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The Best AP Environmental Science Review Guide

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Jul 8, 2016 7:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Knowing how to review for an AP test can be challenging, and, based on average exam scores, it appears that many students who take AP Environmental Science don’t adequately prepare for the exam.

Fortunately, if you’re not sure where to start, this guide will walk you through the complete of AP Environmental Science review process. I’ll start by going over the format of the exam and what it’ll cover, including sample questions, and then I’ll move on to the specific review strategies and plan you should follow in order to be prepared for the exam.


What's the Format of the AP Environmental Science Exam?

The AP Environmental Science Exam is three hours long and divided into two sections, multiple-choice and free-response.

Multiple-Choice Section

  • 100 questions
  • 90 minutes
  • Worth 60% of your score
  • Questions will be both stand-alone and as part of sets
  • You earn one point for each correct answer, and no points are taken off for incorrect answers (so you should answer every question!)
  • No calculator allowed

 Free-Response Section

  • Four questions
    • 1 Document-Based question
    • 1 Data Set question
    • 2 Synthesis and Evaluation questions
  • 90 minutes
  • Worth 40% of your score (each question is weighted equally)
  • No calculator allowed


What Does the AP Environmental Science Exam Cover?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of APES review, it’ll help to broadly go over what the exam covers to help put everything into context. Environmental science is a multi-disciplinary topic, and it covers concepts from science, history, current events, and more.

The exam will touch on many areas, but there are six main themes it seeks to focus on. Every question you see on the exam will relate back to at least one of these themes, so they’re helpful to keep in mind as you navigate your review process.


AP Environmental Science Themes

  1. Science is a process.
  2. Energy conversions underlie all ecological processes.
  3. The Earth itself is one interconnected system.
  4. Humans alter natural systems.
  5. Environmental problems have a cultural and social context.
  6. Human survival depends on developing practices that will achieve sustainable systems.




The AP Environmental Science exam also has seven major topics which make up the content the course and exam focus on. These major topics are more specific than the above themes, and knowing them helps give you a better idea of what will be covered on the exam.

Each of the topics will make up about 10-15% of the questions on the multiple-choice section, except for pollution which will make up 25-30% of multiple-choice questions. Each major topic has multiple smaller topics within it. In the interests of length, I included a selection of these for each major topic. If you’d like to see the entire list, check out the AP Environmental Science Course Description, beginning on page six.


AP Environmental Science Major Topics

  1. Earth Systems and Resources
    • Topics include: Geology, the atmosphere, water resources, and soil science
  2. The Living World
    • Topics include: Ecosystems, energy flow, biogeochemical cycles
  3. Population
    • Topics include: Population ecology, reproductive strategies, survivorship
  4. Land and Water Use
    • Topics include: Agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing, global economics
  5. Energy Resources and Consumption
    • Topics include: Different types of energy (fossil fuels, nuclear, hydroelectric, etc.), energy consumption, and renewable energy
  6. Pollution
    • Topics include: Types of pollution, economic impacts of pollution, how pollution affects environmental and human health
  7. Global Change
    • Topics include: Global warming, loss of biodiversity, changes to the ozone layer


What Do Questions Look Like on the AP Enviro Exam?

As mentioned above, there are two sections on the AP Environmental Science exam: multiple choice and free response. Official sample problems from both sections are shown below.


Multiple-Choice Sample Question


To answer this multiple-choice question, you’d have to know major environmental disasters and what caused them. Each of the answer choices is a place where an environmental disaster occurred, but only one of them was caused due to disposing of toxic chemicals underground.

The correct answer is choice C.

Other multiple-choice questions may refer to a graph, require simple calculations, and/or be part of a set of related questions. The College Board doesn’t make many examples of multiple-choice questions available, but for a sample of questions, check out the Course Description for AP Enviro. Later in this guide, I’ll also go over where to find and how to use other sample problems.


Free-Response Sample Questions

Data Set Sample Question



There will be one data set question on the exam. Some data (it may be a table, chart, or graph) will be presented, and you’ll be required to answer questions on it, some of which will include calculations.

Because you aren’t allowed a calculator, the calculations won’t be too involved and will generally only require solving simple equations.


Synthesis and Evaluation Sample Question


 There will be two synthesis and evaluation questions on the exam and, while they may include data you have to look at, you won’t have to do calculations in order to answer questions. Each question can be answered with a few phrases or sentences; no free-response questions on the Environmental Science AP exam require complete essays.

The document-based question is similar to the synthesis and evaluation question in that there are no calculations involved, and the questions can be answered with short phrases or paragraphs, but the document-based question will have a short excerpt from a document you’ll need to read in order to answer some parts of the question.

To see complete answers to these questions and other free-response questions, check out our dedicated guide to the AP Environmental Science Free-Response Section.


How to Review for AP Environmental Science

In this section, I’ll walk you through each step you should take during your AP Environmental Science review. Follow these seven steps, be thoughtful about your weaknesses and progress, and you’ll be on your way to success!


#1: Get Your Review Materials Ready

Before you begin reviewing, you want to make sure you have all the review materials you’ll need ready and organized. It’s best to start this step around the end of fall, but even if you’re just starting a few weeks before the exam, never fear! A couple weeks of dedicated studying can be enough to help you score well on the AP exam.

What materials do you need? Many people find it helpful to purchase a review book. Unlike your textbook, review books focus specifically on the information you need to know for the AP exam, so you’re not wading through extraneous info that you don’t need to worry about for the test. Before getting a review book, read reviews online or ask your classmates if they have a book to recommend. In general, Princeton Review and Barron’s are solid choices.

Don’t neglect your class materials, though! Your notes and textbook can be useful for in-depth review of certain topics you want to brush up on. Finally, practice tests are one of the most important ways to review, so you want to make sure you have gathered a bunch of them.

Check out our guide specially on AP Environmental practice tests, or check out these top choices:


#2: Take and Score a Practice Test

Your next step should be to take a complete practice test under realistic testing conditions (90 minutes each for multiple-choice and free-response, no calculator, and taken in one sitting). I’d recommend using the Barron’s practice test or combining the Varsity Tutor’s multiple-choice section with a set of official free-response sections and saving the full-length official practice test for later on.

After you take the test, score your test to see how well you did. Official practice materials come with scoring guidelines, and many unofficial resources are automatically scored, but if you need help estimating your score, use this score calculator. (It’s based on 2008 results, so it won’t be completely accurate, but it’ll give you a good estimate.)


#3: Set a Score Target

Now that you know how well you’re currently scoring, you can set a score target. Despite its low score averages, AP Environmental Science is generally considered one of the less-challenging AP exams, so most people who are able to commit some time to studying should aim for a 4 or a 5. However, if you are scoring a 2 or lower, or you know you won’t be able to study much, you may want to aim for a 3 instead.




#4: Analyze Your Mistakes

Now that you know what score you’re aiming for and how far you are from it, it’s time to start analyzing which questions you got wrong and why. Go through the practice test you just took and look over every question you got wrong. Think about why you got it wrong, and look for patterns. Did you miss a lot of the questions that involved calculations? Did you know global change but got most questions on energy resources wrong?

This may seem like a long and tiresome step, but don’t be tempted to skip it. It’ll save you time in the long-run, and it’s really the only way to significantly improve your score.


#5: Review Your Weak Content Areas

Next, use the information you got from going over your practice exam and focus particularly on improving each of your weak areas. If there are certain topics or types of questions that gave you particular trouble, review your notes and take practice questions until you feel confident with them.

Don’t just passively read through your notes either; actively engage with them. Underline important words and phrases, rewrite key points in your own words, and regularly stop and go over in your head what you just learned to make sure you’re actually retaining the information.


#6: Revise Your Test-Taking Strategies

A lot of the time, it’s not just the content of the exam that’s challenging, it’s how much you’re expected to do in three hours that can also cause you to make mistakes. If you find yourself either running out of time or making careless errors, you likely need to make some changes to how quickly or slowly you move through the exam.

If you often run out of time, spend future practice tests timing yourself more carefully. For the multiple-choice section, you have 90 minutes to answer 100 questions; that’s 54 seconds per question. Getting stuck on one question can prevent you from answering multiple other questions, which can really hurt your score. So, if you’ve looked at a question for 90 seconds and still have no idea how to answer it, skip it and come back to it at the end if you have time remaining. (Do remember to answer every question though by the time the section ends, even if it’s a complete guess. There are no deductions for incorrect answers, so don’t leave any questions blank.)

For free-response questions, you’ll have about 22 minutes to answer each question. However, no one will force you to move onto the next question, so it can be easy to lose track of time. Taking practice free-response sections and carefully timing yourself can help with this issue. Also, if you find yourself making a lot of careless errors on the exam, try to slow down a bit and read each question twice before you begin answering it.

For both sections of the test, answering practice questions regularly can help you get a handle on timing issues and become more used to how long you have to answer each question.


#7: Take Another Practice Test

After all your hard work, it’s time to take another complete practice test to see how much you’ve improved. Follow the same rules as you did for your first practice test, and figure out your score. If you’ve improved a lot and are close to your score target, you may only need to do light studying until the exam.

If you’ve improved but still aren’t where you want to be, repeat the above steps again to continue working on your weaknesses.

However, if you haven’t improved a lot or are still far from your target score, you’ll have to change up your methods. Examine how you’ve been reviewing and which questions you’re getting wrong. You may not have been paying close enough attention or just passively read through your notes instead of engaging with them.

Make a list of things you’ll change (such as studying more actively, paying closer attention to your notes etc.) and implement those changes as you go through the above steps again.


Time Estimates

How long will it take to review for the AP Environmental Science AP exam? That’ll vary for everyone, but below are some estimate of how long you should spend on specific steps.

  • Take and grade first practice test: 3.5 hours
  • Analyze your mistakes: 1 hour
  • Review your weak areas and revise test strategies: 3 hours
  • Take and grade another practice test: 3.5 hours

So, going through one cycle of these steps may take you around 11 hours, and, remember, you may want to repeat the cycle to really get the information to sink in.


Summary: Key Tips for AP Environmental Science Review

Being well-prepared and ready for the AP Environmental Science exam gives you a much better shot of doing well on the test. Make sure you know how the exam is formatted and what material it covers before you begin your review.

Your review process should include the following steps:

  • Gather review materials
  • Take and grade an initial practice test
  • Set a score target
  • Analyze your mistakes
  • Review weak content areas
  • Revise test strategies
  • Take and grade another practice test to see how you’ve improved


What's Next?

Want some more practice materials for the AP Environmental Science Exam? We've got you covered with free and official practice quizzes and tests.

Need some help reviewing for your other AP classes? Learn the five study tips and strategies you should use for all AP exams.

Are you self-studying for AP Environmental Science or another AP exam? Learn the seven steps you should be following when self-studying in order to maximize your chances of getting a great exam score.


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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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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