Test Prep

How to Retain AP Course Knowledge When Exams Aren't Until May

Adobe Stock

Taking an Advanced Placement class? Then you know that not only will you have to study for the class test at the end of the semester, but you'll have to keep all that knowledge in your brain until May, when it's time to take the official AP exams that just might be your ticket to a few college credits.

To get the inside scoop on how to keep that material fresh in your memory, we spoke with Evelyn Alexander, a certified educational planner and the founder/owner of Los Angeles-based Magellan College Counseling.


Q: Because there can sometimes be a gap of several months between the time when a student completes an AP class and when the exams are offered in the spring, which study strategies do you recommend to retain knowledge?

A: In a hashtag: #youcantcramforanAPexam. The answer to this, just like most questions about how to prepare for an exam (including AP/Subject tests/SAT/ACT), is different depending on each student’s learning style. Most AP classes are full-year classes, which means the class should end very soon before the AP exam. For these classes, students really need to develop good study habits early in the year and figure out what methods work well for them. Is it index cards? Is it an app on your phone? Is it outlining material so you can organize it in a way you remember it? Is it working together with classmates to create a Power Point or study guide? The bottom line is this: You can’t cram for an AP exam! These exams test the entire course of materials, so a slow-and-steady approach is probably the best way to approach most full-year Advanced Placement classes and exams.

For first semester only AP courses, students should brush up their knowledge throughout the second semester. I would basically behave as if I were taking the class all over again. Re-read chapters, review old practice tests, complete practice essays and full-length practice exams. Don’t wait until the two weeks before the exam to review notes and tests. Work time into your schedule every week to review.

Q: Should students should approach an AP class differently than a regular class in order to improve their retention of the material?

A: The biggest difference between AP exams and regular class exams is that the teacher has the ability to prepare you for what’s on his or her final, but less so for AP exams, because they don’t know what will be tested from year to year. Students need to be more proactive in finding study methods that are effective for them, with a little bit less guidance from teachers, who obviously present the materials but who have no control over what will be tested. So here is where student initiative really comes into play.

Q: How much time should a student spend studying for an AP exam? What would you advise a student who wants to study for and take two of them? How should they balance and manage their test prep schedule?

A: The AP tests are unforgiving; you can’t just take a chapter test and then forget everything you just learned. Everything you’ve learned over the course of the class is fair game. So how long should it take to review a year’s worth of material? And how long should it take if you have TWO tests coming up? Bottom line: You cannot cram! Start weeks or even months in advance. For most students, a little bit of studying (20 minutes? 30 minutes?) a few times a week is likely to have a better result than trying to cram an entire class in the two weeks before the exam. Some students use study guides, some work well with groups and some absolutely do not. This is where students need to dig deep to find their own most successful techniques.

Q: How should a student determine which AP exams to take? Should this be based on the student's grade in the class or other factors as well?

A: Taking the AP exam should not be based on how well a student does in a class, because there are many subjective factors that go into a class grade. Students can certainly feel confident with course material but for some reason or other, just aren’t finding ways to demonstrate their knowledge to the teacher. Unless testing anxiety is a serious problem, and unless a student really feels that they have not mastered the material, I don’t think there’s much downside to taking an AP exam.

Q: How do colleges look at AP exam scores when reviewing applications?

A: While test scores do play an important role in the admission decision process, AP test scores rank far, far down on the list of factors that colleges consider – below teacher and counselor recommendations, below essays and extracurricular activities and leadership. In fact, I generally have my private clients submit their AP scores (which are never required for college admission) only if they are all fives, or maybe mostly fives and one or two fours. So if you take an AP exam and get a one, two or three, you will never be required to share that score with a college’s admission office. If you want to get college credit after you enroll, then you’ll have to submit your test scores. Hopefully, this reduces some of the stress around taking an AP exam.