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What Is AP Environmental Science? Expert Guide

Posted by Christine Sarikas | May 1, 2018 8:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Are you thinking about taking AP Environmental Science but want more information on the course before you decide to enroll? Well, you’ve come to the right place! AP Environmental Science (also called AP Enviro or APES) is one of the most popular AP classes—but sometimes students don’t know much about it before they enroll, which can make the class difficult and unenjoyable.

So what is AP Environmental Science? In this guide, I’ll explain what topics the course covers, show you some sample problems from previous AP Enviro exams, and discuss who should take the class (it might not be who you’re expecting). After, I'll end with some tips for success if you do decide to take AP Enviro. Let’s get started!


What Does AP Environmental Science Cover?

What do students in APES learn and what does the exam cover? While you can get an in-depth look at the class by checking out the College Board’s course description for AP Environmental Science, if you find this too wordy or information-heavy, here’s a briefer, clearer overview of the course.

AP Enviro is an interdisciplinary course that focuses on ecological processes, human impacts on the Earth, and how to resolve or prevent natural and human-made environmental problems.

The class and exam focus on seven main topics:

  • Earth Systems and Resources (10%-15%): Geology, the atmosphere, water resources, soil science, etc.
  • The Living World (10%-15%): Ecosystems, energy flow, biogeochemical cycles
  • Population (10%-15%): Population ecology, reproductive strategies, survivorship
  • Land and Water Use (10%-15%): Agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing, global economics
  • Energy Resources and Consumption (10%-15%): Different types of energy (e.g., fossil fuels, nuclear, hydroelectric, etc.), energy consumption, renewable energy
  • Pollution (25%-30%): Types of pollution, economic impacts of pollution, how pollution affects environmental and human health
  • Global Change (10%-15%): Global warming, loss of biodiversity, changes to the ozone

Like other AP science classes, AP Enviro also includes a lab component, and students who take the class will get hands-on experience in the form of completing labs, observing the natural world, and/or doing field work. You might have to collect water and test it for certain chemicals, observe wildlife in a field or forest, track plant growth, and so on.

Students who complete AP Environmental Science are expected to be able to apply scientific concepts, principles, and methodologies to real-world examples and problems. The exam questions are designed to test this knowledge, too.

Wondering what kinds of questions you’ll be asked on the AP Enviro exam? Read on to find out!


What's on the AP Environmental Science Exam?

The AP Environmental Science exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions and four free-response questions. The total length of the exam is three hours (one hour and 30 minutes for both the multiple-choice and free-response sections).

The multiple-choice section counts for 60% of your overall AP Enviro score, while the free-response section counts for 40%.

The four free-response questions consist of the following:

  • One document-based question for which you'll have to answer questions on a given document, such as a newspaper article or brochure
  • One data set question for which you’ll be given a set of data and must analyze and interpret it
  • Two synthesis and evaluation questions for which you’ll have to write in-depth essays




Looking at sample questions can give you a better idea of what you’re expected to know and what you will be tested on. If you want to look at a wide variety of sample questions, you can read through previous AP exams or check out our review guide for the AP Enviro Exam.

For now, here are a few sample APES questions to serve as an introduction:


Multiple-Choice AP Enviro Questions

Multiple-choice questions on AP Environmental Science can either be stand-alone or related to a given graph or diagram. Examples of each are shown below:


This is your standard multiple-choice question, which you’ve likely seen hundreds of before. For this question, the answer is E.


To answer each of these three questions, you’d need to look at the above graph and select the plot that best fits the population trend being described. (Answers: 1. = A, 2. = D, 3. = B)


Free-Response AP Enviro Section

As mentioned above, there are three types of (and four total) free-response questions on the test. Below is an example of a synthesis and evaluation question, of which there will be two on the APES exam:


To get a high score on this question, you'd have to write a thoughtful, coherent essay that includes complete answers to each of the four subpoints (a-d).


Who Should Take AP Environmental Science?

AP Environmental Science is one of the more popular AP exams to take; however, a lot of students who take it don’t do particularly well.

Based on 2017 data released by the College Board, AP Environmental Science has the fourth-lowest passing rate of all AP tests. About half (49.4%) of students who took the test passed (in other words, they scored a 3 or higher), only 9.5% scored a 5 (the highest score), and the average score students received was a 2.67, which is not a passing score. Yikes!

So is AP Enviro super hard? Not really. It usually requires less work than other AP science classes, and the consensus among students is that the material isn’t particularly difficult. 

However, many students take APES because they're trying to fill a spot in their schedule or squeeze in an extra AP class, even if they aren’t very interested in it and don't have a lot of experience with AP classes or have enough time to prepare for it. This lack of adequate preparation contributes to low AP Enviro scores.

Taking AP Environmental Science and doing poorly in the class and on the exam will not impress colleges or get you any college credit, so definitely try to avoid these scenarios!

Now, let’s go over who should take the AP Enviro class and exam:


2 Reasons NOT to Take AP Environmental Science

We'll start with two types of students who probably shouldn't take AP Environmental Science.


#1: You Plan on Majoring in Science

This might be surprising since the word science is actually in the course title, but, as a matter of fact, AP Environmental Science isn’t the best class for future science majors. 

This is because the class is more interdisciplinary than it is science-based. Compared with other AP science classes such as biology and chemistry, AP Enviro includes a lot more history, writing, and cross-curricular topics.

In fact, many colleges that give college credit for AP Enviro give social science credits as opposed to science credits!

AP Enviro can still be a good option if you’re deeply interested in the topic or plan on continuing to study environmental science. But if you’re looking for an AP class to help prepare you for college-level science classes or to get you science credit for college, APES isn’t the best choice.


#2: You Don't Have Enough Time to Devote to the Class

A lot of students sign up for AP Enviro because it has a reputation for being easy and less work than other AP science classes. Although the material it covers might not be as complicated or in-depth as that in other AP classes, this doesn’t mean you can coast through the class and expect to pass the AP exam.

As mentioned above, the majority of students who take the Environmental Science AP exam don’t even pass it, let alone get a 5. AP Enviro still requires you to memorize certain information, make connections, and develop specific skills, and you won’t be able to do this if you don’t plan on putting in the time needed to do well in the class.


4 Reasons to Consider Taking AP Environmental Science

AP Environmental Science can be a good class to take for many people. You should consider taking it if one or more of the following applies to you:

  • You’re interested in the environment and/or related topics, such as sustainability, biodiversity, how humans are impacting the earth, etc.
  • You want to take an AP science class but don’t have the space or feel prepared to take AP Biology, Physics, or Chemistry
  • Your school’s APES class has a reputation for being interesting, teaching students a lot, and adequately preparing them for the exam
  • Your other classes and extracurriculars leave you with enough time and energy to spend preparing for this class




How to Succeed in AP Environmental Science: 3 Tips

If you do decide to enroll in AP Enviro, here are a few tips to help you do well in the class:


Tip 1: Don't Expect It to Be All About Science

As I mentioned before, AP Enviro isn’t a pure science class. It’s highly interdisciplinary and will include historical information, current events, critical reading skills, and more. If you expect this AP class to be completely science-focused, you might struggle with some aspects of it.

While there will be graphs and scientific questions, the AP exam will also ask you to write complete essays and interpret documents, similar to many AP history and English exams. If you struggled with any of these classes or exams before, make sure that you feel more prepared for the AP Environmental Exam.


Tip 2: Know How to Read and Interpret Visual Data

Many APES exam questions, both multiple-choice and free-response, will ask you to look at a data table, chart, or graph and answer questions about it. Because these questions will require you to be able to understand and analyze different types of data, it’s critical that you know how to do this well before you take the AP Enviro exam.

Taking practice exams and quizzes will help you out. You can also look through your textbook and homework, and even relevant newspaper or journal articles, for more examples.

When you come across a graph, chart, or something similar, answer the following questions to ensure you’re thinking critically about the data:

  • What is this data showing?
  • What patterns are there?
  • Does any of the data not fit the pattern? What might have caused this?
  • Why is this data important?


Tip 3: Remember That Everything's Connected

Probably the most important theme of AP Environmental Science is that everything is related. The Earth is one interconnected system, and you need to be able to understand where and why those connections exist.

This is not a class in which memorizing isolated facts or terms will get you very far. You can know every step of the nitrogen cycle, but if you can’t explain why this cycle is important,; how it affects plants, animals, and ecosystems; and the impacts it has on Earth, you will earn very few points on the APES exam.

As you go through the class, always be thinking about how whatever topic you’re currently studying is related to past topics and the world as a whole. It’ll also help to think about ways humans might have impacted or been impacted by the topic (if its sustainability is in jeopardy) and how problems related to it can potentially be resolved.


Conclusion: What Is AP Environmental Science?

Having an introduction to AP Environmental Science can help you decide whether you should take the course or not; it can also show you what to expect if you do decide to enroll.

The APES class covers seven main topics:

  • Earth Systems and Resources
  • The Living World
  • Population
  • Land and Water Use
  • Energy Resources and Consumption
  • Pollution
  • Global Change

While the material this class covers isn’t particularly complicated or overwhelming, students often underestimate the work needed to do well in it. As a result, many don’t pass the AP exam at the end of the year. 

This is why you should only take AP Enviro if you have the time and motivation to complete the coursework and prepare for exams, including the final AP test.

Because it includes topics from many areas, APES might be of interest to many students. However, if you’re looking for an AP class that'll get you science credit for college and prepare you for future science classes, AP Enviro might not be the best choice since it’s more of an interdisciplinary class than it is a pure science class.

Finally, if you decide to take AP Environmental Science, keep these three tips in mind:

  • Don’t expect the class to be all about science
  • Learn how to analyze and interpret visual data
  • Remember that everything is connected


What's Next?

Looking for resources to help you study for the AP Enviro exam? Check out our ultimate APES review guide, and get access to practice questions with our compilation of the best APES tests.

Thinking about AP Environmental Science but not sure what other classes you should enroll in? Learn which AP classes you should take and create a plan for your future studies.

How many AP classes should you take? Get your answer based on your interests and your college goals.


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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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