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How to Study for AP Exams: 5-Step Plan

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Apr 15, 2018 9:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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Preparing for AP exams can feel like a Sisyphean task. On top of keeping up with the demanding coursework and all your other obligations, you have to prepare for a three-hour, multi-part exam?

Yes, you do—but more importantly, you can! If you don’t know how to study for AP exams, this is the guide for you. I’ll cover all the major steps to AP success, including content review, exam skill-building, and prepping for triumph on test day.

  

5 Essential Steps to AP Test Preparation

Once the school year is underway, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirl of classes and clubs, and completely forget about test prep. And even once you do remember, you might not know how to study for AP tests.

Never fear—read on for our five-step AP prep plan!

 

Step 1: Establish What You Need to Review/Learn

About halfway through the school year is when you’ll want to start studying for AP exams. This is the ideal time since you’ll have plenty of time to prep and will know enough information to really get into reviewing content.

A crucial first step to AP prep is to establish what you need to review or learn for the purposes of the exam. There are a few resources you’ll want to gather in order to do this:

  • Syllabus for your AP class
  • Any of your old tests, quizzes, or papers
  • "AP Course and Exam Description" for the course

You can find this last document on the main course page for the class, which you can access on the College Board’s AP Student list of AP courses. Note that for courses that haven’t been revised in a long time, this is just called the "AP Course Description." This document offers a comprehensive description of the skills and content areas that will be tested on the exam.

You’ll want to review, at least on a high level, all the major content areas from your AP course. But since it’s not efficient to try to retain every single piece of information your teacher tells you, your AP prep should be specifically focused on reviewing what you need to know for the exam.

Once you have all your documents gathered, compare your class’s syllabus with the AP Course and Exam Description. Your class should cover all the major content areas—the syllabus had to get approved by the College Board, after all! That said, teachers do have some discretion on the specifics of what they can cover within the College Board’s broader structures.

By comparing the two documents to see whether there are areas your class syllabus focused on in less (or more) detail than is necessary for the exam, you'll get an idea of what you should target in your own studying. Concepts you covered sparsely in class should be reviewed more closely, while things you covered more in-depth might not need to be reviewed as much.

Your tests and quizzes are also important in establishing areas you should review. You don’t need to spend as much time reviewing material you got high marks on. By contrast, you should be sure to focus on reviewing content areas for which your test and quiz scores were weaker.

The AP Course and Exam Description will also clarify for you what exam skills you need to build. Are there free-response math questions? Short answers? Essays? You’ll want to make sure you know how to succeed on all parts of the AP test. So plan to practice working on all question types.

In sum, this is what you’ll want to review:

Content

  • High-level review of all major content areas of your course/test
  • Focus more on areas where your knowledge is weaker, as determined by your AP quiz and test grades and the AP Course and Exam Description when compared with your class syllabus

Exam Skills

  • Be prepared to answer all question types on the AP exam

 

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Student diligently reviewing the AP Course and Exam Description (artist's representation). 

 

Step 2: Make a Study Plan

Once you’ve figured out what you need to review, you'll need to come up with a review schedule. This doesn’t have to be super specific—you don’t have to know exactly what you are going to cover every single day. But you should have a general idea of what content areas you'll be reviewing and what skills you'll be working on every week leading up to the test.

This is another time your class syllabus will come in handy, as you’ll be able to plot out your review schedule in a way that makes sense. You’ll want to review all the major content areas you have covered or will cover in class. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to review something before your teacher has gone over it! So schedule the things you’re going to learn later for later review.

You’ll want to weigh your prep plan more toward content review when you begin to prepare, and then shift it more toward exam prep as you get closer to test day. Assuming you're preparing over the course of several months, the first few weeks of your prep schedule should be dedicated almost entirely to reviewing content, and the last few weeks should be dedicated mostly to taking practice exams and doing practice questions.

Here’s a sample study plan a student might make for the few months leading up to her AP Euro exam:

Week

Learning in Class

Content to Review

Prep to Complete

1

Turn of the century

Make outlines and flash cards for Renaissance (Italian vs Northern), 100 Years’ War, black plague

Look over some old free-response questions and a few sample multiple-choice questions

2

WWI

Make outlines and flash cards for Reformation, religious wars

Write practice DBQ and get Mr. Smith to score

3

WWI

Make outlines and flash cards for Columbus, other explorers, 30 Years’ war

Write practice FRQ and get Mr. Smith to score

4

Russian Revolution

Make outlines and flash cards for absolutist rulers, agricultural revolution

Take complete timed multiple-choice section

5

Between the world wars

Make outlines and flash cards for slave trade and colonialism, Enlightenment

Work on thesis statements and outlining practice for DBQ

6

WWII

Make outlines and flash cards for French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Napoleon

Work on thesis statements and outlining practice for FRQ

7

WWII

Make outlines and flash cards for Nationalism, Marxism, socialism

Practice DBQ and FRQ and get Mr. Smith to score

8

The Cold War

Make outlines and flash cards for Western imperialism, WWI

Take complete timed multiple-choice section

9

The Cold War

Make outlines and flash cards for Russian revolution, between the wars, WWII, Cold War

Take complete practice test

10

Post Cold War

Review outlines and flashcards

Final practice FRQ (timed)

11

In-class review

Review outlines and flashcards

Final practice DBQ (timed)

12 (test week!)

Final review and test prep!

Final outline review/flashcards

Rest up!

 

 

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See, this business suit lady gets the importance of making a study plan.

 

Step 3: Find Content Review Resources

A high-quality review book is your best friend in AP prep. We currently have guides to the best review books for AP Psychology, AP Biology, AP US History and AP Chemistry. Beyond that, The Princeton Review and Barron’s generally make reliable review books for AP tests.

Supplemental resources beyond a review book can also be helpful. Your textbook for the course, beyond providing explanations of key concepts, likely includes practice questions or tests at the end of each chapter. You can also look for podcasts, watch YouTube videos, and use websites such as Khan Academy for content review purposes.

Another option is to make your own resources. I can’t recommend Quizlet enough. With this website, you can make your own flashcards and then quiz yourself using various tools. You have to make an account to be able to use it, but the service itself is free.

Once you’ve amassed all your review tools, you’ll be ready to review content. However, you’ll still need to practice AP exam questions!

 

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Be sure to really drill down in your search for high-quality AP resources.

 

Step 4: Find Practice Exams and Questions

In addition to content review materials, you’ll want to find practice exams and questions to build specific AP test competencies. The best AP practice questions and tests are those created by the College Board—the group that makes the AP exams. As a result, their materials will be most similar to the real AP test you’ll take in the spring.

So where can you find College Board AP resources? In three places:

  • In the AP Course and Exam Description booklet. Remember the AP Course and Exam Description booklet I mentioned above for figuring out what you need to review? It also has sample exam questions (of all types!) in the back. Hurrah!

  • Official free-response questions. The College Board has kindly released free-response questions (and sample responses) from previous testing years. You can get these by going to the College Board’s AP exam information page and clicking on your desired exam; scrolling down from that page will take you to the free-response questions. 

  • The College Board also sometimes releases complete exams from past years for free. You can usually find these on the College Board exam overview page for your specific test; however, some of these are hard to find even though they're hosted on the College Board website. If you're having trouble finding tests for your exam, Google the name of your test along with "previously released materials college board" or "complete released exams college board" to find the free exams.

For your convenience, here are the previously released materials pages for some of the most popular AP exams:

AP English Literature and Composition

AP Chemistry

AP US History

AP Psychology

AP Biology

AP Statistics

AP Environmental Science

AP Calculus AB

AP US Government and Politics

AP Macroeconomics

We’ve also gathered some practice question and exam materials for you here:

 

Step 5: Get to Work and Stay on Schedule

Once you’ve gathered all your materials—content review as well as practice questions and tests—it’s time to get to work!

How many hours you need to spend on studying for AP tests every week is going to depend a lot on how much material you need to review and how comfortable you are with the format of the exam questions. In general, though, you should expect to study for several hours a week split over two to three sessions. Setting specific times and places for your AP studying will help you stay consistent and keep pace with your review schedule! 

With good content review and a solid approach to practice exams (more on this later), maintaining a consistent studying pace and schedule will catapult you to exam success.

 

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The true path to AP success: the trebuchet.

 

AP Review: 3 General Tips

As you review course material in preparation for your AP exam, here are some things to keep in mind.

 

#1: Be Aware Of Your Own Learning Style

Focus on review methods that work for you and not against you. If you’re a visual learner, don’t force yourself to listen to recorded lectures; draw diagrams or mind maps instead. Or if you’re an auditory learner, find podcasts and audio books to listen to for concept review.

 

#2: Review Material More Than Once

It’s generally accepted that you need to encounter a piece of information several times before you really start to retain it. Therefore, plan to review essential information for the test more than once. The more important it is, the more times you should go over it.

 

#3: Engage With the Material

The more you interact with the material you're studying, the better you’ll retain it. If you can do some kind of activity with the information—such as practice problems, outline-writing, flashcard-making, etc.—you'll be able to remember it better.

 

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Not this kind of engagement! 

 

How to Make the Most Of AP Practice Tests

Since College Board AP practice tests and resources are limited, you want to make sure you make the most of them. Here are my top three tips for how to do this effectively:

 

#1: Take an Entire Practice Exam Under AP Test Conditions

It will be a huge help for you to take an entire practice test under actual AP-like conditions. So with a timer, in a quiet room, with short breaks—the whole nine yards.

If you only have one complete practice test you can use, do this toward the end of your prep time (maybe a few weeks before the test), when you’ve reviewed most of the content already. This will help you get a feel for what the actual test day will be like. And the more comfortable you feel, the better you'll do on the exam!

 

#2: Track Your Progress

If you have access to more than one complete practice test, it’s a good idea to also take a practice test toward the beginning of your prep time so you can figure out what areas you need to work on the most. This will give you a rough benchmark of where you're starting, so then when you take another practice test toward the end of your prep, you’ll be able to see how you’ve improved!

 

#3: Prep for Individual Sections

Apart from complete practice tests, practice questions serve as great prep for individual parts of the AP test. Because the College Board has released so many free-response questions, you can practice those over and over again. You don’t necessarily have to do a complete, timed essay every time, although you should practice that. You can also practice outlining your essays or even writing thesis statements for prompts. Work specifically on the skills you need to build.

In addition, be sure to look over practice multiple-choice questions closely so you can get a sense of the feel and format of AP multiple-choice questions.

 

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Make like an astronaut and prepare for everything!

 

Critical Test-Taking Tips for AP Exam Day

When test time arrives, you’ll want to maximize your study time investment with positive test-taking strategies. Here are my top tips to remember for test day:

 

Before Your AP Test

  • Get a good night’s sleep the two nights before the exam. This will help you stay alert and remember everything you’ve studied.

  • Pack your bag for test day the night before. You don’t want to stress yourself out running around looking for your calculator five minutes before the bus comes on exam day. Be sure to also pack a snack and water—you can’t have them during the test, but you’ll appreciate the nourishment during the break!

  • Eat breakfast the morning of your test. Again, you want your brain to be running at full power. Try to stick with a balanced meal that isn't too sugary.

  • Bring lots and lots of pencils and erasers. The College Board requires #2 pencils on exam day, so don't forget to bring a bunch. Also, bring a good eraser for back-ups and mishaps. 

 

During Your AP Test

  • Pace yourself. You’ll be under time pressure for every section, so make sure you know what pace you need to be working at. Periodically check that you're on pace. You can (and should) bring a watch, just so long as it doesn’t beep or have an alarm.

  • Maintain positive self-talk throughout the exam. If there’s something you don’t know, don’t waste time beating yourself up about it. Just keep telling yourself that you are awesome and will crush the rest of the test.

  • Don’t get hung up on a question you’re stuck on. This is true even on the free-response section—move on to the second essay if you’re getting stuck on the first. If you try to break through a mental block full-on, you might end up running out of time. 

  • Answer every question—there’s no penalty for guessing! Go through the ones that you know first, and then go back over the test and answer any remaining questions in the time you have left.

 With all these best test-taking practices, you'll be set up to succeed on your AP test, guaranteed!

 

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Don't neglect this critical aspect of test day (bananas optional).

 

How to Prepare for AP Tests: Key Takeaways

The AP prep process can be overwhelming. To lend you a hand, though, I've summarized how to study AP exams into digestible steps below.

 

Choose an AP Exam

  1. Figure out which classes your school offers and which fit into your schedule.

  2. Consider your interests and abilities.

  3. Consider how much time you’ll have for studying.

 

Prepare for the Test

  1. Establish ways you need to review/learn.

  2. Make a study plan.

  3. Find content review resources.

  4. Find (official) practice questions and tests.

  5. Get to work and stay on schedule!

 

AP Content Review Tips

  • Be mindful of your own learning style.

  • Review things more than once.

  • Engage with the material!

 

AP Practice Exam Tips

  • Take at least one complete practice exam under full test-day-like conditions—and do this more than once if there is more than one practice test available to you.

  • Practice individual exam sections, especially free response, to work on skills for those specific sections. Look closely at all sections to ensure you're familiar with the way AP questions are worded!

 

AP Test-Taking Tips

  • Do all the usual best test practices—get a good night’s sleep, eat breakfast, pack your bag the night before, and bring extra pencils.

  • Pace yourself and stay on track.

  • Think positive!

  • Don’t get hung up on a single question—it you find yourself stuck, skip it and come back.

  • Answer every question—there’s no penalty for guessing!

 

Ultimately, just remember that breaking down the AP into little steps will make it manageable for you to scale the whole AP mountain!

 

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AP Mountain (artist's rendition).

 

What's Next? 

Looking for more information about your AP exam? We've got expert guides to AP US History, AP Chemistry, and AP Psychology

If your AP exam has a DBQ, check out my total overview of the DBQ and my how-to DBQ essay guide

Looking for AP exam resources? Check out our guide to finding quality AP practice tests. 

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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