[school] AP exams, tips, and tomfoolery

Besides killing myself over the SAT, I also worked to death over the APs, eventually earning AP Scholar with Distinction. I’m still not quite sure I totally survived, and I’m not some grades-obsessed, always over-prepared zombie now.

it still doesn't look like an acorn to me, more like an evil acorn

Following is the list of exams that I took, and general notes on them.

Before I begin, I want to point out something very important if you are aiming for a school that accepts less than 40% of applicants: self-studying for AP exams. These schools are extremely competitive, and the people who get into them are extremely competitive. I know a few students to take 8-9 APs their junior year and end up with all 5’s. They’re all now in Yale, UPenn Wharton, Cambridge, etc. And no, they are not all ‘Asian’.  You may not get credit for these scores in these universities, but what you will get is a leg up over some applicants in the pool. If you have the resources and discipline, it is definitely worth considering some self-studying, especially junior year. If you are not aiming for a competitive program, look into the AP exams and credits that your prospective schools will accept, and just take those exams; you can also self-study, but there is less of an impetus to.

General tips

  • Study for every test as if you were studying for the AP test. Break out those AP review books! w00t. Buy or borrow them at the beginning of the year. Ask upperclassmen if they have any; I received a bunch of free ones, so I only bought a few AP review books.
  • Complete every open-ended and answer the multiple choice that Collegeboard has provided, relevant to what your class is learning at that time. What I usually did was print every set at the beginning of the year and shuffle through it as the year went by.
  • Be persistent if you don’t understand something at first. A lot of the subjects build on previous knowledge, so work hard now to avoid working even harder or being hopelessly screwed later.
  • Start comprehensively studying for each exam at least one month before the actual AP exam. The main reason for this is that we all have a lot of other things going on already– sports, SATs, clubs, etc.– so just saving it all for a week beforehand isn’t enough, and difficult to balance. It’s better to study in small sessions spread over a longer period of time than a huge cram session. You won’t be as bored, and you’ll be able to cover topics more in-depth.
  • For every question you get wrong, mark it down. Always return to it and return and return until you can answer the question with no hesitation or trouble.
  • I don’t have a strategy to deal with multiple choice. I always read the passage before looking at the questions. If the question permits, I first cross out the obviously wrong answers. If no right answer immediately jumps out at me, I circle it and quickly go to the next question. I really hate multiple choice, I always feel like I will run out of time.

In sum, my mantra is work hard early on, work less and relax later.

Calculus BC

My teacher was legendary within our school, and for good reason. He was extremely adept at the subject, putting us through the paces early on. Tests would be AP style, and they would be ‘work until the bell’, not ‘be done with 10 minutes left over’. We would fly through chapters, and even though we start school in September (others start in August), we still ended up with 2 weeks left to review. He was so good that I felt a little cheated when I took BC, which seemed absurdly easy compared to the exams my teacher had us do.

However, a lot of students don’t have the luxury of a capable teacher. There is one significant practice you can do to replicate our over-preparedness. We used Larson/Edwards; any similar college-level textbook will do. Though this may run some people into debt, invest in an answer book (I got a completely new one for $20. Original value: $120), or become very chummy with your teacher. Do a lot of the harder problems in the back of sections– mark the ones that gave you trouble, and come back to them until you can do the problem without having any trouble. Textbook problems tend to be harder than anything you’ll find on the AP exam.


Our textbook was Zumdahl (which is used in college as well). Again, practice is key; complete the harder practice problems in your textbook. We also did monthly exercises from this amazing workbook (on which I submitted a review) that focused on equilibrium; AP Chemistry open-ended will always include an EQ problem.

English (Language & Literature, since shortened to Literature)

I remember I wrote an essay on Jane Eyre.. a book that I did not prepare to write about. Check out this list of the books that most frequently appear on the AP exam, and look through your own repertoire. Generally, if you like the book and it is a major classic, like Jane Eyre, I recommend you prep for it– whether you read it in-class or out-of-class. Always include a major Shakespeare work, like Hamlet or Macbeth. For all AP graders, time is of the essence, so it’s important that everything is as clear as possible. To this end, I suggest putting the thesis at the end of the introductory paragraph, typical high school fashion. Everything should be highly structured: topic sentence, quote, analysis, etc. Though I know this mandate is stifling to most people, AP graders aren’t going to sit there and ponder your superstructure and wonderful syntax.


For any foreign language, speak as much as possible. I was forced to take this test one year early (they cancelled Italian the following year), so the result wasn’t as good as I wanted, mostly because I hadn’t had enough conversational practice. Also, read in your respective language (translated Harry Potters, daily news) and write (I mostly ranted, my poor prof.) in the language extensively– when you write, sit down with your instructor and go over the corrections in minutia. Watch movies without subtitles, or with the subtitles in the target language. Force yourself to think in the language, not English and subsequent translation.

Languages are always hard to master, because you need to put in more time into it, not just homework and class time. I find that memorizing a bunch of arbitrary rules is extremely difficult compared to having an extensive reading and writing knowledge and knowing when something ‘feels right’, what language fluency should be. I don’t spend my days thinking about partitives and gerunds in English or Italian, for that matter.

Music Theory

Don’t take this unless you have some musical talent. Cough. The dictation part is killer. I mean it. Stay away!

US History

I have an amazing brain for facts and analysis, so I would always get high scores on mock multiple choice. If you’re a rock star at multiple choice like I am (over 90% correct), then all you need are middling essays (essays are graded 1-9, 9 being the best, so two essays with score 6 & 7 would be enough) to scrape a 5 on the exam. But not to say that you shouldn’t hone your essay skills.. in fact, after I took the exam, I was extremely worried because I didn’t have in-depth knowledge about the topic I wrote about– immigration during WWII. I basically comped everything that I remembered reading in my free time. If it were not for my strong multiple choice, I probably would have ended up with a 4. You can tell your AP US History teacher is exceptional if she/he assigns many primary source readings. Though textbooks like Brinkley are the bastions of any such course, he provides an ‘overview’ of American history, and the teacher needs to supplement it. A lot.

All of the prominent review books out there (Princeton Review, Barron’s, etc) out there simply provide a brief overview and will not help you learn the actual history, so there is really no substitute for reading your textbooks and the sources that your teacher provides.

US Gov’t & Politics

One of the easiest exams in existence, especially if you rock at multiple choice; however, sometimes the multiple choice is tricky and you need to use the common sense accrued by learning about the subject. Honestly, if you find you lack the common sense (you get below 70s on multiple choice), you really need to do an egregious amount of multiple choice. However, the free response doesn’t even need to be in sentence format. Your school textbook and the released FRQs from Collegeboard should be more than enough for preparation.

Physics B & C (disclaimer: I did not take these but took the classes)

I would not go near this with a ten-yard stick. I actually chickened out of taking these two exams. More than anything, AP Physics combines things from all over the curriculum.. which always confused me terribly because E&M confused me terribly. We used Halliday/Resnick (also used in college), whose harder problems were deifnitely on par with the AP exam questions. I would invest in a solutions manual, and lots of review books, because every year, the physics exams fluctuate so much, unlike the Calculus exam, where you can predictably expect a mixture of Taylor series, rate of change, etc. Every year, even my AP teachers were surprised at the novelty of the problems presented on the exams. Unless you intuitively understand physics and have a hankering for math, you really need to prep hard for this.


secret! Along with the SATs, I would purposely ‘miss school’ to study for AP exams. For example, if the example schedule looked like,

Monday: Calc BC
Wednesday: Eng Lit.
Friday: Chemistry

I would invariably take Tuesday and Thursday ‘off’. I found in-school reviewing to be unhelpful for me, and so I studied on my own. I also relaxed too, watching a bit of TV, doing some cooking. The day before exams, I never try to cram, but I try to make sure everything that tends to leak gets reviewed once more and then do some comforting things.

However, I don’t recommend this to everyone, especially if you don’t have enough absent days, or are behind in several classes already. You be your own judge.


Those were rather brief notes, rather than extensive study tips. If you’re interested in discussing a test further or anything else.. you know what to do! ^^;


4 thoughts on “[school] AP exams, tips, and tomfoolery

  1. Thanks for this Michelle! Your advice on AP English and History were especially helpful as I’m taking these this upcoming year… some of the others I’m taking senior year, so I’ll come back to this. I wish I had a knack for multiple choice like you and some of my friends do, I have to prep really hard even for some of the easier tests (I expect to cram a lot for US History).

    I don’t think you used flashcards, but would you recommend them for people who lack the ability to memorize facts? I’m able to analyze and write essays decently, but for World History I had to read-over the AP Barron’s book in addition to my school’s textbook to feel comfortable with the multiple choice section.

    • lol. I DID use flashcards.. quizlet.com is a good place to make them, and if you have an Android/iOS device, you can download an app to display them on your device.. I used that a lot in college. But I religiously handwrite a lot of things, so the flashcards that I hand-wrote were just another way of reinforcing it.. I remember when a chapter was assigned to read, I’d read it once & take notes, then when the test came, I’d reread the chapter and then take notes of my notes –> my notes would be one column of notes and then another column for corresponding questions I would write down that I thought could maybe be on the test.

      for example, if my notes read
      “on Dec. 20, 1860, SC seceded”

      on the right column I would write, “what date did SC secede?” and I would test myself like that.. etc etc, and later you would just look at the questions and see if you can answer it without looking at the notes.. hmm I forgot where I read this, but they say that the optimal amount of times to look at things is 7-8 times T___T with class/hw, you can probably knock off like 4-6 of them, but the rest you need to find some way to do XD

      another thing to do if you have really good friends who won’t be bored and won’t slack, you can take turns ‘teaching’ material.. teaching others is great for learning yourself.. or you can do it the lonely way.. narrating yourself.. I guess this might be embarrassing for some people, but sometimes saying, “Now I multiply this, flip this around, put a negative here” etc etc helps

      XD of course.. no problem.. -___-” this was my life for three years T___T

  2. “I have an amazing brain for facts and analysis.”
    do you want to give it up for auction for somewhere between $1000-$100,000? jk jk (why would you). ugh but i am so jealous of anyone who can remember specific details for anything academic xD
    ugh#2- i wish i had taken AP Us Govt instead of APUSH (which was a complete and utter bitch) cuz everyone else was saying it was easier.
    aww for the ap eng, cant remember the prompt, but i was lame and recall writing part of my 3rd essay on macbeth… D: (well at least i passed thats whats important).

    the problem with your advice, tho, much like the douchebag who wrote “how to spend a week traveling on only $20” (im not calling you one tho! dont worry), it only applies if you have the skill, dedication, and concentration to do consistently practice, which, in your case with your amazing brain, is easy to do xD *sigh* (i mean my APUSH teacher tested us EXACTLY LIKE YOUR CALCULUS teacher, yet not everyone in the class got a 5)

    in regards to your reply to thomas’ comment…. i dont think the android/iOS devise even existed 2 years ago to help us study xD

    and just curious, didnt take any ap language or music theory, but what were they like?
    (aw dammit sorry for longass comment)

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