If you’ve enrolled in Advanced Placement® (AP) courses, you know why the “A” stands for “advanced” — AP courses require college-level work and dedication.

But the extra time and effort can be worthwhile as the courses can earn you college credit, which will help you start college ahead of the game and save you money on tuition. 

AP exams are offered every May, and your score is how you demonstrate curriculum mastery and become eligible for college credit. Scores range from a low of 1 to a high of 5. Generally, colleges give credit for scores of 3 and higher, however there are schools that only offer credit to students who score 4 and higher. The exams are three-hour multi-part tests, which may sound arduous, but with proper preparation, you can more than meet the challenge. Here, experts share their top study tips to help develop the confidence and skills you need to pass your AP exam.

1. Start Early

Give yourself a head start with studying so you won’t be cramming right before the test. Not only is last-minute studying stressful, but it’s also ineffective according to longtime AP tutor Blake Jensen. Jensen says that consistency is key, and planning small, regular review sessions, ideally as soon as you begin your AP class, is the best strategy. Nikki Bruno, an academic performance coach, agrees. “[Studying is] very similar to practicing any skill, just like playing an instrument or a sport. You need to practice it on a regular basis for your memory to fully stick to it.”

Jensen recommends this specific technique: “At the end of every class or homework session, spend three minutes recalling to yourself the things you worked on, the topics you covered and how to do certain questions. This will improve your long-term retention dramatically. At the end of every week, do the same review but spend around six minutes.”

“Only study what you don’t know. Don’t waste time reviewing ideas you can already explain well.”

– Nikki Bruno

2. Study Smart

Make a study schedule and be sure that when you’re studying, you’re exclusively studying. That means you should avoid distractions like music, TV or your cell phone. In addition, Bruno instructs her students to prioritize the material. “Only study what you don’t know. Don’t waste time reviewing ideas you can already explain well. Focus all your attention on filling in your gaps in knowledge, as good as it might feel to get those practice questions correct.”

Jensen tells his students to find a study partner. “Take turns being teacher and student. Explain how to answer certain difficult questions to them, then they will do the same for you. You will improve your understanding of the material tremendously by being both the student and the teacher.”

3. Build in Healthy Breaks

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as studying too much. According to Bruno, “Our brain can only focus for so long, and it needs some time to work out problems in the background.” She also encourages students to stay healthy: “Eat foods rich in fat leading up to the exam, like avocados and nuts. Stay hydrated. Sleep. Exercise regularly.” Studying won’t be helpful if your brain can’t keep up, Bruno warns. So, take breaks to take care of yourself.

“Knowing the material is crucial, but being able to get it on paper during the exam is what matters.”

– Nikki Bruno

4. Take Practice Exams

Taking AP practice tests is more than reviewing the course material. It’s also a chance to simulate an actual exam and familiarize yourself with the format. So, clear your desk, remove any distractions and, most importantly, says Jensen, time yourself. “Knowing the material is crucial, but being able to get it on paper during the exam is what matters. Use practice tests as a way to gauge how well you know something, how well you can communicate it and how well you understand the types of questions the AP exam will ask.”

Bruno recommends finding practice problems online through the College Board or in books such as Barron’s and Princeton Review.

5. Gamify It

Tutor Joey Radu’s philosophy about taking AP tests is to stop studying and start playing. “The gamification of learning has been underway for a while now, yielding excellent, readily accessible resources for students. When these games work — when they marry good game design with strong educational content — they provide a welcome relief to students who otherwise feel under-engaged.”

Radu tells his students to check out Quizlet, Khan Academy, and Habitica, which all incorporate gaming aspects into their practice tests and questions. He is also a fan of doing some digging yourself by Googling “[your AP exam] + games” to uncover additional fun study content.

After a year of working hard to master advanced coursework, you owe it to yourself to do your best on your AP exams — and following these tips will help you do just that. 

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2019. 

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