AP® Biology Study Guide: The key to a 5 on the AP Biology Exam
Step I: Plan your AP Course schedule carefully and know the answers to important questions
- What AP courses does my school offer?
- What can I do if an AP course I want to take isn’t offered at my school?
- What are the prerequisites for the AP courses I’m interested in?
- Which AP courses make sense for me to take at the same time?
- How motivated am I and how much time do I realistically have for studying and homework?
- Which online communities can I connect with as I progress through my AP courses?
Step II: Maximize your classroom experience in AP Biology
- Know what to expect on the AP Biology exam
- Don’t waste valuable time in class
- Create an organized set of high-yield virtual notes
- Work hard on the labs and engage in scientific thinking
Step III: Set up a regular study schedule and use the best prep materials to master AP Biology concepts
- Reinforce class instruction and labs with online video lectures for difficult concepts
- Practice with AP-level questions that have in-depth explanations
- Know what AP Biology questions look like and master all question types
- Use an online study platform with performance tracking features
- Make flashcards and use spaced repetition technology to test your knowledge levels
- Keep testing yourself on concepts you are getting wrong
- Create a study group with your peers
- Take mock exams under realistic testing conditions
Step IV: Feel confident on test day
- Make a checklist of all the things you should bring with you on test day
- On the day before the test, avoid cramming and take some time to relax
- On test day, eat properly and take your mind off concerns
- Use techniques to reduce test day anxiety
Step I: Plan your AP Course schedule carefully and know the answers to important questions
You may be unsure about how to approach the scheduling of your AP courses. We provide an AP preparation guide that will help you get ready to take the exam and avoid any obstacles you may run into. We want to make this process seamless and easy for you to complete. So below are some questions you should know the answers to before you start planning your AP course schedule:
1. What AP courses does my school offer?
Make sure to talk to your school counselor; they can help you formulate your plan and tip you off to potential roadblocks.
If your high school publishes an online course catalog, check it out, it’s a great source of information. Some AP courses may not be offered every year at your school. Also, some schools may offer single-semester AP courses as well as two semester courses.
Create a list of the courses you want to take for all four upcoming years of high school and estimate how much it will cost you by making an AP budget. Check if your school helps to pay for the exams. If you start making this list late, then at least make it for the upcoming year. Make a calendar to see if the year and semester you want to take the course aligns with the actual calendar that your school follows for AP courses. Finally, remember to make sure your high school orders your AP exams before the November 15th deadline.
2. What can I do if an AP course I want to take isn’t offered at my school?
The College Board® keeps a list of all secondary schools and online schools that offer authorized AP courses. It is called the AP Course Ledger and can be searched by subject and school location.
If you are homeschooled or if you opt to self-study for an AP course, you will need to arrange to take the AP exam at a school that administers the exams. You should contact the school at which you would like to take the exam as soon as possible in the school year because schools have a November 15 deadline for ordering exams. When you contact the school, ask to speak with the school’s AP coordinator because that is the individual who is responsible for ordering the exams.
3. What are the prerequisites for the AP courses I’m interested in?
It is likely that you will have to take certain preparatory courses before your school will allow you to sign up for AP courses. For example, to take AP Biology, the College Board recommends that you have already taken a biology course and one in chemistry as well. Checking with your school counselor and/or referring to the course catalog as you plan your AP schedule can save you from missing out on a course that your school requires.
You should also prepare yourself for the rigor of AP courses before you take them. AP courses are challenging in terms of the level of critical thinking they require and also in terms of how much time they demand. You can set yourself up for success in AP courses by learning foundational concepts and developing needed time management skills in Pre-AP or honors courses before you take AP courses.
4. Which AP courses make sense for me to take at the same time?
This is somewhat arbitrary and depends on your strengths and how the courses are taught at your school. However, it is likely that some courses will require significantly more time outside of class than others.
Keep this in mind as you plan your schedule and try not to stack too many time-consuming courses together in the same semester/year.
5. How motivated am I and how much time do I realistically have for studying and homework?
Be honest with yourself and don’t spread yourself too thin. It is typically better to learn fewer subjects really well than to take on so many AP courses at once that your understanding of all of them suffers.
Specifically, if you’re planning on taking an AP Science course, you should know that students often underestimate the amount of time required for these courses – particularly those that have labs and may require lab reports in addition to homework (ie, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, and AP Biology).
If you have a work schedule or general personal commitments (eg, playing school sports, being in an after-school club), it is important to make allowances when taking one or more difficult AP Science classes. You want to make sure you have adequate time for studying and keeping up with homework assignments. This matters because it will help you do well but also keep you from feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. So go into the course with a planned schedule, a determined attitude, and do your best!
To help yourself stay motivated, check out the AP credit that is offered by your top choice colleges. You can typically find this information at the colleges’ websites directly or you can use the handy search tool called AP Credit Policy Search that the College Board provides for this purpose.
You can look up the name of any college you are interested in and this tool tells you the minimum AP score accepted by your university of choice. If the university has multiple campuses, you can even see a breakdown of the different minimum AP scores accepted by each campus! Knowing this information is an important part of planning your AP path and helps you maximize the benefits of your choices.
6. Which online communities can I connect with as I progress through my AP courses?
Consider joining the r/APStudents subreddit and also Quora spaces specific to your chosen AP courses. Connecting to such online communities can be very beneficial. For example, if you are taking AP Biology, you can search the AP Biology Quora Space or r/APStudents for posts related to AP Biology. You can also ask questions of students who are currently taking AP Biology or who have taken the AP Biology exam in the past. There are also AP teachers, tutors, and content experts in these communities that provide insightful information.
One word of caution: carefully assess the information you receive on social media. These are good places to explore, but any answers you get should be eventually confirmed by a verified source (eg, a website sponsored by an educational institution or official organization). Regardless, you will still be able to share your thoughts on these platforms as you go through the course! You can also give constructive feedback and encouragement to fellow students who are going through the same experience.
As you prepare to take AP courses, make sure to talk to other AP students at your school who have gone before you and get their advice. They will give you the inside scoop on what you need to know for a particular course, such as how much homework is involved, what the grading system looks like, what the teacher is like, and what you typically do during class. Finally, don’t be afraid to talk to the AP teachers themselves; they will love you for it and be impressed by your initiative! Ask them what to expect in their courses and what you can do in advance to be well prepared.
Step II: Maximize your classroom experience in AP Biology
AP Biology is a challenging course. In addition to learning a lot of new information, students must learn to analyze biological data, reason scientifically, and apply their knowledge in new contexts. In 2021, only about 7% of students who took the AP Biology exam earned a score of 5 (“extremely well qualified”). One reason it is so hard to get a 5 on the exam is because students often don’t get enough practice analyzing data and answering AP-style questions that require application of knowledge. Luckily, there are concrete steps you can take to enhance your learning, and this AP Biology study guide will show you how!
1. Know what to expect on the AP Biology exam
Ideally, your teacher will explain the format and grading of the exam very early in your course and use a format similar to the actual exam on all your tests throughout the year. It is really important to know what the AP Biology exam is like so that you can become very comfortable answering the types of questions that the exam includes. However, if your teacher doesn’t explain much about the AP exam, you can still become familiar with the exam format and the way the exam is graded on your own. Check out our article on AP Biology Course and Exam Description. It describes the concepts and skills that are tested on the exam and provides examples of what the exam questions look like.
The current AP Biology exam consists of 60 multiple choice questions (MCQs) and 6 free response questions (FRQs). Two of the FRQs are long questions, each of which requires interpretation of data. One of these FRQs requires graphing of data. The other four FRQs are short questions. Among these short FRQs, one deals with a scientific study, one requires analysis of a biological concept, one is based on a visual representation or model, and one requires data analysis.
The more familiar you are with the format of the test and the style of questions on it, the more comfortable you will be on test day. AP exams are administered in May each year. Find out the exact test day of the AP Biology exam and mark your calendar for that date and time so you will have a clear goal to be working towards. You can check out the content tested in all the AP Biology units.
2. Don’t waste valuable time in class
Time is a valuable commodity, use it wisely! Take advantage of the time you have in your AP Biology class. Every student is different, but regardless of the learning style you prefer, the key to learning effectively in class is to be mentally engaged. Don’t just go through the motions of mindlessly taking notes. Think critically about the material that is being presented, ask questions if something is unclear, and participate in productive conversation with your teacher and classmates.
You should also try your hardest to score high on every in-class assignment you are given (and homework too!). Put your best foot forward! The AP sciences can be challenging, but don’t take an intentional zero or skip an assignment in class just because you can.
Not only is the learning experience important, but eventually your teacher could give you a midterm or final exam that might be more challenging than expected (and you could get a lower than expected grade). So doing the best you can on class assignments can rack up points for a better final grade and even potentially compensate for the unexpected future trouble of a lower score on a test.
Finally, enjoy the opportunities you have to interact with your teacher and your classmates, and consider being part of a study group to both teach and learn from your classmates. Helping someone else understand a difficult concept is one of the best ways to learn it yourself!
3. Create an organized set of high-yield virtual notes
While in class, you want to take notes in a thoughtful and organized manner. Truly ask yourself if you are understanding the sentences you are writing from your teacher’s lecture. After class each day, take your set of notes and type them up using a virtual notebook tool.
Make sure the organization of your virtual notes is interactive; add drawings and pictures and think up ways to recall the information (eg, come up with mnemonics and acronyms). Look for connections between the concepts that you are currently studying and those that you have already learned in your notes. Make a diagram that shows those connections.
If you’re still confused about a concept after you’ve organized your notes, go back to class and ask for help from your teacher. Making use of a virtual notebook, like the one provided by UWorld, can be very helpful because of the ease with which you can add graphics, rearrange content, and create flashcards as you begin your AP Biology exam prep. A virtual notebook is one of many AP Biology study materials you can use to master the AP Biology exam while using your study time efficiently.
4. Work hard on the labs and engage in scientific thinking
According to the College Board, AP Biology teachers are to spend at least 25% of their instructional time teaching lab sessions. Because the College Board places so much emphasis on labs, it makes sense that the AP Biology exam requires students to be able to analyze data and think scientifically. Like any other skill, the more practice you get “doing science,” the more proficient you become. If you want some tips and tricks on what to do to be successful in the labs and how to transfer that success to a high score on the AP Exam, check out our AP Biology Labs and our post on How to Write an AP Biology Lab Report.
The College Board also provides a lab manual that includes 13 labs, which can be used to teach important biological concepts. This manual can benefit students who are self-studying or are homeschooled. However, if you are signed up for AP Biology at your high school, your teacher will likely create customized labs that test the same skills. Nevertheless, all labs illustrate the concepts and types of skills students should master for the AP Biology Exam, including the ability to design their own experiments. Your teacher may have you write lab reports, answer questions, present your findings to the class, or evaluate your understanding of the labs in some other way.
Regardless of how your lab work is evaluated, you need to become proficient at designing experiments, collecting data, doing statistical analysis, and graphing. You must be able to make a scientific claim, support your claim with data, and explain your reasoning. Earning a 5 on the AP Biology exam is not possible without being strong in these areas. Therefore, putting your very best effort into lab work is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for the AP Biology exam.
Step III: Set up a regular study schedule and use the best prep materials to master AP Biology exam concepts
A lot of the material in AP Biology must be learned sequentially. For example, you can’t really understand how cellular respiration works (from Unit 3 of the AP Biology Course) if you don’t first understand membrane structure and cellular transport (found in Unit 2). So, it’s important to make sure you truly grasp the key concepts at each step throughout the course.
1. Reinforce class instruction and labs with online video lectures for difficult concepts
In the event that you have a hard time understanding particular concepts after learning them in class and discussing them with your teacher, watch AP Biology videos that teach these concepts. You could also invest in a review book. However, you must do this cautiously and selectively. Students often burn up a lot of time watching videos and going through exhaustive review books that may or may not address the weak points in their conceptual understanding. Investing a lot of time watching every video or reading a whole review book does not ensure success.
Also make sure you don’t get sidetracked watching videos or reading materials that don’t directly address your points of confusion. A key strategy is learning to selectively scan your notes to find the relevant portions that need improvement, and then focus your video lecture study time on those portions. Resources like Khan Academy, Bozeman Science, and the College Board all have useful AP Biology videos you can try out. Furthermore, if you are self-studying for AP Biology, you can actually use these videos as class lectures instead!
2. Practice with AP-level questions that have in-depth explanations
Use AP-quality practice questions that have detailed explanations of the right and wrong answer choices. Ideally, the explanations to the practice questions should provide the background information needed to answer the questions correctly and include graphics and visual learning aids to help you understand and retain the information.
If you use educational visual aids, you will immediately have an advantage. Using practice questions that have educational illustrations for the right and wrong answer choices supercharges your learning experience. The explanations of practice questions should also walk you step by step through each concept, show you how to arrive at the correct answer, and point out where and why you made a mistake if you got the answer wrong. If you want to see what these explanations look like in the UWorld Question Bank, check out the next point.
3. Know what AP Biology questions look like and master all question types
For the MCQs, make sure to do AP-level practice questions in all the formats/types used on the official AP Biology exam (eg, text-based, diagram-based, data table-based, graph-based, calculation-requiring, etc). You can see examples of AP biology multiple-choice questions and get tips on how to find the right answer for each type.
You should also practice writing concise answers to FRQs. The College Board provides FRQs, scoring guidelines, and sample student responses from previous AP Biology exams on their website. Being able to quickly focus on the important aspects of FRQs is essential to scoring a 5 on the AP Biology exam. It is very helpful to write your own answers to FRQs and then use the scoring guidelines to grade them. It’s even more helpful to pair up with another student to grade and discuss each other’s answers using the guidelines.
The more you practice and understand how the FRQs are graded and how to master all MCQ formats on the AP Biology exam, the more skilled you will become at finding the right answers quickly.
4. Use an online study platform with performance tracking features
You want to find AP Biology study materials that allow you to track your performance on practice questions from each unit. For MCQs, the study platform should track your performance by both Biology Content and Science Practices:
Content: AP Biology has about 250 unique sub-topics, meaning that you need to be able to track your performance in each subtopic to be able to see if you have mastered the course. You can find a list of these subtopic in our AP Biology Unit Guide, which will give you a full outline of the course and its content. If you master each of those sub-topics, then you will be able to ace the exam.
Science Practices: In addition to testing content knowledge, the AP Biology exam also tests students’ ability to perform science-related skills. The College Board calls these important skills Science Practices.
All the science practices are tested on both the MCQ and FRQ sections of the AP Biology exam. Therefore, it’s important to keep track of your performance on each science practice as well as your understanding of the sub-topics. This will allow you to identify the science practices or specific types of skills within a science practice that you find difficult so that you can work to improve those areas.
When practicing with FRQs from past AP Biology exams, keep track of your content and science practice performance as you self-grade your answers using the scoring standards from the College Board. Identify specific sub-topics or types of questions that you find especially difficult so that you can spend more time on these.
As you study the science practices assigned to individual AP Biology practice questions, you need to be on the lookout for common mistakes when you are analyzing visual information, creating graphs/tables, performing mathematical calculations, and reasoning scientifically.
Take a look at our AP Biology Course and Exam Description to learn about the science practices tested on the AP Biology exam. The best advice is to choose an educational tool that does this science practice and course content analysis for you.
5. Make flashcards and use spaced repetition technology to test your knowledge levelsAs you learn new material, your level of understanding will vary. Some concepts will click in your mind automatically and you will understand them easily, while others will be harder for you to grasp and leave you feeling a bit unsure. So, think of your learning experience as one where you have to put these AP Biology concepts in buckets where your knowledge level of them is high, medium, or low. For AP Biology content where your knowledge level is low or medium, you should make flashcards of the practice questions you are getting incorrect as well as of any content that you are struggling to fully understand (even if you did get the answer right).
However, you should not forget to keep testing yourself on what you do know extremely well. You still need to continue refreshing your memory on your high knowledge concepts. This is where technology can help you immensely. Find a flashcard tool with integrated spaced repetition technology.
How does spaced repetition technology help you? Well, spaced repetition shows you flashcards with difficult concepts more frequently until you master them, then these concepts are shown less frequently to promote long-term retention. You will always see concepts from all your knowledge levels in the flashcard deck, but they will show up with differing frequency based on your content mastery. This is a huge advantage! Find AP Biology study materials that allow you to make these kinds of virtual flashcards.
6. Keep testing yourself on concepts you are getting wrong
Once you have done enough practice questions and have built a considerable flashcard library, start doing more practice questions on the content you are getting wrong. This is called remediation. Reviewing and then re-testing yourself continuously on what you initially got wrong will really allow you to fully master the content. That’s what will get you a score of 5 on the AP Biology exam. If you have nothing left to get incorrect, then all you have remaining is an upcoming score of 5 on your AP Biology exam. Remember that!
However, there is a catch. Maintaining mastery of concepts will be really important for scoring those extra points on the exam, so make sure you still test yourself on your strengths so you don’t forget these concepts as you improve your weaker areas.
Look for an online platform that has practice questions and a remediation function. The goal is to eventually get to the point where everything is in your high knowledge level and you can walk confidently into the AP Biology exam and ace it.
7. Create a study group with your peers
Consider organizing a study group with classmates who are as motivated as you are to succeed on the AP Biology exam. However, be careful about your group becoming more of a fun social distraction than a productive study group. Your peers must share your same focus and passion to ace the exam.
As you test yourselves with AP-level practice questions and study the flashcard decks together, take turns questioning each other and explaining difficult concepts to one another. More importantly, you can even grade each other’s FRQs and then have good discussions afterward. If you keep each other on track and hold each other accountable, this can be really useful and help you reach your goal!
8. Take mock exams under realistic testing conditions
Finally, as you get closer to the May exam date (1-2 months before), you should begin to do practice questions in the form of mock exams under realistic testing conditions.
For a full length test, this means that you should do 60 MCQs within 90 minutes, and then after a 10-minute break, do 6 FRQs (2 long and 4 short) within 90 minutes.
Make sure to stop during the break and see how you are feeling. Assess your own state, and if you are hungry or thirsty, have a snack or a drink. Then return to your mock exam as if you were in the real testing room.
According to the College Board’s testing policies, you are not allowed to bring food or drink (including bottled water) into the actual testing room. However, with the proctor’s permission, you may leave the testing room during the break to eat a snack or get a drink. Make a mental note to have something on hand to eat and drink during your break the day of the actual exam.
Step IV: Feel confident on test dayYou’re almost at the finish line of our AP Biology Study Guide! This next part is the final leg of your journey in AP Biology. You’ve participated in class, studied hard after school, taken lots of AP Biology practice questions, tested yourself with all your flashcards, and read all the content from your notebook. What comes next is the last hurdle: test day. Just keep in mind that if you’ve followed the AP Biology study tips in this study guide, you’ve done most of the hard work already! Below is some final advice on how to feel well rested and prepared on the day of your AP Biology exam.
1. Make a checklist of all the things you should bring with you on test dayYou will need No. 2 pencils with erasers for the MCQ section, blue or black pens for the FRQs, and an approved calculator (4-function, scientific, or graphing). You should also bring something to eat and drink for the break. Dress comfortably, and be sure you have clothing in layers in case you find the room hot or cold.
2. On the day before the test, avoid cramming and take some time to relaxResist the urge to cram last-minute details and instead focus on making sure you have everything you need for the exam. If possible, do some light exercise like taking a walk to help you relax. Be sure to go to bed on time (or a little early!) that night. Turn off all screens to help you get a good night’s sleep. If you feel anxious before bed, consider a warm bath or caffeine-free tea to help you relax.
3. On test day, eat properly and take your mind off concernsOn test day, eat a healthy, balanced breakfast because your brain needs fuel! Resist the urge to eat sugary or other junk food as this will cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop. Don’t consume more caffeine than you are used to as this will only make you feel jittery. Consider taking a walk again or engaging in other light exercise to help with stress.
4. Use techniques to reduce test day anxietyIt’s okay to feel anxious on the day of the exam! But don’t fret, below are some anxiety reducing tips if you happen to feel this way:
- Double check your checklist to make sure that you have everything you need before you leave for the exam, and get to the test site early. You don’t want to be stressed out about being late or running into traffic.
- Remember that you have already done the hard work! Systematically studying for the test is one of the best ways to help you feel prepared.
- If you struggle with test anxiety, considering getting help before exam day. There are relaxation exercises you can learn, such as deep breathing, systematically relaxing muscles in your body one at a time, or envisioning peaceful or positive situations. Your school counselor may be able to help you learn these techniques, so do not hesitate to reach out to them.
- During the test, focus only on yourself. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow the other students are going.
- Remind yourself again of how hard you worked! That hard work will pay off. Practice positive thinking, such as closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and thinking, “I can do this!”
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