Prepping for AP Tests

The Advanced Placement exams are a highly respected measure of proficiency in a specific academic subject. Ranked on a 1 to 5 scale, the exam is a measure of proficiency in a college level subject; a high score usually allows a reduction in required hours of a course once in college.

The Basics

AP tests are scored on a 1 to 5 scale, and most of the tests consist of a multiple choice section, as well as a written response section. For instance, an English Language and Composition AP exam has a multiple choice reading section and an essay section, while the French AP Exam has a multiple choice reading section, fill in the blank verb and grammar sections, an essay, and a speaking section.

The tests are not designed to be “aceable”. There are extremely hard questions, and a top score of “5” means that you’ve scored roughly a 65%. A catch in the scoring system is that one-fourth of a point is deducted for every wrong answer, so in addition to knowing the material, you have to know how to take the test.

Step 1: Learning

Step 1 will cover the course that you are taking in your high school, and learning all of the required information usually takes a bit more than a semester. Pay attention in class, do the homework (especially in math-based courses such as AP Calculus, AP Physics, and AP Chemistry), and work on getting a good grasp of the main concepts.

How to Read

Often your AP course will demand quite a bit of reading (particularly in the science courses), and it is easy to get bogged down in the pages upon pages of words. You become so focused on getting past the homework, or simply getting through the chapter that you don’t finish with a clear understanding of the topic. This will be problematic once you begin reviewing and taking practice tests, as you’ll find large gaps in your knowledge.

Before beginning a chapter, skim it and make sure you are clear on exactly what will be discussed. For instance, your AP Chemistry textbook may have a chapter about “Colligative Properties”. Read the introduction, finger through the pages, recognize that the chapter will be about the properties of solutions in regard to their chemical make up. Once you have a general idea of the topic, take it section by section. After each section, ask yourself what was just explained. If you’ve just learned about a process, try sketching the process and taking note of why, where, and how it occurs. If your textbook has practice problems (ie. mathematical chemical equations), then follow the examples and learn how to do them.

Overall, this “learning” step requires maturity and patience. Some topics will be hard, but to do well on the test, you have to know them. Recognizing where you have difficulty and then fixing that problem is essential.

Step 2: Review

Most AP courses put a cap on new content roughly 1 or 2 months before the exam. Don’t worry, as you have plenty of time to review. Go to, Borders, or Barnes & Noble and purchase a prep book; Princeton Review, Kaplan, and McGraw Hill (5 Steps to a 5 series) all offer comprehensive and respected prep books. Begin by taking the book’s diagnostic test, as it will break down your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be discouraged by a low score, as the entire purpose of the review is to strengthen your knowledge.

After scoring yourself, your first priority is to fill any glaring knowledge gaps. If you have absolutely no knowledge of a given topic, then you need to learn it. Mastery of everything is not necessary, but if you simply haven’t learn a topic, your AP score can drop significantly. In the AP Calculus exam, a single concept may be encompassed by a single free-response. If you can’t put anything down then you’ve just lost 15 points.

Once any major gaps are filled, backtrack to the earliest concepts and refresh your memory. Do practice problems, re-read explanations and topics. You already know this stuff, and you simply have to find where you stored it away.

Step 3: Perfection and Scoring High

This step is to consist primarily of practice tests and further review. Some prep books focus primarily on review, though you can also find some that are focused on practice tests. Search for one that not only has many tests, but many quality tests. Also, detailed and accurate answer explanations are key.

Start by taking another practice test to see where you stand after your review. Again, if your score hasn’t much improved, there’s no need to worry – you have the knowledge, and now you have to learn to apply it to the test. After you’ve tested yourself, weed out any areas where you are losing easy points. By this I am referring to topics that you already have a very good grasp of, but that you are making small mistakes on. Since you already know such topics well, it will be quick and easy to master them. Small errors can add up over the course of a 75 to 100 point multiple choice test; getting all of the easy points is essential to getting a good score.

After you’ve regained all of the “gimme points”, you need to shit your focus to the areas in which you are really lacking. Go back to the basics and relearn the basic theory and concepts. Practice, practice, practice, and progress from the simple questions, to the more complex questions that will appear on the test. Ask your teacher for help if you don’t know how to do a problem type.

Take as many practice tests as you reasonable can, and you will soon start noticing patterns in question-types. If you always seem to get a certain type of question wrong, then recognize what type of question it is, and fix it! Be sure to eliminate careless mistakes through reading questions word-for-word. A simple preposition can be te difference between plus one, and minus one-fourth. The taking and reviewing of practice tests will be your most valuable source of knowledge in this step. Practice tests are designed after actual old tests, so they actually are effective guages. Perhaps the best of the practice tests is the real test, so if you have an AP test from a previous year (sometimes available online for free), it is highly advisable to use it.


You’ve spent nearly a school year preparing, and the test is around the corner. Your practice test results should begin bringing you confidence as you near the test date, and for that, stop studying and relax during the last week. Be well-rested and calm on the test date, take the test, and be excited to recieve your scores in July. Good luck!

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