How to Prepare for the AP Calculus Exam

Note: The writer received a 5 on the Calculus BC test, and a 5 on the Calculus AB subsection.

If you polled the average high school class, the vast majority of its students would almost certainly name the Calculus AP class as the one they are most scared of taking, and the Calculus AP test the one they would most like to avoid sitting. But Calculus’ reputation is largely undeserved, the product more of an unusual name, and its spot at the very end of a normal high school math curriculum.

When you look at AP Calculus practice tests and find yourself getting barely half right, fear not! The AP test is scored on a curve, like the SAT. This means that your score is not treated simply as a percentage, where 90% is an A, 80% is a B and so on. Instead, the people grading the test try to come up with some idea of how well a highly proficient student can perform, and they base this idea in some measure on the average score on the test. If your year there is an unusually tough test, the average will reflect this, and your score will be adjusted accordingly. Normally, getting 60% of the questions will earn you a 5.

Preparing for an AP test is completely different from SAT preparation. The SAT tests “ability.” Fortunately, “ability” is so ill-defined that it is easy to take advantage of the test. The trick questions in the math section, the noun-verb disagreement errors in the writing section, these do not exist on the AP Calculus exam. The AP Calculus exam is essentially a three-hour long calculus test, which is unremarkable in any way, other than that it can earn you college credit. There is only one way to prepare yourself for the AP Calculus test, and that is practice, practice, practice. Take the class at school, or a local community college (at the community college Calculus 1 is Calculus AB, and Calculus 1 and 2 together are Calculus BC), and then buy the Princeton Review study guide, or some similar book. There is rarely any substantive difference between them.

Once you have the practice book – and you should get it at least a month in advance of the test – devote two hours every afternoon to reading through the book, and doing every single practice question in every chapter of the review book. About two weeks before the test, start doing the practice AP tests in the back of the book. Check your answers after each section on the first one, and then go back through the ones you got wrong. By the time you get to the last one, you should be doing the whole practice test in one sitting, much as you will when you take the test.

On the AP test, there is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free 5. Work hard, and you won’t need good luck.