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5 Great Tips to Ace Your AP Classes and Exams

Advanced Placement (AP) classes and tests allow high school students to receive college credit and, in most cases, a (weighted) GPA boost.

But earning these benefits isn’t easy: The reason AP classes lead to college credit is because they are college-level courses. And to obtain credit, students must pass the challenging end-of-course AP exam.

What Are AP Exams?

Taken in May, AP exams blend college-level multiple choice and free response questions. They are scored from 1-5, with a 3 or higher considered passing. Whether a 3 will earn you college credit, however, depends on the college you’re attending. For instance, Harvard only awards credit for a 5, the highest possible score.

Because high AP test scores demonstrate your proficiency in certain subjects, you can skip over some of your college’s general education requirements and get straight to the good stuff: the higher-level courses directly related to your interests and career goals.

Students who take and pass enough AP exams can even earn enough credit to graduate college in just three years, saving both time and money.

AP Classes and AP Exams: Are They Worth It?

So, you want to maximize the benefits of AP courses and exams. Read the five tips below to learn how to ace both the course and the exam.

1. Study like the test depends on it. (It does.)

In the past, you may have coasted through your high school classes with minimal effort and occasional cram sessions. Or you may have relied on your intelligence and avoided studying completely. This will not work with AP classes. Don’t learn the hard way — trust us on this one.

To ace your AP class and earn a high test score, developing good study habits is crucial. It’s a good idea to review your notes from class daily or at least twice a week. If it motivates you to work with others, you may want to form a study group with other students in your class.

Other tips for increasing your productivity include:

  • Set a specific study goal each time you study, like memorizing a certain number of vocabulary words or reading a certain number of pages in your textbook.
  • Work for 45 minutes straight, then allow yourself a 15-minute break (or a similar arrangement).
  • Limit distractions. For example, put your phone in a desk drawer or in a different room during your 45-minute work period.
  • Reward yourself for sticking to your study goals. For instance, if you study for a full hour, finish your essay, etc., you can go play soccer or hang out at your friend’s house.

Experts recommend that you get into “AP test prep mode” 1-3 months before the test. Create a study schedule, especially if you will be taking multiple AP tests. Invest in an AP test prep book or AP tutor. Start with general review, especially material that wasn’t extensively covered in class.

Then, drill practice questions, paying attention to your areas of weakness. Once you identify the types of questions that give you a hard time, focus on these question types as the test date draws near. Be sure to read answer explanations to understand why your answer was incorrect.

In the meantime, don’t neglect your in-class tests. Your grade in the course will impact your GPA. Plus, the time you invest in studying for your unit tests will also benefit you on the AP exam. The AP exam covers a huge amount of material, and the tests you take in class break this material down into chunks.

With these five tips, you’ll perform well in the course and on your exam, earning college credit. And by following these principles now, you’ll develop good habits that will serve you well throughout college and into the future.

2. Understand that taking notes is not a casual endeavor.

You’ll need to take notes every day in your AP class. This will help you on challenging assignments and in-class tests. In addition, AP tests don’t only focus on big-picture concepts, but also ask questions about small details that aren’t so easy to remember. Writing notes helps you retain information and gives you a study guide to refer to later.

Use bullet statements to summarize the main points of your teacher’s lectures. Feel free to use shorthand and abbreviations, but make sure that you’ll understand the notes when you review them later.

When you review your notes, underline, highlight, or put an asterisk next to key points and anything your teacher stressed as important. At the end of the week, it’s helpful to transfer these key points to index cards. You can do the same with vocabulary words that you’re learning in the course.

Label your index cards according to the chapter or unit that you’re studying. These will help you study for your unit tests and can be especially helpful when it’s time to review a full year’s worth of material for your AP exam.

3. Organize like you mean it.

Since you know you’ll take a cumulative exam at the end of the year, carefully organize and keep track of handouts and notes from the first day. Buy a binder, notebook, or folder for each of your AP classes.

Then, pay attention to how the course is organized. AP World History, for example, is divided into six historical periods from 8000 B.C.E. to the present. Other courses are taught based on chapters.

Either way, group your notes and handouts according to the structure of the course. This will help you during the class when you need to find a certain piece of information or study for a unit test.

It will also be useful when you begin your AP test prep. If you aren’t organized, you’ll feel overwhelmed by the task of reviewing everything you’ve learned in the course. Most AP test prep books are also arranged according to the structure of the course, so your notes will be a perfect accompaniment to your test prep book.

Remember that once a chapter is “done,” you’ll still need those materials. Don’t throw anything away. In addition to noting important points, you can also note areas where you struggled, paying special attention to these areas as you go into full AP test prep mode.

Additionally, AP teachers are unlikely to give you instructions for organizing your course materials or maintaining a notebook. You need to develop your own system and ensure that it’s effective. After all, AP courses are challenging enough without constantly losing your papers or misplacing important notes.

4. Don’t fall behind. (Really. Don’t.)

If we haven’t mentioned it enough by now, AP courses are not like other high school classes. In other classes, it’s possible to get behind and then quickly catch up as the grading period comes to an end.

In AP courses, getting behind will have a disastrous effect on your grade in the course — and on your ability to pass the AP exam at the end of the year and earn college credit. These courses are fast-paced, covering a great deal of material in a little time. They also involve frequent assignments.

5 Things Students Need To Know About AP Exams

If you get behind, it will be extremely difficult to catch up. Get a calendar or planner and stay on top of your assignments. Set days to review your notes each week and follow through. For example, do a mid-week review on Wednesdays and an end-of-week review on Fridays. On Fridays, transfer the most important notes from the week to your index cards.

By sticking to your deadlines and to the goals you’ve set for yourself, you’ll ensure that you don’t get behind and dig yourself into a hole. If you struggle with motivation or discipline when it comes to your studies, try teaming up with a highly-motivated student in the class to keep you accountable.

5. Learn outside the box.

Although AP courses and tests are challenging, there are a ton of resources available to help you. There are tutors, websites, test prep books, and even apps related to AP course material.

Your course textbook is another great resource, and it’s important to always do the readings that are assigned to you. Remember that every lecture, assignment, reading, and test in your AP class is designed to prepare you for the AP exam, so take advantage of these learning experiences and resources.

Most students wait until a few months before the test to buy a test prep book, but we recommend buying the book at the beginning of the course. You can reference your test prep book to help you understand the material as you’re learning it. These books also include full-length practice tests and helpful answer explanations.

Any time you start to feel discouraged or anxious about your AP class, remember that you have a wealth of helpful resources at your fingertips.

Final Thoughts

AP courses and exams aren’t impossible. The fact that you’re interested in taking an AP class shows you’re a motivated and capable student. Just make sure that you work hard, stay organized, and keep up with your assignments and notes.

With these five tips, you’ll perform well in the course and on your exam, earning college credit. And by following these principles now, you’ll develop good habits that will serve you well throughout college and into the future.

Need more?

Niche ambassador Alyssa dishes on her best tips

and shares what she wishes she had known before taking an AP test.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.