Charbonneau accomplished a rare feat: she was able to start a sequel without a giant (and often mind numbing) overview of what happened in the first book. There were several months and about a dozen books read between The Testing and Independent Study and it took no time to go back into Cia's world.
Cia has completed The Testing so now she's in school. We skip the first 6 months and skip to a final test, the test that places the students into concentrations. To her surprise, Cia isn't placed into engineering or science, she's placed into government. She is also then assigned a higher amount of classes than her students and then placed into a demanding (but most prestigious) internship. Several adults tell her that they have great faith in her abilities and her student advisor reinforces that those messages were warnings, not praise. Cia is being tested again. She saw what happened to her other classmates so she knows what failure means.
I loved I also loved that Cia had to balance an internal struggle, not just the external issues I discussed above. At the end of the last book Cia found a recording of what happened during the Testing, made in case she didn't outsmart the memory wipe. Cia now has to balance what she knows and what she thinks she knows when she isn't supposed to remember anything at all. It's a great tool for her because she can learn from past mistakes and is able to read between the lines but it also means that everything she says has to be guarded. If she reveals she knows more than she should, both her and her family are in trouble.
I also loved that this book explored Cia's growth without Tomas. Tomas is a great character but having a girl's development come from a boy is cliche and silly.
I wish this book didn't have a physical challenge. While the "bonding" exercise isn't nearly as physical (or deadly) as The Testing and it reinforces the idea that life outside city boundaries can be dangerous, it seems receptive to make the students go through another physical challenge.
I think the goals of the challenge could have been accomplished with a visit from the students' families. It would have been heartbreaking for Cia's family to see how much she's changed and it would have reminded Cia how high the stakes really are.
Basically: Read this series.