who want to self-study do next?

Tokyo Academics offers one-on-one tutoring, custom group classes, and college counseling services ideal for students self-studying for AP® exams. Please click here to meet our expert tutors and learn how they can help you ace your next AP® exam!

AP® is a trademark owned by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse Tokyo Academics.

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