When it comes to studying for an AP®* exam, not all strategies are created equal. It’s important to know what you should spend your time on, how you should study, and what’s going to be most beneficial when preparing for exam day. If the idea of taking “the big exam” at the end of an AP course is leaving you feeling a bit overwhelmed or unsure where to start, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve developed a list of the five most important AP exam tips for studying that will help you ace your exams and receive the much-deserved credits you’ve been working toward.
1. Know What to Expect on the Test.
While your course content is relevant to what you will be tested on, just studying the course curriculum could create a lot of unwanted surprises on testing day. Instead, familiarize yourself with how the test is formatted and what topics are likely (or unlikely) to be included on the exam. This will help you eliminate any extraneous material so that you can focus your energy on exactly what you need to study and know in time for the test.
Study guides and practice tests will serve as your most important materials on what and how to study for AP exams, whether it’s how to study for AP biology, how to study for AP world history, how to study for AP psychology, and more. There are several AP study guides out there, but a couple of trusted names worth mentioning include Barron’s and The Princeton Review.
2. Determine Your Strengths and Weaknesses.
Naturally, you’re going to be stronger in some areas than others when it comes to your AP subjects, and it’s important to assess weaker areas so that you can put more energy into studying those areas. This practice of self-assessment can be achieved by taking quizzes and practice exams that test your current knowledge in each area of the curriculum. Quizzes and practice exams that allow for in-depth self-assessment are going to be your best friend when coming up with a study plan.
Keep in mind that self-assessment should be specific. For example, let’s say you’re planning to take the English and Calculus AP exams. You may think you’re great in English and just need to study math, but it’s important that you use a self-assessment tool, such as a quiz, to determine your weaknesses, even in the areas where you feel most confident. A practice test could reveal high scores in analytical writing, but a low score in analytical reading, letting you know that analytical reading should be added to your study plan. Here are some additional study tips that can help with subjects you find most difficult.
3. Use “Sticky” Learning Methods.
Study methods can make all the difference in whether the material you’re learning is actually “sticking,” and some methods have been found to be more effective than others. According to cognitive research featured in Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel, some common learning methods, including highlighting and re-reading, don’t work all that well. Instead, use learning strategies that require you to recall and retrieve information. Retrieval strategies can include taking quizzes after you’ve studied, using flash cards, and summarizing what you just learned.
In Make it Stick, the authors mention another necessary factor in effective learning: having a growth mindset.
4. Start Studying Ahead of Time.
Rather than pulling a 12-hour study session the day before an exam, start studying for your exams at least a month in advance. To stay on track, create a study schedule each week to make sure you set time aside to study for your exams.
Consider kicking off your study schedule with a practice exam, and plan to re-test about three-quarters of the way through your study month. This will give you time after each practice exam to focus on the areas you need to strengthen before exam day.
5. Take Care of Your Mind and Body.
We saved one of the most important tips for last. Cramming at the last minute, relying on energy drinks, or pulling an all-nighter are going to be counterproductive strategies to doing well on an exam. The key is to support your brain and body in ways that are going to help you perform your best.
For starters, getting adequate sleep between study sessions and the night before your exam is going to be your best ally in achieving a passing grade. It’s also important to ensure you’re eating well and not relying on caffeine to push through. Before your exam, plan a balanced breakfast that includes protein such as eggs or nut butter to keep you full and energized.
During study sessions, take breaks! This could include two-minute stretch breaks, snack breaks, or going for a 10-minute walk. How often you’ll need to take breaks differs for everyone, but if you notice you’re having trouble focusing, feeling hungry, or that your body feels tense, it may be time for a break.
While studying is essential for test success, taking care of your body will provide the foundation you need to maximize your study sessions and perform your best on test day.
Knowing how to study for an AP test and then following through on your strategy will help ensure that all the learning and preparation you’ve done so far will be rewarded with passing exam scores.
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