AP tests aren’t like just any other test you’ve taken in high school—they’re a glimpse into what you can expect from college-level exams. I don’t say all this to scare you; it’s just so you’re fully prepared for what you’re walking into. If you approach your studying right, you can conquer any test you set your mind to. So whether you’re tackling your very first AP test this year or prepping for your very last one, here are 10 study tips that’ll help you score high on any AP exam.
1. Study early, study smart
Having more time to study is almost always helpful. There’s about a month until AP tests, so getting to work now will really give you a good start before the real crunch time later in April. More time to review the citric acid cycle is always a plus—it just makes sense. Just a short review session every day (or every other day) will, at the very least, give you a nice head start on that daunting AP Biology curriculum. Just five minutes a day is all you need. Five. Minutes. No more, no less. You probably spend that much time brushing your teeth and washing your face before bed. You can spend five minutes a day reviewing AP Psychology vocabulary with flashcards before bed, watching a review video for AP European History while waiting at the bus stop, or even review some practice AP Statistics questions during free time in between classes.
2. Make a study schedule
Take 10 minutes to write up a quick schedule for the coming month. It doesn’t have to be perfectly color-coordinated and covered with stickers to be effective either. Having a simple schedule where you practice AP English Literature free-response questions (FRQs) every Saturday at 10:00 am is perfectly fine as long as it matches your schedule and helps you learn. To make an effective study schedule, think about when your optimal productivity times are. For example, I’m at my most alert in the late morning, and I’m absolutely out of it by late evening. You might be at your sharpest in the afternoon or in the evening, but the idea still stands. Try to center your studying plans around lulls in your busy student schedule too. (“Hmm, I’ve got a soccer game at 10:00 am and lunch with my sister at 2:00 pm, so I have some time in between to review Southeast Asian artwork for AP Art History…”). Studying for short bursts of time is often one of the best ways to prepare.
3. Drink water
Keeping hydrated while studying is super simple, and you’ve definitely have heard this tip before. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating how just drinking your H2O can really up your studying game. I got a one-liter disposable water bottle from my local grocery store for two bucks that I’ve been using to stay hydrated. I feel a lot more energized when I drink it, and it’s super noticeable if I go a few hours without water. I feel drained and super gross. Your brain is like a muscle; you’ve got to keep it healthy and raring to go! Having a water bottle isn’t a massive time drain either, since it only takes about a minute to refill the average water bottle. You probably even have a reusable water bottle in your home right now, so fill up and drink up.
4. Really test if you know the information
Never settle. What do I, a simple high school senior, mean by that? It’s simple. Have you ever been studying with flashcards, and almost get the answer right, but not quite? And then do you just let it go? Move on? “It’s close enough,” you say. Don’t do that. Why? Your AP test proctor won’t care if you almost, nearly, kinda get it. Either you get it or you don’t. Those holes in your knowledge become the difference between getting a four and a three. (A four is the lowest score many colleges will accepts AP scores for credit.) “So what if I don’t pass one exam, I can just take it in college. Jeez Ryan, you need to chill out.” To that I say: Passing one AP test now is the difference between paying $500 to wake up at 8:00 am every Thursday for a dreadfully boring Macroeconomics 101 lecture where a dull professor drones on about laissez-faire economics and sleeping in because you earned those college credits with a high AP test score. Which would you prefer?
5. Practice using actual AP test questions (including FRQs)
You shouldn’t walk into the test room in May having never practiced an AP US History FRQ (seriously, those things are hard!). Learning that you need to practice time management when your timer suddenly rings and you’re still on the first question, or finding out you have no clue what superimposed boundaries are a week before the test, is absolutely invaluable information. The latter actually happened to my AP Human Geography class in my freshman year; none of us had ever heard of “superimposed boundaries” before. I, fortunately, reviewed them with my AP Human review book the week before. In addition, you can see general subject trends from AP tests in years past. There have been 21 AP Macroeconomics FRQs about currency valuation since 2005. Google is your best friend when searching for these things; they’re all over the Internet.
6. Put yourself in a similar testing environment
Getting used to taking the test will make you more prepared. But little things like using a timer and clearing your desk of all other materials can really help you when you’re actually taking the test—you’ll be less distracted by minor details. Practicing timed tests can really help you estimate how much time you need for specific sections. A timer can also make it more clear which sections you’re getting stuck and wasting valuable time on. Knowing this will help better direct your studies to strengthen your areas of weakness.
7. Ask your teacher clarifying questions
Your teacher is one of the most valuable resources you have. Asking them a few questions that you came up with while reviewing isn’t frowned upon, so don't be embarrassed. It shows dedication on your part and will save you a lot more time than researching it on your own, and after all, they’re there to help you. It takes about two minutes to ask your teacher, and it may take hours of self-study to show yourself the gaps in your knowledge. If you're doing independent study and there’s a teacher of the AP subject you’re studying at your school, feel free to drop in and ask them a couple of questions. It’ll be well worth it in the end.
8. Don't feel bad ditching your friends to study
I love teenage coming-of-age stories and all, but sometimes those hang-out sessions aren’t really worth it. You don’t need to go out every day of the week. During test season especially, it’s okay to say no to going to a fast food restaurant so you can review AP World History vocabulary. You’ll most likely miss out on some light banter anyhow—nothing too character development-y or plot twist-y. If you do miss out on your friends meeting Chris Pratt…I’m sorry. Passing your AP test will feel better in the long run than going out with your friends every night, as it’s incredibly statistically improbable that your hang-out session will result in selfies with Chris Pratt.
Step 1: Go into the library. Step 2: Leave library after eight hours with marginally more knowledge of AP Statistics than you came with. What’s the issue here? Most students have probably recognized the phenomena behind these long work sessions with little actual product coming out of them; Cal Newport (author of several guides to mastering your studying experience) dubbed this “pseudo-working.” It’s when you’re trying to write your research paper at the same time that you’re catching up with the latest season of How to Get Away With Murder, when you’re doing AP Physics practice problems while jamming out to MisterWives’s latest song, or when you fall into the deep abyss of internet memes while trying to look over your AP Computer Science notes. In short, it’s when you’re not 100% focused on the work at hand. Completely isolate yourself from all else besides your work (some light instrumental music is acceptable) to get more done in a shorter amount of time.
I hope you try out some of them of these tips, and they help you with your studying experience. The real key to studying for tests is to commit to it fully and use the studying style that works best for you. You’ve worked so hard in the class, so don’t waste the time you have to prepare for the big exam. Culminating all your hard work into this final test will feel incredibly rewarding when it’s over. Good luck this AP test season!
Don’t know what your learning style is? Figure it out with our article Infographic: Find Your Learning Style and Study Smarter to help you study at your best.