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The Best AP Biology Study Guide

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Apr 4, 2018 8:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Studying for AP Biology is a big undertaking, and it can seem pretty overwhelming at first. However, if you get an early start and have the right strategies and tools at your disposal, you stand a strong chance of getting a great score on the test. In this complete AP Biology study guide, my goal is to provide you with all the resources you need to carry out a focused, effective study plan. I'll provide you with all the information you need to begin your journey to a 5 (nope, it's not too ambitious!). 


What’s the Purpose of This Guide?

This AP Biology study guide will give you the tools you need to prepare for the final AP Biology test as well as any assessments you encounter in your class throughout the year. In the first section, I will give you some advice on how to structure your study plan for the AP test depending on your level of preparation and the amount of time you have before the exam. You may decide to skip this section if you’re not ready to start studying for the final exam yet, but you can also read it to get an idea of how you will organize things in the future. 

In the next section, I’ll provide some study strategies that will help you get the most out of the information and resources contained in this guide. Access to content won’t get you a great score unless you know how to absorb it efficiently and apply it to the format of the test! 

In the two sections following these tips, I’ll link to notes that you can use to study different aspects of the course. The first section covers all the basic content that's taught in AP Biology, organized by the course’s four "Big Ideas" (or main themes). The second section will link to descriptions of each of the labs you'll need to be familiar with in this course in case you lost any reports from earlier in the year! Finally, I’ll provide a list of online resources that you can use to practice your AP Biology skills and review the concepts you’ve learned.


AP Biology Study Plans 

Before you decide on a study plan, I would advise you to take a practice test to see where you’re currently scoring. You can use a test in a review book or look online for sample tests from 2013 or later. Once you take and score this test, you can think more critically about how much time you need to spend studying for AP Biology. I’ll give you an example of two study plans; the 10-hour plan is if you’re hoping to improve by one AP point or just hone your skills so that you’re more solidly in the 5 range. The 20-hour plan is for students who are hoping to improve by around 2 AP points. Each plan has the same four components:


#1: Take Practice Tests

Beyond the default diagnostic test, you will need to continue taking practice tests as you study for AP Biology. This is a way to check your progress and get familiar with the format of the test so that you aren’t caught off-guard on exam day. 


#2: Analyze Mistakes on Practice Tests

This is a critical component of AP Biology studying. After you take a practice test, you should sit down and go through your mistakes to see which content areas gave you the most trouble. This will help you to avoid studying irrelevant things or neglecting areas where your knowledge is weaker. 


#3: Study Weak Content Areas

Based on the information you learn from analyzing your mistakes, you can focus on the content areas that need the most work. Your goal is to patch up all the holes before you take another practice test.


#4: Revise Test-Taking Strategies

This is another step you need to take after analyzing your mistakes. If you made mistakes due to time pressure or careless errors, you should think about changing your test-taking strategies to avoid this in the future. Try not to linger for more than a minute on difficult questions. Underline the most important parts of each question so that you don’t make careless mistakes!

Here are the two plans broken down into their different components, with some rough guidelines for how much time you should spend on each step:


10 Hour Study Plan

  • Analyze your mistakes on the diagnostic test: 1.5 hours
  • Study relevant content areas and revise test-taking strategies: 2 hours
  • Take and score another practice test: 4 hours
  • Analyze your mistakes on the second practice test: 1.5 hours
  • Final study session: 1 hour


20 Hour Study Plan

  • Analyze your mistakes on the diagnostic test: 1.5 hours
  • Study relevant content areas and revise test-taking strategies: 3 hours
  • Take and score another practice test: 4 hours
  • Analyze your mistakes on the second practice test: 1.5 hours
  • Study content areas that are still giving you trouble and revise test-taking strategies again: 3 hours
  • Take and score a third practice test: 4 hours
  • Analyze your mistakes: 1.5 hours
  • Final study session: 1.5 hours


When I do crossword puzzles, I sometimes grade myself, so they're similar to AP practice tests except with no reward beyond the satisfaction of knowing arcane information that is usually completely irrelevant to my life. Fun fact: the apostrophe in Hawaiian words is called an okina.


4 AP Biology Study Strategies 

AP Biology is a tough class that covers tons of complex information. If you want to use this guide to prepare effectively for the AP test and other tests throughout the year, you’ll need to use study strategies that complement the material. Here are a few of my recommendations:


#1: When in Doubt, Draw It Out

If you’re feeling shaky on your knowledge of a process or system in AP Biology, one helpful strategy is to draw it. This will both reinforce what you know and highlight what you still need to work on learning. Once you’re able to draw an accurate diagram of a system or process without looking at your notes, you can feel confident that you know how it works.

For example, you could challenge yourself to draw a diagram of a cell membrane, label its different components, and explain their significance. You could also draw a process like mitosis that happens in clear visual stages or a more complex process like cellular respiration, where you might focus on one aspect at a time (glycolysis, Krebs cycle, electron transport chain). This advice ties into the next strategy on this list. If you can draw a diagram, you haven’t just memorized facts, you’ve connected them to their place within a larger context.


#2: Don’t Just Memorize — Make Connections

Since the recent redesign of the AP Biology exam, the focus of the questions has been asking students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of complex biological concepts. Memorization is still important for the test, but it won’t get you a good score if you do it in isolation. Each term or concept in AP Biology is connected to a larger theme, and it’s your job to understand those connections and their implications. This will enable you to answer questions on the test that ask you to analyze hypothetical scenarios based on your biology knowledge.

So, if you're studying DNA structure and replication, you shouldn't just memorize the names of the nucleotides and the enzymes that aid in DNA replication. These things are important, and you should know them, but you need to go beyond this type of knowledge. How does DNA go from just a chain of molecules inside a cell to the foundation of every organism's individuality? How does it relate to reproduction and gene expression? How is it translated into the formation of other systems in the body? Each fact that you memorize should lead you to ask yourself questions like this to ground your understanding. Biology is not a collection of random tidbits of information but a web of interrelated concepts. The clearer this becomes to you, the better!  


#3: Know Lab Procedures

Labs make up a significant portion of the AP Biology course, and the test reflects this fact. You should review all of your labs, and make sure that you understand their outcomes and methodologies. It’s especially important that you familiarize yourself with the fundamental building blocks of a good experiment. There are often questions on the test that ask about different experimental variables or require you to predict the outcome of an experiment. The more familiar you are with your labs, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to answer these questions easily based on your memory of similar experiments in class.  


#4: Use Practice Tests Strategically

This tip is evident in my study plans in the previous section, but it’s worth mentioning again. You shouldn’t just study the material and expect to do well, especially on a test like AP Biology that requires a significant amount of analysis in its questions. You can use practice tests to judge which content areas need the most work and whether you need to revamp your test-taking strategies. Practice tests can be found in review books or online. Just make sure you use tests that are for the new version of the exam (69 questions in the multiple choice section, not 100!).


body_practicingchess.jpgIf you take enough practice tests, you'll be able to see exactly where you're going wrong and how you can fix your mistakes. The same thing happens if you play enough chess games. The main thing you need to know about chess is that the horsey moves in the shape of a fancy couch.

AP Biology Content

In this section, I'll include notes on each topic area in AP Biology followed by a list of videos that cover these topics as well. Most students should probably start with the notes to gather a solid foundation of knowledge. If you're reading the notes and you feel like you're going to fall asleep, try switching to a video explanation instead.

The notes are more in-depth than the videos, so you should probably read them all at some point, but you can alternate between the different formats depending on how you feel and which learning style works best for you. You can even take notes to reinforce the information as you watch the videos or print out the notes and use them as a guide when watching a video explanation. Don't feel pressured to commit to one type of resource over the other - switching it up every once in a while will keep things from getting boring. 


Notes and Outlines 

Big Idea 1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life


Big Idea 2: Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce and to maintain dynamic homeostasis


Big Idea 3: Living systems store, receive, transmit and respond to information essential to life processes

Big Idea 4: Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties



body_ecology.jpgAh plants. They're like animals, but they eat the sun! Alive.



Bozeman Science

This YouTube channel has a whole playlist of “AP Biology Video Essentials.

Topics of Special Interest:


Amoeba Sisters

This is a YouTube channel with a bunch of cute videos that explain biological concepts simply and with a touch of humor. 

Topics of Special Interest (there are more if you check out the full playlist):


Crash Course

Full Biology Playlist (includes a couple of extra videos that aren’t on this list of main topics if you’re interested!)

Topics of Special Interest:


Khan Academy

There’s a long playlist of Biology videos on Khan Academy’s channel. These go more in-depth into various aspects of different biological concepts and are longer than the videos from the other channels. They’re a bit of a commitment, but they can help you become even more of a biology expert.


body_genghiskhan.jpgAt the original Khan Academy, everyone had to take Pillaging 101 as a prerequisite unless they got really high scores on the SAT (Scourge Aptitude Test).   

AP Biology Labs

This section includes all the information you need to know about AP Biology labs. The documents I've referenced for each lab are the official College Board descriptions. They're pretty extensive, but you don't have to read every word; I'd recommend skipping to the second section of each document where the headings become red instead of blue (the blue section is more for teachers than students).

Pay attention to the questions that are asked in the documents as each step of the lab process is completed. Contemplating and understanding the answers to these questions will help you to get a better handle on the purpose of the lab. At the very least, you should review the Background and Procedure for each lab to refresh your memory of what you did and why.   


Notes and Outlines 

There are thirteen labs included in the AP Biology curriculum. Here’s a link to a page that briefly goes through all of the labs you’ll do in a standard AP Biology classThese are categorized by “Big Idea” to match the structure of the course's content.


Labs for Big Idea 1

1. Artificial selection
2. Mathematical modeling (Hardy-Weinberg)
3. Comparing DNA Sequences to Understand Evolutionary Relationships


Labs for Big Idea 2

4. Diffusion and Osmosis
5. Photosynthesis
6. Cellular Respiration 


Labs for Big Idea 3

7. Cell Division: Mitosis and Meiosis
8. Biotechnology: Bacterial Transformation
9. Biotechnology: Restriction Enzyme Analysis of DNA


Labs for Big Idea 4

10. Energy Dynamics
11. Transpiration
12. Fruit Fly Behavior
13. Enzyme Activity

Make sure you go through the actual lab work you did in class as well. Reports and data based on your own experiences are the most valuable resources for this aspect of the curriculum. 



Bozeman Science

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find many videos going through the AP Biology labs because the current labs are relatively new, and most videos deal with the pre-2012 lab structure. 


body_cuterlab.jpgSome types of labs are cuter than others.


Study Resources to Test Your Knowledge

In this section are some of the best resources you can use during your AP Biology prep.



This site has many different user-created sets of terms that you can use to review for the AP test or any other in-class tests. Check out this Ultimate AP Biology Vocabulary Review; there are over 1,000 terms to help you review what you’ve learned. You can study them in flashcard form and then quiz yourself all in one place! Quizlet also has tons of other AP Biology study sets that will help you review all the details you need to know for different units. You can sign up for free.



There are some good practice questions here that cover the main concepts within each big idea of the AP Biology curriculum. I like that they include many questions about lab procedures to ensure that you don’t lose out on the lab aspect of biology studying. If you go through all the questions, the site will tell you whether you’re prepared for the test based on how many you answer correctly in each section. You should take this with a grain of salt, but it is helpful as a way to see exactly which concepts are giving you the most trouble.


Clear Biology

This site has a few different practice resources. Here’s a worksheet for grid-in questions as well as detailed instructions for answering these types of questions. And here are some tips for answering free response questions.


Varsity Tutors

There are tons of mini practice quizzes on this site for all the AP Biology topics, and they’re rated by difficulty level, so you’ll know whether you really have a topic down. Diagnostic tests are also available for a more holistic look at your strengths and weaknesses.



You can take a free practice test on the Barron’s website without purchasing the review book. Choose between timed and un-timed versions:


body_xtreme.jpgWow, those were some XTREMEly awesome study tools! I don't know why I'm trying to relate to AP Biology students with a vague sports reference. But I'm sure some of you do the sports ball playing.



With the tips and tools in this AP Biology study guide, you should be able to formulate a comprehensive approach to studying. You can use these resources throughout the year as you build up your knowledge, or you can use them just in the month(s) before the AP test, depending on how you learn best. Here's a little review of everything I've covered.

Your study plan should consist of:

  • Taking practice tests
  • Analyzing mistakes
  • Studying weak content areas
  • Revising test-taking strategies

Some study tips to remember are:

  • Draw out systems and processes so you can understand them better
  • Don't just memorize facts, make connections to larger themes 
  • Make sure you're familiar with your labs and the principles of experimental design 
  • Take practice tests frequently 

You can use notes from your class as well as the notes in this guide as anchors for your studying. If you learn better by watching videos, you should definitely check out the video explanations of different concepts that I've listed above. And once again, don't forget to go over your labs! This is a tough subject, and there's a lot to remember, but if you give yourself enough time to absorb it all and are conscious of where you need the most improvement, you can master the skills you need to be successful in your class and on the test. 


What's Next?

If you're taking AP Biology, you probably have big plans for higher education. Find out how many AP classes you should take in high school if you're looking at highly selective colleges.

What does a high score on an AP test get you? Learn more about how AP credit works at colleges.

Do you need to take a couple of SAT Subject Tests to submit with your college applications? Read this article for an explanation of the differences between AP tests and SAT Subject Tests and an overview of the challenges presented by each. 


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:

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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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