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The Ultimate Guide to the AP Statistics Exam

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As you probably already know by this point in your high school career, Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams are administered each year under the oversight of the College Board. While the majority of students enroll in the actual course to prep for their AP exams, many others will self-study for the exams without enrolling.

The AP Statistics exam is one of the more popular AP exams among students. In 2016, over 200,000 students took the exam, accounting for nearly 10% of all students who took APs. If you are interested in taking the exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.

About the Exam

Statistics is a rapidly growing field due to its foundational nature for a broad variety of paths. Introductory statistics courses are usually required for majors in the social sciences, health sciences, and business, while upper level statistics courses are generally required for engineering and math majors. Whatever your intended path in higher education, there’s a good chance that you will need at least an intro-level statistics course along the way. The AP Statistics course is a great choice for building this knowledge and potentially earning college credit or advanced standing along the way.

Keep in mind that credit and advanced standing based on AP scores vary widely from school to school. Though a score of three is typically considered passing, it is not always enough to receive credit. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced levels at specific colleges and universities can be found here

In order to enroll in the course or begin your self-study, you will need to have completed at least a second-year algebra class. Some high schools may require you to complete other math classes as well before you enroll. You will also need access to a computer for coursework and a graphing calculator for coursework and the exam.

In an AP Statistics course you will be expected to master the four basic themes of statistics: exploring data, sampling and experimentation, anticipating patterns, and statistical inference. To master these skills, you will need to describe patterns and departures from patterns, plan and conduct studies, explore random phenomena using probability and simulation, estimate population parameters, and test hypotheses.

The AP Statistics exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours. It is comprised of two sections. The first section contains 40 multiple-choice questions, spans one hour and 30 minutes, and accounts for 50% of your total score. The second section is the free-response section, which lasts for one hour and 30 minutes and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score. This section is divided into five short-answer questions and one investigative task.

You are expected to bring and use a scientific calculator with statistical capabilities on the exam. Your calculator’s graphing capabilities should include common univariate and bivariate displays such as histograms, box-plots, and scatterplots, and it should be able to complete statistical univariate and bivariate summaries through linear regression. You may bring up to two calculators to the exam. The complete calculator policy and a list of acceptable models can be found here.

This exam is a tough one to master, though many students do well enough to pass (which typically means earning a score of three or higher). In 2016, 60.9% of students who took the exam received a score of three or higher. Of these, only 14.3% of students received the top score of five with another 21.7% scoring a four. Almost one-fourth of all test-takers received a score of three, contributing greatly to the exam’s pass rate. Another 15.5% of students received a score of two, while 23.5% of test-takers scored a one on the exam.

A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the exam can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. The College Board AP Statistics website provides several released exams to use for practice and assessment purposes. The 2012 exam can be found here and the 1997 exam can be found here. You may also find practice or diagnostic exams in many of the commercial study guides.

Step 2: Study the material

The theory that you will need to know for AP Statistics ranges in depth from broad topic to specific equation. To focus your studying, you should begin with the big ideas, and narrow in on each one individually.

The first of these is exploring data, which includes analysis of graphical and numerical techniques to study patterns and departures from patterns. You should be able to identify shape, location, variability, and unusual values in a data set, generate conjectures about variables, and distinguish between association and causation.    

The next big idea is sampling and experimentation, which emphasizes effective data collection. Planning and conducting an effective study to collect data is the foundation of appropriate data analysis and the conclusions drawn from it. You will learn specific data collection methods, their applications, and which results are appropriate to draw from each.

The third big idea is anticipating patterns, which relies primarily on the study of probability and data distribution. You will recognize that random phenomena are not haphazard but rather an orderly distribution that can only be determined over the long run. You will also study variation in data patterns and probability distribution.

The final big idea is statistical inference, which guides your choice of appropriate statistical models. The study of statistical inference includes confidence intervals, estimation of population parameters, margins of error, and tests of significance.

For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you may consider using an updated commercial study guide. Because the AP Statistics course has not received any recent updates, many study materials are available. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Statistics Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 provides a fairly comprehensive guide to the exam content, though at nearly 500 pages, it is sometimes criticized for its length. Another solid choice is the Barron’s AP Statistics, 8th Edition which is even longer, but a good portion of its length can be attributed to a diagnostic test, five full-length practice tests, and answer keys with explanations.

Additionally, there are a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. One complete final review study guide is available here and chapter review notes are here. A free, complete online tutorial is available here.

Another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one – their quality varies widely. One that does receive good reviews is the McGraw Hill 5, which also saves you some money by covering 14 different AP subjects.

Finally, make sure to familiarize yourself with the tools that will be available to you during the exam. Make sure that you know how to use your calculator effectively. Also review the list of formulas and tables that will be furnished to you during the exam, starting on page 12 of the course description.

Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice Questions

Test out your theory by practicing multiple-choice questions. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple-choice section of another practice exam. There are several online multiple-choice tests available here and here

The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple choice questions along with explanations of their answers. As you go through these, try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Focus on understanding what each question is asking, and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

The free response section of the AP Statistics exam consists of five open-ended questions and one investigative task. Each open-ended question is designed to be answered in approximately 12 minutes, while the investigative task should take you approximately 30 minutes. It will be up to you to budget your time on this section, since your proctor will remind you of time remaining, but will not force you to move on to the next question at any point.

The open-ended questions typically require you to relate two or more different content areas as you formulate the solution to a statistics or probability problem. While doing so, you will also demonstrate your knowledge of how to organize and present your findings. The investigative task involves more extended reasoning as you will need to show your understanding of broad content areas while integrating specific statistical ideas and applying your knowledge in new contexts or non-routine ways.     

The free-response section is scored holistically, meaning that credit is given for your explanation and communication skills along with your statistical knowledge. Essentially, you are scored on your overall response rather than on individual components specified in advance. This means that while it does matter whether you arrive at the “correct” answer, it also matters how you got there and how well you were able to communicate your choices and methods. The scoring rubric is available in the course description beginning on page 28. Be sure to review the list of helpful tips directly following the rubric on page 30.

When completing the free responses, organize your work as clearly and neatly as possible, showing the steps you took to reach your solution. If the person scoring the exam cannot easily follow your reasoning, you will not receive complete credit for it. Also, if you are unsure of a specific equation, make your best guess and explain why you did so. Don’t write multiple equations hoping that the correct one will be among them; you can lose points for the extraneous or incorrect information. Finally, consider completing question number six first. This is the investigative task which requires more time and creative thinking than the other questions. Try to complete it while your thinking is still fresh and before you are short on time.   

Step 5: Take another practice test

Before any last minute cramming, take a practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge, and it’s likely that you will see patterns identifying which areas have improved the most and which areas still need improvement.

If you have time, repeat each of the steps above to incrementally increase your score.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the AP Statistics Exam will be administered on Thursday, May 11 at 12 PM.   

For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).

For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?

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For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.