AP® Biology Free Response Questions (FRQs)

Is your goal to get a high score on the free-response section of the AP Biology exam? Then you’ve come to the right place! In this article, we will discuss how to use key strategies, provide tips on how to tackle FRQs, common task verbs used in FRQs and what they mean, and an overview of each type of FRQ you will see on the AP Biology exam. Using these tips and skills, you will be equipped to do well on the free response section of the AP Biology exam.

Format of AP Biology FRQ section

The FRQ section is the second section of the AP Biology exam and consists of 6 free response questions (FRQs) and is worth 50% of your final exam score. The six FRQs in Section II of the AP Biology exam will always follow a particular format. The first two questions are long and are worth 8-10 points each. The other four questions are short and are worth 4 points each.

How to Answer AP Biology Free-Response Questions

This section can be particularly challenging to students because unlike the multiple choice section, there are no answer options to choose from. This is why it’s called “free response” - you as the student have to come up with the answer. You may be required to draw graphs, show your work for calculations, and provide concise but thorough responses to get full points.

This section can be intimidating at first, but if you know how to approach each type of FRQ that you will encounter, you will have the skills needed to perform well on this portion of the exam. Success on the FRQ portion of the AP Biology exam depends not only on your knowledge of the material but also on your ability to approach the questions logically and make efficient use of your time. In this section, you will learn strategies that will help you earn maximum points on the FRQs and achieve your goal on the AP Biology exam!
  1. Understand how the FRQs are scored
    The responses to the FRQs are scored by AP Readers, who are AP Biology teachers and college instructors who are carefully trained to use specific scoring standards to assign points for correct responses. A point is awarded when the reader sees that you have met a specific requirement as described in the scoring standards. Therefore, the key to earning maximum points is to positively demonstrate your understanding of each part of the question.
    • Although your AP Reader is an expert, you should write your responses as if you are explaining the concept to someone who doesn't know much about biology. Make sure you explain what you mean by defining the scientific terms you use.
    • Organize your answer in the same way the question is organized. In other words, if the question has parts (a), (b), (c), and (d), your answer should be divided and labeled the same way. This makes it easier for the reader to grade your response.
    • Write legibly (you must use a blue or black pen) and only write in the space provided for the answer. The readers are not allowed to award points unless they can positively determine that you have met the criteria as explained in the scoring standards. If you make a mistake, just mark a line through the part that you do not want scored. Don't waste time by scribbling everything out or trying to erase the ink.
    • Make sure that you complete your thoughts as you explain a concept. Don’t leave out anything that is essential for demonstrating your understanding. For example, if you were asked to explain diffusion, in addition to describing the process, you would need to explain that diffusion stops when equilibrium is reached. Just saying that molecules move from high to low concentration during diffusion may not be sufficient to earn a point.
    • Points are not deducted for incorrect answers. Therefore, even if you are unsure about the correct answers, you should attempt to answer all questions as time permits. It is likely that you will know something about the topic of each question and there are often multiple ways to earn a point for a particular part of a question. The only way to definitely earn zero points is by not attempting to answer the question! Give it your best shot!
  2. Pay attention to the words in bold print
    The College Board® gives you guidance by bolding certain words in the FRQ to help you focus on the important aspects of the question. The words that are bolded typically correlate directly to the points available in the scoring standards, so if you correctly accomplish each thing that you are directed to do by the bold print words, you will earn full credit on the question. The bold words are usually "task verbs" that direct you to do specific things. You will find a list of common task verbs below with examples to help you know exactly what to do when they show up in a question.
    • Circle or underline each bolded instruction in the question as you read it. Think about what is required to accomplish that part of the question. Also circle or underline any other instructions about required things to do, even if they are not bolded.
    • To keep yourself on track and to assure yourself that you have done everything asked for in the question, mark off each bold print term in the question as you finish writing that part of your answer. Before you move on to the next question, make sure you have not overlooked anything that you were asked to do for the current question.
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  1. Budget your time wisely
    You have 90 minutes to complete Section II of the AP Biology exam. The first 10 minutes are intended to be used as a reading period, leaving approximately 20 minutes for each of the long FRQs (questions 1 and 2) and 10 minutes for each of the short-answer FRQs (questions 3 – 6). You do not need to answer the questions in a particular order.

    The key to efficient use of time is to start by answering the questions you feel best equipped to handle and that can earn you the most points in the shortest time. That is why the 10-minute reading period is so important. It gives you a chance to read all the questions and to map out your strategy for earning the most points. However, keep in mind that you can start writing your answers at any point, so move right to your answers once you have your plan in place.
    • Use the margins of the test booklet to jot any notes that will help you stay on track as you write your answers. However, keep in mind that only what is written in the designated spaces in the answer document will be scored.
    • If you become stuck writing an answer to part of a question, leave room in your answer document and skip to the next part of the question or to the next question you plan to answer. Come back to the unfinished question if you have time at the end of the test.
    • If you finish answering all the questions with time to spare, go back and read your responses. Double check that you have answered all parts of each question and that you have done everything asked of you in each question.
  2. Be concise, but write in complete sentences
    The key to receiving full credit on each FRQ is not necessarily writing more, but making sure that everything you write is contributing directly to answering what the question is asking. Don’t worry about writing an answer of which your English teacher would be proud; instead, you should focus on demonstrating to the reader that you understand the concept that is being tested.

    However, you do need to write in complete sentences (outlines or bulleted lists are not acceptable). You cannot earn points just by mentioning a term without demonstrating conceptual understanding of the topic. Therefore, resist the temptation to use a lot of words in the hope that you will mention a word that will earn a point. It doesn’t work that way.
    • Stick to the point! Don't write anything that is not directly pertinent to the question. Don't restate the question or write an introduction, just specifically answer what is being asked.
    • Once you have answered what the question is asking, stop writing. If you continue to write more than is asked, you run the risk of contradicting something you said that would have otherwise earned a point.
    • If you are asked to provide examples of something, only provide the number of examples for which the question asks. Extra examples are not scored (even if they are correct and an earlier example was incorrect).
    • If you don’t know how to spell a word you want to use, just do your best. Keep in mind that you earn points by demonstrating your understanding of concepts, so if you can’t recall a particular term, just try to explain the idea as best you can.

Common Task Verbs and Their Meanings

There are several task verbs that are commonly used in AP Biology FRQs. In order to write an effective answer, you need to know what is meant by each task verb and the differences among them. Some task verbs are not terms that are commonly used, and some of the task verbs used in FRQs overlap somewhat with one another. Understanding this terminology will help you earn the maximum number of points for each question.
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  1. Calculate
    To calculate means to apply mathematical steps (basic algebra, formulas from the provided Equations and Formulas sheet) to arrive at a final calculated answer.

    Example: Using Figure 1, calculate the average rate of change in growth in the control group.
    • Remember to show your work for these types of questions, because this is usually worth a point in addition to a point for arriving at the correct answer.
    • Don’t feel the need to perform mathematical calculations in your head; rather, you should use your calculator to speed up the process and ensure accuracy.
    • Make sure your final answer is easy for your reader to pick out; you can achieve this by boxing your answer.
  2. Construct
    For this type of question, you will create a type of visual representation of a concept. This could be a diagram, model, graph, or another type of representation.

    Example: Construct a diagram showing the steps of mitosis.
    • You should think carefully about whether your representation needs labels, units, or a title, because these components are often worth points on your score.
  3. Describe
    You will provide information about a particular process, topic, or experiment.

    Example: Describe the role of protons in the electron transport chain.
    • It is important to show that you understand what you are being asked to describe.
    • A good way to do this is to provide a concrete example after you describe the topic.
  4. Determine
    Here, you will come to a decision or conclusion after evaluating given information in the question. These types of questions test your critical thinking skills.

    Example: Using the experimental data, determine if the results are statistically significant.
    • You should provide reasoning or evidence to show how you arrived at your determination.
  5. Draw
    Similar to “construct”, you will draw a representation of a concept.

    Example: Using the provided phylogenetic tree, draw a circle around each of the two groups that are least closely related to one another.
    • The same guidelines apply here: consider whether your representation needs labels, units, or a title.
  6. Evaluate
    Evaluating a claim or given information means to judge or conclude the significance of that claim/information.

    Example: Evaluate the scientist’s hypothesis about the keystone species in the community.
    • You should include the reasoning that you used to arrive at your conclusion.
  7. Explain
    Here, you will need to provide information about why a particular thing happened or the motivations or reasons for its occurrence. You may also need to discuss how something happened.

    Example: Explain the functions of apoptosis in multicellular organisms.
    • Remember, using specific examples or data provided in the question is generally a good idea!
    • The goal here is to demonstrate that you can make a concept understandable to someone else.
  1. Identify
    This task verb requires you to indicate or give information pertaining to a specific topic.

    Example: Identify the dependent variable in the experiment.
    • This is an easy one! You don’t need to provide reasoning or examples, just the straightforward answer to the question being asked.
  2. Justify
    When you encounter this term, you will need to provide evidence to show that a claim is true.

    Example: Justify the scientist’s claim about this cell signaling pathway in yeast.
    • You may also need to provide reasoning to explain how your evidence supports, defends, or modifies the claim.
    • This typically requires the use of data provided in the question.
  3. Make a claim
    For this task verb, you will make a factual statement that is based on information from the question and/or from your content knowledge.

    Example: Using the data in Table 1, make a claim about the permeability of the experimental membrane.
    • Your claim should be a statement of what you believe to be true given the available information.
  4. Predict
    You will provide a reasonable, educated guess about the cause(s) or effect(s) of a change to a system.

    Example: Predict the effect of antibiotic treatment on the retrovirus.
    • Often, this will include reasoning about how you came to your prediction, which could include data analysis.
  5. Represent
    Representation involves the use of illustrations, symbols, tables, graphs, and/or words to describe a particular biological concept.

    Example: Using the provided figure, represent the active site of the enzyme by writing an “X” on the appropriate portion of the figure.
  6. State the hypothesis
    Here, you will provide a prediction relating to a scientific question. Sometimes, you will be required to identify a hypothesis from information given in the question.

    Example: State the null hypothesis of the experiment.
  7. Support
    For this type of question, you will explain the reasoning behind why a line of evidence favors a particular claim.

    Example: Support the researcher’s claim about the effect of a mutation in the CFTR gene.
    • This will usually involve referencing given data or experimental results from the question.
    • This is similar to what a prosecuting attorney does to try to convince a jury that the evidence presented during a trial should be believed.

FRQ Types on the AP Biology Exam

Below is a description of each question you will encounter on the FRQ section. While the specifics of each question (eg, type of experiment performed, biological concept tested) will vary, the general outline will remain the same. Knowledge of what each question is testing will help you prepare thoroughly and earn an amazing score on this section!

FRQ 1: Working with experimental results

The first FRQ you encounter will provide you with an experimental scenario and results (data) from that experiment, presented in a graph and/or table. Given this information, you will be expected to describe and/or explain biological concepts related to the experiment, identify specific experimental procedures used, analyze provided data, and make and/or justify predictions pertaining to the given information.

FRQ 2: Working with experimental results + graphing

The second FRQ will be very similar to FRQ 1, but with a different experiment involving different biological concepts. A key difference in answering this FRQ is that you will be required to construct a graph or chart from data provided in a table. Remember good practices when creating this graph or chart:

  • Make sure your axes or column headings are labeled
  • Give units where appropriate
  • Make sure that the scale used for an axis remains consistent along the entire axis
  • Accurately plot the given data and include error bars or confidence intervals when appropriate

FRQ 3: Lab investigation

This first short-answer question will describe a specific lab investigation. Using this information, you will be expected to describe and/or explain related biological concepts, identify procedures used in the experiment, and make and justify predictions about the results of the investigation.

FRQ 4: Concept analysis

In this FRQ, you will be provided with a description of a biological concept with some sort of disruption to this concept. You will have to describe and explain the biological concept, predict the cause(s) and/or effect(s) of the disruption and justify your prediction(s).

FRQ 5: Model/visual representation analysis

For the fifth FRQ, you will be given a description of a biological concept with an accompanying visual image. Using this information, you will be expected to describe particular components of the image, explain and represent relationships within the described concept and/or image, and explain how information provided in the image relates to larger biological concepts.

FRQ 6: Data analysis

The final FRQ will give you data of some sort. This may be represented in a table, graph, text, or another type of figure. Using the given information, you will have to describe the data, evaluate a hypothesis using the data, and explain how the data relate to larger biological concepts.

Now that you know more about the FRQ section of the AP Biology exam, your next goal will be to learn the specific skills needed to tackle each of the six FRQs you encounter on the real exam. In fact, the best way to prepare for the AP Biology exam is to practice with high-quality, AP-level practice questions. If you practice using these questions, master the skills, and apply the tips provided here, you are sure to ace this section of the AP Biology exam!

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

The FRQ section of the AP Bio exam consists of six questions: two long free answer questions and four short free response questions.

The FRQ section of the exam is graded manually by AP Readers, who are AP instructors and college teachers. Each long question is worth 8–10 points, and each short question is worth 4. The total points earned on the FRQ section can account for up to 50% of the overall score.

The total time allotted for the FRQ section of the exam is 1 hour 30 minutes.

You can download prior free-response questions, as well as scoring criteria, sample exam taker responses, and scoring distributions from the College Board website. Please remember that FRQs from 2019 and earlier may not directly represent the format of questions that will appear on the 2021 and future examinations due to revisions to the AP Biology course and exam design following the 2019 exam.

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