Decoding STEM AP Tests: Tasks Verbs You Need to Know

Sarah Fletcher
March 28, 2024
min read
STEM AP task verbs floating on top of chemistry related doodles

Every STEM AP test is different and has its own question types, patterns and subtleties. That said, there are key words you can watch for across the board that will help remind you what kind of answer you should be giving. Making sure you are familiar with these words can help you navigate all of the tests more confidently, so it’s an important early step in your AP prep process.

Identify, Indicate, Circle, State: No explanation needed

Occasionally a question just wants a quick answer with no explanation or elaboration. This style of question usually uses a word like identify, indicate, circle or state. You might just be giving a yes or no answer, choosing between a given set of options, or putting things into the correct order. For these questions you don’t have to show any work or justify your choice.

Determine, Calculate, Evaluate, Find: Show your work

In contrast, if you see determine, calculate, evaluate, or find, the final answer is not enough. Instead, the graders want to be able to see how you got to your answer. Sometimes this just means showing the relevant calculations. Sometimes it means writing a sentence or two referencing the particular theorems, laws, or principles that lead to your conclusion. If you compute something with units, make sure you include them in your answer!  

Justify, Verify, Interpret: Explain yourself!

Justify is similar, but with an extra emphasis on the explanation. On a justify problem, make sure you double check that any hypotheses or conditions are met for the concepts you are applying and that you acknowledge these conditions in your answer. Calculations can sometimes be used in support of a justification solution, but the graders are usually also looking for a written explanation. With justify, you are often asked to make a claim and then back it up. If you are given the claim in the problem statement, the question might ask you to verify it.

You will often see the word interpret combined with other key words. Interpret is a reminder to wrap your solution to that part up with a sentence or two tying your answer or conclusion back to the specific context of the problem.

Approximate & Estimate: Pay attention to context

Sometimes instead of asking you to calculate something, the test will ask you to approximate or estimate. There are two options for what this means, though it will hopefully be clear from context which you want. One option is that you are just trying to get a rough version of the answer, likely involving computations that involve significant rounding. Often these estimates are in service of answering questions like “is this positive or negative” or “which one is bigger”. The other option is that the question might be asking you to use a model or representation to find your answer. This includes things like computing a Riemann sum in calculus, approximating population statistics from sample data in statistics, or estimating a value from a graph you made in physics.

Construct, Draw, Plot, Sketch, Complete, Label: Work as precisely as possible

Speaking of which, construct, draw, plot and sketch are all indications that you are going to be creating a table or drawing a graph or figure. Sometimes you will be starting from scratch in a blank section of your answer booklet and sometimes you will be given a partially completed graph or figure to add to. Sometimes you will be asked to complete or label a given diagram. Take these drawing tasks seriously and draw them as precisely as possible, labeling things clearly and precisely when appropriate - students often lose points for sloppiness on these questions. If you are taking one of the AP Physics tests you can have a straight edge. Use it.

Describe & Explain: Use complete sentences

Words like describe and explain are generally an indication that you should be writing complete sentences. In some cases you might write multiple sentences or even a paragraph. You might also be asked to make or support a claim or prediction or to propose a solution. Sometimes you will be asked to compare situations or experimental set ups. These questions also expect complete sentences as answers.

Derive: Focus on clarity over showing every single step

On any of the physics tests, you might be asked to derive an equation. These questions want you to combine equations from the equations sheet using algebra and by applying various laws to create the requested equation. You don’t have to show absolutely every individual algebra step, but it should be clear from your shown work how you got from whichever equations or laws you started with to the final equation.

Final Thoughts

Try keeping these distinctions in mind when you are practicing free response questions for class. If you find a question statement unclear in what it is looking for, it is generally better to err on the side of explaining, justifying or interpreting when you didn’t actually need to. Writing these explanations out can take time though, so making sure you are comfortable with the key words that tell you when you don’t need to do so can save you time and the anxiety of wondering if your answer is sufficient..

If you need more practice with STEM AP free-response questions before exam day, we can help! Working with an expert tutor who knows the test inside and out is the best way to implement a consistent plan that won’t leave you burnt out the week before APs begin. Plus, our AP practice tests with personalized feedback are another useful tool you can leverage now to focus your studying and identify challenge areas. Schedule a call with one of our Program Directors or call us at 866-789-PREP (7737) to get started today.

Schedule a call with a Program Director.

Questions? Need some advice? We're here to help.

A happy Program Director makes the peace sign with their fingers
An animated man walks while juggling 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D' balls
Free Events & Practice Tests

Take advantage of our practice tests and strategy sessions. They're highly valuable and completely free.

Explore More

Related Upcoming Events


(50% extended time)

Month DD, YYYY
0:00am - 0:00pm EDT
1234 Las Gallinas
San Francisco, CA 94960
Orange notification icon

No events found{location}

Check out upcoming Webinars.

Orange error icon


Let’s figure this out.
Try again or contact Applerouth.