Youth Canada

The Unofficial Guide to Acing the AP's

19-08-2008 by David Zhang

The Unofficial Guide to Acing the AP's

Created by the College Board (the American entity that also administers SATs and PSATs), AP exams, which are written in May each year, are used to gauge your aptitude in a multitude of subjects. There are 37 courses and exams to choose from which provide an education beyond that of the regular high school level. Officially, AP exams are designed for motivated students that have a passion for the subject, but most students write AP exams for pragmatic reasons, some of which are shown below. Nevertheless, it is important to have a passion for knowledge and interest in the subject so that studying for the exam does not become a burdensome, onerous task.

Why write AP exams?

AP exams can save you a lot of money in university by giving you university credits, allowing you to skip certain courses. Although each exam costs $80 in Canada, this expense is dwarfed by much higher university tuition costs (~$300-600, depending on the exam). Also, these credits can give you some “down time” in university and thereby alleviate stress, or, if you so choose, allow you to expand your horizons by taking more electives.

The AP exams themselves are a challenge and a test of knowledge. If you score unsatisfactorily on the exam, you can cancel your score for a fee, although the score report will say “score cancelled” for that particular exam. A course is helpful in preparing for the exam, but many students self-study and write the exam independently – be sure to check with your school officials if you wish to attempt this, however, as some schools do not allow students that are not registered in a course to take the exam. In Canada in particular, finding a test center for self-studied students poses a formidable challenge.

Having AP exams on your academic record demonstrates your motivation and intellectual curiosity to colleges, so writing APs is helpful in the admissions process. The problem-solving and writing skills developed in those AP courses also prepare you well for university level work.

Exam Scoring

The AP exams are scored on a scale from 1-5, with 1 acknowledging your ability to write your name on the exam paper, and 5 being fully competent in the exam materials. For each exam, about 30% of all students get a 5, and since the raw scores are not used in anything other than the Siemen’s award in the US, achieving perfection in the exam record in Canada is not extremely difficult. However, this also means that having 30 exams (the record number of AP exams taken by a single student, according to the College Board) may seem a lot better than having 6 exams, even if the person writing the 6 exams has achieved a perfect raw score in all of them, while the person writing 30 is merely on the borderline for 5s.

The raw score needed for a 5 varies by exam, but it is generally 55-70%. This allows for someone to not study everything in the course and still get a 5. A friend of mine who achieved a score of 5 for both AP Physics C Mechanics and Physics C Electricity & Magnetism had only taken the regular Physics B course, which, as opposed to C, has no calculus component and does not go into a number of important theorems. He started studying for Physics C the day before. That is not to say that he finished the entire course in one day (he did leave a full written question blank), but simply that he has studied sufficiently to cover more than 55% of the material. Personally, though, I prefer understanding all the materials and aiming for 100% on the exams, as the AP exams are supposed to broaden perspectives, and the knowledge gained would very easily become helpful in future pursuits.

Tricks for getting high scores (other than studying only 55% of the material, which, by the way, is not recommended)

AP Biology:

-Review constantly throughout the year, or, buy a study guide to cram. Otherwise, the 2366-page textbook will kill you in May.

-When studying for chapter tests, study each chapter in detail, even if it doesn’t give you a higher score on tests. This will make later chapters easier and put you in a better position for the exam (which, sadly, does contain a lot of details).

-Practice writing experimental procedures – this is not just something your teacher forces you to do for no reason. The AP Biology exam is more focused on the scientific method and experimental design than any of the other AP sciences.

-On the written response section, if you’re not sure of a concept, make it up! No marks are deducted for wrong statements, but marks are awarded for each correct statement. Practice writing fast and making up facts as you go – at least some of those facts will give you marks. If you run out of paper, you can always ask your proctor for more. Nevertheless, if you study well and write moderately fast, the time allotment of 80min will only allow you to write down all the knowledge you have on the subject, if not less.

-Do not care about spelling or grammar! Since the markers don’t care, why would you? If you genuinely have nothing else to say, use that time to make up another fact.

Physical Sciences:

-In class, develop analytical skills. Never try to memorize solutions to types of problems – there are way too many.

-Whenever a graphing calculator is allowed, use it! It will save you a tremendous amount of time solving equations.

-In free-response, write clearly and concisely, you do NOT have to use the entire space for every single problem. As opposed to AP Bio, more is not better in this case. The markers don’t have an infinite amount of time to decipher your solution, and might give zeros for frustration.

-There is such a thing as “presumption of understanding”. If your equations use the fact that net force = 0, for example, the markers will presume that you know net force = 0, and you won’t have to write that at the beginning of your solution. A marker once said this in a conference: “if the answer is correct, unless the solution is totally off, we generally give perfect scores.”

-Very generous partial marks are granted. Calculator errors generally lead to a 0.5 deduction, if any.

-If a result doesn’t follow common-sense, do not change it without changing your equations. Your initial equations might be partially right, and you could receive partial credits if you can demonstrate that you used it correctly to interpret a solution. Sadly, no mark is given for making up answers.

AP Computer Science:

-Do not choose ingenious solutions, choose common ones. Although creativeness might be encouraged in class, the marker would probably not appreciate having to go through your solution again and again just to figure out whether your method works or not. They might just presume it doesn’t and classify your creativeness along with stupidity.

-If a question seems too easy, it probably is. This exam does not test multiple concepts at once, and does not attempt trickery what so ever. In free response, the correct solution might be 3 lines, even if they give you an entire page for it.

-Practice, practice, practice. These exams (calculus and stats) repeat their question types extremely often. After doing all the practice exams, I found that the 2008 AP Calculus BC exam only had one multiple-choice question that did not appear on previously released tests.

-Extremely important – make sure your calculator is in radian mode.

-Create of find a program for your calculator that makes it easier to write the exam. The exam does not limit your calculator functionalities, so you can use them to quickly arrive at, and check, your solutions (as opposed to, *gasp*, actually going through all the calculations).

The AP exams are a rewarding challenge. Although the workload involved is considerable, it is certainly manageable. From AP you stand to gain a better understanding of post-high school scholastics, a competitive advantage when it comes to post-secondary applications, and a way to reduce costly tuition fees. So, for all you current and future AP students out there, good luck, and happy cramming! (P.S. You might want to check out the “How to Pull an All-nighter” Article.)

DAVID ZHANG is a grade 12 student at Burnaby North Secondary School. He is an alumnus of Shad Valley Waterloo 2008, and an intern at Impact for the summer of 2008. Although his current focus is on developing a research proposal, he joined the ranks of AP National Scholar after finishing gr.11 – self-studying two of the six exams attempted, and continues to take AP courses in the school.

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