For so many high achieving students, it can often feel like taking their first AP class is a rite of passage. After all, the Advanced Placement program is designed to “give students the chance to tackle college level work while they’re still in high school.” That’s a big deal!
Not only is it sometimes possible to obtain real college credits if you score high enough on the AP exam, but students are also given the opportunity to start exploring their interest in subjects not typically offered by regular college prep curricula—from Environmental Science to European History to Studio Art.
AP courses are no joke, though. Particularly for students and families who have never experienced APs, some elements of the program can be surprising and require an open-minded outlook on what you think you know about “acing a class” in order to succeed.
Here are five things that will help you make the most of your first AP class or classes this year!
AP teachers have no choice but to get through all the material that will be tested. This means they may not be able to spend a whole lot of in-class time going over topics you haven’t mastered yet, as they attempt to stay at the right pace that will allow the whole class to cover as much ground as possible.
What does this mean for you now? You’ll need to learn how to be your own advocate. This might mean seeking out your teacher’s help before or after school, doing extra work outside of class, or working with an academic mentor who specializes in the subject. Taking ownership over your studies is a lesson that it pays to learn now, rather than when you get to college!
Of course, knowing the ins and outs of your subject is very important, and much of your class time will likely be dedicated to mastering facts, vocabulary, and methods. On the other hand, though, AP exams are built to see how well you can apply all of that knowledge in new, challenging contexts. That means you should really be thinking big picture: How do I develop a written argument? How do I apply integrals and derivatives in word problems? What does it mean to analyze a case study, rather than summarize it?
Following on from the last point, so much of your success in whatever AP class(es) you take revolves around asking questions and sharing ideas. Critical thinkers look for the reasons behind their answers, rather than just for the answers themselves. This is especially important because AP content builds throughout the year, so you need to be able to connect information from Unit 1 to information from Unit 6.
College Board publishes previous years’ AP exam free response questions all the way back to the 1980s, or even earlier in some cases! These really old tests won’t be of much use to you since question formats and expectations are revised every few years, but in most cases old tests from about 2010 to the present provide great information about how questions are often worded, what kinds of external documents/sources/graphs/charts you can expect, etc.
Additionally, you can also find a grading rubric in the Course & Exam Description document for your class (available on collegeboard.org). These are very useful as you’ll see that the requirements and expectations for showing work, supporting your evidence, or crafting a thesis are very clearly expressed. This is good news for you, because if you can master the expected responses, you have a much better chance at picking up maximum points on the exam, and obtaining that sought-after 5 you’re hoping for!
This is true for all subjects, but especially humanities classes—History, English, languages other than English, etc., which all require essay-writing.
Why? Because practice is key. You can know exactly what the test expects of you, but you also need to be able to replicate success in order to go into your exam confidently come May. Often, it takes our students roughly 10-12 practice free response sections to begin producing 5-worthy answers consistently. On some exams, there are up to 5 or 6 free response questions. This means you may need to write upwards of 50 essays or other free response answers in order to go into the test at peak confidence.
Imagine starting that process in March or April; if you did, you might need to answer one free response question per day, every day until the exam. Adding that stress on top of your other homework, and potentially on top of other AP courses, is not a recipe for success.
Instead, starting your test prep outside of class as early as possible guarantees the most stress-free experience possible. It also guarantees the highest likelihood of success, because you’ll likely be able to actually master the exam.
Hopefully these tips and insights have given you the tools for AP success this year. As always, if you have questions or would like to speak to one of our expert AP mentors about a specific subject, email@example.com is your first port of call. Good luck!
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