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The road to a 4 or 5 on AP exams starts early and includes serious talk about how hard the exam is, supplementary materials, and free candy.

Don’t wait to start helping students ace their AP exams


The road to a 4 or 5 starts on the first day of class and includes serious talk about how hard the exam is, offering supplementary materials, and some free candy

Students across the country take AP exams in hopes of earning high exam scores that help them opt out of college prerequisites and ultimately save money on tuition. Unfortunately, as many as 40 percent of students who take AP exams will earn a 1 or a 2 on those tests, which will not help them test out and earn those coveted college credits. 

As a former high school teacher and current content author for AP History and Social Sciences, I’ve learned several key strategies to help your students earn the AP scores they need to assist them in their academic careers—and retain the material that they have learned.

1. Start talking about the test on Day 1.

When students take an AP class, they need to know what they’re in for. Let students know that they can expect the test to be rigorous and that, as a result, they need to be prepared. It’s not just the test that’s challenging, though. AP classes are focused on preparing students for the rigor of college coursework, so AP teachers need to look beyond the test to help students gain the skills and knowledge they’ll need in college and in their careers.

That being said, you should continue talking about the test throughout the semester. This includes teaching test-taking strategies including:

  • Active Reading: When I was a classroom teacher, I collaborated with the English department to teach students to become active readers, which makes it easier for them to pick out the information they really need from AP test passages and questions alike. As a result, they’re better able to identify what those questions are really asking.
  • Essay Rubrics: Early in the semester, provide students with the rubric for the essay sections of the test. When students have the rubrics in hand, they can work on the writing skills that are specific to the test they’ll be taking.
  • Process of Elimination: For multiple-choice tests, students should know about the process of elimination. When they can eliminate some of the possible answers for a question, they can focus on choosing among the ones that are more likely to be correct. 

2. Give students as much practice as possible answering questions that look like the AP exam. 

From bell-ringers at the beginning of class periods all the way to unit exams, make sure your questions match the test as much as possible. Using AP test questions and AP test question formats accomplishes two goals: 1) It makes students more comfortable with those questions, which decreases anxiety and makes them more comfortable on exam day. 2) It puts students in a better position to remember and answer those questions when the time comes. 

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3. Offer supplementary materials.

When I was a full-time teacher, I used a variety of resources to support students throughout the year and in their preparation for the end-of-year exam. AP students are often highly motivated and will go the extra mile to study or to participate in projects, but it’s critical to provide them with the materials they need to help direct those studies and increase their odds of success in class and on their AP exams. This means offering more than just practice questions: immediate, explanatory feedback helps students learn as they practice and retain what they have learned.

4. Gear your lessons to the grade level of your students. 

AP students are, as a whole, intelligent, and driven students. However, that does not necessarily mean that they will come into your class with all the skills they need in order to excel. For example, the AP Human Geography exam is a freshman-level test. These kids have never taken an Advanced Placement class before. When you give them practice tests, you may need to work through those tests with them to explain why a given answer is wrong and what they need to do in order to arrive at the correct answer.

5. Give full practice tests.

Give students opportunities to take practice exams as much as your schedule allows. As a teacher, I didn’t have enough time to give the whole test in class, so I would do the multiple choice one day, then do the essays another. I did, however, offer students the chance to take the full test after school so that they could have the whole experience. 

6. Warn students against overstudying.

It doesn’t take long for students to burn out if they stay up too late or go over the same material too many times. Instead, provide students with guidelines to help them study without cramming. Encourage them to get plenty of rest in the days leading up to the test to help maximize their results. 

7. Make it fun when you can.

Just like any other class, AP students need to have fun—and they’re more likely to remember fun lessons. For some AP document-based questions, you have to take the documents and compare them. To prepare students for this, I would do a “bucketing exercise” where students would take similar documents and put them in buckets—but instead of doing the documents first, I would start with candy. They had different kinds of candy and they had to say, “These are chocolate, these are fruit,” and put them in the right bucket. Then I had the students look at the candy from a different angle. “This group all have red wrappers,” or “This group all have nuggets.” This forces them to think past the obvious. As a reward, they got to take the candy home.

Finally, if you’re a new teacher or teaching a subject for the first time, my biggest piece of advice is to ask for help. You can find help from other educators online or in your building—everybody remembers that first class. There might be days when you question your sanity, but in the end it’s all worth it when you see your kids learning and believing in themselves.  

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