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.