AP® Environmental Science Study Guide

Studying for AP® exams can be extremely stressful without a proper game plan. The following AP Environmental Science study guide provides guidance on how to prepare for the APES exam, starting the first day of school until the exam date.

How to Study for the AP Environmental Science Exam

Being successful on the APES exam is much easier when a strong foundation is set up early on. At the beginning of the school year, prepare an efficient organizational system that will make it easier to find content when reviewing throughout the year for tests. Make a strategy on how to organize notes, labs, assessments, and study materials and keep this organizational system in place throughout the school year. Using color-coded tabs or a labeling system can help save time that can be used for studying.

Having easy access to the basic resources needed to get you started is also important. The following is a list of resources that you should use as study materials and have bookmarked in your browser.

  1. AP Environmental Science Course and Exam Description (CED)

    The CED provides information on the format of the AP exam, topics that will be tested on by unit, and sample AP exam questions. Use this resource to help make study flashcards and as a study guide before unit tests and the AP exam. You can also refer to the College Board®’s AP ES CED that includes sample questions.
  2. AP Classroom

    The AP Classroom has daily AP videos that are connected to the topics in the CED. This resource is best used throughout each unit as a source of notes prior to reviewing for unit tests.
  3. Free Response Questions (FRQs)

    The College Board provides past FRQs with scoring guidelines, student answer samples, and data on score distributions by year. Using this resource throughout the year will help you understand how to apply content from the CED to scenarios on the AP exam.

Read the following sections in this AP Environmental Science study guide for best practices on how to prepare from the first day of your AP class until the APES exam.

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How to prepare for the AP Environmental Science exam

One of the best ways to prepare for the APES exam is to be actively engaged with your learning in class throughout the year. Although a basic understanding of the concepts learned in this course is an important starting point, the application of these concepts to different real-world scenarios is necessary to do well on the AP exam. The following AP Environmental Science exam tips are ways to apply concepts in class to better prepare for the AP exam.

  • Understand the “how” or “why” behind the content

    Memorizing basic information is not enough to do well on the AP exam. Ask questions in class when taking notes, such as “How does changing one part of a process alter the rest of the process?” or “Why is the rest of the process altered by this change?”

  • Make connections between what you are currently learning and your previous knowledge

    One of the big ideas in AP Environmental Science is that everything is interconnected. Being able to make connections between different topics helps you prepare for the AP exam’s FRQs by training your brain to apply previous knowledge to a new scenario.

    For example, when learning about increased urbanization rates, connections can be made between how urbanization will impact the hydrologic cycle, the effects of urbanization on local climate, and the impact of urbanization on primary productivity.

  • Learn case studies and stay current on environmental news

    Case studies are past examples of concepts learned in class, such as the effects of water diversion on the Florida Everglades, that can sometimes be on the AP exam. Although current events will not be tested on the AP exam, current events and case studies are great ways to help make connections to content learned in class and can be used as specific examples on FRQs.

How to pass the AP Environmental Science exam

To get a passing score on the APES exam, you need to receive a score of 3, 4, or 5. Most schools will accept a 3 or higher for course credit and placement, although some schools will only accept a 4 or a 5. In 2022, almost 54% of students who took the APES exam received a passing score. To receive a passing score, you need to perform well on both the multiple-choice (MCQ) and free-response (FRQ) sections of the exam.

In addition to staying organized and actively engaged in the class, passing the AP exam will require practicing many AP style questions. While it’s important to practice AP style questions all year, you should start increasing the amount of time spent practicing these questions in the second semester. Make time each week to practice MCQs and FRQs.

After practicing MCQs, identify topics and science practices from the CED that you need more focus on and make a plan to review these before taking additional practice questions. After practicing FRQs, use the scoring guidelines to identify your score out of 10. Typically, a score of 5 or more out of 10 points will be above average and get you a passing score on the APES exam.

How can one improve their score on the AP Environmental Science exam?

The best indicators for how you will perform on the AP exam are the scores you receive on assessments that use AP style questions. Here are some AP Environmental Science exam tips and techniques to help you study better for these assessments and perform better on the AP exam.

  1. Prepare your study materials as you are learning the content in class

    After learning a new topic in class, spend time making flashcards while the information is fresh in your mind and filling any gaps in understanding by watching AP daily videos and reviewing the CED.
  2. Teach others

    Being able to teach others about a topic you have learned requires a deeper level of understanding, which is necessary for a higher AP exam score. Get a study group together where you take turns teaching the information that will be tested, or ask a friend or parent to listen to your explanation of a concept.
  3. Learn from past assessments

    After each quiz or test in class, take notes on missed questions that include any misconceptions in the content and test taking skills that can help narrow down the answer choices for future assessments.
  4. Focus study time on difficult concepts

    While it is important to review all material that will be on an assessment, make sure to spend most of your study time reviewing concepts that are more difficult for you.
  5. Practice the way you will be tested

    When practicing AP style questions, such as those on UWorld, make sure to remove or silence any distractions; put away notes or any information that can help you, use a calculator that is approved for the APES exam, and set a timer for the same time-frame that will be expected on the actual test day: approximately 1 minute per MCQ and 23 minutes per FRQ.
  6. Be comfortable performing calculations

    Mathematical routines make up 6-9% of MCQs and 20% of FRQs. The APES exam does not have an equation or formula sheet, so all equations need to be memorized. Look at the APES formula sheet to see which equations you should know for the APES exam.

How to get a 5 on AP Environmental Science

To receive a 5 on the APES exam, students need to have high scores on both the multiple-choice and free-response sections. Of the students who took the APES exam in 2022, only 9% received a 5. The main difference between students who receive a 5 versus a 4 on the AP exam is that they are able to make stronger connections between concepts and perform better on the FRQs. Here are some AP Environmental Science exam tips on the best study practices to help you achieve a 5 on the APES exam.

  1. Set aside plenty of time outside of class to review each week

    Use this time to rewrite notes, go through flashcards, draw diagrams to make connections between concepts, watch lecture videos, teach others, and practice AP style questions.
  2.  Have a strong knowledge of the content

    Make sure that each topic in the CED is well understood. As you are studying units 5–9, make connections with the background information from units 1–4 to understand the bigger ideas that are needed for the exam.
  3.  Understand the scoring guidelines for FRQs

    Students who understand the task verbs outlined in the CED and scoring guidelines for the FRQs perform better on the AP exam. Learn how to write answers based on the task verbs. When scoring your answers for the “describe” or “explain” task verbs, look through the student samples and how they were scored to see how much information needs to be written to receive credit. 

    Often, the scoring guidelines do not provide all the information that is needed to receive credit for task verbs that require further connections to be made. It is also helpful to have a study partner or your teacher regrade your FRQ to see if they agree with the score you gave yourself. Also, do not give points for answers not found in the scoring guidelines. If you feel that your answer could be correct, ask your teacher why it was not included in the scoring guidelines. Most often, the language of the prompt can make an answer incorrect. So, be careful while drafting your FRQ answers.

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What units are most difficult to learn or require focus due to complexity?

While each unit will have content within it that is difficult to learn, the units that will require more focus due to the complexity of the content include:

  • Unit 4: Earth Systems and Resources
  • Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution
  • Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution
  • Unit 9: Global Change

How to review for the AP Environmental Science exam

When reviewing for the APES exam, it is important to give yourself plenty of time and avoid cramming. Plan on starting to review at least a month before the APES exam. While everyone reviews in a different way, you should include at least two practice exams in your AP Environmental Science study plan. It would be best to take one practice exam at the beginning of your review to determine the content you should focus the most time on, and take the second practice exam a week before the exam to determine any last-minute review you may need.

How to self study for the AP environmental science exam

If you are taking the AP Environmental Science exam but have not signed up for the class, it is important to give yourself at least 3 months to learn the information and take practice questions. Along with taking notes from the CED and lecture videos, it is important to find resources that provide quality AP style questions to get you prepared for the AP exam. The past FRQs on the College Board website are great resources to learn how to write FRQs. It will also be extremely beneficial to purchase review books or online test-prep materials that provide lessons over content as well as AP style questions.

UWorld is an example of an online test-prep resource with quality AP style MCQs that can be used throughout the learning process. The explanation for each question includes an image to help visualize the question, a mini-lesson of the content found in the CED, and the wrong answer explanations. UWorld’s learning platform also includes a digital notebook and the ability to make flashcards that can facilitate learning in the beginning and reviewing closer to the exam date.

Now let’s get onto learning how to create a good study plan that suits your test-prep requirements. In the next section of this AP Environmental Science study guide, there are examples of a 2 week, 1 month, or 3 month AP Environmental Science study plan.

AP Environmental Science Study Exam Tips

As it gets closer to the AP test date, you will need to put together an AP Environmental Science study plan to review information from the whole year. For any study plan to be successful, it needs to be flexible enough to fit the restrictions of your schedule.

How to plan an AP Environmental Science study schedule?

Below are some examples of how to set up a 9 unit AP Environmental Science study plan with 3 months, 1 month, and 2 weeks to prepare before the APES exam.

  1. 3-month AP Environmental Science study plan

    This plan is ideal for students who have busy schedules or need more time to review content and watch videos. Plan on reviewing 1 unit from the CED per week for about 3-6 hours per week. The last 3 weeks should be used to practice FRQs and take full-length practice exams.
  2. 1-month AP Environmental Science study plan

    This plan is useful for students who have more time in their schedules to study. With only 1 month to prepare for the APES exam, plan on reviewing 3 units from the CED per week and taking 1 timed FRQ each week. The last week should be used to take full-length practice exams.
  3.  2-week AP Environmental Science study plan

    This plan is not ideal for most students, but it can work for students that have been actively engaged in learning throughout the course, have done well on assessments, and only need minimal content review. Plan on spending these 2 weeks practicing FRQs and taking full-length practice exams. After each practice exam, review the content for any questions you might’ve missed.

How much time do you need to dedicate for the AP Environmental Science exam to score a 3, 4, or 5?

While the amount of time needed to study throughout the year varies person-to-person, you should plan on dedicating plenty of time closer to the AP exam on taking practice MCQs and FRQs as well as timed full-length practice exams. Outside of class work, you should plan on dedicating at least one month before the AP exam to reviewing and practicing questions. Below is the timing and ways to approach each section of the AP exam.

  • How to Approach AP Environmental Science MCQ

    You will have 90 minutes to complete 80 MCQs on the first section of the APES exam. This allows for a little over a minute per question. When practicing multiple choice questions, make sure to practice each science practice outlined in the CED. The APES exam has 7 science practices, which include concept explanation, visual representation, text analysis, scientific experiments, data analysis, mathematical routines, and environmental solutions. 
  • How to Approach AP Environmental Science FRQ

    You will have 70 minutes to take 3 FRQs on the second section of the APES exam. This allows for about 23 minutes per FRQ. The first FRQ is a scientific experiment question, the second FRQ is an environmental solutions based question, and the third FRQ is an environmental solutions based question using mathematical routines.

AP Environmental Science Review/Study Materials

Some resources to help make your exam prep more successful:

  • Video Lectures

    There are many video lectures that you can find to help you learn the content, such as the AP daily videos on AP Classroom.
  • Free-Response Question Samples

    FRQs that have previously been tested can be found on the College Board website. This is a great resource to learn how to write and score FRQs for the section of the AP exam.
  • AP Classroom

    AP Classroom is a great resource that provides lecture videos covering the content found in the CED as well as a question bank with AP questions.
  • UWorld AP Exam Prep

    UWorld is a great study tool that provides a digital question bank with over 300 APES MCQs to practice. Each question gives thorough explanations that include a mini-lesson linked to the topics from the CED, an informative visual that reinforces the content, and an explanation for each wrong answer choice. The use of AP Environmental Science practice tests can help fill any gaps in understanding and narrow your focus on the content that needs to be reviewed before the AP exam.
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