From Art History to Statistics, every high-school AP subject culminates in a year-end exam. The resulting grade, from 1 to 5, can make a difference in getting course credit or scholarships to the college of your dreams.
In this article, we’ll dive into a few key dos and don’ts while studying for the big exams.
Give it a read to get cracking on your perfect 5!
1. Know the “tricks”
You’ve probably heard it all before: answer the easy questions first, never leave a multiple-choice question blank, make sure your essay has a solid topic sentence…
You might roll your eyes every time you see this kind of test-taking advice, but tips like these persist for a reason. Getting a 5 on these exams isn’t just about knowing the material; it’s about convincing an AP grader that you know the material.
Tests in different subjects are graded differently, so it’s important that you understand the tests that you’re actually taking. You might be a phenomenal writer, but if you want to do well on a document-based question, you have to understand how document-based questions are graded.
It doesn’t matter how good you are; if you fail to present your knowledge in the right way, you might end up with a disappointing result. So take advantage of partial credit and tailor your approach to the exam at hand in order to maximize your score.
2. Don’t rely on gaming the test
Smart testing strategies can make all the difference to a prepared student, but they probably can’t help you if you don’t know the material. The AP exams are, after all, tests of your ability in a specific subject.
If you’re taking an exam which is largely knowledge-based, like US History or Biology, there’s simply no substitute for knowing your stuff. This is also true of exams that are heavily skill-based. It’s not impossible to derive all of AB Calculus on the fly, but the odds that you can do it fast enough to pass the exam are pretty slim.
All this means that it’s important to have the right body of knowledge before going into the test. If you’ve taken a class for the subject, you can use your notes to help yourself study.
The topics on each AP exam are also listed on Collegeboard, so make sure that you read through your test’s page before you start.
Make sure that you know every topic that the exam is supposed to cover, and emphasize studying the gaps in your knowledge. Practice tests can also be a great way to highlight and identify the areas in which you need to improve.
3. Start studying early
Improvements don’t happen overnight. You’re not doing yourself any favors by trying to cram everything the night before the test.
Your timeline for studying should begin well before the exam. Staying and studying before your exam might not be the most fun activity, but if you start early, you can actually save time in the long run.
You can generally learn more by studying a little bit every day than by trying to cram everything in at once. This is true even if the total time spent studying every day adds up to less than the time you would spend cramming.
So, play to your brain’s strengths by starting to study with plenty of time to spare. I recommend structuring your preparation in an order that looks something like this:
- Go through your notes and/or other course materials to give yourself a general review of the subject
- Check the website for specific topics on the exam. Go through each topic, one by one, and see how well you know it.
- Continue studying with an emphasis on your weakest topics. Start doing untimed practice tests and using them to continue highlighting areas for you to improve.
- Once you feel confident with the subject materials, start doing time practiced tests and familiarizing yourself with the specific grading and tricks for the test.
- Crush your exam!
4. Don’t study too hard
A work-life balance is important no matter what you’re doing, and studying is no exception. Research shows that people learn best in short, high-intensity bursts, so make time to take breaks and don’t short yourself on sleep. One very effective studying schedule is the Pomodoro technique:
Set a timer and work in 25-minute intervals. After each interval or “Pomodoro” take a break for a few minutes. Every four Pomodoros, take a longer (15-30) minute break.
Personally, I prefer to divide my work into chunks which I estimate will take 20-30 minutes and finish one chunk in each interval, without worrying about the specific amount of time. This way, you still end up with a break every half-hour or so, but you can finish a specific section before taking a break, without having to worry about the timer interrupting you in the middle of a task.
Even if you don’t choose to follow this specific type of schedule, remember that breaks are essential to maintaining concentration. Don’t be afraid to get up and take a short walk if you feel your mind beginning to wander.
Testing can be stressful, and that’s okay, but it’s important not to lose your head while taking an exam. Regular levels of stress should fluctuate, and some research suggests that a healthy level of stress can actually help improve your scores.
However, when you experience excessive anxiety, your body may revert to a “flight or fight” state. This natural response works well when a physical threat is the source of your anxiety, but it isn’t effective at helping you perform well on tests.
If you worry too much, those fears can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, take care of yourself before an exam. Get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy breakfast. Stay hydrated, and stay positive.
5. Study efficiently
Even if you optimize your study schedule, it’s not going to help unless you’re actually studying in an effective way. Figuring how you learn and work most effectively is a key skill, both for AP exams, and for life in general.
Some research suggests that the popular conception of “learning styles” may be a myth, but you can still put in the effort to figure out what does and doesn’t work for you.
Does group studying help you focus or does it encourage you to be distracted? Do you need silence to focus or can music or white noise help you stay on task?
Experiment by varying your study environment and seeing what works. One thing that most students will find effective is having a dedicated workspace, and moving away from that area to take breaks. This way, your brain will fall more easily into “work mode” whenever you sit down to study.
Wherever you are, though, some constants will almost always be true. One of those constants is that if you want to maximize your learning, you need to actually engage with the material.
Reading and listening can be effective ways to learn but to make the most of your study sessions, try a more active approach. Rewrite and summarize the information, make flashcards, or try explaining difficult concepts to a friend.
About the Author
Nikhil is an expert MyGuru tutor, specializing in preparation for standardized tests such as AP exams, SAT, and ACT prep. For more information on tutoring or to request a tutor, visit MyGuruEdge.com.