According to a recent report published by the College Board, more than 1.2 million high school students took at least one AP exam in 2020. That’s a 27% increase from the number of students who took the exams in 2010.
There’s a lot of good reasons to take an AP Exam. A strong score can help students stand out in college applications, earn college credit and save on tuition.
Still on the fence about whether to take your AP exam? Research reveals that the simple act of committing early in the year to taking the exam is likely to boost both your AP score and your grade in the class itself.
Each one of the 38 AP exams has its own tips and tricks. Fortunately, there are a few universal study hacks that will help you prep for these challenging tests.
Read on to discover our favorite study tips. Learn to know the exam, build a study guide and plan your time throughout the year. Take the stress and cramming out of AP test prep!
Start Early: Learn Your AP Exam from Day One
It might go without saying, but it’s wise to start thinking about exam prep as early as possible.
As anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter knows, you’re groggy, sleep-deprived, and unfocused the next morning. Students who are busy with sports or extracurriculars might be tempted to put studying on the back burner. With the AP exams, start preparing early because an all-nighter won’t be much help.
Learn the Exam Format, Timing and Scoring Rubric
Ideally, you want to start your AP prep from Day One. Sound intimidating? It doesn’t have to be.
If your AP teacher doesn’t introduce your AP thoroughly on the first day of school, spend 15 minutes reviewing the AP course and exam.
Fortunately, the College Board is committed to AP transparency. Head to the dedicated page for your AP class and find all the (free!) resources you’ll likely ever need.
Take note of the AP facts and stats you’ll need to learn right from the start:
AP Course Learning Goals
Always keep at the top of your mind what the test makers expect you to learn. And no, those goals aren’t limited to a set of facts or formulas. Instead, you’ll learn critical thinking, reading, writing or quantitative reasoning skills. In other words, you’ll master the skills that position you for college success.
Understanding your goals will narrow your focus and spare you wasted energy studying the wrong material.
AP Exam Format
Review the structure of your exam. On most AP exams, you’ll begin with roughly an hour of multiple choice questions. In the remaining two hours, you’ll face a mix of short answer questions, long essays or free question questions. In some instances, the question will contain documents, texts or a visual aid to stimulate your response. In other instances, you’ll receive a written prompt only.
Take a moment to evaluate your strengths and how they match up with the AP test. Are you a master of process of elimination, but suffer writer’s block when you face an essay? Or, are you a whiz at mental math, but sloppy when it comes to showing your work?
Now is the time to talk to your teacher, a parent or tutor. Commit to a plan and use the AP exam as the catalyst for your own academic growth.
AP Exam Timing
Under the best of circumstances, a three-hour exam requires stamina and fortitude. You wouldn’t walk up to the marathon starting line without having run steadily for months in advance.
Equally, start early to build your endurance and attention span for your AP test. if you do, you’ll be ready for the gauntlet of multiple choice and free response questions that are sure to deplete your energy and put a crimp in your writing hand.
AP Scoring Rubric
The College Board’s commitment to transparency is great news for students. You’ll never be in the dark about how you’ll be evaluated on your AP exam. Again, head to your AP Central page (aka the treasure trove of data) and review the AP scoring rubric.
At a minimum, you’ll discover how much each section of the AP test contributes to your score. In general, your score is evenly split between the multiple choice and free response sections.
Even more, you’ll learn the criterion used to assess your written work. For example, on the AP English Language and Composition exam, you can receive a score of zero to six on each essay. Students receive one point for a thesis statement. They receive 0 to 4 points for the use of evidence. Finally, they may garner a sixth “sophistication” point for offering a well-written and thoughtful argument that effectively deploys evidence.
But the College Board doesn’t stop there. They offer examples of past answers that earned points (and those that didn’t). And they explain why one answer exceled while another fell short.
Unfortunately, few students take advantage of their APs easy-to-follow roadmap. As a result, they’re left scrambling in these weeks (or days) before the exam, wondering what they should study.
Halfway Through the School Year: Take Stock and Organize
While it’s good practice to understand the AP test format from the start, the AP course’s content and goals might not mean a lot to you in September. Covalent bonds? Differential equations?
However, halfway through the school year, September’s gibberish starts to make sense. At this point, your teacher will have covered roughly half the course material. Moreover, you should understand more about the content and structure of the AP exam you intend to take.
Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses
For that reason, it’s good to take stock in December or January. Review the AP course and exam requirements with a more seasoned eye.
Remember that commitment you made to use your AP course to strengthen your academic skills? Honestly assess your progress. Are you stronger in algebra than you were in September? More ready to deploy evidence in support of a masterful argument?
If the answer is no, now’s the time to reinforce those skills. Don’t wait until May. Sure, you can cram facts and formulas at the last minute. But you’ll be hard pressed to bolster critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills in a heady all-nighter.
Those skills take months (and years!) to nurture.
Organize Your Course Materials
Is your AP binder jammed with torn tests, dog-eared assignments and illegible notes? If so, how useful will those materials be when it’s time to study?
If tidiness and organization are not your forte, take time now to improve your filing system. Photocopy notes from a friend. Request a PDF copy of past tests from your teacher. Finally, slow down your note-taking to focus on content rather than volume.
Make a Schedule: Count Down to Test Day with these Questions
As early as March, you should begin developing a study schedule. Don’t worry. Inevitably, it will change. But if you don’t commit to a tentative plan of action now, you’re more likely to procrastinate.
At this point, you should know your schedule for the remainder of the school year. You’ll also understand the conflicting time commitments that could keep you from studying.
So, before you plan a hard-and-fast AP study plan, ask yourself these questions:
- What other extracurricular commitments or non-AP classes are likely to get in the way of studying?
- Do I have other AP exams that require their own study plan and time allotment?
- When is my AP exam? Do I have AP exams on back-to-back days? Or worse, two exams on the same day?
Once you’ve asked these questions, you’re ready to create an AP study guide.
My AP Study Guide: What’s it Look Like?
To help maintain focus, create a test prep calendar. Ideally, you’ll start studying in earnest two to three weeks before the AP exam. Block time each day to cover material.
Here’s the key. Studies show that students who schedule time on their calendar and assign it to a specific task are more likely to complete the task and achieve their learning goals.
In short, it’s not enough to say: “I’ll study for AP Chemistry on Wednesday evening.” Instead, make it specific: “I’ll do 20 multiple choice questions from the AP website under timed conditions on Wednesday from 630-700pm.”
Ever heard of SMART Goals? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.
As you build your AP study guide, make sure you follow the SMART acronym.
You study plan should alternate between review of materials and mock test activities. For instance, plan to practice free-response questions (FRQs) for 30 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and review your coursework, flash cards or keywords on Monday and Wednesday. Schedule other activities and obligations around study times whenever possible.
Prepare Before You Prep: Make a Study Guide
When you’re ready to sit down, it pays to create a plan of action like a study guide beforehand. If your test prep schedule is sound, but you don’t study the right materials, you’ll still come up short.
Knowing the exact material you need is a critical first step.
Gather the Materials You’ll Need for Your Study Guide
An experienced teacher can point you in the right direction, so start by asking your instructor where he or she thinks you should focus. Further, use our checklist to assemble all the materials you’ll need for your study guide:
- your AP course syllabus
- your textbook
- in-class tests, research papers and assignments
- class notes
- official AP exams from past years
- vocabulary lists
- equations and formulas
- scientific calculator (if applicable)
Start by reviewing the syllabus for the AP class. This should cover core concepts and learning goals. Then, assemble your former in-class tests or research papers to better understand the topics covered over the course of the year. This is especially useful if your teacher creates tests or assignments based on past AP exams.
If you didn’t perform well on in-class assignments or tests, make sure you have the correct answers. But even your less-than-stellar tests are a good starting point. Use them as a signal of where you need to invest more time.
Organize Your AP Study Guide
Think of your guide as your inventory of the most important information and concepts you learned during your AP course. There are several ways you can organize your guide.
Here are a few ideas:
- Create flashcards to cover facts, dates or equations you need to recognize.
- Draft a one-page “cheat sheet” of equations you’ll need to recall.
- Construct a timeline of key events.
- Design a concept map of key themes and their interconnection.
- Insert a comparison chart.
- Highlight difficult material.
Most likely, you’ll use several techniques to assemble your study guide.
In truth, the act of creating the AP study plan is just as important as the guide itself. Just by reviewing that material, rewriting it in your own hand, and assembling it into a coherent system that works for you, you’ll go a long way towards retaining information.
Finally, check out our our comprehensive review on how to build a study guide for any subject.
Take Official AP Practice Exams
Study guides are excellent for reviewing and reinforcing content knowledge. But doing well on the AP exams requires more than just facts and figures. You’ll need to effectively cope with the pressures of a timed test. You’ll also need to recognize every kind of question the test makers will throw at you (and the tricks you’ll expect to see).
There’s arguably no better way to simulate the test day experience than taking a practice AP exam.
Practice exams are available on a variety of platforms. But it’s always best to use official past exams. The best place to look is the College Board website’s AP Course and Exam pages. Each course section includes tests from years past and sample FRQs (and responses).
In fact, for many AP courses, the College Board posts AP exams going back two decades. As you move further back in time, be alert to changes in the exam. For example, in 2020, the AP World History Exam stopped testing students on material before 1200 C.E. But, provided you’re aware of the current AP exam content and format, even older exams can offer useful practice material.
While the exact questions will differ from year to year, taking a timed practice test is an excellent way to see if you can effectively communicate key AP course concepts in a time-limited manner before test day. To ensure your practice exam emulates the real thing as much as possible, don’t forget to set the stage. Clear your desk, minimize distractions, set a timer and try to keep to the time limit.
Study to Suit Your Learning Style
You can design the best study guide ever and slog your way through a dozen practice tests. But if you don’t build an AP study plan that honors your unique learning style, the results may disappoint.
Are you a visual learner? Studies show that about 65% of the population falls into this category.
If so, don’t listen to recorded lessons about the study material. Instead, strategically adapt your approach.
For instance, visual learners might prefer to draw brainstorming maps to get their thoughts out on paper. Or they may benefit from watching videos that cover the concepts they need to know. Those who learn best by reading or writing might find it beneficial to re-read course materials and make in-depth study guides, transcribing the information as they go.
Allow Time for Breaks
It might seem impossible, but there truly is such a thing as too much studying. People who are required to stare at material without a break can soon become burned out, overwhelmed, and frustrated.
When you pencil in time for a breather, you not only relieve weary eyes and minds. You also prevent studying from turning into a dreaded task that must be endured. Instead, one can learn to appreciate and even enjoy the test prep journey.
While there’s no tried-and-true rule around timing, aim to take a five-minute break after every 30 minutes of studying. Get up, stretch, walk around, or grab a snack before heading back to work.
Make It a Game
Why not inject a little fun into your AP study prep? There are plenty of resources online. To get started, simply type in the name of your AP exam, followed by “games” or “study games” and see what you can find! Make sure the material is from a trusted, reputable resource to ensure useful learning is going on while playing.
Moreover, consider hiring a tutor. A great tutor knows how to make studying for the AP fun.
Keep At It
It’s human nature to experience a surge in confidence once you master a new task. If you finally understand a particularly difficult AP concept, there’s a natural inclination to move on to the next challenging one. Instead of rushing from section to section, review the material more than once. The more frequently terms and concepts are covered, the more apt they are to be recalled when it matters.
Maintain Physical Wellness
Mental and physical health are closely intertwined, especially for teens. When we’re getting plenty of sleep, exercising, and eating well, our brains are sharper, clearer and better-focused.
On the night before the test, get plenty of rest. It’s also smart to hydrate well and eat foods rich in healthy fats leading up to the event, such as avocado and mixed nuts. All of these steps can nourish your brain so it can all that studying to good use!
The Day Before Your AP Exam: Don’t Cram
Students often ask: Can I study for an AP exam in one day? As with so many things in life, the answer is: it depends.
Sure, you can wait until the day before your AP test to study. But unless you’ve been working with super-human diligence throughout the school year, it’s unlikely that AP study schedule will yield your best result.
Instead, finish studying by the early evening. Watch a movie, take a walk, get to bed and wake up refreshed.
Know What to Expect on AP Exam Day
If you’re not cramming the night before your AP test, you should have time to prepare yourself for what to expect on AP exam day.
Review our comprehensive guide on what to expect on AP exam day. Follow this checklist to make sure you have your ID, a calculator, snacks and anything else you need for AP success!
Hire a Tutor
One internet search will reveal that there are many different programs available to help prepare for the AP exams. Instead of wading through all of the materials solo, it’s often easier and more effective to hire a tutor experienced in AP exam prep.
Taking an AP exam can help in multiple ways. At Tungsten Prep, we offer comprehensive tutoring and standardized test preparation services for both middle and high school students. The one-on-one environment allows us to provide high-quality, individualized support that caters to the unique learning style of each student.
Together, we’ll work with you to set study goals, and we’ll give them the tools they need to learn independently in between sessions. Along the way, you’ll also have direct access to our Parent Outreach Coordinator who can help you navigate and support your student’s academic goals.
Our tutoring approach is flexible and encompasses a range of resources. Our tutors take the individual’s needs into account when creating a custom AP exam prep program. Get in touch with us today!
Hire a Washington, DC Tutor Who Knows the DCPS Curriculum
Is your teen taking an AP class in Washington, DC Public Schools (DCPS)? As a result of COVID-19, DCPS introduced what is calls the 4 by 4 schedule for all public high schools in the District of Columbia.
In practice, what that means is that students take four classes the first semester. Then, they shift gears and take four separate classes the second semester. While the new schedule eases classroom crowding and allows for social distancing, it presents serious challenges for students trying to study for AP exams.
For example, a student might take AP Statistics from September through December. The class meets intensively and, in theory, covers the full AP curriculum in one semester.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with the DCPS schedule for AP students. First, students need time and space to learn complex material. They need time to review, digest, put the material down and pick it back up again. That’s where the deepest learning happens. So, even with longer class times each day, it’s difficult for students to absorb the material as effectively in four months as they could in nine.
Second, students who take an AP class in the first semester are at a serious disadvantage. While DCPS has introduced pre-AP study sessions at most high schools, the 4 by 4 schedule means some students won’t have engaged regularly with their AP material for more than four months before the exam!
Tungsten Prep is here to prep students in Washington, DC and beyond for AP success
At Tungsten Prep, our tutors know the AP curriculum and understand the unique constraints that students in Washington, DC face. We can help guide your student to AP success with personalized tutoring. Get in touch today to learn how we help students like yours excel on their AP exams.