What Is AP Environmental Science? Expert Guide


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 not very enjoyable.

So what is AP Environmental Science? In this guide, I'll explain what topics the course covers, show you some sample test problems, and discuss who should take the class (it might not be who you're expecting). After, I'll end with some tips for success should you 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 2019-2020 AP Environmental Science Course and Exam Description, if you find this too wordy or information-heavy, here's a briefer, clearer overview of the class.

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.

Both the class and exam are centered around nine units, which are as follows:

AP Environmental Science Unit % of Exam Questions
Unit 1: The Living World: Ecosystems 6-8%
Unit 2: The Living World: Biodiversity 6-8%
Unit 3: Populations 10-15%
Unit 4: Earth Systems and Resources 10-15%
Unit 5: Land and Water Use 10-15%
Unit 6: Energy Resources and Consumption 10-15%
Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution 7-10%
Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution 7-10%
Unit 9: Global Change 15-20%


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 fieldwork. For example, 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 is changing significantly for the 2019-20 school year and from now on will consist of 80 multiple-choice questions and three free-response questions divided into two sections. The total length of the exam is two hours and 40 minutes. Additionally, you'll be able to use a graphing calculator at any point during the exam.

Here's a brief overview of the new AP Enviro exam format:

AP Enviro Section Time # of Questions % of Score
Section 1: Multiple Choice 1 hr 30 mins 80 60%
Section 2: Free Response 1 hr 10 mins 3 40%
TOTAL 2 hrs 40 mins 83 100%


The multiple-choice section, which comes first and counts for 60% of your final AP Enviro score, is a bit longer than the free-response section at one hour and 30 minutes. You'll get 80 questions (used to be 100), each of which comes with four possible answer choices, labeled A-D. Questions come in sets and as stand-alone questions.

According to the College Board, about five multiple-choice questions "will assess students' ability to evaluate sources of information with a text-based stimulus." In other words, a handful of questions will now be on a short passage.

You'll also get three to four question sets on quantitative data, such as charts, graphs, and tables, and three to four sets on qualitative data, such as maps and models.

Meanwhile, the free-response section counts for 40% of your total score and lasts an hour and 10 minutes (it used to be longer at an hour and 30 minutes). There are three types of questions you'll need to answer; these types will remain consistent from year to year:

  • Question 1: Design an investigation
  • Question 2: Analyze an environmental problem and propose a solution
  • Question 3: Analyze an environmental problem and propose a solution doing calculations




AP Environmental Science Sample Questions

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

For now, below are a few sample APES questions to serve as an introduction. All sample questions come from the 2019-20 Course and Exam Description.


Sample Multiple-Choice Question


To answer this question, you'll need to be familiar with biomass pyramids and what each level in the pyramid means. With this example, we're being asked which of the organisms in this pyramid would be considered an herbivore, that is, an animal that eats only plants.

This particular biomass pyramid shows the flow of energy, or food chain, in a grassland ecosystem. The peak represents the top carnivore/predator, while the bottom shows the primary producer (plants). Starting from the top and looking down, we can see what each animal eats. So snakes eat mice, mice eat grasshoppers, and grasshoppers eat grasses.

Because grasshoppers eat only plants, the correct answer choice is C.


Sample Free-Response Question


This free-response AP Environmental Science question is an example of question 3, which asks you to "analyze an environmental problem and propose a solution doing calculations." Like the other two free-response questions, it's worth a total of 10 raw points. You'll earn 1 point for part (a), 3 points for part (b), and 2 points each for parts (c), (d), and (e).

Here's what you'd need to do to earn full credit for this question, per the official scoring guidelines.


(A) Possible Solutions—1 Point

Accept one of the following:

  • Reduced atmospheric CO2 emissions from fewer trucks transporting food
  • Reduced fossil fuel consumption from fewer trucks transporting food
  • Increased genetic diversity of crops/increased biodiversity
  • Ability to improve soil quality and nutrients
  • Increased food security


(B) Possible Solutions—3 Points

For part i (1 point), accept one of the following:

  • Soil texture
  • Organic matter content
  • pH
  • Water holding capacity

For part ii (1 point), accept one of the following:

  • The nutrients in synthetic fertilizers are readily available and can be taken up by the plant in a short period of time (days, not weeks)
  • Synthetic fertilizers are formulated to have a certain ratio of nutrients, so only the limited nutrient(s) can be added to the soil
  • Synthetic fertilizers are inexpensive and easily available

For part iii (1 point), accept one of the following:

  • Production of synthetic fertilizer production requires the burning of fossil fuels and composting does not
  • Compost maintains soil porosity, which limits runoff and synthetic fertilizers do not
  • Compost reduces the amount of waste generated by using food scraps, paper, and yard wastes to create the organic fertilizer
  • Composting reduces the amount of atmospheric methane since there is less food waste decomposing in landfills
  • Compost can be produced on site and does not require transportation (less CO2, less fossil fuel combustion)


(C) Solution—2 Points



(D) Solution—2 Points



(E) Solution—2 Points





Who Should Take AP Environmental Science?

Although AP Environmental Science is one of the more popular AP exams, a lot of students who take it don't do particularly well on it.

Based on 2019 data released by the College Board, AP Enviro has the third-lowest pass rate of all AP tests. About half (49.2%) of students who took the test passed, meaning they scored a 3 or higher. Meanwhile, only 9.4% of students scored a 5 (the highest possible score), and the average score students received was a 2.68, 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 these low AP Enviro scores.

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



Now, let's go over exactly who should take the AP Enviro class and exam—and who should not.


2 Reasons Not to Take AP Environmental Science

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


#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 earn 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 consisting of less work than other AP science classes. Although the material it covers might not be as complicated or as 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 without putting in any effort.

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 devote to preparing for this class




How to Succeed in AP Environmental Science: 3 Key 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 discussed above, AP Enviro is not 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 what you must do on 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 data in the form of a table, chart, or graph and then 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 before you sit for the AP Enviro exam.

Taking practice exams and quizzes can help you out. You can also look through your textbook and homework or 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 that you're thinking critically about the data being presented:

  • 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 Is 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 the earth, you will earn very few points on the APES exam.

As you make your way 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 the 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 nine units:

  • Unit 1: The Living World: Ecosystems
  • Unit 2: The Living World: Biodiversity
  • Unit 3: Populations
  • Unit 4: Earth Systems and Resources
  • Unit 5: Land and Water Use
  • Unit 6: Energy Resources and Consumption
  • Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution
  • Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution
  • Unit 9: 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 in mind these three tips:

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

You now know all the most important things there are to know about AP Environmental Science!


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 here based on your interests and your college goals.



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About the Author
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Christine Sarikas

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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