AP exams are tough—they’re supposed to be. These 3-hour long tests cover an entire year’s worth of material, so there’s a lot to review. If you’re planning to wait until a couple of weeks before the AP exams to start studying, we’ve got bad news for you: AP exam prep is a marathon, not a sprint.
Fun fact: the marathon commemorates a moment in Greek history. The soldier Pheidippides ran 25 miles from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C.E., carrying news of victory. Upon arrival, he shouted, “Victory!” and then promptly dropped dead.
Clearly, Pheidippides had not trained for his marathon.
Regardless of whether you prepare for the marathon of AP exams, you (probably) won’t keel over post-test. Still, wouldn’t it be better to finish your exams with a sense of confidence rather than doom?
Approach AP exam prep like marathon training.
Any runner will tell you that proper marathon training takes anywhere from 2 to 5 months. If you try to get ready for a 26.2-mile-long race in just a couple of weeks, you might not wind up like Pheidippides (you know…dead), but you might just wish you had.
AP exam prep is no different—you need 2 to 5 months to properly prepare.
We always recommend that students start AP exam prep by March at the latest. To succeed on AP exams, you need to really know your stuff—and to really know your stuff, you’ve got to study it repeatedly over a long period of time.
Break each exam down and create a to-do list.
The first thing you’ll need to do is to figure out what you need to study.
Start by creating a list of topics you’ll see on each of your AP exams. The College Board’s AP Central includes course descriptions that outline all of the topics that could show up on the exam. Most AP prep books also feature a good topic breakdown.
Decide how much attention you need to devote to each topic. How well do you understand it? How did you do in class when you covered that topic? Has your teacher (or tutor or exam prep book) mentioned this as a topic that often features heavily on the AP exam?
Once you know how many topics you need to study and, of those, how many you’ll need to spend a lot of time on, you’re ready for the next step.
Create a realistic study schedule.
Between homework and studying, extracurricular activities, and some semblance of a social life, it can be hard to fit AP exam prep into your schedule. As you create your AP exam study plan, be realistic. Nothing undermines a good study plan like falling behind immediately because of unreasonable expectations.
Try to schedule small bursts of AP exam prep. Even 20-minute blocks of studying will help, as long as they’re scheduled frequently and regularly. In fact, one of the most efficient ways of studying is to focus intensely in short bursts, taking breaks in between. Known as the Pomodoro Technique, this study schedule helps you make the most out of every minute of hard work.
Get real practice.
Testing (or, in learning science parlance, “retrieval practice”) is a great way to study because it forces your brain to practice recalling important pieces of information.
Not only do you better learn the material, but you also gain important test strategies. Practice tests make the AP exams more familiar. When you know what to expect, you’re less likely to fall prey to testing anxiety on the big day.
Try to time your practice tests. Half the battle is beating the clock, so if you get used to the time limits and pacing of the AP exam, you’ll be more successful on test day.
Invest in a good AP exam prep book.
A good AP exam prep book gives you a quick overview of all of the biggest topics on the exam and provides plenty of AP exam practice through individual questions and full-length exams.
To pick the right book for you, look at the balance between topic overviews and practice. Some publishers provide detailed explanations, which might be more helpful in subjects you struggle with; others emphasize practice and provide skimpier explanations, which will serve you well if you already have a good grasp of the subject and need extra practice to excel.
PRO TIP: Some publishers splash words like “fully updated” across the cover without actually updating the material inside to match the latest changes to AP exams. Make sure you know the exam format so that you can get a book that really reflects the test. When in doubt, ask your AP teacher or tutor.
Do some intensive review in the weeks before the exam – but DO NOT CRAM.
Slow and steady wins the race, so study early and often. In the final weeks before the exams, your teachers will likely provide an intensive review of the topics most likely to appear on the exam. Supplement this with additional daily study sessions in which you review one big topic each day.
There’s a big difference between this kind of intensive, last-minute review and cramming. You should carefully and purposefully review the most important topics. You should not try to learn everything anew two weeks before the test.
For more great AP study tips, check out 5 AP Exam Tips for a 5.