We don’t need to tell you that AP exams are important. You already know that colleges love AP exams because they:
- demonstrate mastery of complex topics, serving as the gold standard of academic rigor in the U.S.
- allow colleges to compare students from different regions and backgrounds
- can be used to earn credits at many schools
You also know that while a score of 3 is considered “passing,” competitive colleges tend to want scores of 4 and 5, and that how well you do can impact both your college applications and your potential to place out of college courses once you get on campus.
In today’s post, we’d like to focus on is the studying process. A major mistake we often see students make is assuming that their AP class will prepare them fully for the exam. In fact, it’s best to assume that your AP score has nothing to do with the grade you receive in the class.
Why? There are tons of reasons, but here are a few:
- Your teacher may be inexperienced at preparing students for the exam, or unable to cover all of the material on the exam due to no fault of their own (needing to prepare for state standardized tests, snow days, etc.).
- Your teacher’s goal (e.g., “I’d like my students to pass with a 3 or above”) might be different from yours (e.g. “I’d like to get a 5”).
- Your teacher might not be teaching to the exam. One of our tutors had an AP European History teacher who said this on the first day of class: “There’s the textbook. If you want to do well on the exam, you know where to find that information. I’m not here to teach you that. I’m here to teach you history.” He was a fantastic teacher!…but his students didn’t excel on the AP exam.
We’re not saying don’t trust your teachers—they absolutely have your best interests at heart. But we do want to strongly encourage you to take responsibility for your own preparation. Luckily, Signet is here to help! Today’s post is all about how to prepare effectively for AP exams.
How to Set Up a Foolproof AP Study Plan
- Be social. Organize your friends into a study group ASAP. Working with friends is a great way to stay accountable with your practice goals. Be sure you establish a routine with your group quickly, so that you don’t end up wasting valuable practice time trying to figure out who’s bringing the snacks to your next meeting.
- Embrace the test prep book. Yes, we know: you already have a textbook and a teacher. But that textbook and teacher are trying to teach you a subject, not how to ace an AP exam. Test prep books are designed to give you practice in AP exams—and that’s what you need. Princeton Review is our preferred brand for AP, but Barron’s is also solid.
- Map it out. Correlate the table of contents in your test prep book to your AP course’s syllabus. Next, count how many weeks you have between now (whenever now is) and the AP exam, which will come in the first two weeks of May. Then cut the last two weeks off. Count backwards from mid-April to today: this is the number of days you have to study for the exam. If your semester is looking particularly intense in terms of classes or extracurriculars, or if you’re traveling or unavailable for more than a few days, factor that in.
- Schedule. Using your calendar, determine when you’ll cover each chapter from the prep book (“I’ll do chapters 1, 2, and 3 this week; 4 and 5 next week; just 6 the week after, because I have a baseball tournament,” etc.). Work AP review into your weekly study routine. Post your schedule somewhere conspicuous—over your desk should work well—as well as automatic reminders in your phone. Ideally, your whole study group will be on the same schedule so you have some collective accountability.
- Study. Get to it! If you’re super-confident with a chapter’s subject, just do the quiz/practice exam and review what you missed. If the concepts covered in the chapter are tricky for you, or if you have extra time and want to be thorough, work through the chapter slowly, taking notes for review. Give extra time to any material that wasn’t thoroughly covered in your AP course at school.
- Self-assess and review. Grade your practice exams (or have your study group grade each other’s) and identify the types of problems that routinely baffle you. Work out the solutions to these problems and review your work frequently. Go back to the book or use an online resource such as Kahn Academy to reinforce shaky subjects. Keep a week-by-week log—in a notebook or on a laptop—of what you’ve studied, what questions you’ve missed, and what concepts you need to make sure to review.
- Practice, practice, practice. Remember when we said to count backwards from mid-April? That’s because in the two weeks prior to the exam, you should focus on taking as many practice exams as possible. Two full, timed practice tests should be the absolute minimum, but to truly feel confident, we recommend more.
There you have it: a straightforward study routine for the exams. By now it should be clear why beginning early is so important! One of the worst things you can do is wait until the last minute to prepare, and then try to cram for everything you think you are missing. The point of making a plan is to make sure you’re spending enough time on each important topic, rather than skimming everything superficially, getting so caught up in one topic that you never get to others, or just rushing through a few practice tests without taking the time to assess your mistakes.
Of course, no plan is entirely foolproof, and complications may arise. Here are some complaints we hear a lot:
- “I don’t have enough time to study.” Well, make time! If AP exams are important to you, you may want to prioritize them over other activities for the time being. In extreme cases, you may consider “punting” the exam—if you’re way, way behind on studying, don’t take the test. Trust us, it’s better to defer on an exam than get a 1.
- “I need essay help.” If you’re working towards an AP in the humanities, essays should be a big part of your study plan. But getting notes on your writing is trickier than scoring a practice exam. Try asking your English teacher, or a literary friend. Alternately, you can find a tutor who is trained specifically for AP exams. (Of course, we recommend contacting Signet for all your tutoring needs!)
- “We haven’t covered ______ in class.” If you encounter something unfamiliar, first try to use the test prep book to teach yourself. If you can’t, ask a teacher, parent, classmate, friend, or tutor, or use a reputable online resource such as Kahn Academy.
- “I don’t know what score I need.” Mid- and upper-tier colleges generally see a 3 as neutral or somewhat positive; 4 as beneficial; and 5 as exceptional. For the most selective schools, you should be shooting for a 4 or 5 (of course, 5 is preferred). How that translates into course credits depends entirely on the school. Basically: aim as high as you can.
AP exams are never a walk in the park, nor should they be: like we said at the beginning of this email, these tests are designed to be the gold standard of academic mastery, with a difficulty to match. But with the right amount of planning—and strategic help when it’s required—you can earn that 4 or 5!