Tips for Surviving AP Exams

Each May, Advanced Placement (AP) exams are taken by students all over the world. These standardized exams are designed to measure how well students have mastered the content and skills taught through the course. A qualifying score could potentially earn the student college credit, testing them out of the corresponding college-level course.

But what, exactly, are Advanced Placement exams, and how can you best prepare for them?

An Overview of Advanced Placement exams

While in high school, a student will often have the choice of taking an Advanced Placement course. This course correlates directly to an AP exam, which is taken at the end of the year (though you do not need to take the course to take the exam).

There are 38 different AP exams, each with its own unique requirements, covering a wide array of subject areas. Many of the exams consist of both a free response essay section and a multiple-choice section, and all exams are timed.

AP exams are graded on a five-point scale, with five being the highest possible score. According to College Board, the organization responsible for the creation, distribution, and scoring of the exams, a score of 5 is equivalent to grades of A+ or A in the corresponding college course. AP Exam score of 4 is equivalent to a grade of A-, B+, or B, and a score of 3 is equivalent to a B-, C+, or C in college.

For students who want to begin their college studies before graduating high school, AP exams provide a wonderful opportunity to earn credit. That said, these courses are college-level, and therefore the concepts are sometimes difficult. Taking time to prepare – both for the content and the results – is invaluable.

Do not over-study. Take time to relax

It can be tempting to continue cramming until just before the test begins, but at some point no amount of last-ditch studying will help. Instead, give your brain a break and focus on being confident and feeling prepared.  As exams approach, set boundaries around your study time and stick to them. Your mind needs time to absorb the information, so it’s important to take it in at the right speed.

Often, you can study better when you aren’t studying at all. The mind can retain more information by applying it, not reading it in a textbook or on flash cards.  To feel better prepared, look up relevant articles or go outside and have real world experiences that relate to the content.

Take a practice AP test before the test

There are practice exams available on the College Board website, and a number of different test prep websites. By using one of these tools you give yourself the opportunity to become familiar with the layout of the exam and the format of the questions. Your practice test score may be lower than you like, but if you continue to practice you may get a higher score on test day.

Arrive prepared, in mind and body

When exam day arrives, focus on preparing your mind and body. This means eating a good breakfast, looking over any last-minute notes (without trying to cram everything in) and making sure you get a good night’s rest the night before.

In addition, make sure you arrive with the proper materials. A No. 2 pencil may be required for the multiple choice section of the test, while a pen with black or dark blue ink may be needed any free-response questions. Do not expect these to be available to you at the testing site; rather, come with them in your possession. I would not recommend using ballpoint pens on an AP test because the ink is lighter and you have to apply more pressure when writing. Use a rollerball pen so the ink can flow out more easily and you can use less pressure.  You’re less likely to have to stop and massage your hands when you are writing.

Watch the clock

AP exams are timed, so pace yourself and keep calm as you complete the questions. Don’t rush, but don’t allow a single question to hang you up for too long.

Use the multiple choice as a review before you complete the free response questions. Remember as much as you can from the multiple choice section, such as events and time periods, as this could be helpful for brainstorming what to write for the essay

AP  stands for “answer the prompts”

When responding to the free response questions, pay careful attention to how the prompt is worded. The quality of your writing won’t matter if you aren’t fully answering the question. Keep in mind that different tests are looking for different kinds of essays, and within a given test there may be multiple essays of different types.

For example, the AP Language and Composition exam consists of three different essay types: A General Argument, Rhetorical Analysis, and Synthesis Essay. Each of these prompts require a different skill-set, and you should have experience writing each.

Don’t be disappointed

Advanced Placement exams are inherently difficult, and they demand a depth of knowledge, the ability to analyze and synthesize information, and strong skills in the subject area. Prepare as best you can, seek out the help of your instructor when needed, and use whatever resources are available to you.

You may not get the score you expect, and that’s okay. The test and its corresponding course are still designed to prepare you for a college-level course, and that preparation is invaluable.

How do you respond when your child asks: “Am I Stupid?”

Many parents and teachers dread their child asking this question, and it can be an intimidating one to answer. If disregarded, it can allow the child to internalize a negative self-belief. If approached with care and consideration, it can become a powerful, teachable moment and lead to valuable dialogue. As a result, the child can learn how to not only think of themselves in a more positive light, but also how to think critically about how they learn.

Here are a few talking points to facilitate this tough conversation:

Reflect on the power of perseverance

Author, professor, and researcher Carol Dweck often speaks of the “growth mindset.” In short, this refers to intelligence that expands (or grows) over time. Rather than looking at someone’s inherent ability to solve a problem, the growth mindset focuses on the effort put in.

When a child asks if they are stupid, remind them that no one is stupid, and everyone has room to grow if they take the time and put in the effort. It’s important to emphasize here that while your child might not know something, that doesn’t put it outside of their realm of possibility. It just means they don’t know it YET. This can teach them the power of persevering to learn a new skill.

Encourage your child to abandon the phrase “I can’t do this,” instead asking for help or finding areas to improve. Ask open-ended questions that allow them to explore the challenge in a new way, thinking about it critically.

Model how to manage frustration

Growth takes time and effort. As adults, we know this, but when a child is struggling to learn a new skill it can quickly become upsetting. Showing your child how to acknowledge and manage this frustration is key to facilitating growth and helping them feel capable.

Some helpful strategies include deep breathing, physical breaks, and brief distractions. Something as simple as going for a walk or singing a silly song can provide the mental break needed to lower frustration levels and work through challenging situations.

Modeling this for your child is also helpful. When you find yourself in frustrating situations, take the time to emulate these strategies. Then you can use yourself as an example when your child calls their intelligence into question, acknowledging that even you become frustrated and must take certain steps to alleviate the negative feelings.

Teach your child that “smart” looks different in different people

Every person learns differently, and taking the time to explain this to your child can help them grapple with their own doubts around their intelligence.

Emphasize with your child that everyone has that which comes naturally to them and that which they struggle with. Taking the problem and approaching it in a new way can open up new possibilities for understanding.

Additionally, “smart” doesn’t just mean getting perfect grades on math tests; it could mean being a skilled puzzle-solver, having a knack for building, or always being able to make your friends laugh. There are many paths to success and many ways to absorb and act upon new information.

Take the time to uncover your child’s learning style by taking our quiz. This will help you figure out how your child learns most naturally and will allow you to adjust course when needed.

Remind them that everyone is a learner

Along the same lines as multiple learning styles, the idea that everyone is a learner is something to share with your child as well. Children need to see that the adults in their lives make mistakes too, and this helps them understand that everyone is learning.

Model a growth mindset for your child: instead of saying “I’m bad at this,” say, “Wow! This is something I could really use more practice with.” Showing your own vulnerabilities can be difficult, but it helps your children to relate to the idea that everyone struggles with something and everyone can improve.

Many children wonder if they are stupid from time to time, but if your child chooses to ask you this loaded question, remind them of the power of perseverance! Tell them that everyone is a learner and that people are all strong and weak in different ways. These messages along with some strategies for managing frustration will result in meaningful conversations that can change children’s’ mindsets for years to come.