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Last Updated On: March 22nd, 2022

Preparing for the AP Biology test

The AP Biology test is traditionally a subject that causes students and science departments a lot of difficulty. The huge volume of material that is potentially tested in this exam means extensive reading to learn the material and a need for very organized study to prepare for the exam. There is a tendency to get overwhelmed with one or both of these parts. Happily, strategic preparation can make both learning and studying the material for this test much more manageable!

  • Ideally students will begin learning the material for the exam even before their AP Biology class begins. A logical way to do this would be to review material from past biology studies in earlier grades. Reviewing past material will help strengthen the base knowledge that the AP course will build upon. The better that you know the basics of a biology topic, the easier it will be for the student to build upon it and to see how those basics relate to AP exam questions. If this is possible, it will help with the learning process. If the course is already in progress or winding down, there is still much that can be done to support success.
  • The AP® Biology Course and Exam Description is a fantastic resource to help organize and plan study time. The Unit at a Glance sections can be used to identify areas that are solid, weak, or greatly in need of help. I suggest creating a document of the Unit at a Glance sections and color coding the topics based on confidence level as a way of organizing study time and seeing progress; it feels great to change the highlighting on a section as you become more comfortable with a topic! If you feel overwhelmed with this, which is fairly common, a tutor or mentor can provide support or help you with the original color coding. The Essential Knowledge sections can also be pasted into a document as a nice review guide.
  • Awareness of timing is vital in preparation for the AP Biology exam. It is impossible to learn everything in the field of biology for the exam. Luckily, that is not required to be successful for the test! A concrete goal for topic knowledge would be to have no topics that are greatly in need of help and as many solid topics as possible.
  • When there is a lot of time available before the exam, students may want to focus more on addressing areas that are greatly in need of help. As the test gets closer, solidifying weak topics will be a better approach, as it may be easier to solidify many topics than take a problematic topic to a weak state. With an early start and strong support, students will find maximal confidence in their topic list knowledge!
  • It is important to keep perspective with this exam, due to the amount of material. Students need to remember that they can not do everything. AP Biology, as fantastic as it is, is not the only topic in students’ lives. This is important to remember, particularly for those of you with perfectionist tendencies. On the other hand, there is a lot of material, so AP Biology is going to need more than the average amount of preparation and study. The goal is to find balance and a dedicated, but reasonable amount of study. This will vary based on available time and amount of help available.
  • Practice with timing. If you are not doing a full practice test, use proportions on the multiple-choice questions to set a time. Give yourself 10 minutes for a short response and 23 minutes for a long response. Attempt every question as if you were doing the test. Do not fall into the habit of looking up the information and then writing the response. Do the response with the knowledge that you have, then review the material afterward and rewrite it for practice. You want to be in the habit of writing a response with whatever knowledge that you have.
  • Practice as much as you can. If you practice as many multiple choice and free response questions as you can, by the time you get to the actual test, much of the uncertainty about the questions will be relieved. It will be just one more round of question that you need to answer. Familiarity helps with stress, and you will have a great foundation for the questions that you do see.

Taking the AP Biology test:

The Multiple Choice Section

The AP Biology test contains 60 multiple choice questions in a 90-minute time block. This gives each question 1.5 minutes, but some questions will take less time, and some will take more. The length of time that a question takes will depend on the structure of the question and your familiarity with the topic. The multiple-choice section is worth 50% of the total exam score.

The Three Pass System is incredibly useful for a test like the AP Biology exam. A strategy to maximize time and minimize stress is a smart way to approach this colossal exam. It will help on the actual exam if you practice using the Three Pass System on as many practice multiple choice sections as you can find or that you can reasonably complete. If you practice this system on many practice tests in advance, then it will be natural by the time you get to the exam that counts.

When looking at a question, do not get bogged down with specifics. The AP Biology test will often use specific examples to test a general concept. If you find yourself thinking, “What? I don’t know about this system,” you very likely don’t need to know about the particular system. Ask yourself what concept the question is asking about instead. If you ask yourself, “What is the question asking?” and then search the problem for information that can lead you to an answer; you will often see that there are many details that are included only as part of the example. Some common details that are present just to set the scene of a question are names of genes or proteins, scientific names and backstory or usefulness of organisms, and dates or locations of studies. These types of information are often not meant to be known beforehand, but are being presented to you for the first time to be used during the question.

Remember that during the test, your job is to use the information, not to learn new material. Use the information given in the problem to apply the knowledge you already have on how science works. Through your preparation you have developed an understanding of scientific concepts. In the AP Biology test, you are often taking that understanding and applying it to new systems.

The Free Response Section:

The AP Biology test contains 2 long free response questions and 4 short free response questions in a 90-minute time block. You can generally plan 10-11 minutes for the short responses and 23-25 minutes for the long responses. Again, the length of time that a question takes will depend on the structure of the question and your familiarity with the topic. The free response section is worth 50% of the total exam score.

Do the short free response questions first. If you write the long responses first, you will tend to overwrite the short responses and will be more likely to run short on time. If you begin with the short responses, you will be warmed up for the long responses and will know exactly how much time you can dedicate to each. When you are writing a response, short or long, make sure that you respond to all parts of the prompt. Do a final review of the prompt to check that you answered the question completely before you move to the next question.

Add to your response by including any relevant terminology that you know and by including the how and why of your reasoning (How does your information answer the question and why is this information relevant?) Expanding your writing in this way can increase the quality of your response even if you can not answer the question completely. This strategy can also get you started on a question that you feel you can’t answer. If you start writing what you DO know about the topic or system, you may find that you remember information that will answer the question. If you do not, at least you will have some material for scoring. If you do know how to answer the question, these additions will make your response soar!

Congratulations on your decision to take the AP Biology Exam! This is an intense test with challenging material, but you have many resources and sources of support to encourage you. The background that you gain while preparing for this test is a great accomplishment, so good luck and study and test well!

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