Inside the APs: How to Succeed on Your AP Exams

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 14, 2023
min read
Inside the APs: How to Succeed on Your AP Exams

AP exams are rapidly approaching, a mere 6 weeks away. Some 2.5 million students across the country are preparing for these exams, which provide an opportunity to demonstrate content mastery and, in most cases, secure valuable college credit. In the final push towards the AP exams, students can take steps to ensure that their preparation is focused and geared towards successful outcomes.

1. Calibrate your level of preparation

One of the most important things students can do at this stage of the game is to figure out where they stand vis-a-vis the content requirements of the AP exam. Not all AP classes, or AP teachers, are the same, and the specific material covered in AP classes may vary dramatically from school to school. By mid-March, some classes are well on their way to covering all of the required content for the May exams, while other classes are only halfway through the AP curriculum.

When I took AP Chemistry, our teacher announced to the class in spring that due to pacing limitations, we were not going to be able to cover the last 4-5 chapters of the textbook, which were required content for the AP exam. Students looking for strong scores on the AP would have to self-study. We see this with students we tutor today.

Some teachers consider preparing their students effectively for the exam critical to their roles as AP teachers, while others do not. Some teachers build in AP-type assessments throughout the academic year, creating a deep sense of familiarity with the assessment style of the exam, while others do not. What’s critical for a student is to understand how prepared your particular class and instructor has left you for your upcoming exam.

2. Determine if your class is on track for the Exam?

AP Central

Your first step is to head over to AP Central on the College Board Website and find your course. Are you taking APUSH? Check out the course overview and the more detailed course-at-a-glance. What can you check off that you’ve covered, and what is still outstanding? If you’re taking AP Chemistry and your class is stopping short of covering the unit on Applications of Thermodynamics, review the course and exam description to get a sense of that content. Establish your baseline and assess the gap that remains between what was covered in class and what is covered on the exam: calibrate your level of preparedness.

Course Description

For every course, there is a comprehensive packet that is distributed to AP teachers, spelling out what students are expected to learn, unit by unit. The course and exam description for Chemistry, as an example, has unit descriptions, exam information and practice questions. This is a great place to start. The sample questions and scoring guidelines are helpful for a student to understand how their responses will be evaluated and scored. Previously administered exam questions in all topics are also available online. Students can search online for other previously administered PDFs of tests.

Practice tests

If you want to get a sense of how well you know the content for an exam, take a practice exam and score it. See how you do to get a sense of the gap in preparation.

Calibrate with your teacher

Talk with your teacher and get a sense of where the class is, and where you are. Where am I doing well? Where do I need more work? Your teacher can be a very helpful resource to help you prepare effectively.

3. Make a study schedule

Once you know your baseline and know how much you need to cover to be ready for the exam, it’s time to build out a study plan. It’s helpful to pull up course info on AP Central to help build the plan. Go through the course content, unit by unit, where am I strong, and where do I need more work? How much content is there to cover? What’s the estimated time to learn that material? Take the sum of the content and divide it out over the number of weeks you have leading up to the exam. Allow some slack in your plan in case you underestimate the time needed or have unexpected changes in your schedule.

4. Study smarter, not harder

The time you spend studying will be more or less fruitful and efficient, depending on how you prioritize your tasks and use your time. Here are our recommendations for ways to make the most of your time.

Practice tests and other resources

Practice tests are essential to any program of study. You must become very comfortable with the format and scoring of the AP exam questions. To take full advantage of AP central, the official AP resource for teachers and students, you can sign up and log in to see content more organized by unit. Students who are registered through the course will be able to access the proprietary content. Additionally, Barron’s guides with content-specific units are valuable. Other companies/institutions have assembled and posted AP study guides freely on the web. You can google any test to find official and unofficial practice. Finally the AP YouTube Channel with unit-by-unit review sessions can be super helpful.

Learn how the AP asks questions and scores responses

It’s important you understand the scoring rubric for AP exam questions and know exactly how the graders will evaluate and score your responses. This may be a departure from how your AP teacher evaluated your work over the school year. You must understand what the AP graders need from you to give you full credit, and tailor your responses accordingly. Give the graders a structured response that aligns with their scoring rubric, and you’ll make it much easier for them to check their necessary boxes and give you credit for your knowledge. Guide your study and practice towards the content you will be evaluated upon.

Knowing what a good answer looks like

AP graders like to see students who are able to speak the “language” of the content area they have studied, to demonstrate that they have acquired knowledge and are conversant in a given subject area. Even if a student misses some specifics, the language the student uses matters. Students can dive into old exams and their respective scoring templates to see examples of full-credit answers of students who have mastered the language of their subject.

Answering the question that was asked

Students need to learn how to answer the questions asked without straying too far from the relevant material, or getting hung up on the wording and answering the wrong question. Many questions are multi-part, and students need to be ultra-specific and address all the components of the questions to achieve full credit. Multi-part questions give you an opportunity to showcase what you know. To do so, students may need to mark up the question, outlining all the components and steps. Outlining and structuring the response before you start writing is a best practice.

Conducting a balanced review of old and new material

You will need to fill in any holes that are missing in your course content knowledge, as well as review old material from earlier in the year. How much do you really remember from October? Can you recall and work with that content? You will need to build in some time for the global review, chapter by chapter, while you fill in any content gaps.

Additionally, some teachers effectively race through content at the end of the semester, when they realize they are behind. Acceleration is not uncommon. While you may be “covering the unit,” in a perfunctory, cursory way, this glossing over may not translate into content mastery. You may need to spend more time on the units that were rushed if you want to be ready for the exam.

You must anticipate that as you are reviewing older course content, new material will still be emerging, in some classes all the way up to the exam. Students must balance the tasks of refreshing and reviewing older material while integrating the final lessons of the year.

Start now

Don’t wait until late April to begin your AP prep, especially if there are significant content gaps. You want to tackle the big content gaps well before the final weeks leading up to the exam. Find out when your APs are, look at the schedule, and back out how many weeks you have to prepare. More time is better. Spreading out your study is always advantageous: spreading out the same 20 hours of review over the span of two months is vastly superior to cramming over a weekend. Know that you cannot cover all the course content in a couple of weeks, as these are year-long classes.

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The mental game of test-day preparation

Students need to go into an AP exam centered and ready to show what they know. Students have one chance to demonstrate their knowledge. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to spend some time getting mentally ready to succeed on test day. Self-regulation, positive self-talk, and stress reduction strategies can be pivotal. Good sleep, nutrition and hydration are also allies.

Get the support you need

Students must determine if they need additional support to optimize their preparation for their AP exams. Some students only need their study materials, online resources and a plan to be successful. Other students may benefit from support provided by their school. While other students benefit from the support of a tutor to help guide their preparation. Applerouth is here if you need any help mastering your AP exam preparation.

Join two of our AP exam experts for our Inside the APs webinar this month.

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