AP Exam Preparation: A Guide

The 2015 AP exams start on May 4, just one week from today. Is your teen ready?

If your child is taking an AP exam this year, they’ll be studying a lot in the upcoming week (I hope). The advice contained in this guide will help them make the most of that studying. In compiling these tips, I drew on my experience not only as a tutor, but also as a former AP student with more than half a dozen 5s to my name. The study habits that helped me to excel will help your child to do the same.

AP-LogoAdvice for All Test-Takers

No matter which AP exam (or exams) your child is taking, there are a few key things that should be done to maximize preparedness. The first is to buy a study book – from Barrons, The Princeton Review, or a similar company – and read it from cover to cover. Seriously. It sounds a little simplistic, and it is, but there’s nothing like a comprehensive review to make sure your child actually knows the material. A study book is condensed enough that it can be read in a relatively short period of time, and unlike class notes, it’s specifically tailored to the test.

Study books also contain multiple-choice review questions and essay prompts. While the content review is higher priority, if there’s time, it’s a good idea to do the practice questions in the book. This will help with identifying problem areas and concepts which are still unclear, so that they can be reviewed further.

Another great supplementary study activity, also contingent upon sufficient time, is studying key terms and concepts with flashcards. Many study books will list key terms in each chapter; ask your child to make flashcards and study them two or three times over the course of the week. Remember, for best results, it helps to study all of the flashcards and not just the ones that the student is having difficulty with.

The most important way to prepare, though, is to take practice tests – complete exams, timed, in a setup that simulates the testing environment as closely as possible. If you can, make sure your child takes two complete practice tests before sitting for the real thing. Practicing in this way can help to reduce anxiety and improve time-allocation skills – for many students, one of the hardest things about AP essays and long-form problems is making time to finish them all. You can find practice tests on the College Board’s website and in study books.

Of course, all of this studying represents a significant expenditure of time – and it’s important to recognize that from the outset and plan accordingly. If your child has multiple AP exams, or significant commitments for other classes during the direct leadup to exams, it may not be possible to do all of the above. If that’s the case, focus on what’s important – the content review and the practice tests. There may be a few late nights in the coming week, but don’t let your child plan for too many – it’s best to return to a regular sleep schedule by Friday (or next Friday, if their only exams are in the second week of testing). A good night’s sleep is crucial for optimal test performance.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Image courtesy of CanStockPhoto.

Some Subject-Specific Study Tips

Because of the breadth of subjects offered by the AP program, some exams are significantly different from others.

If your child is taking a history exam – European History, United States History, or World History – understanding of the historical big picture is key for the essay section. Good teachers will emphasize this from the outset, tracing the causality of events and their impact on future historical developments, and they may also offer special review sessions that focus on the big picture and potential essay topics. If your child is not blessed with a good teacher, a good tutor can make up some of the difference, as can a big-picture-focused review of the subject matter.

The Human Geography exam is a little hard to study for, because the area it covers is necessarily very broad, and the testmakers sometimes assume that students know facts which may not have been covered in class. For instance, the year I took this exam, one of the essay questions dealt with the concentration of Lutherans in Minnesota – something which certainly never came up in my class, but which I had some background information on thanks to Garrison Keillor’s radio show. To give your child broad background information like this, have them watch anthropological documentaries and National Geographic specials. And while the essay section can be a bit of a toss-up, don’t forget to have them study for the multiple choice section by making flashcards for key terms.

The United States Government and Politics exam has a reputation as one of the easier AP tests, but some of the concepts it covers are actually fairly complex. If your child is having trouble, have them watch the CrashCourse series on government and politics or even Schoolhouse Rock America. Many of the ideas in AP Government and Politics benefit from a jazzed-up explanation.

The English Language and English Literature exams are a bit tricky to study for, because they both rely heavily on writing, and building good writing skills takes a lot of time and effort. If you’re concerned about your child’s writing skills, it’s worth investing in a tutor to practice formulaic constructions for AP essays, but even this will only go so far. The English Literature exam is particularly tricky because it also relies on detailed knowledge of texts, so even if a student knows how to write, they have to know how to read and interpret new texts, and they have to remember books they’ve read throughout the year. For the short passage and poem essays, a year of practice is perhaps the only effective preparation. But for the book-based essay, it’s worth going over class notes and Cliffs Notes of books read throughout the year. This will keep the themes and motifs fresh in the student’s mind.

The World Language exams present a similar problem – as with writing, either you know a language or you don’t, and it’s very difficult to fake. There are a few things your child can focus on to maximize their score, however. Seemingly minor grammatical details are huge – drill with flashcards until your child can rattle off the verb endings for every tense, the endings for every declension (in Latin), every last preposition, and when and how to use the subjunctive. This will help with the non-free-response parts of the test. To study for the free response and essay portions, make sure your child is very familiar with the key verbs likely to be used in storytelling and descriptive narration. Also encourage them to practice speaking in the language and read/watch/listen to as many in-language media products as possible in the week leading up to the test.

For the Biology, Chemistry, and Physics exams, a good first step in preparation is to look over your child’s tests for the year and identify any obvious weaknesses. In these classes, there will often be an idea or concept which fails to “click,” and if your child never goes back to learn that concept properly, it can cause a big problem if it comes up in the free response. Once problem areas are identified, ask your child to speak to their teacher after school, or hire a tutor to review the material. Use practice questions from a study book to test your child’s understanding. Also make a point of running through plenty of practice questions for any formulas and set equations covered in the course, and make sure your child drills the formulas/equations with flashcards. For chemistry, a little extra practice with buffers is also a good idea.

For the Calculus and Statistics exams, much of the advice from the hard sciences still applies – look through your child’s tests for weaknesses, and make sure they go back and fully comprehends that material, and make sure they get plenty of practice once they understand the originally problematic concepts. In fact, as with any math test, practice problems are key for adequate preparation for the mathematics-based AP exams. Math practice is many students’ least favorite form of studying, so it will be important to make sure that your child is actually doing the necessary work. One good way to do this is to assign specific sections from a practice book and then check that your child has finished them.

102717072Why Study So Hard?

It may be difficult to persuade your children to get the necessary studying done – after all, AP exams make no difference for their grades. But good AP scores really are worth it. They are looked upon favorably by college admissions professionals, and at many institutions, a 4 or 5 is worth 3-8 credit hours (depending on the subject area). Testing out of intro-level classes with AP scores can help students finish college faster and save a significant amount of money, or if they take a full four years, it can allow them to explore higher-level classes that they would not have had time to take otherwise.


Hire a private tutor to help your child study for a specific exam.

Learn more about the format of the AP exams and what your child will need to bring.

Learn more about the benefits of taking AP or other advanced curricula, including more on college credit.

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