How to Effectively Study for AP Exams

Maddy Grieco
Published on
November 10, 2021

AP classes (and their associated exams) provide students with rewarding experiences that transcend the typical high school class by allowing you to earn college credit! That being said, studying for the annual exams that take place in May can be daunting, especially when you have to remember content from the beginning of the school year! In order to feel more confident for these exams, we must learn how to prepare to the test. So, we must maximize and tailor our studying habits in a way that aligns with the test format.

Before you push your nose through a book, you must always enter with a clear head. Access your strengths and have confidence in your ability to remember everything you learned! Keep in mind that the content you have spent a year learning is all in your mind-- you just need the proper tools to hash it out.

After studying for several AP exams throughout high school, I have learned to maximize my time by keeping a positive mindset throughout the whole process.

  1. Purchase review books

Review books, such as brands like the Princeton Review, Barron’s, 5 Steps to a 5, and AMSCO, are so convenient. These books synthesize the required content for each AP class (listed on the CollegeBoard website) and summarize key concepts and messages in a succinct and easy to understand way.

The books will be organized by separated into units and chapters so you can always bookmark which concepts you struggled with and/or need time to review. In addition, many contain full length practice tests with multiple choice, free response, and essay questions so that you can have plenty of practice understanding the structure of the exam.

I find the beginning portions of the book helpful because the authors usually devote a couple pages to breakdown the exam format and timing, and they provide you with helpful hints and positive advice. I recommend using Princeton Review and AMSCO for humanities driven AP courses, like AP US History. You should use Barron’s and 5 Steps to a 5 for STEM courses, such as AP Chemistry.

In general, these review books are more practical than re-reading your 1000 page textbook or looking back at your notes from the entire year. AP exams are more analytical than content based, and it is highly likely that your notes will go into further detail that is necessary to do well on the test. A review book, however, is short and sweet, so reviewing from this will not only be less stressful, but it will also be more effective.

  1. Start sooner rather than later

When you begin your AP class, you may think that you have plenty of time before you need to study all the content. However, this is a common mistake that many AP students tend to make. As you put off your studying, time will go by quickly, and before you know it, it is April, and you have not studied!

By winter break, you should purchase your review books. During this period, take the time to fully review the test structure and review the introductory chapters that you learned during the first semester/two quarters of the school year. This will allow you to remember concepts that you may have already forgotten. Use this time to re-learn concepts that you did not understand.

By February, when you should have covered more than half of the required material, focus on content from December-February in order to re-review your newly learned material.

The month of March is critical. By now, you should have learned most of the course content, so use this month to review everything from September-March. Since you have studied this material already, you should not spend a large amount of time relearning concepts. Rather, this month should be devoted to review to enhance your memory.

April is by far the most important month. Continue studying all material, but once again, do not make the mistake of re-teaching yourself any concepts, as it will be too difficult to learn and memorize something new by this point. You may want to study more frequently this month (or more intensely).

With the limited time that you have in May, I recommend focusing strictly on the content that you tend to forget. Since there is not much time for comprehensive review, brushing up on material will be beneficial. Do not make the mistake of cramming all the material in May! This is inefficient, and by the nature of time, you will simply not be able to retain all the information.

  1. Take practice tests

Following the method described above, it is important to take practice tests as you read and memorize. It is more beneficial to take a practice test once you have learned a substantial amount of material, so I would begin a full length practice test at the end of February.

Make sure to simulate test conditions as much as possible! If a test is 3 hours and 15 minutes, you should devote that same amount of time to a self-administered test. Once you finish, you can use the answer keys (usually located in review books) to check your answers and scoring.

In March, increase your pace by taking two practice tests. Following this theme, take three practices in April.

As said before, May is a month dedicated to light review, so one practice test will be beneficial.

  1. Create a schedule

Speaking from experience, it will be too difficult to study for multiple hours (without breaks), especially when you have other obligations to attend to, such as homework, extracurriculars, and sports.

In December, start off slow. For instance, you may want to study two times a week for an hour each day. By February, you can increase your time by studying three times a week for three hours each day. March and April are the most intense; I recommend studying five days a week for four to five hours each day. (Make sure to take breaks during your studying sessions in order to keep your mind circulating).

Studying for over five or six hours may be counterproductive because you should maintain a clear head and have energy when you study in order to maximize understanding and comprehension.

Keep in mind, the schedules above are purely suggestions, as it can be difficult to devote five hours a day to studying. For instance, if you feel rather confident, you may not need to study five hours a day in March/April. Or, if you have several commitments, any time that you find to review will be beneficial and helpful as long as you make sure to truly review and avoid cramming!

  1. Do what is best for you

Have confidence in yourself and know that you are capable of producing great work. Studying may seem extensive, but as long as you know the methods that work best for you (and you maintain a clear schedule), you will be more than prepared.

For instance, if you learn best by rereading the review books several times, then that should be your main focus. However, others may learn better by making flashcards of important concepts or by re-writing their notes based on the information in the review book.

Studying is a subjective experience, so you should utilize the resources that ultimately help you! Remember: what one does to study may not be useful for you, so make sure to focus on yourself and maintain a sense of studied determination.


  1. How to Study for AP Exams: 5-Step Plan
  2. How to Prepare for AP Exams
  3. 10 Study Tips to Help You Conquer AP Tests

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