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, it’s a good idea to get familiar with the AP Biology exam format. Doing this can help you design an efficient and thorough study plan that’ll get you one step closer to your goal. In this article, we’ll break down the format of the exam 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 is broken into 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. Questions in sets are linked to each other and will be based on information given in a short passage, which typically will contain 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 go through your answers and pick up any that you might have missed. Remember, there is no penalty for wrong answers, so take a shot at each question even if you’re unsure of the answer.

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“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, it is very helpful to read through all the questions and decide which ones to tackle first based on how equipped you feel to answer each one. You will need to keep track of the time and pace yourself to finish all the questions. You should plan to spend about 20 minutes on each of the long questions and about 10 minutes on each of the short questions. However, try to 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 take a closer look at each of these sections and what you’ll be tested on.

Types of Questions on the AP Biology Exam

As we mentioned earlier, the AP Biology exam format has two main types of questions — multiple-choice and free-response questions. 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. It’s important to understand what each of these questions looks like and how to answer them. We’ll walk you through each type 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 that pertain to a particular passage, which typically contains figures (graphs/tables/diagrams) as well as 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 will be based on these eight units, so it’s helpful to know the weightage of each unit in this section. Here’s a breakdown of the weights of each unit in this section:

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%

Consider this breakdown while charting out a study plan. It will help you distribute your time between each unit based on their weightage in this section.

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 are tied into multiple-choice questions.

Here’s the exam weighting of each science practice in the multiple-choice section.

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. The article also 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 take a look at what Section II looks like.

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Free-Response Questions (FRQs)

Free-response questions are questions that 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 questions. This section has two long-answer questions and four short-answer questions. The long-answer questions are worth between 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 each of these questions was based on a particular science practice? Here’s a table that shows each of the science practices and the questions that are based on 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 as well as 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 active Coronavirus cases at local and global levels and should the need arise, they will consider offering both digital and paper exams.

Understanding the exam format is the first step to doing well in the exam. 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 in each section, the time you will have for each section, and don’t forget to give yourself enough time to review your answers.

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College Board®: AP Biology Updates

Read more about AP Biology exam

This article has everything you need to know about how the AP Biology exam is scored, the distribution of scores, and the average score you will need to receive college credit.
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 scoring a 5 in AP Biology.
Are you wondering if AP Biology is right for you? Learn from our AP Biology Exam guide and find all the information you need about AP Bio prerequisites, exam difficulty, and why it may be beneficial to take the AP Biology exam.
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