You made a great decision to take an Advanced Placement class this year and have been working hard to hone your studying, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. This extra effort will undoubtedly pay off by helping to increase your chances for success when applying to the colleges of your dreams.
Now you’re wondering, “How do I study for an AP exam?” You’ve shown that you are willing to challenge yourself; the next step is learning how to ace the AP exam. This involves not only stepping up your studying game but also your mental game.
Here are some tips that will help you to study and feel more mentally prepared.
Study Tips to Help You Conquer AP Tests
Focus on your weaknesses
You often hear the expression “play to your strengths.” However, you want to start here by being efficient with your time and effort because you likely have a lot going on in your life. To help, start by talking to your AP course teachers to get feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. This will help give you a starting point for areas to focus on and those where you can feel more confident. Knowing what you know and what you don’t know is an important first step.
Take advantage of any free review sessions the College Board has made available on YouTube for all of the AP subjects offered. You can watch them live or catch the recorded sessions at a more convenient time. (1)
Knowing what you know and what you don’t know is an important first step.
Find out what’s expected
It can be hard to imagine what the Ap exam will look like if you’ve never taken one. Fortunately, the College Board provides examples and demonstrations to help. (2)
Knowing the kinds of responses that are expected will help you to figure out how best to study for the test. For multiple-choice questions, you only need to be able to recognize the correct responses, and not necessarily recall them. Practice using process of elimination based on what you do know to help you out when you get stuck with multiple-choice responses.
For free-response or essay style questions, look at sample responses and see how they are scored to help you model them. It will also be important to learn how to manage your time with this type of question. Practice using 10-20% of your exam time to brainstorm and outline your response, and the remaining 80-90% of your time writing.
Additionally, find out what content from your courses will be covered in the test so you are fully prepared.
Set a study schedule that works for you
Look at the amount of time you have to study leading up to the exam and how much you material you need to cover, and then figure out a realistic schedule using this simple formula (remember to factor in days off):
Amount of Material to Cover (e.g. pages or chapters)/Time Available to Study
For example: 300 pages/60 days = 5 pages/day
As reported in Psychology Today (3), several research studies have shown that by spreading out the time you use to study, the more likely you are to retain the information. Sleeping between two study sessions has also been found to help by doubling the consolidation of your memories. Sleep experts in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School say that, “the most critical period of sleep for memory consolidation is in the hours immediately following a lesson.” (4)
Figure out the best times for you to study based on your energy and attention span levels that support the kind of studying you need to do. Intersperse healthy eating and physical activities with study time to help keep you focused. Try to make your study sessions at regular times to build good habits and routines.
Having a designated area to study also helps to build your routine. If you are surrounded by distracting noise, try listening to white noise through a pair of headphones or earbuds to keep you on task instead of listening to music.
Studying for more than one AP exam will require good time management and organizational skills, so take this into consideration when you are setting up your study plan.
Play to your strengths
Now that you’ve figured out what you need to spend more time on based on weak areas, it’s time to leverage your strengths. Knowing what type of learner you are, i.e. auditory, visual or kinesthetic, choose study methods that support your learning style. For example, if you are an auditory learner, record yourself posing questions so that you can listen to the recording to test yourself later. If you are a visual learner, create mind maps that help you make connections with the material. If you are a kinesthetic learner, get up and move around the room while you review the course material.
Whatever your preferred learning style, become an active learner while you are studying. Engage with the material by asking questions as you read, paraphrasing and taking notes, summarizing what you’ve learned, applying it to your own experiences, and talking about it with someone you know.
Work with others
Set up a study group for an exam subject area. Quiz each other and share ideas and feedback for answering questions. Consider using online quiz apps such as Kahoot! or Quizlet to test each other and review material. Teaching somebody else can be a great way to master the material.
Set up regular meetings online or in person to keep the momentum going. Working with a group of other students studying for the same exam will give you additional support and make it more fun. Working with a partner or a group of students can be like going to the gym: You’re more likely to do it than if you were just doing it on your own. Working with others builds in accountability for following through on your study plan.
Teaching somebody else can be a great way to really master the material.
Repetition is the mother of skill
Give yourself plenty of opportunities to go over the material you will need to master for the test. Build upon the material you have been studying, each time stacking new material on top of what you’ve already mastered. Carry around a set of flashcards to quiz yourself periodically as you’re going about your day.
Quick Tips to Mentally Prepare for the AP Exam:
Take multiple practice tests
Taking practice tests will help you get a feel for the actual test so there won’t be any surprises with format, types of questions, amount of time and possible content. Practicing with actual samples or demos of the test online will help build confidence when taking the AP test. (5) It will also give you a good indication of how you do with managing your time for answering questions. You’ll know if you need to learn to speed up or slow down for completing the exam in time.
Keep up your motivation and find balance
All study and no play can affect your motivation level. Be kind to yourself and take periodic breaks to get together with friends and family, take your dog for a walk, go for a run, or just zone out watching your favorite movies. Then, get back to work. It’s important to keep your eye on the prize while you also keep balance in your life. It’s easy to go down rabbit holes watching Tik Tok videos or binge watching the latest episodes of your favorite series. Set a timer and keep your goal of acing the test top of mind to get you back on track with your study plan.
Build your confidence, manage your anxiety
A really great way to help build your confidence is to change your physiology. Before you start studying and before you write the exam, strike a power pose for two minutes. According to Amy Cuddy, a sociology professor at Harvard University, just by standing up with your feet shoulder-width apart, your head and chest up, and your hands on your hips for two minutes, you’ll be able to increase your level of testosterone (regardless of gender) and decrease your level of cortisol. This will naturally result in increasing your confidence and decreasing your anxiety. (6)
Effective breathing techniques can also help you deal with stress and anxiety. By inhaling for a count of 7 and exhaling for a count of 11, and then repeating this for a few minutes, you will start to feel more relaxed by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system and slowing your natural fight or flight response. Practicing this technique regularly over the span of your study schedule can lower your overall stress about taking the AP exam and can come in handy while you are writing the exam as well. (7 and 8)
Planning small rewards each time you reach a milestone in your study plan will help to keep you motivated and committed to your study schedule.
A larger reward or celebration that may include family and friends who helped support you throughout this time can be something fun to look forward to.
What should you do the night before the AP test?
Visualize taking the exam from beginning to end - where it will be, the format, you feeling confident, how you’re dressed, etc.
Pick out clothes to wear for the test that are comfortable, appropriate for school, and make you feel good about yourself.
Make sure you are well-rested by doing everything you can to get a good night’s sleep so that you are awake and alert for the test.
Set your alarm to give you enough time to get to the test site (or to log in if the test is offered online) a good 30 minutes before the exam starts. This will allow you time to get settled and ready.
Plan to eat a good breakfast that includes protein and complex carbohydrates. This will help your concentration and memory, and will help keep your blood sugar level stable so that you have the stamina you will need to complete the exam.
Make sure you have your AP ID number and anything else you need to bring with you in a place that you won’t forget in the morning.
Double check you have the correct time and location for your exam.
How do you get a 5 on AP exams?
We’ve compiled a list of books for these subject areas to help you score a 5 on your AP exams:
- College Board https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are?language=en
- College Board https://apcoronavirusupdates.collegeboard.org/students/taking-ap-exams/exam-day-experience
- Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201611/how-sleep-enhances-studying
- Harvard Medical School http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/memory
- College Board https://apcoronavirusupdates.collegeboard.org/students/taking-ap-exams/exam-day-experience
- TED Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are?language=en
- Human Givens Institute https://www.hgi.org.uk/resources/delve-our-extensive-library/resources-and-techniques/7-11-breathing-how-does-deep
- Harvard Medical School https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response