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When Should You Start Studying for Your AP Exams?

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Feb 27, 2016 8:30:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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So you’re taking a couple AP classes, they’re going well, and you feel pretty good about most of the material. The exam in May seems a long way off. Do you need to start studying? The answer is, that depends! Every student and every exam is different.

However, my general advice is to start studying no later than the midpoint of the school year. (That would be after winter break for most of you.) Why the midpoint of the year? Keep reading to find out!  

I’ll also discuss how many hours you should plan to prep based on how the course is going and what score you are aiming for. Then I’ll present some strategies for determining how you should balance general conceptual review of the material and dedicated exam prep like taking practice exams. Finally, I’ll make suggestions as to when and how you should study based on overall course subject (math, science, foreign language, and so on.)

Note that in this article I’m going to generally assume that you are taking the class for which you are going to take the AP exam. For self-study, see my article on studying for AP exams without taking the class.

 

3 Reasons You Should Start Studying for Your AP Exams by the Midpoint of the Year

The way I see it, there are three reasons why you should start studying for you AP exams in earnest by the midpoint of the school year.

 

Reason 1: You’ll Know a Good Amount of Course Material

By the middle of the school year, you will have covered enough material in class that you will be able to answer a decent amount of practice questions and problems without wanting to tear your hair out in frustration. If you start looking at AP practice exams in October, you will have only learned a fraction of the course material, so they will be of limited use to you.

 

Reason 2: Avoiding the Cram!

The midpoint of the year is also still early enough that you won’t have to cram for the exam. You’ll have plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the exam format and make sure you understand all of the course content. A major danger of waiting too late to prep is you might find that there’s a segment of the course material that you really don’t understand or a section on the test that is very foreign to you, so if you start in the middle of the year, you can be confident you’ll have enough time to fully prepare. 

 

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The only cramming you should be doing is these delicious cookies into your mouth.

 

Reason 3: Pacing Yourself

Another advantage to starting early is that you won’t necessarily have to spend hours and hours a week studying to hit your target amount of study-hours, which will help you later in the semester when things are busy and you may not be able to devote entire weekends to cramming for an AP exam. 

If you’re in a particularly content-heavy course, you should probably review class material throughout the first semester so that it stays fresh. In general, though, the midpoint of the year will give you enough time to brush up on the material, identify any gaps in your knowledge, and prepare for the exam format.

 

What If You’re in a Semester-Long Course?

Some schools offer semester-long AP courses. If you’re in one of these, should you still start studying at the midpoint of the year? This depends on when you take the class.

If you take the class during the first semester, keep the midpoint of the year as your prep start point. You'll basically start prepping as soon as the class is over.

This is for two reasons: first, you will know all the material before you start studying for the exam, so you can take practice tests and write essays without being concerned that there may be questions about material you haven’t studied yet. 

Secondly, prepping throughout the second half of the year will help you remember the material. Keeping it fresh in your mind will be much easier than trying to play catch-up in the few weeks leading up to the exam.

If it’s a second-semester only AP course, you’re in less danger of forgetting the material, but you also have less time to study. This is fine. Semester long APs don’t cover as much material as full-year ones, so just so long as you are doing well in the class, you can afford to wait until four to six weeks before the exam to put your studying in full gear.

That said, if there are any concepts you aren’t clear about or that seem fuzzy, try to learn them as soon as you realize there’s an issue. This will save you a lot of heartache during the studying process.

 

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Not this kind of fuzzy.

 

How Many Hours Should I Study for My AP Exam?

There is no magic number of hours you need to study for an AP exam to get a certain score. There are, though, two main factors that together should give you a rough idea of how many hours you should plan to study.

 

Factor 1: How You’re Doing in the Course

If you’re acing exams and the material clicks with you at an A+ level, you can probably get away with studying around 15 hours for the exam and walking away with a 5 in the bag (Remember, you’re spreading the prep out over a semester, so 15 hours total would only be about an hour and a half a week for ten weeks).  If, though, you’re scraping by with a C+ or B- (which is perfectly respectable—these courses are hard!) you may well need to devote 40+ hours to get the same score. (An added bonus is that all of that extra studying will probably raise your course grade.)

 

Factor 2: How Well You Want to Score

Obviously the higher you want to score, the more you need to study relative to how you are doing in the course. If you’re aiming for a 3 and you’ve got a B, you may well only need to study for 15 hours to pull it off. If you want a 5, that may be more like 35 hours. 

See my handy table below, where you can cross-reference the letter grade you have with the score you want on the AP exam and the absolute minimum hours you should plan to study. (I assumed no one is aiming for a grade lower than a 3, the general minimum accepted for college credit.)

The more demanding the course is overall, and the more content it covers, the more you should plan to study. Ultimately, only you can truly gauge how much time you need to spend preparing to feel comfortable with your chances of getting your target score.

 

Mimimum Study Time Based on Letter Grade and Target Score

 

5

4

3

A

15+

10+

10+

B

25+

20+

15+

C

40+

30+

20+

D

60+

45+

30+

F

80+

60+

40+

 

As you can see, how many hours you need to study depends on a lot of things—how well you're doing in class, how much material there is, and your skill level in the given components of the test. If you’re great at timed essays, you won’t need to spend as much time studying for AP Lit and Comp as someone who struggles with them.

In general, it’s better to spread your prep out over time—a couple months at least—as opposed to doing massive cramming. Cramming will stress you out, especially in May when you are probably also trying to wrap up projects and study for exams in other classes.

Once you have an idea of how many hours you will need to study for the exam, how should you spend those hours? Read on for my recommendations on balancing general review of the course material with dedicated exam prep.

 

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Study slow and steady like a snail. Say that five times fast.

 

General Review vs. Dedicated Exam Prep: How Much of Each?

Once you determine how much time you’re going to spend studying, you need to decide how you’re going to spend that time. There are, generally speaking, two kinds of studying you can do for the AP. You can review the material the course is based on, or you can prepare specifically for the exam by taking practice questions, writing practice essays, and so on.

Obviously, to do well on the exam, you need to have a good grasp on the material. But understanding the material is not always enough to ace the exam. Many AP exams have portions that test special skills, like the DBQ on the history exams, so it’s good to prep for the actual format of the exam as well.  Understanding the material is like the foundation, and doing well on the exam is like building a strong house on that foundation.

So how should you split your exam prep time? What should you focus on?

In general, I would focus more on reviewing the material when you first start studying, especially if you decide to do any studying during the first semester. Before you know a decent amount of material, taking practice tests etc will just be frustrating, because there will be a lot of questions you have no idea how to answer.  

As you pass the midpoint of the class, you can start to familiarize yourself with the exam format. Familiarity with the format will become more critical as time goes on. So the closer you get to the day of the exam, the more the balance will shift from material review to exam prep. That way you’ll know you’ve got a strong foundation before you start trying to build a house on it!

You might also (politely!) ask your teacher what you will be doing in the course to prep for the AP specifically. If you are going to be doing a lot of dedicated exam prep exercises during class time, you may not need to do quite as much outside. If you are just trying to race headlong through the material so you aren’t still learning on WWI material on exam day, you’ll know it will be pretty much up to you to familiarize yourself with the exam format.

Remember, regardless of what you learn in the classroom, it will be you taking that exam on test day, so you are ultimately responsible for your own prep.

Now that we’ve discussed balancing conceptual reviews and dedicated prep, I have some more specific recommendations based on the exam’s general subject matter. 

 

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You are as majestic as this crane, and better-prepared for the AP exam.

 

When and How To Start Studying for AP Exams Based on Course Content

The general guidelines I’ve given so far will hold for most, if not all, AP exams. Still, it is worth calling out that the best way to use your study time, and when you should ideally think about preparation, will vary quite a lot among exams. In the following section I give my study recommendations based on the general subject matter of the course.

 

When and How to Start Studying for Math AP Tests

In general, math coursework is cumulative—everything you learn builds on what you learned before. So the single most important thing you can do for prepping for an exam like AP Calculus is to make sure you learn concepts as soon as it is clear you are struggling with them.

If you do poorly on a test in class, the time to try to learn that material is decidedly not in the two weeks leading up to the AP exam, it’s right after you realize you don’t get it. There is no shame in this! There are some hard, hard concepts in these classes. Overall, making sure you really learn the material as you go along is the best thing you can do for your AP exam score.

So basically, the time to start studying for a Math AP is immediately, by making sure you know the material backwards and forwards as it is being presented to you.

 

When and How to Start Studying for Science AP Tests

Most of the science APs—Chemistry, Physics, and Biology—cover a lot of material and have reputations for being fairly difficult. This is another category where studying right from the get-go is quite important, and where content is probably more important than test format.

Don’t get me wrong—it will still help you to be familiar with the general format of the exam—but most of your energy should be focused on making sure you understand all of the huge swathes of material throughout the year.  Focus on content throughout the year, and format after the midpoint. 

 

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Space: the final frontier that's not your AP exam.

 

When and How to Start Studying for Foreign Language AP Tests

To build a strong foundation in a foreign language, constant practice is the name of the game. If your high school class is pretty intensive, you may not have to study quite as much outside, although brushing up on vocab and grammar rules occasionally to stay sharp is a good idea.  

It will also help you to do things like watch TV or movies in the language you are studying, and to read books. It will definitely help you to do dedicated AP test prep, but the most important thing is bringing your language skills as close to fluency as you can, and you can work throughout the year to do this.

It’s also fairly common to take a foreign language AP in a language that you grew up speaking at home. This means you probably already have a phenomenal foundation in the language, but you should still prepare. For one thing, you should brush up on all those pesky grammar rules; it can be surprisingly difficult to remember the specific grammar rules for a language you have mastered. You should also practice writing timed essays. Fluency won’t carry you all the way if you can’t give the AP graders what they want. 

 

When and How to Start Studying for English AP Tests

The most important thing you can do to practice for the two English AP exams is timed essay practice. You should hone your timed essay skills for all of the different kinds of essays that appear on a given exam, and carefully study the rubric. This is an exam area where general subject mastery of English is certainly helpful, but developing AP-rubric-specific timed essay-writing skills will make a huge difference in ultimate success.

So when should you start writing practice essays? I would advise getting your start fairly early in the year—around or even before the midpoint—so you can gauge how much additional practice you should put in throughout the year. If things are going well, you’ll know you won’t need as many outside-of-class prep hours.  

 

When and How to Start Studying for History AP Tests

A main challenge with learning historical material is that it can be fairly siloed: you learn about the Civil War and then don’t come back to it, you learn the French Revolution inside and out and then won’t be tested again until the AP, and so on. This is why keeping historical information fresh is essential, and you should be doing it throughout the year. 

You may need to do more dedicated content review for AP History exams, and start reviewing old content earlier than for any other AP, simply because so much of the exam relies on your ability to recall historical facts and details. Obviously, a sense of overall historical trends is very important, but an occasional dip back into your textbook will go a long way towards helping you remember the peskier little details.

 

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Pesky details like whoever this lady is.

 

When to Start Studying for AP Exams - Conclusions

So as you can see, when exactly you need to start studying for your AP exam depends on several factors. In general, the latest you should start studying for the exam is during the midpoint of the school year. The number of hours you should plan to devote to studying depends both on how you are doing in the course and what your target score is.

Reviewing conceptual material is more important earlier in the year, while specific AP exam prep becomes more salient later on. How much to weigh one or the other depends on the specific exam and your own knowledge and skill level.

It’s a lot to consider. But if you study as you go and balance content review with dedicated test prep, you can go into the test with confidence.

 

What's Next?

Need help registering for your upcoming AP exams? Check out our article on registering for AP tests and classes

Still considering which AP classes to take next year? Let us help you with our AP class schedule planning guide

If you're taking the SAT this year, be sure to check out our guide to the new SAT, which was offered for the first time on March 5th of this year! 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

Free eBook: 5 Tips to 4+ Points on the ACT

 

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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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