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How to Study for AP Exams

College • February 13, 2020 • Ashley Boucher


What you’ll learn

  • Learn when and how to study for any AP test
  • Learn what to bring to an AP exam
  • Learn the best AP test tips and tricks


Advanced Placement (AP) courses, developed to mirror a comparable introductory college course, are a great way to prepare for college. If you choose to take the optional AP exam, you may even save on tuition by earning college credits. The exams, hosted by the College Board and offered each May, will test you on the information presented in your AP course throughout the year.

About 1 in 5 students are taking AP classes to prepare for college. If you’re one of those students, congratulations! You’re already on your way to developing (and putting into motion) your plan to pay for college.

Should I take AP exams?

The benefits of taking an AP exam are significant. With nearly 40 AP courses in seven subject areas, the accompanying exams provide a huge opportunity for high school students to set themselves apart on college applications, earn college credits, and potentially skip introductory courses in college. College Board research showed that students who take AP courses and exams are more likely than their peers to complete a college degree on time (which can translate to a cost savings for an additional year of tuition).

The exams are scored with a range from 1-5, 5 being the equivalent to an A, 4 to a B, etc. Exam scores of a 3, 4, or 5 will fulfill admission requirements for many colleges and universities, while a score of 2 or below is considered ‘not passing’ and will not count toward your college credits.

There is a fee required to take the exam (around $95, more if you take what’s considered a ‘late exam’ outside of the 2-week window in early May, less if you qualify for fee reductions). If you didn’t necessarily thrive in the course, and don’t have confidence that you could pass the exam, it might be best to hold off until you’re feeling more prepared.

When to start studying for AP tests

First thing first: when are AP exams? AP exam dates are typically held through the first two weeks in May. Your teacher or counselor will be able to notify you of when and where you should expect to report for the test.

If you’re about halfway through the school year (let’s say January or February), then it’s time to ask yourself: do I want to take the AP exam? If the answer is yes (or even maybe), it’s time to start studying.

How to study for AP tests

Here are 7 AP test prep practices to help you study for your exam:

  • Carve out time to study. Between homework and papers, chores and part-time jobs, finding time to study for AP exams might not be easy. This is why you need an AP exam study plan, if you can schedule even 30 minutes of time every week, you’ll be better off than if you haphazardly go about your study routine. If you’re preparing for more than 1 exam, you may want to schedule 2 30-minute blocks each week.
  • Know your learning style. Are you visually inclined? Try doodling out your notes. Do you absorb information best after listening to a lecture? Record your teacher’s classes (with his or her permission) so you can replay it while you’re studying. Does talking through a topic help you retain information? Try presenting your notes to a buddy, parent, or even in your mirror! These are just some methods of studying that can cater to your personal learning styles, and there’s no rule that you can’t combine them. Do whatever feels most comfortable and successful to you; and don’t be afraid to try new things.
  • Identify topics that could be tested. You probably know by now, the key to succeeding on a test is knowing what to expect, or in this case, what material will be reviewed. You can refer to your AP class syllabus, the course exam description on College Board’s website, prior tests and quizzes, and even your old tests and quizzes.
    • It’s likely that your teacher will help you cover the different areas that could be touched on during your exam. You can compare your syllabus to the exam description and focus your attention on those areas covered by both documents. The areas that you covered heavily in class may not need as much studying as those concepts that your teacher and class glazed over; focus on those topics so you come to the exam with an equal level of understanding for each topic.
  • Prepare for all question types. Multiple choice. True/False. Open ended. Essay. Those are just some of the question types you can see on exams. If you know you’ll see multiple choice questions on your AP Bio exam, for example, pay attention to different strategies to get those questions right. For starters, read the entire question, and answer it in your mind before you read the options. Then, eliminate the obviously wrong answers. If you don’t know the correct answer off the bat, use the process of elimination to select your best remaining option.
  • Ask for help. Whether you’re asking a classmate to be your study buddy, or a teacher to help clarify some points for you, asking for help is one of the smartest things you can do when preparing for AP exams. A different perspective on the information can expand your knowledge base and challenge you to think a little differently. If you’re talking with a classmate, review each other’s notes. You may find that they have information you missed, and vice versa. If you’re looking for an extra boost in study help, there are also plenty of online tutoring services and options, like Chegg. They offer an AP Test Prep courses online, plus test prep books (if pencil and paper is more your speed).
  • Review, review, review. Going over a topic area once may not be enough. Apply different learning methods to the same topic if you’re growing tired of your multiple reviews. You can try self-quizzing, too, to make sure you’re retaining the information. Even if you think you know the information well, go ahead and review again. You’ll be happy you did.
  • Pretend it’s the real deal. Taking a test from the comfort of your own bed in your pajamas may put you in a different mental space than if you’re taking a test in a small desk surrounded by other students. Add to that a ticking clock, and now you’re facing new nerves that you may not have taken into consideration. In order to really test your ability to score well on the AP exams, try taking the test at school while being timed by a teacher.

What to bring to an AP exam

AP exams aren’t like the tests and quizzes you take at school, meaning you can’t show up with a backpack full of books, papers, and highlighters. Be sure to study up on what your specific exam will allow, but the following guidelines are good starters:

Yes! Bring me!

  • No. 2 pencils
  • Pens with black or dark blue ink
  • A calculator if your AP Exam allows it
  • A student photo ID
  • If you’re testing with approved accommodations, bring your College Board SSD Accommodations Letter
  • Your six-digit school code
  • A ruler if you’re taking an AP Physics exam
  • A watch

No, better not.

  • Don’t bring technology – this means you have to leave your phone, laptop, or any type of electronic equipment or communication device.
  • Leave the study materials at home

Maybe…

  • Food or drink of any kind (including water) are not allowed inside the exam room. That said, you can leave it outside of the room and have access to it during your ten-minute break.
  • An approved calculator - IF you’re taking the AP Bio, AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Chemistry, AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, AP Physics C: Mechanics, AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism, or AP Statistics exams.

AP exam tips and tricks

  • Get a full night’s rest. The last thing you want to do is stay up all night (even if you’re studying), and risk not being able to concentrate, comprehend the questions, or write clearly.
  • Start off with a healthy breakfast. Tummy rumblings won’t make for a calm, quiet, or relaxing test environment. Make sure to eat a healthy breakfast before you head into the classroom. Take care of your stomach so your brain can be the star of the show come test time.
  • Pace yourself. AP exams are typically between 2-3 hours. Don’t try to rush through and finish in an hour if it means you’re skipping questions, skimping out on essays, or not carefully calculating. That said, don’t spend 10 minutes on each question, or you’ll never finish. Understand how many questions you’ll be given, and set a limit for each type (1 minute for multiple choice questions and 15 minutes for an essay, for example).
  • Answer every question (even if you’re guessing). There’s no penalty for guessing, so make the best choice you can. If you’re working through a multiple-choice question, eliminate the most obvious choices and take a guess from what’s left; for an essay, write as much as you think is relevant, even if you’re not entirely sure of exactly what’s being asked. Who knows, maybe you’ll get partial credit!

Bonus tips from star students (and Sallie Mae Bridging the Dream Scholarship recipients):

Jaivyance Gillard, Santa Fe, Texas: “Stay focused, ask questions, and join an online resource that can help prepare and cover the material for the exam.”

Thanh Le, Salt Lake City, Utah: “When you’re studying, use the Pomodoro Technique to alleviate fatigue. Study with (at most) 2 other people by teaching them through words and pictures. Make really odd acronyms, the more unique it is, the more likely you’ll remember it. On test day, don’t wear sweats or comfy clothes because it’ll make you feel lazy and not want to finish the test.”


Ashley is a Sallie Mae employee and a graduate of Immaculata University. A mom of two young girls, her favorite dinner topic is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).


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