Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

By Katherine Du

The AP Chinese Language and Culture exam, one of the College Board’s most notorious AP exams, is no easy beast to conquer. This is how I debunked its myths and emerged from the AP crossfires with a 5.

Test Format

Completely computer-based and three hours in length, the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam has 2 primary sections: multiple-choice questions and a free-response section.

For the first primary section’s listening portion, the first type of problem involves rejoinders. This section of the exam runs for 10 minutes and is worth 10% of your total exam grade. For this portion of the exam, you hear incomplete conversations and choose the best continuation from 4 different choices (after the initial incomplete conversation is played, each of the 4 choices is then played once. Nothing is ever repeated). 5 seconds are allotted to answer each of the 10-15 problems. The second type of problem involves longer listening selections. This portion of the exam also runs for 10 minutes, but it is worth 15% of the total exam grade. After listening to longer selections in Chinese, you are given 12 seconds to answer each of the 15-20 multiple-choice comprehension questions. You are told how many times the selection will play at the beginning of each new passage.

For the first primary section’s reading portion, you are given several texts in Chinese. Each one has multiple-choice questions that directly follow. Worth 25% of your total exam grade, this portion lasts for a full hour. There are a total of 35-40 problems.

For the second primary section’s writing portion, you are given 15 minutes to write a story narration in response to a series of 4 interconnected pictures. Immediately afterwards, you spend the next 15 minutes writing an e-mail response to a mock email. This portion is worth 25% of your total grade.

For the second primary section’s speaking portion, you will have to engage in a simulated conversation in which you are asked 6 questions and must respond to each one for a maximum of 20 seconds per answer. Following this, the exam will provide a cultural prompt that you have 4 minutes to plan a 2 minute cultural presentation on. The total weight the speaking portion has in your final score is 25%.

How I Conquered the Beast

Since I took AP Chinese Language and Culture in my freshman year of high school as my first AP class ever, I was incredibly nervous throughout the entire year I spent preparing for May’s exam. As a result, I tried to prepare for the AP as much as I could; for instance, while I enrolled in the AP Chinese course at my high school, I also spent two hours every Sunday at a local Chinese school in order to supplement what I was being taught on weekdays.

Outside of my AP Chinese classes, I sectioned off an entire hour every day of the week that was dedicated to self-preparation. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I would religiously do listening practice, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I rotated between practicing reading comprehension and writing. Saturdays and Sundays were my prime time for not only practicing mock conversations on the speaking portion of the AP, but also reviewing all the problems I had gotten wrong in the previous week throughout all the different sections.

One of the main techniques I used to prepare for what I consider the hardest section of the AP—the culture presentation—was reviewing bits and pieces of culture (ancient arts, popular food, traditional festivals, etc.) every morning on my way to school. The year I took the AP (2014), my AP exam’s culture prompt was actually the same one my AP Chinese class at high school responded to for our midterm:

“Choose one Chinese language movie you have seen (such as Not One Less, Shower, To Live, Each Drink Man Woman, etc.); in your presentation, describe this Chinese language movie and explain its significance. “

Luckily enough, we had watched Shower in class and had completed multiple speaking prompts about the movie, so I was completely at home answering that prompt.

The Most Important Material to Review

Though I got lucky for my AP culture presentation prompt, it is still immeasurably important that you prepare as much as you can for this section. Given the breadth of Chinese culture, it can be daunting to attempt to train for this section, so here are my two cents about critical portions of Chinese culture you must be able to speak for 2 minutes about. (Please note that I have omitted all topics administered on previous AP Chinese Language and Culture exams; it is safe to assume the College Board will not repeat any of these prompts.

  • Traditional Festivals (ex: 春节,元宵,节中秋节)
  • Chinese Mythology (ex: 精卫填海)
  • Idiom Story (ex: 凿壁偷光)
  • Four Grand Works in Chinese Literature (ex: 红楼梦,三国演义,水浒传,西游记)
  • History of Chinese Characters
  • Chinese Inventions (ex: 指南针)
  • Chinese Medicine (ex: 传统医学)
  • Traditional Chinese Architecture (ex: 故宫,四合院)
  • Classical Gardens (ex:古典园林风格)
  • Education (ex: 私塾)
  • Cultural Heritage (ex: 周口店北京)
  • Traditional Clothing (ex: 汉服)
  • Chinese Zodiacs (ex: 十二生肖)
  • Significance of Colors in China (ex: 红)

These were all drawn from the “Cultural Notes” section in Barron’s AP Chinese Language and Culture book.


The vast majority of my practice problems came from Barron’s AP Chinese Language and Culture Book. I also used AP Chinese Language and Culture Simulated Tests (by Sunny X. Yu Bih-Hsya Hsieh) and Strive for a 5: AP Chinese Practice Tests. In my high school AP Chinese class, we used Integrated Chinese: Level 2 Part 2 (by Cheng & Tsui) to bolster our vocabularies as well.

One strategy everyone in my high school Chinese class employed was keeping a journal of characters we could not recognize at first sight. On my own time, I also created a Quizlet notecard set with over 600 characters in total that I felt dubious about. The month before the AP exam in May, I reviewed these resources incessantly, and they strengthened my confidence as well as my vocabulary immensely at that critical point in time.

Study Tips

The listening portion of the AP is infamous for the rapidity of its prompts. What I found helpful was taking concise notes on the rejoinders as well as the longer selections. This way, it was easier to not only choose the correct conversation continuation, but also recall tiny but significant details the comprehension questions tested.

Scoring well on the comprehension portion hinges on the scope of your vocabulary. To increase your score, review as much vocabulary as you can, and read from as many sources as possible. Actual Chinese texts in Chinese newspapers, novels, etc. are too difficult to ever appear on the AP exam itself, so stick to passages AP books provide.

For the writing portion, there is no other way to prepare than to simply write, write, and keep on writing. It is unbelievably important to type all your practice writing out using Microsoft Pinyin. On the actual exam, you have the choice of using Microsoft Pinyin or Bopomofo, but from my experience, students and teachers alike have no idea what Bopomofo is, so it is a lot safer to stick with classic Hanyu Pinyin. For the writing itself, I dug out prompts from all the mentioned resources, and I made sure to time myself precisely to simulate test conditions as closely as possible. Over time, I saw my writing improve holistically, so I would definitely recommend this path of action.

The conversation section of the speaking portion is evidently impromptu. To prepare for this, make sure to converse with your fellow Chinese students or any native speakers you might know.

And finally, some logistics with time: start preparing early for the exam. If you are not enrolled in some sort of AP Chinese class, then be sure to purchase all the necessary exam preparation materials the autumn before your AP season. When crunch week arrives in May, do not panic. Trust all that you have done in the past year to prepare for this. Review your notecards, read your study guides, and be confident! Go forth and conquer this beast!

Katherine Du is a student at Greenwich Academy, where she is the editor-in-chief of her high school’s Science Times and yearbook. Katherine is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The Stardust Gazette, an international lit mag that melds together creative and journalistic writing. An avid actor and fencer, Katherine has been the Girls Connecticut State Chess Champion for the past few years, and she is her school representative for several youth councils as well.

Are you a high school student or a college freshman who took an AP exam, received a 4 or a 5 on that AP, and would like to write a study guide on that AP for The Prospect? Email and write “Study Guide for AP [Subject Name] Inquiry” in the subject line!

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  1. Ting Ting on April 29, 2016

    Thank you thank you thank you for leaving the list of AP exam culture presentation prompts that might be on this year’s test! I am a current freshman taking this and you just helped me narrow the questions down a whole lot! I can’t tell you how grateful I am right now. <3

  2. Tyson on April 30, 2016

    Thank you! I just have one question. I am a Native Chinese speaker, and have self studied this test. I am well off in reading, writing, and speaking but am worried about the cultural presentation. I understand there is a topic that is given to you. But how much material do you they give you about the topic? Do I have to prepare topics and presentation?

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