A plus on AP: Ten study tips for Advanced Placement tests


Hand completing a multiple choice exam. Photo by flickr user Alberto G.

With the end of the year comes the pressure and stress of standardized testing. High school students are planning to take Advanced Placement (AP) tests, which are administered by the College Board within the first two weeks of May. Depending on a student’s score, they have the potential to receive college credit, or enroll in advanced classes in college. Though these tests place pressure on students, there are tons of study methods testers can use to get the score they want.

  1. Find what works best for you

The best thing you can do to study is to figure out what will help you the most. If you hate reading outlines, but love making flash cards, do that! Studying isn’t fun, but don’t make it more stressful by trying to force a method that won’t work. Psych Central has a great list of study habits that have been tried and tested by psychologists through numerous studies.

    2. Use materials other than textbooks and worksheets

There is a surprisingly large market for AP study guides and flashcards. Consider shelling out a few dollars for a study guide – they have tons of practice problems, concept review sections, tips for tackling essays, and more. Amazon has new books often for a smaller price tag than other resources – here is a link to their section of AP books. However, buying books and pre-made flashcards for AP classes can get expensive, especially if you’re taking more than one test. Many online resources are available for free, including the College Board’s AP page. There, you’ll find free response questions from past years, sample multiple choice questions, and more. You can also use Quizlet, a free service that will allow you to make your own flashcards, or search a library of user’s card sets.

  1. Write it out

Look back on practice tests, quizzes, and other papers you have where you missed questions. Write out the correct answer, why it’s right, and what you need to study so you don’t miss it on the test. This can seem time consuming, but you will also realize certain concepts and trends that you’re constantly missing. Knowing this can help you be more effective while studying in the long-term.

  1. Immerse yourself in the subject as often as you can

Find videos, podcasts, TV shows, or books about the topic(s) you’re trying to study. On the bus going to school? Skip music, and listen to John Green’s voice as he describes how The Mongols are the exception to almost everything. Getting ready for bed? Listen to an AP Chemistry podcast. Reading a book for english? Find a nonfiction book about the Cold War. Wanting a TV break? Find a documentary to watch on the Civil War. Try to absorb knowledge as much as possible, even if that means watching the same video on repeat, or falling asleep to a documentary on Columbus. Is this 110% extra? Yes. Will it be effective? More than likely, yes.

  1. Come up with ways to remember certain details.

If someone says Please Excuse my Dear Aunt Sally, there’s a pretty good chance anyone who’s made it past 6th grade math will recognize it as the acronym for order of operations. This type of strategy for memorizing information is known as a Mnemonic, and – though sometimes ridiculous – they can be very effective. Want to memorize the states that seceded from the union? If you can come up with an acronym for it, you might be more likely to recall on test day.

  1. Block off certain times to study

Set aside time to study, and have a plan for what you will do. Will you study flashcards every night at 10:30? Do you want to complete 10 multiple choice questions every day at lunch? Set up something that works around your schedule – even if it’s a small review activity, it can still make a difference.

  1. Put it on a bumper sticker

Summarize the most important concepts in 10 words or less – can you name highlights of heredity? Describe major U.S. political party differences as briefly as possible? If so, you likely have a great grasp on the material.  

  1. Take a break!

Even the best students hit a slump: if you reach a point where it becomes mentally painful to even glance at a textbook, don’t keep pushing. It’s okay to take a break – you’re the best judge to determine what’s better for you. One strategy to use is to take a break after doing a set number of activities – for example, every 15 multiple choice questions, you get a 5 minute break, or take 10 minutes off for every 2 short answer questions you write. You can do anything you want on your breaks – get a snack, scroll through Twitter, or, if you’re feeling extra motivated, watch a video on the topic you’re testing over.

  1. Draw, draw, draw.

Before you skip over this, you non-artistic folk, hear me out. I – a non-artist – was surprised to learn that I work best when I draw out diagrams, maps, and concepts. Copy diagrams from the internet, textbooks, study guides, or even off the top of your head. Make Venn diagrams comparing different philosophies of the Enlightenment period, or draw sketches of different types of cells.

  1. Use your words

If talking through concepts helps you memorize them, find a parent, sibling, study-buddy, or nearby animal to conference with. Try putting events and vocab words into your own terms, coming up with analogies, asking questions, and just talking through what you’re reviewing for.
And remember – a low score on an AP test doesn’t necessarily define if or where you’re going to college, or if you’re not ready for college work. One statistic your teachers have probably cited over and over again is that by just sitting for a test means that a student is more college ready than their peers, even if they score a 2.