Tips for Preparing for the AP Exams

So you’re a high school student and you’ve gotten good grades in math since you were about 6, so your parents are making you take AP Calculus your senior year. Bummer, huh?

Not a chance. As long as you’re going to a university that gives credit for AP exams, these classes are one of the greatest programs you will ever experience in your educational career. AP classes may seem really hard when you’re in high school, and they may seem like they’re not worth the trouble, but they will make the first couple of years of college way easier. As hard as they are, most AP classes aren’t as hard as the college equivalents that you will get credit for if you pass the exam (or get a 4 or 5, depending on the college).

The key, though, is getting a 5 on the test. Sure, just passing it is enough for some classes and some colleges, but we’re going for the gold here. So how do you raise your score? It’s two (somewhat obvious) things: knowledge and practice.

One of the great things about AP exams is that the people who write them don’t mess with you very much. Unlike the SAT, where the questions are designed so you make mistakes, AP questions are generally a lot more straightforward. They often test hard concepts, but the questions themselves aren’t made to confuse you. Plus, the AP graders basically try to give you as much credit as possible, and everything is designed so that you pick up as many points as possible (as opposed to starting with a 100% and losing points for the mistakes you make). The key is to tap into this to maximize your score, which we’ll discuss a little later.

Another great thing is that you only have to get about 65-70% (by your normal school testing standards, varying by test) to get a 5. Again, the key here is to maximize the number of points you get so you end up with the highest possible score.

So here’s how the grading works. Once all the exams come in after the first two complete weeks of May (which is when the AP exams are always held), the AP Gods look at all the students’ answers and come up with a rubric.

A few weeks later, it’s time to thank some teachers. The people who administer the AP exams, the College Board, pay a pittance to both high school teachers and college professors to grade the hundreds of thousands of exams that come in every year. You can find old AP exams on the College Board site, and you can see how the rubrics work as well. They make it as simple as possible to grade. For everything you do, you get a certain number of points. Each step gets you closer to the solution, and each step gets you a certain number of points.

One of the coolest thing about these policies is that you get points for doing the right thing, not getting the right answer. For a 7 point question, you can have a totally wrong answer and still get 6 of the points, as long as you took (most of) the right steps. That also means that if you get a wrong answer in part (a) of a certain question and then use that answer in part (b), which has to get you a wrong answer for part (b) as well, you still get full credit for part (b) as long as you did everything in that part correctly. You’ll have the wrong answer for part (b), but still full credit.

Finally, another great thing about AP exams is that you don’t get penalized for wrong information – you just get points for the right facts. (This doesn’t hold for multiple choice questions, though – if you get a wrong answer there, you do lose part of a point.)

So here’s how you use all that good information to boost your score.

TIPS: Some of them might seem odd, but they’re all true.

TIP #1: Know the basics.

AP exams always test the basics. You can look at the AP curriculum for each exam and know for sure that you will be tested on each and every thing that is listed on that page. It’s much harder to predict what topics will be covered in free response or essay prompts, though, although many teachers who follow trends in the exams do make predictions (and post them online) every year. But to do well, you have to know the basics and you have to know them well.

TIP #2: Make up answers.

Remember what I said about getting full credit for part (b) even though you used a wrong answer for part (a) to get your answer for part (b)? What that means is that if you just cannot get an answer for part (a) but you need a value to do the rest of the problem, make one up.

Let’s say you’re taking the physics test and part (a) asks for the acceleration of some object, and you just cannot remember how to do the problem. Then, you read part (b) and you know how to do it, but you need the acceleration from part (a). In the space you have to solve part (a), just write down something random (like a=5 m/s^2), put a box around it, and use 5 as your acceleration throughout the rest of the problem. Sure, you won’t get any credit for part (a), but you will get full credit for the other parts (assuming you did them correctly) even though your answer is wrong.

TIP #3: Don’t waste time in the multiple choice section.

There is no good reason to sit and try to figure out a long multiple choice question when you have a lot left to do. The best way to attack multiple choice is to do several passes through the exam. What this means is that you take the first pass and read through all the questions, answering the ones that you can solve quickly and easily. It’s extremely important to make sure you don’t make a mistake numbering when you do this, though, so the best method is to put your answer sheet aside and just circle the letter of your answer on the question sheet. Also, be sure to mark the questions that you’re skipping so you know to come back to them on subsequent passes. Next, go through the remaining questions and do whatever you can do. Still be sure not to waste a lot of time on questions that require long calculations, and if you find your mind wandering and thinking about other topics, remember to focus and just move on. Then, when you have 15 minutes left, go through and start filling in the bubbles on your answer sheet. Again, it’s extremely important to make sure you don’t make numbering mistakes, so make sure you check each number as you enter it in. Also, it’s even more important to be sure to start bubbling when you have 15 minutes left, because you are in big trouble if the proctor calls time before you finish bubbling. Remember that anything you write on the question sheet isn’t graded, so even if you have all the answers, they’re not worth anything until they’re entered on your answer sheet. Just because it’s so important, I’m going to repeat myself. When you have 15 minutes left, even if you’re in the middle of a problem, stop what you’re doing and bubble in the answers you have. You don’t want to be concentrating on a problem and realize that you have 3 minutes left before the test is over and you still have 40 multiple choice answers to bubble in.

TIP #4: Practice, practice, practice.

Most AP exams have been running for years and years. All these tests are available on the internet, so find them and take as many of them as you can. Most exams have pretty repetitive questions; some aspects will be different but they’ll mostly be the same. You’ll get a really good idea for what’s going to be on your test, and you’ll have good test-taking procedures like the ones outlined in Tip #3. Also, your public library probably has a lot of test prep books you can check out. Take them one at a time and finish all the practice tests. This way, you don’t have to buy them (since you don’t need to study out of 20 different books), but you can still take 20 different practice tests to improve your score.

The AP program can be very rewarding once you get to college, so power through it while you’re in high school. The exams are hard, but they can be conquered. Good luck!