AP Exam Prep Strategies

Spring has sprung, and all you want to do is to go enjoy the sunshine, explore the outdoors (apart from those pesky allergies), and relax after a long winter and a longer school year. But spring also means that AP exams are approaching quickly. Maybe you’re taking your first AP class, or maybe you’re wondering why taking three or four AP classes seemed like a good idea at the time. Either way, we can help you prepare for the big tests while keeping your cool and sending you off towards a great summer. Here’s our experts’ tips for studying for the AP exams our students most commonly take, as well as a bit of test-day advice.

AP Biology

The AP Bio exam requires you to know quite a bit of detailed information. Successful students, however, don’t just focus on the details — they go beyond memorization. It is easy to get lost in all the seemingly unrelated facts, so make sure to tie them back to a framework or concept (say, evolution or homeostasis). You’re being asked how all those details are related both to each other and to the underlying themes of biology. So focus not only on content but on connections as well! Additionally, you can get partial credit on FRQs, so if you can only answer part of a question, go for it. If you’re not making headway with a multiple-choice problem, eliminate clearly wrong answer choices (there’s often at least one), make your best guess, and move on.

But how about before the exam? With a little over a month to go, there’s enough time to comb through a practice test and write down every term or concept you need to refresh on.The AP Biology Course and Exam Description has a rundown of the four “Big Ideas” that comprise the curriculum for AP Bio. Review this sooner rather than later, since it will help you structure your remaining time before the exam.

Laura Moore

AB/BC Calculus

AP Calculus covers many subtopics, some of which have probably gotten rusty since the beginning of the year. Do you remember how to determine critical points? How about implicit differentiation? Get the rust out! Review old class tests to refresh. Better yet, buy a prep book and work through real problems. It’s not enough to look at a problem and think, “I know how to do this.” Actually do the problem and be sure you can come up with the right answer without peeking at the answer sheet. Also, remember that calculators are not allowed for a portion of the multiple-choice test or for the last 4 FRQ questions. Get comfortable with doing your calculations by hand and showing your work.

On both tests, one topic that trips up some students is derivative graphs. You might be given information about a function f(x), but the given graph is of f’(x) — the derivative of f(x). Keep an eye out for that!

AB Calculus: the exam now covers L’Hopital’s Rule, so you’ll need to understand and apply it.

BC Calculus: FRQ question topics are pretty consistent from year to year. If you don’t believe this, look on the College Board website for previous FRQs. On the BC Calc test, you can count on one of the 6 questions covering Taylor/Maclaurin series — usually #6! Also count on one of the FRQ questions covering the area of polar graphs.

Laura Moore

AP Chemistry

The AP Chemistry test is a mile wide but only an inch deep (well, maybe six inches…). Questions can initially seem intimidating, but almost all of them can be answered using basic chemistry concepts you likely already know. So change your default reaction from “Oh, no! I never learned that!” to “Ok, what basic principles do I know that can help me here.” But here’s the thing: there are lots of questions asked in a very applied kind of way, so you need to know your stuff pretty well — and be clear what exactly is on the test — in order to be able to know whether a particular question requires you to know specific information that you’re responsible for or whether it’s a question that will require you to take a step back and apply a general principle. So your first step is to make (or check out, but making is better!) a study guide. That way, you’ll be clear on exactly what’s on the test and what you’re responsible for.

Once you’ve got that down, it’s time to start doing problems. Lots of problems. Even questions on the multiple-choice section of the test can require a quick ice table or line of stoichiometry. Don’t expect to be able to answer them all without doing calculations. And for those of you who have your calculators surgically attached at the wrist, you might want to sever the connection now. Those problems on the multiple-choice section will involve math, but you won’t have a calculator to help. So make sure you’ve practiced doing type of math you’ll encounter on the test: working with numbers in scientific notation, shifting around decimal points to simplify operations, and making good approximations. If you find yourself setting up long division or double-digit multiplication, you’ve likely missed an opportunity to simplify something. The math is supposed to work out nicely.

You’d also do well to familiarize yourself with the types of problems you’ll encounter on the free-response section of the test. The test-writers really aren’t very creative here. There are almost always one acid/base or titration question, one kinetics or equilibrium question, one electrochemistry question, and one set of short answers involving Lewis structures, shapes, polarity, and intermolecular forces. Expect and be ready for all of those! 

Aaron Golumbfskie

AP English Language & Composition

The AP English Language & Composition exam (“AP Lang,” for short) is a test of your ability to read like a writer and write like a reader. You’ll see a variety of non-fiction texts — from political speeches to eulogies — and be asked to synthesize and rhetorically analyze them in a sophisticated way. You’ll want to be familiar with rhetorical and literary terms (apostrophe vs. anaphora, anyone?). While it may be tempting to focus on preparing strictly for the three free-response questions, don’t gloss over the multiple-choice section. It’s worth 45% of your score and can give you a serious boost if you do well. Oh, and don’t forget to review your punctuation: the readers for this exam love to see varied sentence structure and a strong command of English grammar and usage rules.

Kate Kula

AP English Literature & Composition

The AP English Literature & Composition (“AP Lit”) is the same in structure as the AP Language exam; however, instead of testing your ability to analyze non-fiction texts, the Lit exam asks you to evaluate and interpret selections of prose, poetry, and drama. Knowing your literary terms and devices is absolutely crucial, as you’ll be asked to consider several of these specifically in the free-response questions. As with AP Lang, don’t overlook practicing the types of multiple-choice questions and passages you’ll see on the first half of the test. Perhaps the most important preparation you can do for the AP Lit exam is to come up with a few works of prose fiction or drama whose themes you are able to discuss particularly well and that can be used for a broad range of prompts — these will be your go-tos for the final free-response question that asks you to interpret a piece of literature of your choice. (Hint: no matter how comfortable you may be with the themes of Harry Potter, now is not the time to embark on a critical analysis of the imagery of the Patronus. Stick with the types of books you’ve read English class.)

Kate Kula

AP History (United States, European, or World)

Are you going to re-read your 1000+ page textbook in the month before the AP exam? Really? If you had nothing to do between now and the test date — and how many high school students have nothing to do — would that be how you spend your free time? So let’s plan for your AP history exam strategically and realistically. Take a fresh look at how each AP history course is divided into periods and themes — all of which are available on the College Board website (US, Euro, World) and hopefully from your teacher. Then take a look at your calendar and decide how you want to divide up your time between now and the AP exam to cover the nine APUSH periods, the six AP World periods, or the four AP Euro periods. 

While re-reading an entire AP history textbook in a month isn’t feasible for most students, you might well consider re-reading the table contents, the chapter introductions & conclusions, and any brief summaries along the way. You probably will also want to look over any outlines your teachers assigned you, keeping close tabs on the major themes your teacher and textbook have emphasized all year long. Think of those themes as “tags” for organizing content — like your Instagram photos or articles on the web, any history content can and likely will have multiple tags. When it comes to write an essay on, say, migration, you can recall what you’ve tagged for “changing demographics” or “economic exchange” and plug in the content and analysis accordingly. 

When test day rolls around, remember this: all three AP history exams were redesigned a few years ago to emphasize critical thinking and thematic analysis over rote memorization. So on the multiple-choice questions, do what you do with DBQ documents: closely read the primary sources — the quotation, the historical document, political cartoon, chart, map, photograph, political cartoon, or other text — for not only content but for the author’s point of view and audience, along with the historical context which the source is engaging. On the DBQ and LEQ, remember the grading rubric’s priorities (thesis, evidence, context, analysis, and historical thinking) and those major course themes.

Finally, make sure to read the questions carefully — while there aren’t “trick” questions per se, there will be the occasional phrasing where an easy-to-miss word changes the whole question, so just keep your cool and pay attention.

Ian Lekus

AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics

It can seem like there is a graph for just about everything in AP Economics, and a lot of those graphs look quite similar. Make sure that you not only understand how to draw and label each of the graphs, but also why there is a relationship between the two metrics. One of the best ways to do this is to use a “real world” example: don’t just memorize “demand for loanable funds goes up (and supply goes down) as interest rates decrease” — put yourself in the shoes of a bank or someone looking for a loan and make sure it’s clear why this is the case.

When prepping for exam day, it’s a great idea to take a couple of practice tests. When reviewing the multiple-choice questions, go through every answer choice (even the wrong ones!) to understand what the impact of the answer would be. Wrong answers to one question often appear as correct answers to another. For the free-response questions, draw and label the graphs yourself to make sure you are comfortable with the process. Practice drawing both shifts and movement along the curves for every graph — old school (index card) flashcards are a huge help in this process!

As far as test-specific content: for the Macro test, review the Philips Curve and the inputs for Short Term Aggregate Supply and Demand. Pay particular attention to the shifts causes by contractionary and expansionary policy by a government or Central Bank. For Micro, review the Marginal Cost, Marginal Revenue, and Price graphs for each of the four market types. Pay particular attention to the inefficiencies caused by simple forms of regulation or by a lack of perfect competition.

Erik Skantze and Chris Bullwinkle

AP Physics

The AP Physics test starts and ends with knowing the equation. Yes, you do get an equation sheet, but it’s not labeled well and doesn’t contain every equation that you’ll need. Well-prepared students shouldn’t need to consult it very much, actually. And if they do, it should be to verify that they’re remembering the equation correctly and not to hunt for any equation that might help! So get those equations down! How? You can make (and then, um, use…) flashcards, you can write them over and over again or you can simply do practice problems until you’ve got them down. 

If you’ve been taking a good AP Physics course, you should already be really comfortable manipulating equations and solving for answers without using any numbers. For example, you might find the velocity of a bar in terms of the magnetic field strength, a length, a mass, and something else. Doing all of the algebra before you plug in any numbers is useful for two reasons. First, the AP is going to ask you to do that on the free-response section on at least one really long multi-part problem. Second, having that final answer in an equation helps show you how changing the value of one variable affects your answer: you can tell that some quantity might be, say, directly proportional to a mass but inversely proportional to the square of a distance. And questions like “what happens to the force here if you double the mass there” are all over the multiple-choice section.

That being said, there are multiple-choice problems that require numerical calculations — and you don’t get a calculator. So if your calculator is your ride-or-die, you might want to get over it before test day. Make sure you’ve practiced doing type of math you’ll encounter on the test: working with numbers in scientific notation, shifting around decimal points to simplify operations and making good approximations. If you find yourself setting up long division or double-digit multiplication, you’ve likely missed an opportunity to simplify something. The math is supposed to work out nicely.

Aaron Golumbfskie

AP Psychology

Like most other AP tests, the AP Psychology exam will require you to absorb a lot of information. A subtle challenge for this test, however, is that the results seem obvious. It can all seem pretty clear until you have tricky options in front of you. “Latané and Darley found that people are more likely to help if more people are around.” Duh, obviously, virtue signaling. But what they actually found is that people are less likely to help the more people are around due to the Bystander Effect. Or were they the ones that looked at if people were more likely to take independent action in general if there are more people around? If you’re just checking if you can recognize studies when they’re described, you might be thrown off when they give you other options.

Here’s how to make sure you’re prepared for the test. First, create tables. One should be of the schools of Psychology, with famous researchers in each, famous studies in each, key terms in each, the kinds of issues they focus on/treat, and favored methodology. Create tables for the developmental stages, for types of research methodology, and for brain areas. Next, make flashcards (or use an online equivalent). Make sure you can go from the definition side to the term or from the term side to the definition. Your flashcards can be the names of researchers, concepts, methodology terms, famous examples, etc. Finally, try to work through at least one of the multiple-choice exams and free-response questions released by the AP and available online. Don’t let it rattle you; just keep track of what kinds of things gave you a hard time and use that to target where to put additional effort.

On the test itself, cross out the wrong answers to help focus on what’s left. If you’re unsure about a question, mark it and move on and come back after you’ve finished the rest. On the essay, OUTLINE FIRST. If you’re unsure about a concept, write down three options for what it could be and go with your best guess.

Massiha Habibi

AP Statistics

The AP Statistics test is unique among math exams in that the math you need to do is actually really easy. The harder part is figuring out what math to do! You’ve got to read each question slowly and calmly, underlining the relevant information as you go. Think about what method of solution you’ll need only after you’ve processed all the information. Do you need a t-test or a z-test? Paired or not? Or chi-squared? You might want to make one study guide that’s focused exclusively on what test to use when. There will be at least one long free-response question where you won’t be given any direction as to which test to use; you’ll just have to ascertain whether there’s evidence for a claim. (And sometimes, there’s more than one method that works!)

The AP Statistics test is also the most finicky about how you write your answer. There’s a reason your teacher has been deducting points when you fail to make it clear that you’re assuming the Central Limit Theorem holds or forget to verify that you can use the normal approximation to the Binomial Theorem. And that reason is that the AP will deduct points as well. So be clear on what assumptions you need to write down for each of the tests you’re going to use. It’s completely possible to get the right answer to all the free-response questions but get only half the points if you don’t document your work rigorously and completely.

This last semester has been all about the hypothesis testing, yes, but the AP test does cover the whole year. Sure, hypothesis testing integrates z-scores, but it doesn’t really touch on descriptive statistics, different plot types or much probability at all. Make sure your review includes all of that first semester stuff. Sure, it’s “easier” — but only if you’ve reviewed it!

Aaron Golumbfskie

AP US Government and Politics (NSL)

AP US Gov (known more often as NSL to MoCo students) requires mastery of tons of terms and concepts, but the good news is that there’s very little ambiguity and very few trick questions on this test. Moreover, the 2018 redesign of the exam takes a good bit of the guesswork out of test day. Did you older brother or sister nearly cry as they tried to memorize 40, 50, or even 80 Supreme Court cases? Now students have a far more discrete set of 15 SCOTUS cases and nine foundational documents to master. Likewise, the free-response questions are now much more focused — one SCOTUS case comparison, one concept application, one quantitative analysis, and one argument essay — rather than being drawn from what seemed like anywhere in the entire course. 

The test format remains 55 multiple-choice questions and four FRQs, and the big ideas — constitutionalism; liberty and order; civil participation in a representative democracy; competing policy-making interests; methods of political analysis — are tested on both halves of the exam. You still have to know your iron triangles; to know which House of Congress has filibusters and in which House revenue bills originate; and to know the differences between delegate, trustee, and politico models of representation. And seriously: know the Fourteenth Amendment. Really.

So on Exam Day, keep your cool logic under pressure and read critically: eliminate the implausible answers. Keep an eye out for those “ALL EXCEPT” questions. Check, on questions with charts and graphs, that the answer choices are in fact directly related to what the data specifically measures – there’s a good chance that all the answer choices will be true, but only one will truly match the charts or graphs. Be specific, with examples, on the free-response questions. And when all else fails, there’s a good chance you’re being asked about either federalism or the separation of powers.

Ian Lekus