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 content of the course. The format of the AP Biology exam was modified in 2013 and again in 2020; as a result, some books have kept up with these 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!
AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 May AP exams will now be held remotely, and information about how that will work is still evolving. For now, we know that each AP exam will last 45 minutes and include only free-response questions. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for your studying with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
What's in This Guide to the Best AP Bio Books?
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 test-prep companies that I rate a bit lower. I wanted to give you more specific details about the issues with these prep books so you can supplement them appropriately if you've 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.
Let's get started!
The Best AP Biology Textbook: Campbell Biology, 11th Edition
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 recommend this book as a reliable AP Biology textbook if you're self-studying or having a lot of trouble understanding your in-class textbook.
- Easy-to-follow organizational structure
- Great examples that help you understand biological concepts quickly
- Helpful illustrations and diagrams throughout
- Clear writing style
- Used in real college classes, not just AP classes, so it could be useful to you in the future, too!
- Students sometimes complain that the book is overly dense and wordy
- It's pricey—but you can buy a used version for about $50-$100 cheaper (or rent for $20)
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The Best AP Biology Review Books
This is a list of the review books 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: About $50-$80 on Amazon
Even though this review book technically goes with a specific textbook, you can easily use it on its own. From all that I've read, this book is a solid, well-organized representation of the content and format of the AP Biology exam.
- Includes high-quality free-response and multiple-choice questions at the end of each chapter
- 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 exam
- Because this book was published in 2017, its content doesn't align exactly with the new 2020 format of the AP Bio test
Price: About $22 on Amazon
If you're in an AP Biology class and already have access to a textbook, I'd 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 the 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. While this is not a stand-alone AP Biology book, it's definitely an awesome tool to have in your arsenal!
- Includes a diverse array of more than 1,500 high-quality practice questions
- Material and difficulty level aligns well with the format of the exam (lots of molecular and cell biology questions)
- Has detailed answer explanations for all practice questions
- Is accompanied by online resources that give you even more practice testing opportunities
- Questions are divided by subject area, so if you're having trouble with a particular portion of the curriculum, you can focus on that material specifically
- It's a less guided studying experience than what some other books offer—you have to be able to plan your time responsibly to get the most out of the questions and explanations
- The book is pretty much just questions and doesn't provide an overview of what's tested on the exam
- It's not so great if you're self-studying for the test, as you'll want to have some background knowledge before diving into practice questions (though the answer explanations will help you)
Price: About $12 on Amazon
This prep book is helpful if you want 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, since many students felt that it didn't give them all the tools they needed to do well on the exam.
If you get this prep book, be sure to do lots of supplemental practice questions. Still, it's a good baseline resource for content!
- Includes sections with information on test-taking strategies and how to answer different types of questions
- Has 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 retain the background information you'll need
- It's relatively dense, and the amount of text might be overwhelming for some students
- Many reviewers commented that the book was informative but didn't necessarily prepare them well for the AP Biology test
Price: About $17 on Amazon
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 rely solely on the practice test materials and testing strategies in this book. Though Barron's is usually pretty dependable, it seems as though this book might be a bit tedious.
- Covers all the basic information you'll need to know for the exam
- Practice questions help you memorize key facts and concepts
- Diagrams are plentiful and easy to understand
- The overall layout is pleasing to the eye and might be easier to read than other less well-designed review books
- Students complain that there's 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 do not fully prepare you for the analytical format of the AP Biology test
- There seems to be consensus that the free-response questions here are particularly bad and are not at all comparable to the free-response questions on the AP Bio exam
AP Bio Review Books to Avoid or Use Only as Supplements
This section is for AP Biology books that aren't the greatest but that you might already have or plan to buy because you're most familiar with the prep companies that make them.
These books can still be somewhat useful, but I'd advise that you supplement them with other review books I've rated higher (see above). 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: About $18 on Amazon
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).
- 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
The Princeton Review's Cracking the AP Biology Exam, 2020 Edition
Price: About $16 on Amazon
I tend to like Princeton Review books because they're very student-friendly and not as dry as some other review books.
The main positive aspect of this prep 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 AP Biology book on this list.
- 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
- Walks you through the process of designing a study plan for your individual needs
- Has an 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 it's easy to read and not overwhelming—diagrams are plentiful, too
- 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 might be less difficult compared to those on the real test
Kaplan's AP Biology Prep Plus 2020 & 2021
Price: About $21 on Amazon
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 Bio exam. You should supplement it with another book that gives you access to better practice questions and more concise content summaries.
- Is structured around the four "Big Ideas" on the AP Bio test, making it easy to follow and keep track of what topics you're struggling with, if any
- Has a 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
- Tries too hard to relate to students and writes some test-taking tips in an oblique way (e.g., 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)
Which AP Biology Books Should You Get? Should You Avoid?
I don't think there are any AP Biology 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 book is to specifically and effectively prepare you for the AP Biology test. Accurate and comprehensive biology content isn't enough—it's much 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 in which 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 AP Bio 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, such as 5 Steps to a 5). You could then supplement that book with another one from the higher-rated section that has great practice questions.
Make sure that your AP Biology review books and textbooks cover all the important bases. In other words, 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 new 2020 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.