Everything You Need To Know About
The AP® Environmental Science Exam

The AP® Environmental Science exam assesses your knowledge of the environment, the risks and problems associated with it, and how well you provide possible solutions to them. APES can work well for you if you’re interested in careers like environmental engineering, scientific research, or environmental planning. If you do well on the AP Environmental Science exam, you can earn college credit and placement for these majors and other related fields.

If you’re planning a major in this subject and want to know more about the AP ES exam, this guide will help you learn its prerequisites, format, and topics. We’ll also answer questions on whether it can be a challenging exam to pass, and whether opting for it can help your career goals. By the end of this article, you’ll be all set to decide whether APES might be a right fit for you.

What Is AP Environmental Science Equivalent to & Who Can Take It?

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary subject that focuses on ecological processes, human impacts on the environment, and possible solutions to repair or avoid natural and man-made environmental problems. The AP Environmental Science course is equivalent to a one-semester introductory college course in environmental science. Most schools offer APES as a whole-year course. However, some may offer it as a semester-long course. Check with your school and AP teacher to learn how your school offers it.

But before opting for the AP Environmental Science exam and course, you might have a few questions in mind. Let’s address those one by one:

1. Is AP Environmental Science an elective?

Yes, AP Environmental Science is typically taken as an elective course.

2. Is AP Environmental Science a physical, biological, or social science?

It includes topics from geology, biology, environmental studies, environmental science, chemistry, and geography.

3. What is the purpose of AP Environmental Science?

The purpose of this course and exam is to help you understand how the natural world works by studying its scientific principles, concepts, and methods. You'll also learn to recognize and study environmental issues, assess their risks, and find ways to solve or stop them.

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What Is on the AP Environmental Science Exam?

The AP Environmental Science exam assesses you based on two categories: course units and concepts, and science practices, as established by the College Board®. The course content comprises units and topics, and overarching these are four fundamental themes, called “big ideas”. Let’s look at what the four big ideas are:

  1. Energy Transfer
  2. Interactions Between Earth Systems
  3. Interactions Between Different Species And The Environment
  4. Sustainability

These big ideas serve as the foundation of the course and will help you create meaningful connections between the units. Revisiting the big ideas and applying them in a variety of contexts will help you develop a deeper conceptual understanding of the subject.

The four big ideas are spread out among nine course units. Let’s look at what these units are:

  • Unit 1: The Living World: Ecosystems
  • Unit 2: The Living World: Biodiversity
  • Unit 3: Populations
  • Unit 4: Earth Systems and Resources
  • Unit 5: Land and Water Use
  • Unit 6: Energy Resources and Consumption
  • Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution
  • Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution
  • Unit 9: Global Change

As you journey through the APES course units, you’ll develop skills categorized under seven science practices. These science practices are central to the study and practice of AP environmental science, and you should apply them regularly during your test prep. Remember that all exam questions will ask you to apply one or more of these practices to derive solutions. So, let’s take a look at what these are:

  1. Concept Explanation
  2. Visual Representations
  3. Text Analysis
  4. Scientific Experiments
  5. Data Analysis
  6. Mathematical Routines
  7. Environmental Solutions

Curious to learn more about AP Environmental Science course units and science practices? Check out our guide to the AP Environmental Science course and exam description here.

AP Environmental Science Exam Format for 2024

The AP Environmental Science exam takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to complete, and it has two sections:

  • Section I: Multiple-choice section (MCQ), and
  • Section II: Free-response section (FRQ)
Question Type No. of Questions Time Score Weight
Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQ) 80 1 hr 30 mins 60% of the total score
Free-Response Questions (FRQ) 3 1 hr 10 mins 40% of the total score

Section I: Multiple-choice questions (MCQs)

Section l has 80 MCQs and you will have 1 hour and 30 minutes to answer them. The recommendation is to tackle 1 MCQ per minute, so you have an extra 10-minute window to review your answers or attempt any difficult questions you might have missed before. Since there is no penalty for wrong answers in this section, make sure to answer every question, even if you have to take a guess.

Now let’s talk about the types of MCQs in Section I. The MCQ section is a combination of individual questions and set-based questions.

Individual questions will occur as standalone prompts with 5 answer choices, and you’ll have to pick the correct option from those.

Set-based questions come in a group of multiple questions that relate to one common data point or illustration. There may be 8 to 10 sets of questions, and each set will test you on specific concepts, topics, and skills you’ve learned during your APES course. Let’s learn a bit more about these set-based questions:

  • 3–4 sets will be based on quantitative data, like data tables, graphs or charts
  • 3–4 sets will be based on qualitative data or information, like representations, models or maps
  • 2 sets will be based on text-based sources

Section II: Free-response questions (FRQs)

Section ll includes three free-response questions, and students will have 1 hour and 10 minutes to answer these questions. These answers require paragraph-form answers.

If you want to learn more about the exam format and the topics you will be assessed on, visit our page on the AP Environmental Science exam format. Now, let's talk about the most important part of this post: Why should you opt for AP Environmental Science? Let's find out!

Why Take AP Environmental Science?

AP Environmental Science isn't just another boring science class you have to sit through for a credit or to kill time in your schedule. It's actually a pretty cool subject that offers you a bunch of awesome perks on top of being an AP course. Check out all the awesome things APES can do for you:

  1. Fits your bill for a versatile course

    Are you looking for a course that can fit into both the sciences and the social sciences? Then APES is your answer. It will help for social science majors like anthropology, geography, urban and area studies, as well as those cool science subjects like marine biology, geology, ecology, and environmental engineering.

  2. Boosts your high school transcript and college applications

    Your AP scores often get more weight than your regular GPA. So, believe it or not, getting an average grade in an AP class is often seen as more impressive than acing a regular high school exam. A high AP score will also impress the college admissions officers and make it easier for you to get into your dream colleges.

  3. Gets you easy college credits

    An AP Environmental Science score of 3 or higher can get you college credits at many schools. UPenn, Brown, Arizona State University, and Arkansas State University are just a few among many who give you credit for your APES scores.

  4. Helps you get placed in advanced college courses

    In addition to credits, a good APES score lets you skip through introductory environmental science courses and get placed in advanced or intermediate college courses in your freshman year. Love getting a head start? Here’s your pass!

  5. Saves you time and money

    The credit and placement you earn through your APES score will make you spend less on college tuition. As you skip introductory classes, you’ll need less time to graduate, so you end up spending less time and money on college, unlike your non-AP peers.

Should I Take AP Environmental Science?

Every AP class is challenging, and AP Environmental Science is no different. But, even with all the awesome benefits you get with APES, you still need to ask yourself whether it is the right fit for you. Here are a few pointers that can help:

  • What are your career goals?

    If you want to learn about science in a well-rounded way that helps solve problems in the real world, AP Environmental Science is a good choice. You should choose a different AP science exam if you want a more traditional science course that focuses on a single scientific field.

  • Are you flexible with your major?

    Planning your college major to the tee is not always necessary! If you're still undecided between science and social sciences for your college courses and don't want to miss out on those valuable credits, AP Environmental Science is your go-to. This course offers flexibility, allowing you to pursue a major in either science or social sciences and still earn credits and/or placement.

  • Does APES suit your skill set and study habits?

    Like most AP courses, APES requires a specific set of skills and study interests. The AP Environmental Science course is a science class that also includes history, geography, biology, math, chemistry, and a lot of other topics. You need to memorize concepts, understand issues, analyze problems through data and other information, and deduce solutions to the problems. If you are already good with these, APES can be easy for you to ace!

  • How does APES fit into your AP class schedule?

    When compared to other AP Science courses, AP Environmental Science can initially appear to be the simpler option. However, this course can be hard and isn't for everyone. Before you select APES, consider your existing AP schedule and whether it can accommodate another course. It is always better to score well on fewer subjects than poorly on many. Remember not to stuff yourself with too many AP courses and burn yourself out.

Finally, before you make this choice, talk to your teachers, seniors, guidance counselor, and parents for advice. Remember, a big chunk of your AP success depends on your AP teacher! Knowing the APES course and exam description will also help you decide whether you should opt for it.

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Illustration of sulfur dioxide released from coal burning

Is AP Environmental Science Hard?

More than being “hard”, AP Environmental Science is considered a very broad and heavyweight course. If you want to succeed on the AP Environmental Science exam, you'll want to know how many people pass the test. In 2023, almost 54% of students passed the AP Environmental Science exam with a score of 3 or above, and about 8% scored a 5.

However, numbers are rarely the correct indicators of an exam’s difficulty. A less popular exam will have fewer students taking it, and therefore, the number of students acing it will also be lower. As mentioned above, what you should consider is whether or not AP Environmental Science suits your career interests, skills, and academic abilities. You can always take the test again if your score isn't what you wanted.

AP Environmental Science Review Tips

Although the AP Environmental Science exam can be difficult, we have put together a few review tips to help get you a head start on APES success!

  1. Create a dedicated study schedule and stick to it:

    The best way to keep track of the topics you've covered and the ones you still need to work on is to have a well-planned APES study plan.

  2. Learn the APES exam format:

    Understanding the exam format will help you know exactly what to expect on the exam. That way, you will be able to manage time effectively and won’t miss out on easy questions. You’ll also be able to take some extra time to review your answers.

  3. Review materials:

    Invest in quality review materials, such as UWorld's online AP Environmental Science practice tests, which come with learning tools like flashcards to help you retain more of what you learn. You can also check out our APES formula sheet and keep it handy for a quick review.

Our practice tests also let you choose the number of questions you want to test and track your progress with detailed answer explanations and illustrations for easy learning.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The following items are required for the AP Environmental Science exam:

  • An acceptable I.D. card
  • No. 2 pencils for your multiple-choice answer sheet. (Students outside the U.S.: bring HB or No. 2 pencils.)
  • Pens with black or dark blue ink for completing areas on the exam booklet covers and for free-response questions.
  • An acceptable calculator.

The AP Environmental Science exam for 2024 is on Thursday, May 9, 8 a.m. local time.

Students typically take AP Environmental Science during their junior year (11th grade) or senior year (12th grade). The specific grade level and prerequisites may vary from school to school, so it’s advisable to consult your school’s guidance counselor or the AP coordinator for guidance on when to take the course.

The College Board suggests students to wait until they have taken two years of AP laboratory sciences, like biology and chemistry, and one year of algebra before taking AP Environmental Science.

You can find previous AP Environmental Science past exam questions on the College Board website.

“Failing” the AP Environmental Science exam, or earning under a 3, does not have any direct negative consequences for your high school record or GPA. It also does not typically impact your chances of college admission, as admissions decisions are based on a holistic review of your academic performance, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and other factors.

The AP Environmental Science exam costs $97 for students residing in the U.S., Canada, and U.S. territories and $127 for everyone else. You can learn more about this on our AP Exam Eligibility & Registration page.

AP Environmental Science can be a valuable course for pre-medical students, but it may not be a central requirement for admission to medical school. APES can be a good choice for pre-med students who have a genuine interest in environmental science and its potential connections to health, which can help them shine in the fields of public health and medicine.

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Diagrams showing how greenhouse gasses accumulate impact the Earth’s global warming potential.

Read More About the AP Environmental Science Exam

Want to know how the AP Environmental Science Exam is set up? Here’s a simple guide that breaks down the parts of the exam, question types, sections, and more format info you need!
It takes a long time to go through the entire CED PDF. See the AP Environmental Science Course and Exam Description for a comprehensive overview of the exam, units, topics & key skills.
Trying to figure out how the AP Environmental Science exam is graded? Everything you need to know about test scores can be found right here. And the score calculator is even included!
Getting into a prestigious college requires a perfect 5 in AP. Here’s our AP Environmental Science study guide, written by experts and packed with useful info to help you ace the test.
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