AP® Biology Exam Format
All You Need To Know

The AP® Biology exam is one of the most popular AP exams, with thousands of students attempting it every year. If you've opted for AP Bio and are gearing up to start reviewing for the exam, getting familiar with the AP Biology exam format is a good idea. Doing this can help you design an efficient and thorough study plan to get you closer to your goal. In this article, we'll break down the exam format and share some free sample questions to help you become familiar with the question styles you will see!

What Is the Format of the AP Biology Exam?

Let's start with the basics of the AP Biology exam. It's a reasonably long one, meaning that it lasts a total of three hours. The exam consists of two main sections — Multiple-Choice and Free-Response.

Section I: Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) Section II: Free-Response Questions (FRQs)
1 hour and 30 minutes 1 hour and 30 minutes
60 questions 2 long questions worth 8-10 points each and 4 short questions worth 4 points each
4 answer choices to select from Points are awarded for meeting specific scoring criteria
1 point for each question 50% of the total score
No points are deducted for incorrect answers
Includes individual questions as well as sets of questions with 4-5 questions per set
50% of the total score

In Section I, you'll be given a mix of individual questions and questions in sets of four or five. Question sets draw upon information provided in a short passage, typically containing items such as graphs, tables, or diagrams in addition to text. Given the time you'll have for Section I (90 minutes), it would be ideal to read and answer each question in about one minute on average. This way, you'll have a little spare time to review your answers and pick up any you might have missed. Remember, there is no penalty for wrong answers, so take a shot at each question, even if you are unsure.

AP® is hard, but we help make really hard stuff easy to understand.
Illustration of animals, plants and fish in the wild showing biotic vs abiotic factors

"Now, here’s some news that most students were thrilled about. In 2020, the College Board® discontinued grid-in questions on the AP Biology exam! So, you won’t have any grid-ins as part of Section I, unlike past exams. This means that the answer to your questions will definitely be one of the four answer choices given to you."

Section II includes both long free-response questions and short free-response questions. The long questions are worth 8 to 10 points each, while the short questions are worth 4 points each. This section also lasts for a total of 90 minutes. Before you begin writing your answers, reading through all the questions and deciding which ones to tackle first based on how equipped you to feel to answer each one is very helpful. You must keep track of the time and pace yourself to finish all the questions. It would be best if you planned to spend about 20 minutes on each of the long questions and about 10 minutes on each of the short questions. However, manage your time such that you have some time left at the end to review your answers overall.

“Another fun piece of information? Until 2020, this section of the exam had six short-answer questions and two long-answer questions. That’s two questions more than what you would need to answer in the same timeframe!”

Now that you have a basic idea of the AP Biology exam format, let's closely examine each section.

Types of Questions on the AP Biology Exam

As mentioned earlier, the AP Biology exam format has two main types of questions — multiple-choice and free-response. These questions will test your knowledge of content from each of the four big ideas and your skills in science practices, but just knowing that may not be enough to set you up for a high score. Understanding each of these question types and how to answer them is essential. We'll walk you through every kind of question and tell you everything you need to know about the structure of the questions.

Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQ)

The multiple choice questions can be standalone or in sets of four or five questions pertaining to a particular passage, typically containing figures (graphs/tables/diagrams) and text. Each multiple-choice question will have four answer choices.

As you may already know, the AP Biology course has eight units. The multiple-choice questions are on these eight units, so it's helpful to know how much of each unit is covered on the exam so you can focus your efforts accordingly.

Unit Weightage in MCQ Section
Chemistry of Life 8–11%
Cell Structure and Function 10–13%
Cellular Energetics 12–16%
Cell Communications and Cell Cycle 10–15%
Heredity 8–11%
Gene Expression and Regulation 12–16%
Natural Selection 13–20%
Ecology 10–15%

In addition to testing your knowledge of these eight units, the questions in this section assess your science practice skills. There are six science practices that you will learn throughout the course. Let's look at how these practices align with the multiple-choice questions.

Science Practice Weightage
Concept Explanation 25–33%
Visual Representations 16–24%
Questions & Methods 8–14%
Representing & Describing Data 8–14%
Statistical Tests Data Analysis 8–14%
Argumentation 20–26%

You can read our article on how to approach AP Biology multiple-choice questions to help you ace this section. It includes examples with step-by-step instructions on how to answer each question.

Now that you know everything about the structure of questions in Section I of the AP Biology exam, it's time to look at Section II.

We make really hard stuff easy to understand. Study smarter with UWorld.
Illustration from UWorld AP Biology explanation showing cell cycle checkpoints

Free-Response Questions (FRQs)

Free-response questions require paragraph-form answers. Unlike the multiple-choice section of the exam, which is computer-graded, this section is graded manually by AP instructors and college teachers called AP Readers. They review and score each free-response answer individually using specific scoring criteria for each question.

There are two kinds of free-response questions — long-answer and short-answer. The long-answer questions are worth 8 to 10 points each, while the short-answer questions are worth 4 points each.

Wondering how each of these questions will be structured on the exam? Let’s take a look!

Did you recognize how these questions highlight a particular science practice? Here's a table that shows each science practice and which questions align with them.

Science Practice Free-Response Question
Concept Explanation Questions 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5
Visual Representation Question 5
Questions and Methods Questions 1 & 3
Representing and Describing Data Questions 1, 2 & 6
Statistical Tests and Data Analysis Questions 1, 2 & 6
Argumentation Questions 1, 2, 3, 4 & 6

You can read our article on how to approach free-response AP Biology questions to help you ace this section. The article also includes examples with step-by-step instructions on how to answer each question.

Now that you know the structure of each type of question in the AP Biology Exam, you can plan out your study method and your time for the exam itself. Remember, you don’t lose points for getting multiple-choice questions wrong, so be sure to make a guess even for questions of which you are unsure. As for the free-response questions, you need to positively demonstrate your understanding of the content to the AP Reader. However, be conscious of the time needed to write down each of your answers, so you do not end up running out of time or racing to complete answers during the exam.

AP Biology Exam — Paper or Digital Mode?

Currently, the AP Biology exam is only administered on paper. The College Board will continue to monitor local and global needs as they evaluate whether to offer both digital and paper exams.

Understanding the exam format is the first step to doing well. So, now that you know what the exam format is and what to expect from each section, you can chalk out an efficient and effective study plan. Keep in mind the number of questions and the time you will have for each section, and budget enough time to review your answers.

Study smarter with UWorld and see 5's in your future
Illustration of extracellular ATP from UWorld's AP course
Illustration of fly in motion ATP from UWorld's AP course
Illustration of uniform particle distribution throughout a mixture from UWorld's AP course

College Board®: AP Biology Updates

Read More About AP Biology Exam

This article has everything you must know about the AP Biology exam scoring, score distribution, and the average score you will need to receive college credit—along with a score calculator!
Check out our guide to the AP Biology curriculum for more in-depth information on the exam layout, science practices, and the units, topics, and key concepts you will study in the course.
Want to know about the ultimate tips and best resources needed to get the highest score possible in AP Biology? Click on UWorld’s step-by-step study guide to score a 5 in AP Biology.
Are you wondering if AP Biology is right for you? Check out UWorld’s AP Biology exam guide for complete info on the exam prerequisites, difficulty, why you should take it, and much more!
Scroll to Top