Test Prep

How to Prepare for AP Exams

iStock

Scoring well on your AP exams can be a big deal. You could get a semester or two of college classes out of the way in high school, which would mean big savings on those hefty college tuition fees. You could even graduate from college a little earlier.

The College Board's AP program offers a total of 38 AP courses and exams, so there are many ways to earn college credit or gain Advanced Placement before you step foot on a college campus. So let's see how these AP exams work.


On all AP exams, a three is considered a passing score and could earn you credit or placement, but it depends on how competitive your target schools are; some schools only accept a four or five.

Most AP exams are between two to three hours long and combine multiple-choice questions with a free response section. Although most free response sections involve a written response, some exams may require a spoken response. There are also a couple that are taken on the computer, and a few art subjects that require the submission of the student's portfolio in lieu of a written exam.

So how do you prepare for a test that can have such a huge influence on your academics and your finances? Dedicating yourself to some serious study time is inevitable, but there are a few other factors to consider before you sign up for these tests.

A Question of Cost

At a cost of $94 per exam, you'll have to work out a plan to fund your exams, especially if you plan on taking more than one AP exam.

However, there are various ways to obtain a fee reduction or fee waiver. The College Board offers a $32 discount to students who can prove financial need. Usually, if you qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches at your school, you likely qualify for an AP exam fee reduction.

Each state has its own system of providing fee waivers and fee reductions for students in need. Check here to find out if you are eligible for your state's funding program. If you aren't sure where to start, reach out to your Advanced Placement teacher or counselor to ask about what opportunities are available for getting a fee reduction.

Katherine Pastor-Lorents, a school counselor and student council advisor at Flagstaff High School in Arizona says that if you aren't eligible for a reduction, then you could ask your family for help in putting together a savings plan.

“It's definitely important to be proactive about these exam fees," she said. "Sometimes, kids sign up for four or five AP classes in a year and don't think about how much that is going to cost in exam fees. But then again, you have to ask yourself, 'How much does a college credit cost?'” Pastor-Lorents says.

Study to Learn, Not Just to Pass the Test 

Of course, this brings us to the stark reality that doing well in an AP class does not always translate to scoring high enough on the AP exam to earn college credit or placement in your target school.

“Getting an A in class doesn't guarantee a four or five on the exam,” Pastor-Lorents points out. “Usually a three would be accepted, but now, it's more four and five. So self-motivation and confidence definitely come into play here. You have to know the material, not just for the AP exam, but to have the knowledge in your brain, for learning's sake. That's the difference – having a good grasp of the material. Of course, that takes time and dedication on anyone's part.”

That's why group study sessions can help you work through the material on a regular basis. Most AP teachers offer such sessions after school or in the evening. Go to every single session that you can – make it fit into your schedule. You'll be able to work on practice exams and writing sections with an AP teacher to guide you every step of the way.

Side note: If your school does not offer a certain AP course, you can still take the Advanced Placement exam. To prepare for the exam, you may be able to find an authorized AP course online, or you can simply use College Board study guides to go through the material and the free practice exam questions on your own.)

Aside from study sessions, Pastor-Lorents says that students should schedule enough time every week in their calendars to focus on AP prep. It could be 30 minutes a day or one hour every other day. Use this block of time to go through practice questions. Schedule extra time to sit through an entire practice exam. You can buy one of the study guides from a bookstore, but Pastor-Lorents suggests that you first ask your counselor or AP teacher if there is a study guide that you can borrow.

“Don't just sit on the couch and read through a practice exam. Any time a student can get hold of a practice exam, he/she needs to sit down at a desk and really go through it. Look at the types of questions – they're different from the kinds of questions that you are used to seeing on the exams of your non-AP classes,” she says.

Think About Your College Plans

Finding enough time to study for AP exams (and everything else) is always a challenge, but some high school students tend to get very competitive about AP subjects and want to sign up for as many Advanced Placement courses and exams as possible. It's hard to avoid comparing yourself to your peers, but each time you want to sign up for an AP course or exam, stop to think about how much time and money each exam will cost you – and if you really need this exam to advance your college plans.

“Students need to think about what their future post-secondary plans look like. Colleges only take certain AP classes and scores, so think about your college choices before you sign up for a class or an exam. Some colleges might not take anything. Of course, you can get the Advanced Placement designation even if you don't get college credit, but most students don't want that,” explains Pastor-Lorents.

For example, AP English Literature and AP English Language will both translate into the same freshman year English credit at most colleges, so there is typically no need to take both exams. Do the research to find out if the colleges on your list will accept the AP exams you want to sign up for – and what scores they require. Here's a handy AP Credit Policy database of colleges and universities that offer Advanced Placement credit and placement.

You can't predict the future, but you can definitely prepare for it. Take the AP courses and exams that are the most relevant to your college plans -- but also stick to the subjects where you think you'll do well.

AP