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Articles / Preparing for College / What to Know About the AP Biology Exam

What to Know About the AP Biology Exam

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Feb. 7, 2021
What to Know About the AP Biology Exam

There's a lot of science on the AP Biology Exam — three hours' worth, to be precise. Trying to memorize every little fact and figure from the class can stress out a lot of students, so I'm here to help you stay calm in the days leading up to the test. Here's a breakdown of what you can expect to see on the exam so you can get your preparation off on the right foot.

Course Concepts

The multiple-choice section not only pulls from a very specific series of AP Biology topics, but also has a set percentage for how highly each one is weighted. From most to least important, here they are:

  • Natural Selection (13-20%)
  • Gene Expression and Regulation (12-16%)
  • Cellular Energetics (12-16%)
  • Ecology (10-15%)
  • Cell Communication and Cell Cycle (10-15%)
  • Cell Structure and Function (10-13%)
  • Chemistry of Life (8-11%)
  • Heredity (8-11%)

It's always a good idea to take a practice test to see roughly how well you understand each topic. That way, if you only have time to brush up on one section, you can focus on the one that's likelier to earn you more points.

If you already feel confident with the content, don't take it too easy. The test writers will often try to trip you up with the language of the questions themselves, so once you know the subject, make sure you understand the language of the test — specifically, what types of questions you'll face, again, weighted from least to most common on the test:

  • Concept Explanation (25-33%)
  • Argumentation (20-26%)
  • Visual Representations (16-24%)
  • Questions and Methods (8-14%)
  • Representing and Describing Data (8-14%)
  • Statistical Tests and Data Analysis (8-14%)

As you can see, the majority of the test is going to focus on your ability to describe biological processes, often in question-specific contexts or illustrative models, as well as how well you can make and support scientific claims. However, at least a third of the remaining questions will test your ability to read or construct graphs, plots or charts and to perform mathematical calculations or otherwise work with data, so make sure you're not just memorizing concepts alone.

Multiple Choice

The first section on the exam will ask you to tackle 60 multiple-choice questions in 90 minutes. Your results here will account for exactly half of your total exam score. Not only will you see individual questions that test more general concepts and knowledge, but you'll also see sets of four or five questions that share a common set of data in a table, refer to a figure or two, or are centered around a specific theme.

Before you get too anxious, I'll tell you that by no means are you required to answer every single question in order to score well. Instead, it's imperative that you take practice tests beforehand so you are able to recognize which questions you can answer and which questions you can skip when you take the actual exam. (And for those questions you skip, be sure to still put in your Letter of the Day (LOTD), as there's no guessing penalty on any AP Exams.) Practicing this will help you maximize your score by targeting your strongest concepts and only returning to those that challenge you if you have extra time.

Free Response

The second section will consist of six free response questions in total, and you'll have 90 minutes to answer them. These will account for the other half of your total exam score. The first two questions in this section will be longer than the others, and they'll each focus on your ability to interpret and evaluate the results of a given experiment. The difference here is that the first will provide you with a graph and/or table representing those results, while the second will require you to create a data representation of your own as part of your response.

As for the remaining four shorter questions, one will look at the results of a lab (Scientific Investigation), another will deal with a real-world biological phenomenon (Conceptual Analysis), the third will require you to describe and explain an illustration (Analyze Model or Visual Representation) and the last will present you with data from a table that you'll have to accurately describe (Analyze Data). You may have noticed that the open-ended section is essentially asking you to do the same things you've just done in the multiple-choice — the main difference is that instead of having to pick out the right answer, you'll have to find it on your own.

One final note: If you're worried about doing any of the math required on either section, don't be! You'll be allowed to use a calculator on the entire exam.

With a good understanding of the exam format, you'll be on your way to snagging the score you want on the AP Biology Exam. For extra strategy and a crucial content review, check out our prep book for this exam. And you can always find even more free content on our YouTube channel, so be sure to subscribe.

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Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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