Are you shooting for a score of 4 or 5 on the AP Biology exam? If you’re taking the class, you’re probably nodding your head right now or shouting “yes!” After all, who doesn’t want free college credit, the experience and challenge of taking a college-level biology course, and a great looking high school transcript? The first thing you need to know, however, is that the AP Bio exam will be a challenge for you, no matter what kind of experience you have.
It’s helpful to look at past AP score distributions to show you the level of difficulty of the exam. On the 2014 AP Biology exam, only 6.5% of all test takers earned the coveted score of 5. (Fun fact: 3 students out of 214,000 got a perfect score!). That may sound intimidating, but it’s not all bad since 22.2% earned a 4 and 35.1% earned a 3, meaning 63.8% of all test takers passed the 2014 exam. Only 36.2% did not receive a passing score, with 27.4% earning a 2, and 8.8% earning a score of 1. This means that more than half of students passed the exam, which should boost your confidence and show you that it’s definitely doable. However, the test is by no means easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest AP exams out there. Sure, you need to memorize facts and concepts, but you also have to be able to think scientifically and analytically, which is much easier said than done.
Luckily, this list of 50 AP Bio tips is here to give you the best chance of getting that 5. Whether you’re taking this class in school or self-studying, these tips will tell you everything you need to know, from how to study, what to study, what the exam consists of, and everything in between. Let’s get started!
How to Study for AP Biology Tips
1. Familiarize yourself with the format of the exam. The first step in getting ready to study for the AP Biology exam is knowing what the exam will look like. The exam is 3 hours long and consists of two sections. The first 90-minute section has two parts: a multiple-choice part with 63 questions and a grid-in part with 6 questions. Section I makes up 50% of your overall exam score. Section II, also making up 50% of your exam score, consists of 8 free-response questions. You’ll have 90 minutes to answer two long free-response questions, one of which will be lab or data-based, and six short free-response questions, which each require a paragraph-length argument or response.
2. Get your vocabulary down first! Vocabulary is extremely important in AP Bio, but understanding concepts and making connections is even more important. Why, then, do you have to focus on vocab first? It just makes sense. When you think about it, concepts are useless if you don’t understand key terms. “This thing does this to that and this process works by doing that.” It just doesn’t work. Make and use flashcards regularly, learn the Greek and Latin prefixes, suffixes, and roots, and take great notes. When you know vocabulary terms inside and out, it is much easier to think analytically, apply terms to different situations, and make important connections. Quizlet’s Ultimate AP Biology Vocabulary review flashcards has a great list of all the vocab terms you need to know, complete with definitions and helpful diagrams and images.
3. Know what is NOT included on the exam. There are a number of concepts, facts, terms, and ideas that are beyond the scope of the AP Biology exam. You do NOT have to know:
•Names, molecular structures, and specific effects of plant hormones
•Details of fossil dating methods
• Names and dates of extinction events
• Steps in the Calvin cycle, the structure of the molecules and the names of enzymes (EXCEPT for ATP synthase)
• Steps in glycolysis and the Krebs cycle
• Names of the specific electron carriers in the ETC
• Names of specific stages of embryonic development
• Genetic code
• Names and phases of mitosis
• Epistasis and pleiotropy
• Details of sexual reproduction cycles in plants and animals
• Specific mechanisms of diseases and action of drugs
• Details of communications and community behavioral systems
• Types of nervous systems, development of the human nervous system, details of the various structures and features of the brain parts, and details of specific neurologic processes
• Molecular structure of specific nucleotides, chlorophyll, amino acids, lipids, and carbohydrate polymers
• Functions of smooth ER in specialized cells
•Specific examples of how lysosomes carry out intracellular digestion
• Specific symbiotic interactions
Source: CollegeBoard AP Biology Exam and Course Description
4. Make flashcards with diagrams. Diagrams are important in AP Bio. You’ll have to interpret many of them on the exam. That’s why it’s really beneficial to draw your own diagrams on your flashcards. Use different colors, label the important parts, and list the steps. Whether it’s the Krebs cycle or the nitrogen cycle, find a way to make it stick in your brain.
5. Don’t lose track of the big picture. As you’re studying for the exam, you’ll probably find yourself getting hung up on little details. AP Bio has a way of throwing a lot of facts, specific names, dates, and functions at you. It would be impossible to memorize everything! That’s why it’s essential to remember why you’re reading a certain chapter, what that chapter contributes to the bigger picture, and how all these concepts you’re reading about connect together. Don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to know absolutely everything about everything.
6. Keep on top of the readings. Did you know that AP Bio is one of the most reading-intensive AP classes that the CollegeBoard offers? Your teacher will probably require you to read one or two chapters per night, which means you’ll probably have to tackle 30 to 60 pages of AP Bio material each evening. That’s why you absolutely must keep on top of it since even if you miss one night of reading, you’ll fall behind very quickly. Don’t just passively read the information, either. You have to actively read and make sure you’re actually absorbing the material as you go. Try reading the chapter summary first, highlight important info, take meaningful notes, and explain a concept to yourself out loud if you seem to be struggling with it.
7. Know the 4 Big Ideas. The CollegeBoard divides the AP Biology curriculum into 4 Big Ideas. This means that all the key concepts and content you need to know for the exam are organized around four main principles:
Big Idea 1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.
Big Idea 2: Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.
Big Idea 3: Living systems store, retrieve, transmit and respond to information essential to life processes.
Big Idea 4: Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.
To find out more about the 4 Big Ideas and the information you need to know for each, check out the AP Biology Curriculum Framework.
8. Invest in a review book. AP Biology textbooks are heavy, thick, and full of details that are sometimes beyond the scope of the exam. How do you know, then, which information you actually need to know? Buy a review book! Many of them come with practice exams, chapter reviews, and helpful hints. It’s important to only buy a review book that has been published in 2013 or later, since the exam was completely redesigned in 2013. Check out our Best AP Biology Review Books of 2015 to find out which review book is best for you.
9. Watch the Crash Course Biology series on YouTube. Sometimes, reading textbooks and review books can get tiring. When you find yourself bored and unmotivated, try watching biology videos. The Biology Crash Course on YouTube has 40 videos dedicated to teaching you all the most important biology concepts. Injected with humor, fast-paced, and entertaining, these videos make it feel like you’re not actually studying at all. Still, make sure to actively watch, take notes, pause if you don’t understand something, or make a flashcard for a new term you hear about.
10. Participate in the “Dirty Dozen” labs. Odds are, you’ll be able to participate in these 12 important labs in class. If not, you should research them for yourself. Bozeman Science has videos on all 12 labs, walking you through the steps of each. The LabBench is also a great resource for understanding the key concepts and technical terms behind the 12 labs, along with self-quizzes to make sure you understand the material.
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AP Biology Multiple-Choice Review Tips
1. Know what the multiple-choice questions look like. The multiple-choice questions on the AP Bio exam are probably different to other AP exams you’ve taken. They involve a lot of reading and analyzing diagrams, data, and images. They aren’t just simple “What do plants release during photosynthesis?” fact-recall type questions. You’ll have to read a paragraph for each question, or interpret a graph or diagram, and use your knowledge of biological concepts to choose the best answer. Let’s look at a few examples:
By discharging electric sparks into a laboratory chamber atmosphere that consisted of water vapor, hydrogen gas, methane, and ammonia, Stanley Miller obtained data that showed that a number of organic molecules, including many amino acids, could be synthesized. Miller was attempting to model early Earth conditions as understood in the 1950’s. The results of Miller’s experiments best support which of the following hypotheses?
A. The molecules essential to life today did not exist at the time Earth was first formed.
B. The molecules essential to life today could not have been carried to the primordial Earth by a comet or meteorite.
C. The molecules essential to life today could have formed under early Earth conditions.
D. The molecules essential to life today were initially self- replicating proteins that were synthesized approximately four billion years ago.
When DNA replicates, each strand of the original DNA molecule is used as a template for the synthesis of a second, complementary strand. Which of the following figures most accurately illustrates enzyme-mediated synthesis of new DNA at a replication fork?
As you can see from these two example questions, there is more to think about than just simply recalling facts. Often, several questions will be based on the same data sets and diagrams. For more questions like these, check out Albert.io.
2. Find and read the question first. Lab-set questions and diagram questions can be tedious since you’ll have to do so much reading and analyzing. Skip the diagram or any long paragraph at first, find the question they’re asking you, and then go back to the data to find the answer to that question. It’s a simple technique, but when you have 63 long multiple-choice questions to read, analyze, and answer in such a short time, pinpointing the actual question first can be helpful.
3. Use standard multiple-choice strategies. Using multiple-choice techniques, such as process of elimination, making educated guesses, and budgeting your time are important for any multiple-choice test. Let’s look at how these apply to the AP Bio exam. On the multiple-choice section, you will have four options, rather than five. This means that if you can eliminate two choices, you have a 50% chance of getting the answer correct. When it comes to budgeting your time, it’s important to remember that you have about 45 seconds to 1 min for each multiple-choice question. Try and stick to that time limit for each question, otherwise you may run out of time and have to leave some questions unanswered. You should also watch out for reverse questions, such as “EXCEPT,” since all the data and information they’re throwing at you can be distracting and you may miss important keywords.
4. Practice! The only way to get better at answering complicated AP Bio multiple-choice questions is to practice as much as possible. Practicing gets you familiar with the format of the questions and gives you some much-needed confidence. You can find practice questions online, in review books, and in the CollegeBoard’s AP Biology Course and Exam Description. Make sure you’re practicing questions from 2013 and later, because exams before that follow the old, fact-recalling multiple-choice format and won’t help you for future AP Bio exams.
AP Biology Grid-In Response Tips
1. Know these quick tips:
• Your answer can start in any column
• Extra columns should be left blank
• Units are not required
• Fill in only one bubble per column
• Use decimals and other symbols if necessary
• The grid is machine-scored so fill in the bubbles correctly
• Mixed numbers need to be gridded as a decimal or improper fraction
2. Pay attention to the instructions. The directions will specify how to round your answers and whether or not your fractions should be reduced. Pay close attention to these instructions because even if your answer is correct, you won’t get any points if it’s not in the proper form and not bubbled in correctly.
3. Don’t memorize formulas. For the AP Bio exam, there is no need to memorize formulas since you will be given a formula list to use during the exam. Look over this list to see what kinds of formulas you need to be practicing. It’s important to remember, though, that while you don’t have to memorize formulas, you still need to be familiar with them.
4. Know how to apply mathematical formulas. The most important thing you need to know for the grid-in questions is how to apply a formula to reach the correct answer. You need to know how to work with Chi Squares, surface area and volume, water potential, Hardy-Weinberg, probability, and standard deviation. This comprehensive AP Biology Math Review has everything you need to know math-wise for the grid-in section of the exam. Remember that you are allowed to use a basic four-function calculator (with square root), but NOT a graphing calculator, on the exam.
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AP Biology Free Response Tips
1. Know the FRQ format. At the start of the AP Bio free-response section of the exam, you will be given a 10-minute reading and planning period. After that, you’ll have 80 minutes to answer 8 essay questions, broken down like this:
How much time?
|20 minutes for each||6 minutes for each|
How much value?
|10-point scale for each 25% of final exam score||10-point scale for each 25% of final exam score|
2. Use the entire 10-minute reading period. Don’t underestimate the importance of the planning period! It’s given to you for a reason. You should read through all 8 of the questions, re-read them, and use the “planning space” to start putting your thoughts on paper. Draw diagrams, underline keywords, make notes, outline your responses, or whatever else you need to do to start formulating your answers. Ten minutes will feel like a long time, but use the entire time. Make sure you really know what the question is asking you; take the time to fully digest the question.
3. Define your terms. Never write down a biological term without defining it. For example, you probably won’t get the point if you just write osmosis, without mentioning “movement of water down a gradient across a semipermeable membrane.” Always incorporate a definition of some shape or form to show the AP readers that you know what you’re talking about. In other words, don’t just inject fancy vocab words into your essays if you don’t know what they mean; the AP readers will know.
4. Connect biological concepts to larger big ideas. Your main focus in studying for the AP Biology exam should be making connections. Knowing your vocabulary and labs is not useful if you can’t connect them to larger big ideas. On the FRQs, you’ll have to make claims and defend them, providing evidence to support your reasoning. How can you do this, while still making insightful connections across big ideas? The CollegeBoard has a few suggestions:
|Relate a proposed cause to a particular biological effect.||What is the evidence that a single mutation caused the phenotypic change seen in an organism?|
|Identify assumptions and limitations of a conclusion||If a nutrient has a positive effect on one plant, can you appropriately conclude that it is effective on all plants?|
|Connect technique/strategy with its stated purpose/function in an investigation||Identify the control from a list of experimental treatments.|
|Identify patterns or relationships (and anomalies) from observations or a data set||Is the behavior of an organism the same in different environments?|
|Rationalize one choice over another, including selection and exclusion||Which question from this list of questions can best be investigated scientifically?|
5. Be aware of the free-response booklet instructions. It’s helpful to know the actual AP Bio FRQ exam instructions:
• Each answer should be written out in paragraph form; outline form is not acceptable.
• Do not restate questions or provide more than the number of examples called for.
• Diagrams alone will not receive credit, unless called for in the question.
• Write clearly and legibly.
• Begin each answer on a new page.
• Do not skip lines.
• Cross out any errors you make.
6. Know the types of questions. The table below outlines some of the most common free-response question types, how to answer them, and real example questions from past AP Bio exams.
*Click on the links included in the example questions to see sample responses.
What To Do
|Predict and Justify/Predict and||State what you think will happen in a certain circumstance and prove this reasoning using examples.||Predict the effects of the mutation on the structure and function of the resulting protein in species IV. Justify your prediction. (2014 AP Bio exam)|
|Propose||Come up with an improvement, solution, or idea that answers the prompt. Be specific.||Propose an evolutionary mechanism that explains the change in average number of spots between 6 and 20 months in the presence of the predator. (2014 AP Bio exam)|
|Identify||Name one or more items, list the parts, and give an example.||Identify TWO environmental factors that can change the rate of an enzyme-mediated reaction. (2010 AP Bio exam)|
|Explain||Make something understandable. Give reasons and examples, instead of just descriptions.||Explain how paper chromatography can be used to separate pigments based on their chemical and physical properties. (2010 AP Bio exam)|
|Compare/Contrast||Point out what is similar and what is different between two or more concepts. Do not explain or describe the objects separately.||Compare and contrast reproduction in nonvascular plants with that in flowering plants. (2009 AP Bio Exam)|
|Discuss||Think of this question as an “all of the above” type question. You need to consider different theories, points of view, and ideas, implementing the identify, describe, and explain strategies.||Discuss THREE ways that an invasive species can affect its new ecosystem. (2011 AP Bio Exam)|
|Describe||Provide the characteristics/properties of a term or concept.||Describe THREE different factors that contribute to the success of invasive species in an ecosystem. (2011 AP Bio Exam)|
Many times, a single free-response question on the AP Bio exam will include several of these key terms, while some only include one key term. Pay attention to exactly what the question is asking you to do and be sure to answer every part. An example of a question that asks you to do several things in one would look like this:
“Based on the data in the table below, draw a phylogenetic tree that reflects the evolutionary relationships of the organisms based on the differences in their cytochrome c amino-acid sequences and explain the relationships of the organisms. Based on the data, identify which organism is most closely related to the chicken and explain your choice.”
7. Claim + Evidence + Reasoning. This model of scientific argumentation can be helpful to keep in mind when writing your FRQs. Essentially, you have to read and understand the question you’re being asked, directly answer this question with a claim statement, back up your claim with detailed examples of evidence, then use reasoning to explain how this evidence justifies your claim. Just remember claim, evidence, reasoning when you’re writing your essays.
8. Answer the parts of the question in the order called for. Try not to skip around too much when answering your FRQs. If you do, you might accidentally miss a part of a question. Instead, use the question’s labels (a, b, c, d, etc.) to stay organized and clear. Make it as easy as possible for the AP readers to follow your answer.
9. Know how to answer “Design an Experiment” questions. Sometimes, you’ll be asked to design an experiment as part of your FRQ. This is where your knowledge of the “Dirty Dozen” labs comes in. You need to be familiar with lab procedures and terms. In your response, make sure to include:
• Hypothesis (using the “if…then” structure)
• Independent and dependent variables
• Control, stating directly, “Controls are…”
• Explanation of the data you will collect and how you will measure it
• Materials list
• Procedure list (what you will actually do)
• Description of how the data will be graphed and analyzed
• Conclusion (what you expect to happen and why, compare your results to your hypothesis)
Remember that your experiment should be at least theoretically possible and that your conclusions should stay consistent with the way you set up your experiment.
10. Know how to answer “Draw a Graph” questions. If you’re asked to draw a graph based on data, be sure to include the following in your response:
• Labeled x-axis (independent variable) and y-axis (dependent variable)
• Equal and proportional increments
• Name and units
• Smooth curve
• Appropriate title
• If more than one curve is plotted, label on each curve instead of using a legend
Hint: Most of the points for a graphing question come from proper setup!
11. Be specific and thorough. Avoid flowery and vague language in your essays. You don’t want to say something like: “Many parts of a cell are important in cell respiration.” This sentence is way too general and doesn’t really say anything at all. Whenever you use a biology term in your essay, offer specific examples of that term. Remember that your goal is to convince an AP reader that you know what you’re talking about.
12. Manage your time. It can be easy to get carried away when writing your FRQs. Just remember that you have to write 8 essays in only 80 minutes. You need to spend more time on the two long free-response questions than on the six short free-response questions. You should be spending 20 minutes on each long FRQ and only 6 minutes for each short FRQ. Use a watch and time yourself during the exam. You don’t want to end up with no time to answer a question and miss out on 10 points.
Tips by AP Biology Teachers
1. Look for “real life” examples of what you’re learning. Go to websites like Biology News, Science Daily, and The Chemical Heritage Foundation. Search for articles in the subject you’re learning. The more ways you learn something the better!
2. Watch Bozeman Biology videos. Mr. Anderson, the teacher behind Bozeman Biology, has a wide variety of videos for AP Bio. Watch them before you start a unit to get a general idea of what you’ll be learning and before tests so you can review. Thanks to Ms. Lorie X. from Riverdale High for the tips!
3. Underline important terms in the question. Such as: “OR” and “CHOOSE TWO” and the power verbs such as: ‘DESCRIBE,’ ‘IDENTIFY,’ ‘LABEL,’ ‘CONSTRUCT,’ ‘DESIGN,’ or ‘EXPLAIN.’
4. Find the core biology topic. Even if you don’t understand the question or you draw a blank, find the ‘core biology topic’ being asked about and elaborate on it. Thanks to Mrs. S. from North High School for the tips!
5. Write! Write! Write! For the free-response questions, usually, the longer your answer to the question, the more points you will earn! That being said, don’t just do a mind dump.
6. Apply the language of science. FRQs require that you show depth, elaboration, and give examples. You need to loop together your ideas and show how they connect. Don’t just rely on factual regurgitation. Thanks to Mr. Jeremy M. from Blue Valley Northwest High School for the tips!
7. Know how to set up your essays. When you’re planning your essays, follow this structure:
1. Introductory sentence
2. Several broad points
3. Examples to prove your points
4. Closing sentence to summarize
Fill in this general structure with details and specifics. Write in short, declarative sentences. Thanks to Mr. C. from Alliance Cindy & Bill Simon Technology Academy High School for the tip!
8. Answer the question as concisely as possible. Avoid writing down everything you know about a certain topic. If you do, you might contradict yourself or write down something which is wrong. You can be penalized for this. Thanks to Mr. F. from Dauphin Regional Comprehensive Secondary School for the tip!
9. Remember that the AP graders are looking for certain statements to award points. If a FRQ asks you describe mutualism, for example, you need to both define it and elaborate on it to receive full points. As a general rule, always support your definitions with at least one example. Thanks to Dr. L. from Framingham High School for the tip!
10. Answer something for every question. If you don’t know how to answer a free-response question, don’t panic. Begin with defining some terms related to the topic. Elaborate with an example or more detailed explanation of the things you can remember. Thanks to Ms. Kelly O. from Colleyville Heritage High School for the tip!
11. No detail is too small as long as it is to the point and on topic. For example, if a question asks about the structure of DNA, talk about the helix, the bases, the hydrogen bonds, introns, exons, etc. Do not waste time talking about RNA, expression, Mendelian genetics, etc. Thanks to Ms. Louise H. from Friedrich Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center for the tip!
Tips from Past AP Biology Students
1. Do lots of genetics practice problems. Practice working with Hardy-Weinberg formulas, Punnett Squares, and Chi-Square tests. Also, memorize the common crosses, like dihybrid monocross.
2. For test prep, use the released exams! I worked through all the available FRQs on the CollegeBoard website, and my teacher provided multiple-choice practice from the last two years. Those went a long way in helping me figure out the type of questions they ask, the common material they test, and how to manage my time. I would also recommend checking out the student answers to released FRQs, as well as the FRQ answer keys to get an idea of what kind and how much information are needed to get the points.
3. It helps to memorize things. AP Bio is less memorization than it used to be, but it still helps to memorize things. You should still be able to recall things at the drop of a hat, but you don’t need to know all 12 of the reactions involved in glycolysis like you once did.
4. The human body is important. It’s important to know your anatomy and human body systems. Focus on the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Don’t just memorize the parts, but understand the processes. For example, know how an antibody attacking postsynaptic receptors leads to certain responses.
5. When in doubt, focus on these topics:
• Evolution (as a whole)
• Genetics/genetic regulation (transcription, translation, etc.)
• Population ecology
• Animal function/physiology
• Muscular System
• Nervous System
• Endocrine System
• Immune System
6. Understand the concepts, functions, processes and relationships between subjects. The AP Bio test isn’t simply just recalling facts anymore. You need to analyze information rather than just recall information from your studies.
7. Make sure you know all about DNA/RNA (transcription/translation), cellular respiration/photosynthesis, and evolution. Make sure you have a great detailed and conceptual understanding of these topics!
8. Know the “how” and “why” of a topic. If you can’t explain how something works, knowing it is pointless. Stop and quiz yourself about something you just learned. How does that process work? If you can’t explain it in your own words, you need a better understanding of it.
9. Know all about anatomy/physiology. This includes both humans and plants. Know the basics of plant transport systems and focus on the nervous and endocrine systems.
10. Make study sheets or chapter outlines. Making study sheets requires more active work than flashcards, which helps the information stick in your head. It also refreshes your memory on the definitions in context, which is important for AP Biology.
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AP self-study is when you study for an AP exam on your own and then take the AP test without taking the class. This is possible because the College Board does not actually require you to take the class associated with a given AP exam to take the test!
You might be asking yourself: why do people self-study? Is self-studying right for me? Then, once you've decided to self-study, and you’ve chosen the AP exam you want to study for, you may find yourself wondering how to go about preparing for the test on your own. Where should you start? What do you need to cover? What materials should you use?
Never fear, intrepid self-studiers! Myseven-step approach to self-studying, from deciding if self-studying is right for you to taking the exam, will explain exactly how to self-study for an AP test and help you tackle the task ahead of you in a way that is manageable, makes sense, and prepares you for the exam. Onward and upwards!
Step 1: Decide If Self-Studying Is Something You Should Do
Before we get into how to self-study, make sure it's the right approach for you.
You might self-study for a variety of reasons: your schedule doesn’t allow you to take an AP course when it’s offered at your school, your school doesn’t offer an AP course in a subject you want to study, you have a pre-existing knowledge base in a subject (like a foreign language you speak at home), and so on. Some students also self-study for an AP exam while they are taking the non-AP version of a course. For example, you might self-study for AP Biology while you are taking Honors Biology and just supplement what you learn in class with the extra material that’s covered on the AP exam.
These are all valid reasons to self-study. When you do decide whether or not to self-study, you’ll need to consider how self-motivated you are, how much time you actually have to do extra studying outside of class, and how difficult the exam you want to take is.
In general, you’ll want to self-study for an AP exam that is limited in scope, not too conceptual (so no Calculus!), and that you are interested in. Some popular self-study choices include AP Environmental Science, AP Human Geography, and AP Psychology.
For further info on self-study, as well as a guide to deciding whether or not to self-study, you can see my introduction to AP self-study. To help you choose a self-study exam, you can also see my list of Best APs to Self-Study.
Step 2: Figure Out What You Need to Learn
I’m assuming you have a general idea of what your chosen self-study exam is about, or you wouldn’t have picked it. But you need more than that to prepare—you need specific, actionable knowledge on exactly what the test is going to cover.
Exactly what you personally need to cover will depend a lot on where you are starting from. If you already have a basic proficiency in the skill or subject, you will not need to cover the material as comprehensively as you will if you are starting from scratch. Similarly, if you are going to self-study for an AP while you are in the Honors (or other non-AP) version of the class, you will only need to cover the material that won’t be taught in the classroom.
No matter your situation, though, you will need to compare what you know with what you are required to know for the exam. So you’ll need a complete list of all of the core competencies necessary for the AP test.
For this, you will want to turn to your trusty College Board website. The first thing you’ll want to look at is the “AP Course and Exam Description” for the course you are self-studying. Find this document on the main course page which you can access from the College Board’s AP Student list of AP courses. This document will include a comprehensive description of the skills and content areas you need to know for the exam.
(Note: for courses that haven’t been revised for a long time, the document will just be called “AP Course Description.”)
Examine this document closely; take separate notes on what things you still need to learn based on the course description. If you have preexisting knowledge in the subject, you should also note content areas listed in the description that you already have a handle on and things that you sort of know but might be shaky on. If you are self-studying concurrently with a non-AP class, it will help you a lot to have a copy of the syllabus for your non-AP course. This will let you see what the exam covers but your class doesn't, and those are going to be the areas to focus on.
You should also look at the teacher resources on the AP course audit page for the course you are self-studying. There, you’ll be able to look at sample syllabi for the course. This may help you clarify some of the competencies in the course description if you aren’t sure exactly what they mean. You can also see textbook recommendations from the College Board on this page.
Essentially, you’ll use the College Board’s resources to develop your own document describing what you need to learn before the exam. It doesn’t quite have to be a syllabus, but that’s more or less how it will function for you—it will help you keep track of what you’ve learned and what you still need to cover.
This can be a working document—if you realize during the course of your prep that there’s a topic area you missed, or one that doesn’t seem particularly relevant for the exam after all, feel free to change stuff around! This is just how you’ll establish a starting point for your preparation.
On your mark, get set, prep!
Step 3: Make a Schedule and Stick to It!
Once you’ve gotten a working document of what you need to cover for the test, divide it up into a schedule. Again, some topics may end up taking you a little longer than you thought, and some may take less time. This is fine, just so long as you keep a steady pace and don’t fall way behind in your schedule.
In addition to having an overall schedule — cover topic X for two weeks, Y for three weeks—make a schedule of when you are going to sit down and prepare every week. Having consistent times each week that you set aside for self-study prep will keep you on track and make it easier to get through the material. To that end, you may also want to decide on a specific place where you’re going to study: your kitchen table, the library, your grandma’s back porch—wherever, but a consistent place where you can work free of distractions will make preparation feel more routine and keep you motivated.
Step 4: Find and Use a Variety of Study Resources
Once you’ve drawn up a rough schedule, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to learn the material: what resources will you use?
I recommend using a variety of resources. Processing the information multiple ways and in multiple formats will help you retain it and keep the studying process interesting (well, as interesting as it can be). That said, do be aware of how you learn best—if you aren’t an auditory learner, for example, podcasts won’t be a particularly useful study tool for you.
Here are four kinds of study resources you might consider.
A good textbook is, in truth, the most important item in your arsenal for most AP exams. It’s your one-stop learning shop that will help you learn the material, structure your preparation, and try out review questions. So, it’s critical that you choose a good one (or good ones! There’s no rule that you can’t use more than one textbook to prepare).
Here are some ideas for finding good textbooks:
- If you’re self-studying for an AP course that is actually offered at your school, you might see what textbook is used for the course. Ask students what they think of it and if they find it helpful.
- Read reviews of any textbook you are thinking about purchasing (or getting from the library). Pay special attention to whether or not students felt it prepared them for the exam.
A good review book is probably the second-most important resource a self-studier can have, after a good textbook.
It isn’t necessarily the best way to learn the material in a comprehensive fashion, but a lucid, exam-focused prep book will help you review everything that’s most important to remember for the test. As the day of your exam draws closer, review books will help ensure all the knowledge you learned by self-studying stays in your head.
To find a good prep book, read reviews! We have recommendations for AP US History, AP Biology, AP Human Geography, and AP Psychology, but you can also look on Amazon, College Confidential, and elsewhere for reviews. The Princeton Review and Barron’s are two generally well-regarded AP review book sources, but making sure you’re getting the best book for the specific course you are studying is important.
Don't do this to your books if you got them from the library, please.
Online Content Providers and MOOCs
You will probably get the real meat of your self-study material from your trusty textbook(s) and review book(s), but there are other, supplemental resources that can help you learn and review AP concepts. Online lecture videos and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are an excellent example of a supplementary resource you might use for self-study.
Massive Open Online Courses are online classes created by educational institutions to make their educational resources accessible to a broader audience. They generally involve lecture videos; some also have additional material like practice exercises and assessments. Many of them are free!
You can use online lecture videos and MOOCs to learn all kinds of material. Some will have a more general, topical focus that is not AP-specific; others are specifically for learning AP material and review.
Even AP-specific MOOCs are generally not accredited by the College Board (i.e. they do not have the College Board’s official seal of approval, like an AP class at your high school). This just means that you should stick to the most reputable providers and look for reviews from other self-studiers if you can find them. (You might try to College Confidential forums or the Reddit AP pages.)
Some of the best online content and MOOC providers:
- Khan Academy offers tons of free educational modules on a huge variety of topics covered by AP exams. In addition to awesome video lessons, they have helpful quizzes to check your skills. You can also find most of their videos on their YouTube channel.
- EdX, founded by Harvard and MIT, has tons of free MOOC modules applicable to the AP, including some specifically targeted to AP exams.
- Coursera also offers tons of relevant MOOCs from a variety of colleges and universities.
Podcasts and YouTube Videos
Podcasts and YouTube videos are another great supplemental resource for learning about specific topics and concepts. You can find channels on everything from WWII History to astronomy to foreign language learning—definitely poke around to see what might be useful!
To give you a head-start, here are some helpful resources you might want to check out, sorted by topic:
General (Little Bit of Everything)
TedEd - a YouTube channel from the people who bring you Ted Talks. Videos on all kinds of subjects that could be useful for your AP exam.
ScienceThe Sci Show - This YouTube channel explains all kinds of scientific phenomena. Probably of specific interest to AP Bio self-studiers, as there are lots of explanations of biological processes (and answers to some very important questions, like whether or not you have to give up bacon.)
The Naked Scientists - a podcast covering all kinds of science topics. Useful for self-studying any science AP. (But please don’t self-study AP chemistry or AP physics! I’m very serious! See my list of best AP classes to self-study if you don’t believe me).
Biography channel - Their YouTube channel offers tons of “mini-biography” videos for notable historical figures. A good way to learn some key points about the major players in your history textbook.
APUSH review by Adam Norris - a YouTube channel about, you guessed it, reviewing AP US History. He also has videos on AP Government.
The Podcast History of Our World - A podcast series focusing on world history. Most of the current episodes cover ancient history (so, periods 1 and 2 for the AP World History exam).
The History Chicks - A podcast by women about notable women from history. Mostly Euro-centric.
Grammar Girl - A podcast with super-short episodes on grammar and writing tips. If there’s a particular idiom or grammatical rule that trips you up, this is a great resource!
Audiria - A podcast site specifically for Spanish-language learners. You can pick podcasts by difficulty level and topic. How cool is that?
An early podcaster in his native element.
Step 5: Take Notes and Self-Assess
While you’re consuming all of your top-quality study resources—reading your textbook, watching your Khan Academy videos, perusing your review book—it’s very important that you interact with the material. That means take notes!
I know; taking notes is boring and not fun. But you will use your self-study time more efficiently if you take good notes that you can refer back to later. This way, when it’s time to review everything you’ve learned, you’ll have an easy, comprehensive resource to look at. You don’t have to take regular outline-based notes if you don’t want to. You could draw out a mind map or make flashcards for the content you learn instead. (In fact, I highly recommend making flashcards at some point for content-heavy courses like AP Biology or the history APs.) The important thing is that you are making a record of the significant information as you learn it, to help you retain it and to help you review.
On a similar note, it’s also important that you occasionally test yourself to make sure you are actually learning the material. Your trusty textbook probably has practice problems at the end of each chapter you can complete. As you learn more material, you’ll probably want to use AP practice tests to make sure you’re really getting at the essential knowledge for the test (see step seven for more on AP practice exams).
Step 6: Register for the Test!
This is an essential step that you will need to complete in early March. If your school offers AP courses, you’ll need to talk to your school’s AP exam coordinator (probably a guidance counselor) about ordering the exam for you.
If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, you will need to call AP Services (domestic number 888-225-5427) by March 1 to get the information for schools in your area that will test outside students. You will then need to get in touch with the school the College Board directs you to by March 15.
You can see complete instructions for registering for the test here, including registering for an exam your school doesn’t offer.
Registering will set you back $92. If you qualify for financial assistance from the College Board, you’ll get a $30 discount.
You should also remember to make arrangements with your regular teachers since you’ll be missing class the day of your exam.
Not much else to say here except that if you forget to complete this step, all your prep time will be for naught!
Step 7: Exam Prep and Review
When the exam starts to draw closer—I would say around the midpoint of your designated study time—you’ll want to start reviewing material you already covered and prepping for the exam format. This is when you’ll want to bust out your notes/flashcards, your review book(s), and your practice tests. See my article on finding the best AP practice tests for tips on how to find top-quality practice resources.
Practice AP tests will help familiarize you with the exam format and let you know how to adjust your studying and what to focus on going forward. If you keep missing questions about the Enlightenment even though you already covered it, you’ll know to go back and review that some more.
In terms of how many practice tests you should complete, that’s somewhat dependent on how much time you’ve allotted for self-study, but somewhere in the three-five range will work for most students. You may do more individual free-response or short-answer practice questions than that, but in terms of complete practice tests, three to five should be sufficient.
You should plan to wrap up learning new content a few weeks to a month before the exam so you can dedicate the last few weeks solely to reviewing content and practicing. This will help you make sure that everything is polished and ready, and you aren’t scrambling to cram information on the Civil Rights Movement into your head the night before the test.
Once you’re all prepped, all that’s left is to take the test! Be sure to do all the usual test-taking best practices like getting a good night’s sleep and packing everything you need the night before, and then go rock that thing!
Rock it like this stack of rocks!
Staying Motivated While Self-Studying
Even with a solid study plan, it can be hard to stay motivated when you are taking on a pretty big project like studying for an AP exam on your own. So here are three tips for keeping on task when you self-study:
#1: Build in Rewards
If you can think of a reward to give yourself every time you complete a scheduled study session and for milestones in your self-studying process, you’ll have an easier time staying on track. Maybe you’ll watch an episode of your favorite show to close out every study session or bake cookies every time you finish out a topic area. The key is to save that reward for studying—so no binge-watching your show outside of study sessions or baking cookies for no reason! That way you’ll keep the reward tied to your progress.
#2: Recruit a Study Buddy
If you know someone else who is self-studying, study together! It doesn’t even have to be the same AP just so long as you are consistently meeting. This will help ensure that you show up for study sessions. Make a pact to help keep each other on track, though—don’t fall into the habit of goofing off together during your study times instead!
#3: Be Accountable to Someone
Even if you don’t have a dedicated study buddy, you can still make yourself accountable to someone else—a parent, friend, or other trusted person in your life. Tell them your study schedule and ask them to help you enforce it. If you can get them to text or call you when it’s time for you to start studying and ask you about your progress throughout the year, it will help you keep on task. There’s nothing like knowing someone else expects you to get something done to help you push through!
I'm accountable to this donut...for eating it.
Key TakeawaysYou’ll find self-studying much easier if you’re armed with a plan. Here are my six steps to self-study success:
- Figure out what you need to learn.
- Make a schedule.
- Find a variety of high-quality materials.
- Take notes and self-assess as you learn.
- Register for the test.
- Prep for the exam and review what you’ve learned!
Even with a plan, it can be hard to stay motivated. Some strategies that might work for you include:
- Reward yourself for getting work done.
- Find someone to study with!
- Be accountable to someone else.
Now you know how to self-study for an AP exam. If you follow these steps and put in the work, you’ll be sure to hit your target score!
If you want to know all of your AP course and exam options, we have a complete list.
Thinking about online AP courses as an alternative to self-study? See my introduction to online AP courses and reviews of the best online AP class options.
Be sure to check out our guide to the redesigned SAT to see what's been changed. You might also think about taking the ACT instead.
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