For many students, the most challenging section of an Advanced Placement exam is the free-response portion. After all, its few questions comprise a significant amount of each exam’s overall score, and its form may range from a complicated word problem to a long essay or visual display of data.
If you are concerned about your performance on this portion of the AP exam, follow the five steps below. Master them and you will be well on your way to testing success and, hopefully, earning college credit.
- Read each free-response question carefully.
- Maximize points on multiple-part questions.
- Share your thought process.
- Be clear and concise.
- Use proper penmanship.
Read Each Free-Response Question Carefully
Free-response questions, which require you to compose an answer instead of selecting one from among several choices, employ very specific wording. As you read them, pay close attention to the language that each question uses.
For example, an AP Biology question that instructs you to “explain” a single concept will require a different response than one that asks you to “compare” two biological processes.
Luckily, the key words in prompts tend to be highlighted in some way, so you will know precisely what you must do. Consider, for instance, these 2018 AP Biology free-response questions, in which verbs like “draw,” “estimate,” “identify,” “predict” and “describe” are expressed in boldface on the third page.
Despite these cues, it can be easy to wander astray in your response, especially when you are rushing or under stress. Therefore, always revisit the prompt once you are done writing and use the boldface words as a checklist to ensure you have addressed each prompt properly.
Maximize Points on Multiple-Part Questions
Free-response questions often involve multiple parts, and when they do it is important to note that the parts are graded separately. Ideally, you would be able to answer all parts of a problem, but this is not always the case.
If you find yourself struggling with a question, the best thing you can do is maximize your points. On math and science AP exams especially, you may be able to answer the latter parts of a prompt but not the initial ones, or vice versa.
A situation like this could happen, for instance, on question 1 of this AP Biology exam. You may forget what a cladogram is, which renders you unable to perform part B – constructing a cladogram on a template provided. However, for part C, you may quickly think of a justification for the referenced student’s reasoning.
In cases like this, be sure to write down your responses for the parts you can answer. The College Board, which administers and scores AP exams, will award you partial credit for what you get right. You can also earn points on math questions for knowledge of a process or formula, even if you do not arrive at the correct answer.
These situations are less likely to arise on AP English and history tests, but when they do, follow this same advice.
Share Your Thought Process
On math and science exams, this means showing your work because a correct answer without the corresponding thought process will not receive full credit. On essay-based free-response questions, as with English and history tests, provide supporting evidence that shows how you came to your conclusion.
The College Board wishes to see how you think and how you came to the answer or conclusion you provided, not just the answer or conclusion itself.
This grading mentality becomes clear when you consider part D of question 1 from the previous test example involving the cladogram. The prompt instructs you to not only “Predict the most likely difference in phenotype…” but also to “Justify your prediction.” In such cases, you must show both your reasoning and your conclusion to receive full credit.
Be Clear and Concise
AP graders have many tests to review, and they may not have the time to parse rambling answers, no matter how intelligent the thoughts contained within them may be. So, clearly organize your responses.
For instance, if you are instructed to “Provide ONE piece of reasoning to support the student’s claim,” it is better to follow the instructions and explain one point well rather than list two or three haphazardly.
Organize your evidence and articulate how it supports the points you’re trying to make. In all subject areas, emphasize clarity and directness and aim for quality over quantity.
Use Proper Penmanship
Writing legibly may seem like an obvious point, but on an exam where you so often feel short on time, it can be easily forgotten. No matter how brilliant your thoughts or how cogent your analysis, the College Board cannot give you credit for an answer that they cannot read.
Clear penmanship is especially important when you are dealing with similarly spelled terms, like “genotype” and “phenotype.” While these biological terms are related, they refer to two distinct concepts.
It would be a shame to lose points because your grader misinterpreted a messily written word. Especially if your handwriting is naturally messy, make every effort – including writing slowly, if necessary – to help your grader and your exam score.
With AP testing season quickly approaching – exams are scheduled for May and June – start improving your free-response performance now using this exam prep plan:
- At the two-and-a-half-month mark. Gather roughly a dozen free-response questions from past AP exams. Read them all, notice their general traits and identify frequently tested topics to be reviewed.
- At the two-month mark. Continue reviewing the topics you have identified as high value or frequently tested. Read and take notes on high-scoring sample responses for the prompts you have gathered, and then try writing your own. Seek feedback from instructors and classmates.
- At the one-month mark. Answer two or three complete free-response question sets each week and continue requesting feedback.
- At the one-week mark. Limit your review sessions to just a handful of important topics and aim to answer one or two final free-response questions. Finally, turn your efforts to stress control and adequate sleep.
AP exams are a good way to demonstrate your readiness for college coursework, and the free-response section is the perfect place to show your ability and willingness to handle rigorous academic assignments. These tips will help equip you for success on any AP test, and with AP success comes the chance to strengthen your case for admission to your dream college.