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How to Put the "A" in AP Classes

A junior with 11 courses under her belt offers tips on how to ace advanced placement classes.

“Expect one to two hours of homework per night, per class.” The woman in the front of the room somehow managed to even click to the next slide of the PowerPoint intimidatingly. My tiny freshman form shook in my seat as a million doubts flew through my mind. I took AP Human Geography this year, but World History is supposed to be so much harder…Maybe I should just take honors.

This might just be a “my school” thing, but there’s an annual AP meeting in the theater where the guidance counselors try to intimidate slackers out of the AP program by explaining the amount of work and dedication expected of every student. They might be hyperbolizing it a bit to have more of an effect—which is understandable, because APs are a big commitment.

I have 11 AP classes under my belt as of this year, and I have scraped a respectable grade on every exam I’ve taken and managed a natural A in every class. (The exception to both of those statements, however, is Physics II, in which I pulled a natural 86 and an AP exam score to match the name of the class). With such a résumé, I feel inclined to share what I wish I had known two years ago. So, without further ado, here are five tips on how to get A’s in APs from someone who has tried just about everything.

1. Read. The. Book.

That’s all. Just do it.

Okay, I’ll give you a little more elaboration. I wish I had some alternative for you, but there’s a reason those textbooks are so heavy and pricey: they’re loaded with invaluable knowledge. I got into textbooks in my junior year, and as a result, my cumulative average went up about four points in every class. Those questions that are “totally unfair” because they relate to material your teacher never covered in class are most likely in your textbook. I've found that reviewing the textbook two days before the test, just to solidify all of the information, is the best way to do well in my social studies classes. Other than that I just read it when I am thoroughly confused in math and science classes (with the exception of statistics, where I owe it my grade), and it almost always clears up the problem. I know it sounds painful, but read the book and watch your grades soar.

2. Talk to your teachers

Your approach is vital here. When I say “talk to your teachers,” I don’t mean go to them after school and complain that you have a B in their class and whine for them to fix it. There’s a big difference between “Ms. Park, I have a B in your class because I failed that one test and I really want an A. Can you give me some bonus points?” and “Ms. Park, I found the material on that Chapter 9 test really difficult, and I got some tutoring through NHS and now I feel much better about it. As of right now, I feel like my grade in your class doesn’t reflect my understanding of the material; is there any way I can work with you to get some extra credit in the hopes of bringing my grade up?”

Now, let’s analyze some operative differences here (besides the length), the primary one being intent. In one case, you’re upset that you have a B and you sound like a grade grubber looking for an A; in another, you want to prove to your teacher that you really do understand the material. Additionally, in the second scenario, you’ve done some footwork to make sure you’ve actually learned something, which is, believe it or not, every teacher’s primary goal for you. Frankly, it should be your primary goal too.

3. Accept tutoring

I was hot stuff in my own mind during sophomore math. I had never gotten a B in my life, and I was determined to ace this class with no studying, just like every class before—until I got a 64 on my first test. Yikes! That’ll kill some dreams. Even so, I shrugged it off as a fluke and vowed to do better on the next test: 77. Well, I did technically do better! Even so, after months of convincing myself I was too smart for tutoring, I finished with an 86. I still regret that grade to this day, and I am confident that if I had accepted any form of help, I would have finished with a much better grade. (My school’s Math Honor Society offers free tutoring before and after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the National Honor Society offers free tutoring on Wednesdays—I had no excuse.) Even if you’re used to tutoring others rather than being tutored, don’t let your pride stop you from accepting help! There’s no reason to be ashamed of not understanding something, and even if you do feel embarrassed, the A in the grade book will make you completely forget your undeserved shame.

4. Actually study

You may be like me: the type of kid who never studied for tests and pulled A’s with little to no problem. Then you enrolled in three AP classes without changing your study habits, and suddenly you’re drowning in C’s and don’t know what to do. I have been where you are, and there is an answer: studying. “But Katie!” you chortle, “I’ve been in gifted & talented since I was five! I don’t need to study! Studying is for other kids!” You’re right. In that regard, studying is for other kids: kids who are getting A’s. Look up study tactics online (for example, as a visual learner, I make Quizlets for every vocab quiz ever and study them until I can say the definitions word perfect) and, again, swallow your pride and study.

5. Do your homework

At my school, homework is passé. Someone has to be doing it, because the pictures of the completed work come from somewhere (or people just copy from the back of the book. The girl who sits catty-corner to me in statistics wrote “answers may vary” for her homework answer and thought our teacher wouldn’t notice. Seriously!?). But it feels like no one ever bothers to do their homework because of said pictures. It's just so easy. As tempting as it can be to either copy the homework or shrug it off, you need to do it. This is vital not only to getting an A, but to getting above a 3 on the AP exam. How can you know what questions you have until you do the homework? How else are you going to get practice calculating the pH of a solution if an HSCN buffer is added? Short answer: you won’t. Take my opinion with a grain of salt, but that 86 in my math class (which wasn’t even AP, by the way) was also a result of me being a chronic homework copier. Since I’ve started doing my own homework, my grades have improved, and more importantly, my understanding of the content has improved, I am confident that yours will do the same. 

The moral of the story is you don’t have to put that much more time into an AP class than, say, an honors class; the true distinction is the quality of the time that you put in. Manage your time, focus your energy, and work hard, and you’ll be fine. Best of luck!

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About Katie Nagy

Katie Nagy is a high school senior in northeastern Georgia. When she isn't obsessively researching colleges or studying for the SAT, she enjoys practicing martial arts, playing viola, baking, and, of course, writing.

You can follow Katie on Instagram.


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