AP Biology can be a pretty challenging course. But if you’re planning on majoring in STEM in college, it can give you a head start on your degree…if you make a great score on the AP Bio exam, that is.
Even though the AP Biology class and exam might be difficult, getting a perfect score is totally possible! We’ll walk you through how to get a 5 on the AP Bio exam, including how to maximize your classroom time, tactics for getting the most out of your study time, and even tips for boosting your test-day performance.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
How to Get a 5 on the AP Bio Exam: The Basics
The first thing you need to understand to learn how to get a 5 on AP Biology is just how hard it is to get a 5. The good news is that according to the 2021 score results, the AP Bio exam had a 59.2% pass rate, which puts it in the middle 50% of pass rates for AP exams.
The bad news is that only 7.4% of students scored a 5, which is one of the lowest rates of any AP exam. Only four subjects had lower 5 rates, which makes the AP Biology test one of the hardest tests to get a perfect score on.
If you’re on a journey to a perfect AP Bio score, it all starts with understanding what’s on the test. Here’s how it all breaks down:
# of Questions
% of Exam Score
Part I: Multiple Choice
Contains both individual questions and question groups based on reading and interpreting data in charts, graphs, and other visual models
Part II: Free Response
6 (two long essay, four short answer)
Questions 1 and 2 are long essays that ask students to interpret and evaluate experimental results.
Question 3 gives students an experiment scenario, and asks them to predict the results and justify their conclusion.
Question 4 describes a biological phenomenon with a disruption and asks students to predict the causes or effects of the change in the biological system.
Question 5 asks students to do an in-depth analysis of a visual representation or model and explain how it relates to a biological principle or theory.
Question 6 asks students to analyze the data in a graph and use it to evaluate a hypothesis or prediction.
Unlike other AP exams, AP Biology weighs the multiple choice section at a full 50% of your total score, plus it requires you to answer more essay questions than other STEM exams. This combination can be difficult for students because it means you not only have to spend a lot of time memorizing information, but you also have to be able to think critically, logically, and creatively.
Getting a 5 on AP Bio begins with good classroom habits.
How to Get a 5 on the AP Bio Exam: Making the Most of Your Class
The process of getting a five on the exam starts your very first day of class. That’s because getting a five starts with paying close attention in class and focusing on your coursework.
The following tips let you know how to get a 5 on AP Bio using your class sessions, labs, homework, and tests to your advantage!
Tip 1: Take Detailed Notes
Since you’re taking an advanced biology class, you probably know that taking notes will be important. But in order to get a 5 on the exam, you’ll need to be a detailed note-taker.
Detailed note-taking means doing more than just listening and writing down a few key facts that you hear. It also requires you to think critically about what you’re learning as you learn it. Since the AP Bio exam asks you to be able to analyze data in multiple forms and describe relationships between different biological concepts and processes, it’s important to start exercising your thinking muscles right from the start–in your notes.
In order to create notes that will truly help you on the exam, try to write in complete, detailed sentences that include both the basic facts (“the nucleus of a cell has a membrane with nuclear pores”) and the explanations of those facts (“the membrane has pores so that molecules needed for cell functions like growth and protein synthesis can pass back and forth between the nucleus and the cytoplasm”).
Now, trying to get all that written down in class can be tough. That means it’s important to revisit your notes after class and add in details that you weren’t able to write down during the lecture. And since memorization is going to be a major part of getting a top score on the exam, revisiting your notes will help the information stick in your brain!
Remember, detailed note-taking is a skill to be learned like any other—that means that practice makes perfect!
Tip 2: Keep a Running Vocabulary List
This course covers a lot of information, and the exam will test you on all of it. For quick reference, here’s the unit breakdown for the exam:
% of Exam Content
Chemistry of Life
Cell Structure and Function
Cell Communication and Cell Cycle
Gene Expression and Regulation
As you can see, all of the units are weighted relatively evenly on the exam. That means that you’ll need to remember lots of key words and concepts when test day arrives. Even if your textbook has a glossary of terms, do yourself a favor and create your own vocabulary list anyway.
When it comes to memorization, nothing beats writing things down. That’s because when you write down the definition or explanation of something like a eukaryotic cell you’re exercising your brain in multiple ways. You’re not just passively taking in definitions by reading them, you’re also translating and re-creating the info. This helps you retain what you’re learning.
You can keep your own vocabulary list on a computer, on flashcards, or in a notebook. Whichever method you decide, make sure it’s alphabetized for quick reference when you’re using it to study. And don’t just limit yourself to glossary-style definitions. Try to also include any additional info that might be relevant.
For example, a glossary definition of mitochondria might just say something like “mitochondria are membrane-bound organelles that produce the chemical energy needed for the cell’s biochemical reactions.” This is important to know, but it’s also important to know how things work in context for the exam.
You should also include details like how mitochondria (and mitochondrial DNA) are usually only inherited from the mother. Or, how if there’s a defect in the mitochondrial pathways at the cellular level in the kidneys–or other parts of the body–-then that part of the body itself will not function properly. So, over the course of your time in class, keep adding to the definitions as you learn more about how things work together.
The only silly question is the one you don't ask!
Tip 3: Ask Questions
If you’re looking to get a 5 on the AP Bio exam, you’ll need to think like a scientist. That involves asking questions, making predictions, and looking for answers.
Here are each of the six science practices you’ll be learning.
- Practice 1: Concept Explanation — Learn what things are, and how to describe and explain them.
- Practice 2: Visual Representations — Learn how visual models of biological concepts and processes explain relationships between parts of a whole system, as well as how to use that understanding.
- Practice 3: Questions and Methods — Learn how to identify or pose testable questions, predict the answer to your question, and choose what methods to use to get the actual answer. This is based on the information you know from the concept explanations and visual representations.
- Practice 4: Representing and Describing Data — Learn how to identify data points and describe trends, patterns, and relationships between variables, as well as create graphs. This is how you put together the information you learn from doing an experiment to find out the answer to your question.
- Practice 5: Statistical Tests and Data Analysis — Learn how to interpret and analyze data using statistics and calculations. Using the data you collected and organized from Practice 4, check your hypothesis using these mathematical calculations. This is how you learn if your prediction was correct or not.
- Practice 6: Argumentation — You learn how to make scientific claims, support those claims with evidence, and provide reasoning to justify those claims. At this stage, you’re putting everything together and coming to a conclusion.
Each practice builds on the ones before, with the goal of asking questions about the biological world and then finding answers. Since you’ll have to be able to do each of these things on the AP Bio exam, start getting used to going through this process regularly.
So when you read something new, or learn about an interesting biological concept or process in class, take a few minutes to brainstorm a list of questions about how it works in conjunction with other processes. Then make some guesses about the answer. And if you want to check your answers, make some time to chat with your teacher.
Tip 4: Make Connections as You Study
AP Biology has four Big Ideas that you’ll encounter in each unit:
- Information Storage and Transfer
- Systems Interactions
These ideas will help you make connections between the biological concepts and processes you learn about in each unit. They also function as a basis for questions you ask and answer using the six science practices in the course.
After each of your in-class tests, it’s a good idea to go through your notes from previous units and reorganize or rewrite them based on these Big Ideas. To make it easier, the AP Bio Course at a Glance identifies which topics in each unit fit under each Big Idea.
For example, after Unit 4 go back through and make connections between each of the biological concepts and processes you’ve learned so far that involve Information Storage and Transfer. How do the nucleic acids you learned about in Unit 1 relate to the ideas of cell communication, signal transduction, and the regulation of the cell cycle that you just covered in Unit 4, for instance?
Making connections like these in your notes for each unit and Big Idea can help you retain the information you’re learning. And even better, it can help you make solid arguments in your AP Bio essay questions!
Tip 5: Save Your Lab Notes and Visuals
Over the course of your time in AP Bio you’ll be doing lab work and creating and analyzing visuals like diagrams, graphs, and models. Since both sections of the exam will test your ability to create graphs, analyze data in charts/graphs, and describe processes and concepts that are represented visually, be sure to save all of your in-class work and homework to study with. You can use these visuals and lab write-ups to refresh your memory before both in-class tests and your final exam.
Although there are lots of study materials available online, studying with the official AP Bio materials you get in class is often a better idea because you know it’s accurate. And if your goal is to get a 5 on AP Biology, you’ll need the best study resources you can get!
You're busy...so make your study time count.
How to Get a 5 on the AP Bio Exam: Maximizing Your Study and Review Time
It’s no secret that the AP Biology exam covers tons of information. So you’re not likely to get a 5 if you rely on cramming at the last minute. Instead, it’s a good idea to pace yourself and start studying sooner rather than later!
After each of your in-class tests, spend some time reviewing what you’ve learned so far and how everything works together. Each of the units in this course builds on the ones before, so this will help you keep the logical progressions fresh in your mind.
The following tips can help you use every minute of your study and review time to your best advantage!
Tip 1: Use All of Your Materials
As the big test day in May gets closer, and your test prep starts to get more intense, be sure to use all of the materials and resources you’ve collected over the course of the semester. So it’s a good idea to read your notes, review your textbook, talk to your teacher, and look online for supplemental sources (we’ll show you where to find some good ones at the end of the article).
One resource that students often overlook is the AP Classroom section of the College Board website. It features daily videos for each of the eight AP Bio units, and it provides practice questions and other study resources. You’ll even find free-response questions from previous years that you can practice with!
Tip 2: Make Biology Flashcards
Making flashcards is one of those tried and true study methods that’s helped tons of students. That’s because making your own flashcards has several benefits.
First of all, you’re re-reading your notes and textbooks and writing down the information again, both of which help you remember the material better. And since memorization of things like meiosis or the Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium plays a big role in AP Bio success, it’s a good idea to do everything you can to boost your memory retention!
Second, you’re essentially making your very own quiz based on exactly what you’ve been learning in class. Unlike some of the unofficial AP Bio quizzes you can find online, you can trust that the topics you include are actually part of the current AP curriculum.
And finally, when you make your own flashcards, you can save some money. AP Biology flashcards are available for sale online, but why spend the cash when making them yourself is easy and more helpful in terms of learning concepts?
Tip 3: Take AP Bio Quizzes and Practice Tests
Even though memorization is a big deal for Bio, if you’re interested in getting a 5, you’ve got to do more than reread your notes. You also need to check your ability to remember the info in a realistic test setting and practice writing essay responses.
That’s where taking practice tests comes in. Full-length, official practice tests released by the College Board are the best option since they’re made by the same company that administers the exam.
You should try to take a full-length AP Biology practice test at least twice if you’re shooting for a 5. This is a pretty big time commitment, but it will pay off if you do a few things:
- Leave plenty of study time between each practice test so you can identify and practice your mistakes.
- After completing your first practice test, create a study plan. Be sure to study your weakest areas the most.
- Make note of anything during the test-taking process that seems to be tripping you up–like making mistakes based on misreading the question–and come up with a plan of action to address the issue. For example, if you’re struggling to write your essays in time, you may need to spend a couple minutes organizing your thoughts before you start, which can help you write faster.
- After each additional practice test you take, reevaluate your study plan as needed.
That said, if you’re still in the early units of the course, full-length practice tests may not be quite as helpful as shorter AP Bio practice tests and quizzes (like those found at Khan Academy). These shorter quizzes are useful for in-class test preparation, but they can also help you fill in any gaps in your knowledge as you begin the countdown to the final exam.
Sometimes getting the most out of your study time involves making changes to your tactics and even study location!
Tip 4: Triangulate Your Methods
Knowing how to get a 5 on AP Bio means knowing that using one study strategy probably won’t cut it.
Triangulation (in terms of research) means using multiple theories, sets of data, and methods to answer a question or solve a problem in order to increase the credibility and validity of that solution. As a study strategy, triangulation of your methods enhances your ability to learn and retain the info you’re studying.
Here’s how the idea of triangulation works for your study sessions: you can use multiple methods and study spaces to maximize the results of your study time.
First of all, doing just one type of studying again and again–like reviewing your textbook or watching videos online–will limit what you learn. Instead, incorporate multiple different methods into each of your study sessions. You could start by reading through your flashcards, then move on to a video, and end by reviewing your vocabulary list.
Second, avoid studying in the same place all the time if possible. Ideally, try to find two or three spaces where you can study effectively and alternate between them. For example, your bedroom, the kitchen table, and the library are all good choices. If you’re having trouble staying focused after you’ve been working for a while, try moving to a new location and see if the change of scenery helps.
Tip 5: Get Creative
Getting a 5 on the AP Biology exam requires lots of hard work. But if you start feeling burnt out by memorization, you can add some creative study methods to your rotation to keep practicing the skills you’ll need for the exam.
One thing you can do is get crafty. Since analyzing visual representations is a big part of the course, try making your own. This can be as simple as drawing your own diagrams, but the sky’s the limit here. You could paint the process of cell replication, or sculpt a 3-D cell model out of clay. Channel your inner kindergartener and have fun with it!
You can also design your dream experiment, and create a mock lab report using all six of the scientific practices you’ll be tested over. You don’t have to actually do the experiment, just use your knowledge of biological concepts and processes and your imagination. You can pose a testable question, and figure out what methods would be best to test your hypothesis. Then, make up some results that seem likely and practice graphing the data and using your formulas. This will also give you good practice for the writing you’ll have to do on the test.
Teaching someone else can also help you learn. If you can find someone to tutor, that would be the best case scenario. If not, try making your own AP Bio quizzes online! You’ll be thinking about the information in a new way, and helping yourself remember it all in the process.
You can even organize a trivia night for friends and classmates that are also in AP Bio classes. Team up and compete to see who knows the most about Mendelian genetics and DNA structure! You’ll be going over information you need to know…and you’ll have fun in the process.
One way to boost your performance on test day? Try to sleep like a baby the night before!
How to Get a 5 on the AP Bio Exam: Making Good Decisions on Test Day
You’ve spent lots of time studying at this point, so you’re well on your way to AP exam success. But there are still strategies you can employ on the day of the test to improve your score.
Below are some tips that can help you get that perfect 5 on AP Bio!
Tip 1: Take Care of Your Own Biological Systems
You’ve studied the effects of disruptions in biological systems, so boost your shot at getting a perfect score on the test by taking care of your own body. Start by trying to get plenty of sleep the night before and eating a nutrient-rich meal the day of the exam if you can. And don’t forget to stay hydrated!
You can also avoid some additional stress on test day by packing up all your supplies–like your calculator–and choosing what to wear ahead of time. Since you’ll be sitting in one place for three hours, be sure to wear something comfortable. It’s harder to stay focused on graphs and formulas if you’re wearing something scratchy!
And keep in mind the power of pep-talks! People often perform better in stressful situations when they’re confident. You’ve studied hard and learned a ton, so give yourself a pep-talk before the test. It might just give you the boost you need to do well!
Tip 2: Watch Your Words
In the Course and Exam Description, the College Board reports that lots of students mix up similar terms, like “protein” and “proton.” This is one of the most common mistakes students make on the AP Biology exam, but it’s also one of the easiest to fix.
Because of the time pressure of the exam, you’re reading and writing quickly. That means it’s easy to think you see the word “proton” in a question, when it actually says “protein,” or to accidentally write “protein” when what you meant to say was “proton.”
To avoid losing points this way on the multiple choice section, take the time to underline or circle key words to make sure you know what the question is asking.
In the free-response section, leave yourself enough time to go back through and proofread what you’ve written. Focus on key words here as well. If you’ve explained the role of stable subatomic particles with a positive electric charge perfectly, but you’ve written that the word for those is “proteins,” you’ll still lose points.
You’ve spent lots of time studying for a 5. Trying to set aside a little proofreading time during the exam can help you maximize your score!
Tip 3: Use Occam’s Razor
If you want to know how to get a 5 on AP Bio, think about scientific principles like Occam’s Razor. The theory of Occam’s Razor states that when evaluating different hypotheses, experimental methods, and explanations, the simplest one is usually preferable–and the most testable. For instance, if you hear hoofbeats in the distance, it’s most likely to be a horse rather than a zebra–unless you’re out on the African savannah.
On the free-response questions, you’ll be asked to make and justify predictions about experimental results and methods. Keep your arguments focused on the facts and most likely outcomes. Don’t get bogged down in all the possible scenarios–just stick to the one that seems most likely given the information you’ve been provided.
This same logical tool can also help if you get stumped on the multiple choice section. It’s better to guess than to leave a question blank, so use the process of elimination to your advantage. You’ll have four answer options to choose from, so eliminate the two that are least likely first. The two that are left might both be decent choices, so go with the one that provides the most direct and least complicated answer.
Even though you're taking a biology test, knowing your verb tenses can make a big difference.
Tip 4: Pay Attention to Verbs
All of the free-response questions on the exam feature task verbs that tell you everything you need to do to answer the question. The verbs to know for AP Bio are:
- Make a claim
- Predict/Make a prediction
- Support a claim
When you’re under pressure, it’s incredibly easy to overlook or misread task verbs. But that can negatively affect your score since it’s important that you actually answer the question you’ve been asked.
To keep yourself from making this mistake, take a second to underline or circle the task verbs in each question. Refer back to them when you need to in order to stay on track. And don’t forget to do each of the four tasks in your response!
Tip 5: Make an Outline
The AP Bio exam involves quite a bit of writing for a STEM-based test, so it’s a good idea to take a tip from English class and make an outline before answering your long essay free-response questions. Take about three minutes to brainstorm your answer and organize your thoughts.
An outline can keep your writing focused (it’ll also help you write more quickly). For each question part jot down a few things you want to say, as well as the examples and data you’ll use to support your points and make and justify your predictions. This also includes deciding what kind of graph you want to use for Question 2.
Because of the time limits you may want to jump right into writing, but remember that a well-organized and thoughtful response will increase your chances of getting that coveted 5!
Now that you know how to get a 5 on AP Biology, where do you start? If you’re looking for supplemental notes to study with, we’ve got you covered with the best AP Biology notes online.
Extra books are useful for your study sessions, too. You can check out our favorite AP Bio review books for more info!
And if you’re looking for a little extra help creating a study schedule, our ultimate AP Biology review guide has your back.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.