Top AP Biology Exam Strategies

April 8, 2024
Top AP Biology Exam Strategies

The two sections of the AP Biology exam test similar content but with different question types. The following strategies will help you do well on both sections of the AP Biology exam.

AP Biology Section I: Multiple-Choice Questions

Strategy #1: Do NOT skip over the scenarios and/or diagrams presented in the stem of the question. 

A stem that contains a description of a scenario and/or a diagram or graph will precede many of the multiple-choice questions. In a testing situation where time is limited, students are sometimes tempted to save time by skipping over the stem and proceeding directly to the question. Don’t do this! Often, taking just 30 seconds to read over the data or scenario presented will make it easier to answer the question or questions that follow it. The scenario presented in the stem of the question often will have important background information that will help you answer the question. If you are presented with a graph, note the variables shown on each axis and their units, and try to detect any patterns in the data. In data tables or charts, note the column headings and their units, and observe any trends or patterns in the data. 

Strategy #2: Do NOT be afraid of organisms or genes you may not have heard of before. 

There are so many great examples of organisms, genes, and ecosystems that apply to the content of the AP Biology course, and no teacher or textbook can mention all of them. Any example that is not explicitly included in the AP Biology Course and Exam Description will be described in enough detail in the question so that you will have enough background information to answer the question. Therefore, don’t worry if you see a question about the CYP6M2 gene in Anopheles gambiae and you’ve never heard of either before! The stem of the question will tell you what you need to know about that gene and organism (for example, that the CYP6M2 gene confers insecticide resistance to Anopheles mosquitoes), so all you need to do is apply your knowledge and skills to that background information to find the correct answer. 

Strategy #3: Do NOT be tempted by the “distractors.”

Incorrect answer choices are called distractors. As you read each question, cover the answer choices with a piece of paper or your hand. Before you reveal the answer choices, think of the characteristics that a good answer to the question at hand will contain. Then, reveal the answer choices and choose the answer that best fits the characteristics you know a good answer will have. It is often easier to focus your brain on finding the best answer rather than trying to eliminate each of the distractors. 

Strategy #4: DO pace yourself. 

You will have 90 minutes to answer 60 multiple-choice questions. If it is taking you more than two minutes to answer a question, move on to the next question and go back to that question later. Just make sure to skip the bubble in the answer sheet for each question you skip so that the following answers are filled in in the correct bubbles. 

Strategy #5: DO answer every question.

There is no guessing penalty on the AP Biology exam. If you leave a question blank, you are guaranteed to not earn points for that question, so answer every question, even if you have to guess. Never leave a question blank on the AP Biology exam! Reserve the last two or three minutes of the time allotted for Section I to check that you have answered all of the questions and have not left any questions blank. 

AP Biology Section II: Free-Response Questions

Strategy #1: Do NOT leave any questions blank. 

Even if you think you don’t know how to answer the question, reread the question to see what terms in the question you do know something about. Then, use those terms as the basis for your answer, keeping in mind the task verbs in the question. As in Section I, if you leave a question blank, you are guaranteed to not earn points on that question, but if you write something, you may earn some points that could make the difference between a score of a 3, 4, or 5. Never give up—remember, you CAN do this!

Strategy #2: Do NOT make any contradictory statements. 

For example, if you state that the function of the mitochondria is to generate energy for the cell (a correct statement) but then later in your response state that the function of the mitochondria is also to perform photosynthesis (an incorrect statement), you have made two contradictory statements. Thus, you will not earn any points for either of those statements. 

Strategy #3: DO plan your approach to Section II.

Take the first 5–10 minutes allotted for Section II to “read and rank.” Read all six free-response questions, and then place the number 1 next to the question you think will be the easiest for you, the number 2 next to the next easiest question, and so on. You do not have to answer the questions in the order they appear in the test. Sometimes the easiest free-response questions are at the end of this section, and if you get hung up on a more challenging question that appears earlier, you may never get to the easier questions you are likely to earn points on. 

Strategy #4: DO read each question carefully.

Read each question carefully at least two times. Each time you read the question, circle or underline key words, especially any bolded words (which are the action or task verbs), any numbers, or any words like and or or (which indicate whether all or some of the items mentioned need to be addressed). 

Strategy #5: DO pace yourself. 

You will have 90 minutes to complete all six free-response questions. Some of the free-response questions will require less time; others will require more time. Here is a suggested time plan for Section II:

  • First 5–10 minutes for “read and rank”
  • 20 minutes for each of the two long free-response questions for a total of 40 minutes
  • 5–10 minutes for each of the four short free-response questions for a total of 20–40 minutes
Strategy #6: DO write legibly. 

This may seem obvious, but if your answer is unclear or unreadable, the AP reader cannot award you points for it. Use a black ballpoint pen to write your answer. If you make a mistake, just cross it out with a single strikethrough—any more than that is unnecessary. If your handwriting is particularly difficult to read, consider writing on every other line in the test booklet. Don’t worry about running out of pages—the test booklet usually contains more blank pages than are typically needed, and the test proctor is required to give you extra pages if you do run out of paper in the test booklet. 

Strategy #7: DO label your graphs completely with units. 

If a question asks you to construct a graph, always make sure the axes are labeled clearly with the appropriate units. A unitless graph will not earn points. Use consistent scaling on your axes, and give your graph a title. 

Strategy #8: DO label the parts of your answer appropriately. 

This makes it easier for the reader who scores your exam to award you points. However, if you happen to answer part (a) of a question in the section you labeled (b), the reader will still award you points for it. 

Strategy #9: DO use complete sentences. 

As per the instructions for Section II, use complete sentences in your answers. You will not be awarded points for bulleted lists. If you use a drawing in your answer, make sure to also describe it in complete sentences. 

Strategy #10: DO ATP (Address the Prompt). 

Do not waste time writing an introductory paragraph, a thesis statement, or a concluding paragraph. Do not restate the question—the reader knows what the question is! While you need to be clear in your writing, you are not being evaluated on your ability to write a well-constructed essay, as you might be in an AP English course. You ARE being evaluated on your knowledge of biology. Make sure you understand the question prompt and what it is asking you to do. Then, reread your answer to make sure you addressed all of the task verbs in the question and did not make any contradictory statements. 

Strategy #11: DO pay attention to the task verbs!

Pay attention to these action verbs, which are typically bolded in the long and short free-response questions, as these words indicate what the question requires you to provide in your response. Some of the most frequently used task verbs are the following: 

  • Predict—state what you think will happen if a change is made in a system or process
  • Justify—give evidence to support your prediction
  • Make a claim—make a statement based on the available data or evidence
  • Support a claim—give evidence to defend a claim
  • Describe—note the characteristics of something
  • Explain—state “why” or “how” something happens (Note: This is more demanding than describing.)
  • Identify—provide the information that is asked for (Note: This is less demanding than describing.)
  • Calculate—perform the requested calculation, and ALWAYS show your work and your units!
  • Construct—make a graph (show units!) or a diagram that illustrates data or a relationship
  • Determine—make a conclusion based on evidence 
  • State— give a null hypothesis or an alternative hypothesis that is supported by data/evidence
  • Evaluate—assess the validity or accuracy of a claim or hypothesis