It’s extremely important to have reliable books for learning and studying the material covered in AP classes. This is particularly true for AP Biology considering the complexity and breadth of the course's content. The format of the AP Biology exam was modified significantly in 2013, and there are some books that have kept up with the changes better than others. In this article, I’ll tell you which books are your best bet for acing AP Biology and which ones you should use only at your own risk!
What’s in This Guide?
This is my take on the best books to help you do well in AP Biology (the class and the exam!). In the first two sections, I’ve included the best textbook as well as a few high-quality review books. In the third section, I’ve included a couple of review books from popular prep companies that I rate a bit lower. I wanted to give you more specific details about the issues with these books so that you can supplement them appropriately if you have already bought them (or choose to buy them because you’re used to the format).
My assessments of these AP Biology books are derived from Amazon reviews by students and educators as well as my personal impressions after perusing them. I’ll provide pros and cons for each book along with an overall summary of what it offers and whether I recommend it. I've also rated each book on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest score.
The Best AP Biology Textbook
Price: $146 new
- Good, easy-to-follow organizational structure.
- Great examples that will help you understand biological concepts.
- Helpful illustrations and diagrams throughout.
- Clear writing style.
- It’s used in real college classes, not just AP classes, so it could even be useful to you in the future!
- Students sometimes complain that this book is overly dense and wordy.
- It’s pricey! But you can choose to buy a used version for about $50 cheaper.
This text is one of the most universally accepted college-level biology books. It’s written at a high-level, but, according to student feedback, it appears that most people have found it relatively easy to understand and generous in its use of diagrams and examples. I would recommend this book as a reliable AP Biology textbook if you’re self-studying or are having a lot of trouble understanding your in-class textbook.
The Best AP Biology Review Books
This is a list of the review books that I think will be most helpful to students studying for the AP Biology exam. The highest-rated books include comprehensive coverage of the course material, excellent practice questions, and helpful test-taking and study planning tips for students.
Price: $17 new
- Includes high-quality free response and multiple choice questions at the end of each chapter that align well with the content of the updated AP Biology exam.
- Effectively highlights the most important things you need to know about each topic area.
- Encourages readers to make connections between topics, which is critical on the new version of the exam.
- I haven’t seen any complaints about this book!
Even though this review book technically goes with a specific textbook, you can use it on its own just as easily. From all that I’ve read, this book is a solid, well-organized representation of the content and format of the current exam.
Price: $22 new
- Includes over 1,500 high-quality practice questions that are diverse and not repetitive.
- The material and difficulty level aligns well with the new format of the exam (lots of molecular and cell biology questions).
- There are detailed answer explanations for all questions that will teach you important concepts for the exam.
- The book is accompanied by online resources that will give you more practice testing opportunities.
- Questions are divided by subject area so that if you are having trouble with a particular portion of the curriculum you can focus on that material specifically.
- It’s a less guided studying experience than some other books - you have to be able to plan your time responsibly to get the most out of the questions and explanations.
- This book is pretty much just questions; it doesn’t provide an overview of the content in textbook-like form.
- It's not so great for students who are self-studying because you’ll want to have some background knowledge before diving into practice questions (although the answer explanations will help you).
If you’re in an AP Biology class and already have access to a textbook, I would definitely recommend this book as a study aid for the exam. You might buy this book along with another book on this list that has more information about test-taking strategies and overall exam format.
If you use this book as a resource for practice questions, you can use another book to get a concise overview of the material on the exam to supplement your studying. This is not a stand-alone AP Biology book, but it is an awesome tool to have in your arsenal.
Price: $17 print, $10 digital
- Includes sections with information on the format of the exam, test-taking strategies, and how to answer different types of questions.
- There are two full practice exams with answers and explanations.
- Includes a detailed overview of all the labs and major content areas (with review sections) at the end of each chapter to help you to retain the background information you need for the exam.
- The actual content is well-aligned with the new AP Biology exam (although practice materials could be better).
- It’s relatively dense, and the amount of text might be overwhelming to some students.
- Many reviewers commented that the book was informative but didn’t necessarily prepare them well for the new format of the AP Biology test.
This book is helpful if you’re looking to clarify some of the concepts you'll learn in your AP Biology class and see a more concise summary of the information. I wouldn’t recommend relying on it completely as your only source of review material because many students felt that it didn’t give them all the tools they needed to do well on the new, less memorization-heavy AP Biology exam. If you get this book, you should also do lots of supplemental practice questions that are more aligned with the way the new exam is formatted. It’s a good baseline resource for content, though!
Price: $13 new
- Covers all the basic information you’ll need for the exam.
- Practice questions will help you to memorize key facts and concepts.
- Diagrams are plentiful and easy to understand.
- The overall layout is pleasing to the eye and may be easier to read than other less well-designed review books.
- Students complain that there is too much superfluous content and that the book is sparse on important test-taking tips.
- Content has not been fully updated to reflect recent changes to the AP Biology exam.
- Practice questions are mostly fact and memorization based and don’t fully prepare you for the analytical format of the current AP Biology test.
- There seems to be a consensus that the free response questions in this book are particularly bad and are not at all comparable to free response questions on the new exam.
This is a mediocre review book overall. You can probably use it to review the content you need to know for the test or to help you understand concepts in your AP class, but I wouldn’t recommend relying solely on the practice test materials and testing strategies in this book. Barron’s is usually pretty dependable, but it seems like this book may be a bit tedious and out of date.
Review Books to Avoid or Use Only as Supplements
This section is for books that aren’t the greatest, but you might already have them or plan on buying them because you’re most familiar with their corresponding prep companies. These books can still be somewhat useful, but I would advise that you supplement them with other review books that I’ve rated higher in the previous section. I’ll go through the pros and cons of each of them so you can get a better idea of where and why they fall short.
Price: $9 new
- Guides you through the creation of a study plan that fits your needs.
- Covers the four “Big Ideas” in the AP curriculum and has plenty of information about the facts you’ll need to know for the test.
- Content review is pretty dense and difficult to get through.
- Practice questions are very memorization-based, so they won’t prepare you very well for the new format of the AP exam.
This book does a good job of outlining a study plan for the test, so it might help you in structuring your prep time. Its coverage of AP Biology concepts is thorough, but it's not the easiest to study. If you get this book, you should use other sources for additional practice questions to ensure you're getting the most out of your studying (the Sterling book in the first section could be a good place to start).
Cracking the AP Biology Exam 2018 Edition (Princeton Review)
Price: $17 print
- Starts with a high-level overview of how to plan out your studying and how to use the book effectively, so it’s easy to follow.
- The book walks you through the process of designing a study plan for your individual needs.
- Extensive section on test-taking tips, including mnemonic devices that will come in handy during the exam.
- Text in the content review section is broken up so that it’s easy to read and not too overwhelming - diagrams are plentiful.
- Key terms and practice questions are provided at the end of each content chapter.
- Information isn’t as in-depth as it should be.
- Main complaints were that this book is too shallow and simple for a really good review of the AP Biology curriculum.
- Practice questions may be less difficult compared to the real test.
- Not fully updated to reflect the types of questions you’ll see on the current AP Biology exam (lots of memorization-based practice questions).
I tend to like Princeton Review books because they’re very student-friendly and not as dry as some other review books. However, it seems like this book has some of the same issues as other review books on this list in its attempts to adapt to the new format of the AP exam. I think the main positive aspect of this book is that it gives you a strong foundation for planning out your studying and approach to the test. I’d recommend supplementing this book’s content and practice questions with another more comprehensive review book on this list.
Price: $15 print, $16 digital
- The book is structured around the four “Big Ideas” that are a feature of the new exam format, so its content is pretty well-aligned with the current state of AP Biology.
- Very detailed review of concepts with helpful diagrams.
- Some students might not like the fact that the review questions are divided by the four “Big Ideas” in AP Biology and not by smaller chapter sections - this makes it more difficult to use the book as a focused review tool.
- The book is a bit long-winded, so it’s not as easy to quickly go over concepts.
- This book tries too hard to relate to students and writes some test-taking tips in an oblique way (i.e. one of the tips for free response questions is "Writing Smart Stuff Gets You Points"; it's simplified to the point where it doesn't even mean anything without reading the rest of the wordy explanation).
- Practice questions are not fully aligned with the new, more analytical exam format.
This book is ok as far as content goes, but it’s not that easy to use as a review tool overall. It won't help you much with the actual ins and outs of the AP test. You should supplement it with another book that gives you access to better practice questions and more concise content summaries.
Which AP Biology Book(s) Should You Get? Which Should You Avoid?
I don't think there are any review books that are horrible enough for you to avoid at all costs, but there are quite a few that won't do much for you by themselves. The point of a review book is to prepare you for the AP Biology test specifically. Accurate and comprehensive biology content isn't enough. It's more important to have access to practice questions that are a faithful reflection of what will be on the test. You don't want to be in a position where you know a lot about biology but are unable to apply the facts you know to scenarios you haven't seen before when you take the test.
When choosing from this list of books, you should consider your individual needs as well as the nature of the test. If you think you'll need more guidance in structuring your test prep, you might buy one of the books that gives more instruction on how to devise a study plan (even if it's in the lower-rated section, like 5 Steps to a 5). You could supplement that review book with another book from the higher-rated section that has great practice questions.
Make sure your review books and textbooks cover all the important bases. This means that they should give you the tools you need to create a study plan, learn biology content, and do relevant practice questions. Reference real versions of the post-2012 AP Biology test to compare questions on the test with the practice questions you've been doing and confirm that you're on the right track!
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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.