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AP Biology is an advanced placement class offered to high school students through College Board. If you happen to be one of the lucky (or unlucky) students tackling this monster of a class, I’m here to offer some guidance on being a successful biology student. Your AP Biology class will take an in-depth approach to learning the topics covered on the AP exam in May. You’ll be spending the entire year covering everything from molecular biology, to genetics and heredity, to evolution, etc… This is all in preparation for the big AP exam held sometime in May.

The Exam

The AP Biology exam is, in total, three hours long. It’s divided into two sections, the first of which is a multiple-choice section containing sixty-nine questions–further divided into Part A, which has sixty-three multiple-choice questions and Part B, containing six grid-in questions. Most of the multiple choice questions will be regular MC questions dealing with various topics you’ve learned, and the other questions will be dealing with experiments or data. You are allotted an hour and thirty minutes to complete the first section.

Section two of the exam contains the free-response questions. These questions will put your true abilities to the test. The purpose is to test you on the concepts you’ve learned in class and see how you apply each to specific situations. You really can’t fake your way through this section; AP graders want to see that you fully understand the topics the questions discuss. Your answers should show deep understanding of concepts, and the ability to explain these concepts concisely. This section is also an hour and thirty minutes.

According to The Princeton Review, the AP Biology exam covers four major ideas:

1. The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.

2. Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.

3. Living systems, store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.

4. Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.

These four major ideas will continuously show up in each chapter your class reviews. These are themes of biology that will interconnect in each topic of your Biology class.

Success In and Out of the Classroom

This is one of the most reading intensive courses in the long list of AP classes that the College Board offers. The hardest part for me was keeping on top of all of the reading. Each night you’ll be required to read at least one to two chapters in a most likely dense biology textbook. These chapters can range from 10-30 pages each. If you let that reading pile up, you’ll fall behind pretty quickly.

It’s easy to just read the chapters; what you need to do now is absorb the information you’re reading. Passively reading just so you can say you read isn’t going to help you get a 4 or a 5 on the AP exam!

After talking to my AP Biology class I gathered a list of tips they shared with me:

– Highlight important sections.

– Write in the margins of your textbook (only if you’re allowed to do so).

– Ask meaningful questions and try your best to answer them. 

– For each section you have to read, put a piece of your favorite candy on top of that section. Once you read up to that section you can eat the candy! It’s a great motivator!

– Take notes. Obvious enough, but I’m talking real short hand notes. Writing in short hand will force you to think about what information is important and will help you summarize the concept in your own words. 

– Draw diagrams on index cards and label them. On the back of the index card write out any necessary information to understand the diagram- including, important vocab, if it’s photosynthesis, the krebs cycle, or the nitrogen cycle, list the steps on the back of the index card. This makes reviewing much easier. You can look at the diagram and each label, and test your memory, and understanding of the diagram. 

The most important tip in my opinion, is managing the chapters you need to read in chunks over a few days, and go to class with a page full of questions, thoughts, etc. about the reading. While your teacher goes about his/her lesson, make sure to raise your hand and talk about the things you’ve listed. Your responsibility is to try to comprehend the information on your own first, and then in class consolidate whatever knowledge you’ve gained through your own exploration.

Class Tests

Studying is completely subjective. One method may work for you, but not for someone else. It has been said, however, that the most effective methods of studying for science classes are making flashcards and quizzing yourself, and taking practice exams.

I cannot stress the importance of taking practice AP exams enough! You should get a review book for when you want to refresh your memory. Review books, however, are not very in depth, and from personal experience, review books like Princeton Review and Barron’s probably only help with very simple multiple choice questions.

More complex multiple choice questions and short response questions require you to review your notes, and re-read concepts you’re still fuzzy about.

One of my friends, Christopher Joseph, has strange studying methods. Every time he studies for an in class exam, he paces the room with textbook in hand and reads aloud to himself. He then asks himself questions and answers them, repeating the answer once or twice before moving on to sections he doesn’t fully understand. Hey, whatever floats your boat.

My friends and I also make a habit of studying together. We gather around a table with one person handling the textbook, and that person fires questions at the rest of the group. We’ve sort of made it into a fun game of who can get the answer first. The great thing about this is, that not only are you having a fun time, but you’re also reviewing for your exam, and learning to better understand the topic through a different point of view. There have been countless times where our understanding of certain concepts grew greater thanks to someone in our group explaining their take on it. Sometimes, you miss some details and it’s nice to make sure you’re learning from not only your teacher, but your classmates.

Reviewing for THE TEST 

You know yourself as a student, and the amount of time you need to study for a big exam at school is up to you. The AP examination should be treated in the same manner. To be safe, you should give yourself at least three weeks prior to the test for review. Take as many practice tests as you can, brush up on concepts you aren’t 100% confident about, and make sure you are don’t lose track of the big picture. The hardest part about AP bio is that you often find yourself drowning in a sea of detail. You get so caught up in the nitty gritty details that you forget to focus on the major concept. This is especially true when you’re reading your textbook, always remember why am I reading this chapter, what does every section in this chapter have to offer to the bigger picture, and how do they all connect?

Don’t go in on exam day and put too much pressure on yourself! You know this stuff! You went over it for an entire year, and you’ve reviewed the hell out of it. Don’t stress out. Take a deep breath, and jump in. Spill out all of the knowledge you’ve learned when applicable. From my own experience, the more information you can flesh out, the better scores you end up receiving. Again, only talk about relevant information.

And finally…

Enjoy the time you have in class. Biology is fascinating because we are animals, and everything we learn in biology pertains to us, directly or indirectly. You will become more acutely aware of the life that surrounds you, and the processes that make life possible here on Earth.

I wish all of you luck, and may the curve be in your favor!



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  1. Pingback: Hadaway Science» Blog Archive » AP Biology Links 6 Apr, 2017

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