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How to Study For AP Exams: 5-Step Plan

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Apr 15, 2016 9:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Preparing for AP exams can feel like a Sisyphean task. On top of keeping up with the demanding coursework and all of your other obligations, you have to prepare for a 3-hour, multi-part exam?

Yes, you do, but, more importantly, you can! If you don’t know how to study for AP exams, this is the guide for you. I’ll cover all the major steps to AP success: content review, exam skill-building, and prepping for success on test day!


Essential Steps to AP Test Preparation

Once the school year is underway, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirl of classes and clubs and completely forget about test prep! And even once you do remember, you may not know how to study for AP tests. Never fear: read on for a five-step AP prep plan!


#1: Establish What You Need to Review/Learn

About halfway through the year is when you’ll want to start studying for your AP exam(s). This is the ideal time because you’ll have plenty of time to prep and will know enough information to really get into reviewing content.  

A crucial first step to AP prep is to establish what you actually need to review or learn for the purposes of the exam. There are a few resources you’ll want to gather to do this: the syllabus for your class, any of your old tests, quizzes, or papers, and the “AP Course and Exam Description” for the course.

You can find this last document on the main course page for the class, which you can access from the College Board’s AP Student list of AP courses. Note that for courses that haven’t been revised for a long time, the document is just called the “AP Course Description.” The course and exam description will include a comprehensive description of the skills and content areas that will be tested on the exam.

You’ll want to review, at least on a high level, all of the major content areas from your course. However, it’s not efficient to try to retain every single piece of information your teacher tells you. Your prep should be specifically focused on reviewing what you need to know for the exam.

When you have all your documents gathered, you’ll want to compare your class’s syllabus with the “AP Course and Exam description.” All the major content areas should be covered in your class—the syllabus had to be approved by the College Board, after all. But teachers do have some discretion on the specifics of what they cover within the College Board’s broader structures.

Comparing the two documents to see if there are areas your class syllabus focused on in less detail, or in more detail, than is necessary for the exam will give you an idea of what you should target in your studying. Things you covered sparsely in the course should be reviewed more closely; things you covered more in-depth may not need to be reviewed as much.

Your tests and quizzes are also important in establishing areas you should review. You don’t need to spend as much time reviewing material you got high marks on. By contrast, you should be sure to focus on reviewing content areas where your test and quiz scores were weaker.

The “AP Course and Exam Description” will also help you establish what exam skills you will need to build. Are there free-response math questions? Short answers? Essays? You’ll want to make sure you know how to succeed on all parts of the AP test. So plan to practice working on all question types.

In sum, this is what you’ll want to review:


  • High-level review of all major content areas of your course/test
  • Focus more on areas where your knowledge is weaker, as determined by your quiz and test grades and the “AP Course and Exam Description” when compared to your class syllabus

Exam skills:

  • Be prepared to answer all question types on the AP exam.



Student diligently reviewing the "AP Course and Exam Description" (artist's representation). 


#2: Make a Plan

Once you’ve figured out what you need to review, you’ll need to make a review schedule. This doesn’t have to be super-specific—you don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to cover every single day. But you should have a general idea of what content areas you are going to review and what skills you are going to work on every week leading up to the test.

This is another place where your class syllabus will come in handy because you’ll be able to plot out your review schedule in a way that makes sense. You’ll want to review all the major content areas you have covered or will cover in class, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to review something before your teacher has gone over it! So schedule the things you’re going to learn later for later review.

You’ll want to weigh your prep plan more towards content review when you begin to prepare, and shift more towards exam prep as you get closer to test day. Assuming you are preparing over several months, the first few weeks of your prep schedule should be dedicated almost entirely to reviewing content, and the last few weeks should be dedicated mostly to taking practice exams and doing practice questions.

Here’s a sample study plan a student might make for the few months leading up to her AP Euro exam:



Learning in Class

Content to Review

Prep to Complete


Turn of the century

Make outlines and flash cards for: Renaissance (Italian vs. Northern), 100 Years’ War, black plague

Look over some old free-response questions and a few sample multiple choice questions



Make outlines and flash cards for: Reformation, religious wars,

Write practice DBQ, get Mr. Smith to score



Make outlines and flash cards for: Columbus and other explorers, 30 Years’ war

Write practice FRQ, get Mr. Smith to score


Russian Revolution

Make outlines and flash cards for: Absolutist rulers,

Agricultural revolution

Take complete timed multiple-choice section


Between the world wars

Make outlines and flash cards for: Slave trade and colonialism, Enlightenment

Work on thesis statements and outlining practice for DBQ



Make outlines and flash cards for: French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Napoleon

Work on thesis statements and outlining practice for FRQ



Make outlines and flash cards for: Nationalism, Marxism and socialism,

Practice DBQ and FRQ, get Mr. Smith to score


The Cold War

Make outlines and flash cards for: Western imperialism, WWI

Take complete timed multiple-choice section


The Cold War

Make outlines and flash cards for: Russian revolution, between the wars, WWII, Cold War

Take complete practice test


Post Cold War

Review outlines and flashcards

Final practice FRQ (timed)


In-class review

Review outlines and flashcards

Final practice DBQ (timed)

12 (test week!)

Final review and test prep!

Final outline review/flashcards

Rest up!



See, this business suit lady gets the importance of making a study plan.


#3: Find Content Review Resources

A high-quality review book is your best friend in AP prep. We currently have guides to the best review books for AP Psychology, AP Biology, AP US History and AP Chemistry. Beyond that, Princeton Review and Barron’s generally make reliable review books.

Supplemental resources beyond a review book may also help you. Your own textbook for the course, beyond providing explanations of key concepts, probably also has practice questions or tests at the back of each chapter. You can also look for podcasts, YouTube videos, Khan Academy materials, and so on for content review purposes.

You can also make your own resources! I can’t recommend Quizlet enough—you can make your own flashcards and then quiz yourself with their various tools. You have to make an account, but the service is free.

Once you’ve amassed all of your review tools, you’ll be ready to review content. However, you’ll still need to practice AP exam questions!



Be sure to really drill down in your search for high-quality resources.


#4: Find Practice Exams and Questions

In addition to your content review materials, you’ll want to find practice exams and questions to build specific AP test competencies. The best AP practice questions and tests come from the College Board because they are the ones who make the AP exam. So their materials will be the most like the real AP test you’ll take in the spring.

Where can you find College Board resources? In three places:

  1. In the “AP Course and Exam Description” booklet - Remember the “AP Course and Exam Description” booklet I mentioned above for figuring out what you need to review? It also has sample exam questions (of all types!) in the back. Hurrah!

  2. Official released free-response questions - The College Board has kindly released free response questions (and sample response!) from previous years. You can get these by going to the College Board’s AP exam information page and clicking on your desired exam; scrolling down from that page will take you to the released free-response questions. 

  3. The College Board also sometimes releases complete exams from past years for free. These are very hard to find even though they are hosted on the College Board website. I advise you to Google the name of your exam with “previously released materials college board” or “complete released exams college board” to find the free exams. 

For your convenience, here are the “previously released materials” pages for some of the most popular exams:

  1. AP English Literature and Composition
  2. AP Chemistry
  3. AP US History
  4. AP Psychology
  5. AP Biology
  6. AP Statistics
  7. AP Environmental Science
  8. AP Calculus AB
  9. AP US Government and Politics
  10. AP Macroeconomics

We’ve also gathered some practice question and exam materials for you here:

  1. AP World History
  2. AP Psychology
  3. AP Biology
  4. AP Chemistry
  5. AP US History
  6. AP English Language and Composition
  7. AP Human Geography
  8. AP English Literature and Composition


#5: Get to Work and Stay on Schedule

Once you’ve gathered all your materials—content review and practice questions and tests—it’s time to get to work! How many hours you need to spend on studying every week is going to depend a lot on how much material you need to review and how comfortable you are with the format of the exam questions, but, in general, I would say expect to study for several hours a week split over 2-3 sessions. Setting specific times/places for studying will help you stay consistent and keep pace with your review schedule! 

With good content review and practice exam practices (more on those in the next sections), maintaining a consistent studying pace and schedule will catapult you to exam success!



The true path to AP success: the trebuchet.


AP Review Tips

As you review course material in preparation for the exam, here are some things to keep in mind:


Be Aware of Your Own Learning Style

Focus on review methods that work for you and not against you. If you’re a visual learner, don’t force yourself to listen to recorded lectures. Draw diagrams or mind maps instead. If you’re an auditory learner, find podcasts or audio books to listen to for concept review. And so on.  


Review Material More Than Once

It’s generally accepted that you need to encounter a piece of information several times before you really retain it. So, you should plan to review essential information for the test more than once. The more important it is, the more times you should go over it.


Engage With the Material

The more you interact with the material, the better you’ll retain it. If you can do some kind of activity with the information—practice problems, outline-writing, flashcard-making, and so on—you will remember it more thoroughly.



Not this kind of engagement! 


Making the Most of Practice Tests

Since College Board practice tests and resources are limited, you want to make sure you make the most of them!

Here are my tips:


Take an Entire Test Under AP Test Conditions

It will be a huge help to you to take an entire practice test under actual AP-like conditions. So with a timer, in a quiet room, short breaks—the whole nine yards. If you only have one complete practice test, do this towards the end of your prep time, maybe a few weeks before the test, when you’ve reviewed most of the content. This will help you get a feel for what the actual test day will be like, and, if you feel more comfortable, you’ll do better on the exam!


Track Your Progress

However, if you have more than one complete test, it’s a good idea to also take a practice test towards the beginning of your prep time to figure out what you need to work on the most. This will give you a “benchmark” idea of where you are starting, so then when you take another practice test towards the end of your study time you’ll be able to see how you’ve improved!


Prep for Individual Sections

Apart from complete practice tests, practice questions serve as great prep for individual parts of the test. Because the College Board has released so many free-response questions, you can practice those over and over again. You don’t necessarily have to do a complete, timed essay every time, although you should practice that. You can also practice outlining your essays or even writing thesis statements for prompts. Work specifically on the skills you need to build.

You’ll also want to be sure to look over practice multiple-choice questions closely, to get a sense for the feel and format of AP multiple-choice questions.



Make like an astronaut and prepare for everything!


Key Test-Taking Tips

When test-time arrives, you’ll want to be sure to maximize your study time investment with positive test-taking strategies!

Here are my tips:


Before the Test:

  • Get a good night’s sleep the two nights before the exam! This will help you stay alert and remember everything you’ve studied.

  • Pack your bag for test day the night before. You don’t want to stress yourself out running around looking for your calculator five minutes before the bus comes on exam day. And be sure to pack a snack and water—you can’t have them during the test, but you’ll appreciate it during the break!

  • Eat breakfast—again, you want your brain to be running at full power.

  • Bring LOTS of pencils and erasers. The College Board requires #2 pencils on exam day. Be sure to bring a bunch, and a good eraser, for back-ups and mishaps. 


During the Test

  • Pace yourself! You’ll be under time pressure for every section, so make sure you know what pace you need to be working at and periodically check that you are on pace. You can (and should) bring a watch, just so long as it doesn’t beep or have an alarm.

  • Maintain positive self-talk throughout the exam. If there’s something you don’t know, don’t waste time beating yourself up about it. Just keep telling yourself that you’re awesome and you’re crushing the rest of the test.

  • Don’t get hung up on a question you’re stuck on. This is true even on the free-response section—move on to the second essay if you’re getting stuck on the first. If you try to break through a mental block full-on, you may end up running out of time. 

  • However, you should answer every question because there’s no penalty for guessing! Go through the ones that you know first, and then go back over the test and answer any remaining questions in the time you have left.

 With all these best test-taking practices, you'll be set up to succeed!



Don't neglect this critical aspect of test day (bananas optional).


Key Takeaways

The AP prep process can be overwhelming. But I've summarized how to study AP exams into digestible steps below.


Choosing an Exam

  1. Figure out which classes your school offers and which fit into your schedule.

  2. Consider your interests and abilities.

  3. Consider how much time you’ll have for studying.


Preparing for the Test

  1. Establish ways you need to review/learn.

  2. Make a plan.

  3. Find content review resources.

  4. Find practice questions and tests.

  5. Get to work and stay on schedule!


Content Review Tips

  1. Be mindful of your own learning style.

  2. Review things more than once.

  3. Engage with the material!


Practice Exam Tips

  1. Take at least one complete practice exam under full test-day-like conditions—and do this more than once if you have more than one practice test!

  2. Practice individual exam sections, especially free response, to work on the skills for those specific sections. Be sure to look closely at all sections to make sure you are familiar with the way questions are worded!


Test-taking Tips

  1. Do all the usual best test practices—get a good night’s sleep, eat breakfast, pack your bag the night before, and bring extra pencils.

  2. Pace yourself and stay on track!

  3. Think positive!

  4. Don’t get hung up on a single question—it you find yourself stuck, skip it and come back.

  5. Answer every question, though, because there’s no penalty for guessing!


Just remember: breaking the AP down into little steps makes it manageable to climb the whole AP mountain!



AP Mountain (artist's rendition).


What's Next? 

Looking for a complete guide to your exam? We've got guides to AP US History, AP Chemistry, and AP Psychology

If your AP exam has a DBQ, check out my total overview of the DBQ and my how-to DBQ essay guide

Looking for exam resources? Check out our guide to finding AP practice tests. 


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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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