AP® Environmental Science Free-Response Questions (FRQs)

The AP® Environmental Science exam consists of two sections: Section I includes 80 multiple-choice questions (MCQ), and Section II includes 3 free-response questions (FRQ). In order to do well on the exam, you need to learn the strategies for specific skills associated with each section of the exam. The following AP ES FRQ guide will provide you with tips and strategies to set you up for success on your exam.

Format of AP Environmental Science FRQ section

There are 70 minutes allotted for the FRQ section, allowing approximately 23 minutes for each question. Since Section II makes up 40% of the overall score, performing well on it is necessary to receive a high score on the AP ES exam. You will encounter the following types of questions in this section:

Question Question Type Points
FRQ 1 Design an Investigation 10
FRQ 2 Analyze an Environmental Problem and Propose a Solution 10
FRQ 3 Analyze an Environmental Problem and Propose a Solution doing Calculations 10
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Illustration of sulfur dioxide released from coal burning

How to Answer AP Environmental Science FRQs?

Here are some tips and strategies on how to answer the APES FRQs:

  1. Writing techniques to receive the most points

    When answering the FRQs, it is important to keep in mind how they will be graded. Each answer will be scored by an AP reader who uses predetermined rubrics called the scoring guidelines. To receive the most points, your answer should be easy to find, read, and include the required information and specific examples. Follow these tips:

    • Label each part of the question you are answering (Ai, Aii, Bi, etc.) instead of writing in one long paragraph.
    • Leave space between each labeled part of the question in case you need to add more information later.
    • Practice writing FRQs in blue or black pen to make sure your handwriting is legible.
    • If the question asks for one example, do not provide more than one example. If you provide more than one example, only the first example you provide can be scored, even if a later example is correct. Also, if one of the other examples you provide contradicts the first correct example, you can lose your points instead.
    • Do not restate the question. You do not get points for mentioning what is already written in the question. Write unique points with specific examples to show your knowledge and grasp of the subject. Do not be vague while answering any question. Avoid phrases such as “is good for the environment”, “is greener", or “is toxic” without explaining the “why” behind them. This means that writing something like “DDT is toxic to organisms,” without mentioning “why” it is toxic will gain you no points. Instead, try providing specific details, such as “DDT is an endocrine disruptor that thins the eggshells of birds of prey,” to show that you understand the concepts covered in class.
    • For questions that ask for an economic factor, relate your answer to money, jobs, or tourism. For questions looking for a societal factor, relate your answer to people. For questions related to an environmental factor, write about the living and nonliving portions of the environment, but do not include people.
  2. Know how to answer questions based on the task verbs

    Each question on the APES FRQ section has task verbs that are bolded. Below is a list of the most common task verbs you will see on the FRQs and how to write your responses to each.

    • Identify

      When writing your response to the “identify” task verb, only answer the question in a single sentence. If you are identifying an answer from a graph, make sure to include the specifics of the question. For example, if the question asks you to identify a value, only provide a single number. Do not include a range or an approximate value. If the question asks for a range, then a starting and ending value should be provided.

    • Describe

      When writing a response to the “describe” task verb, answer in one or two sentences by answering the question and providing the details associated with the topic. For example, for a question that asks about a specific process, provide information related to the process, such as products formed from the process or conditions necessary for the process to occur.

    • Explain

      When writing a response to the “explain” task verb, answer in two or three sentences by answering the question and including the reason for how or why the situation from the question occurs.

    • Calculate

      When writing a response to the “calculate” task verb, answer the question by showing mathematical routines. Do not write out the answer in words. Write out the equation used to solve the question and the values used in the equation, including units. Remember to show your answer clearly, including units. If you do not do so, you will receive no points for these questions. Go through our AP Environmental Science formula sheet to know all the important formulas and equations you need to memorize for the exam.

    • Make a Claim

      When writing a response to the “make a claim” task verb, answer the question in one sentence. For this question, you need to make a prediction based on the content knowledge and data provided.

    • Justify

      When writing a response to the “justify” task verb, answer the question in two or three sentences. The answer to this question needs to be linked to the claim or proposed solution made in the previous answer. Make sure to provide a reason for how or why the claim is correct using evidence from the data provided or content knowledge.

    • Propose a Solution

      When writing a response to the “propose a solution” task verb, answer the question in one or two sentences. Make sure that the solution to the environmental problem in the question is realistic. Typically, banning an activity and passing laws are not considered realistic solutions because of the feasibility and time frame required for these to occur.

  3. Read the questions carefully

    Each question will provide information on what to include and what not to include in your answers. As you read a question, underline important information, such as task verbs, values, units, or the information you need to exclude. When you are finished writing your answer, re-read the question to make sure that you included all the necessary details and did not write anything that wasn’t required.

AP Environmental Science FRQ Examples

Although each FRQ will use the same task verbs like identify, describe, or explain to check your knowledge related to the given prompt, they will require different types of approaches while answering the answer. Below are examples of each AP Environmental Science free-response question that you will see on the exam.

For FRQ 1, you will be given information on an experiment that you will have to analyze and answer questions related to the design. Design elements of an investigation that you will be required to identify or describe include the scientific question (the question the hypothesis will answer), hypothesis (prediction on how the independent variable impacts the dependent variable), independent variable (the treatment applied), dependent variable (the data that is collected), and the control group (the group that did not receive the treatment). This FRQ might also ask you to make a claim from the experiment and justify your claim. Below is FRQ 1 on Set 2 from the released 2021 APES exam questions on the College Board® website.

Directions: Answer all three questions, which are weighted equally; the suggested time is about 22 minutes for answering each question. Write all your answers in the Free Response booklet. Where calculations are required, clearly show how you arrived at your answer. Where explanation or discussion is required, support your answers with relevant information and/or specific examples. You may plan your answers in this orange booklet, but no credit will be given for anything written in this booklet. You will only earn credit for what you write in the separate Free Response booklet.

Soil erosion is one of the most serious soil-degrading processes. Each year tons of soil erode from cropland, pastures, forests, and other places. The amount of erosion varies dramatically among various land-use types. The figure above shows the effects of different agricultural practices and slopes on annual erosion rates.

  1. Refer to the graph above for the following.
    1. Identify the scientific question that resulted in the data presented in the graph.
    2. Identify the agricultural practice that could be used on a 15% slope without leading to a higher than tolerable loss of soil.
    3. Describe the effect of adding a cover crop compared to using the no-till method.
    4. Identify one natural mechanism of soil erosion.
  2. Sediment from erosion can enter streams and affect water quality. One way sediment can enter a stream is from nearby road construction. Two methods to reduce sediment run-off in streams are to either put down straw bales or plant grass. The hypothesis to be tested is that straw bales reduce more sediment run-off than planted grass does. To test the hypothesis, two plots near a road under construction are measured. On one plot (A), straw bales are used to cover the soil, while a second plot (B) is planted with grass. The sediment discharge from each plot is measured after rainfall.
    1. Identify the dependent variable stated in the hypothesis.
    2. Describe one way to add a control to improve the design of the study.
    3. Identify one variable that was not discussed that could affect the results of the study.

      Sediments reaching streams affect water clarity, which is tested by determining turbidity. Turbidity can be determined by measuring the depth at which a submerged object can no longer be seen from the surface.

      Sample Group Turbidity
      Straw bale plots (plot A) 12 cm
      Planted grass plots (plot B) 28 cm
    4. Based on the data in the table above, make a claim about the stated hypothesis.
  3. Several fish species lay their eggs in the gravel in the streams under investigation in the study.
    1. Describe the type of survivorship curve expected for these fish species.
    2. Explain why the input of sediment to a stream can negatively affect reproduction of fish that lay their eggs in the gravel of the streambed.

Source: CollegeBoard

How can I Practice AP Environmental Science Free-Response Questions?

Practicing the AP ES FRQs is important to develop the skills required to perform well on this section and to understand what types of questions you can expect to see on exam day. Here are some online resources as well as mini lessons you can use for your AP ES FRQ practice and content knowledge.

To learn tips and strategies for Section I of the APES exam, be sure to read our blog on how to approach AP Environmental Science multiple-choice questions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

The AP Environmental Science free-response questions are graded by high school AP Environmental Science teachers and college professors. These graders are provided with a rubric, called the scoring guidelines, that they use to give a score of 0 to 10 on each FRQ.

There will be 70 minutes to complete the FRQ section of the AP Environmental Science exam.

You can find the past year’s AP Environmental Science free-response questions with their scoring guidelines on the College Board Website.

There are 3 FRQs on the AP Environmental Science exam that you need to complete in 70 minutes.

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

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