Kate Sundquist 8 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the AP Chinese Language and Culture 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. The CollegeBoard’s AP World Languages and Cultures program emphasizes the importance of global citizenship and stresses communication skills over grammatical perfection. The AP World Language and Cultures program includes eight foreign language courses and exams.

The AP Chinese Language and Culture exam is one of the more popular language exams, third only behind French and Spanish. In 2016, over 12,000 students took the exam, though about 80% of these were students who regularly spoke or heard Chinese outside of school, or who studied abroad for more than one month. Fewer than 3,000 students took the exam as part of the standard foreign language group. Students who are interested in gaining proficiencies in the interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational modes of Chinese communication and who are interested in learning about Chinese culture are best suited for this line of study. If you are interested in taking the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam, whether you have taken the class, are a native-speaker, 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

The AP Chinese Language and Culture course signals a commitment by the College Board to further multiculturalism and multilingualism in secondary school education. The course approaches Chinese culture in an international context. You will learn how and why Chinese culture has spread to many parts of the world, influencing and being influenced by the global community. For example, you will develop an awareness of China’s role in issues of global importance, concerning areas such as energy and the environment, economics, and politics.   

In addition, the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam aims to promote both fluency and accuracy in Chinese language use. To accomplish this, the AP Chinese Language and Culture course is taught primarily in Chinese and you are expected to read and listen to authentic texts from the Chinese-speaking world throughout the course and exam. Instruction in this course focuses on the three foundational modes of communication (Interpersonal, Interpretive, and Presentational) as defined in the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century.

There are no formal prerequisites for the AP Chinese Language and Culture course, however it is equivalent to fourth semester college/university courses in Mandarin Chinese. These college courses, which deepen students’ immersion into the language and culture of the Chinese-speaking world, typically represent the point at which students complete approximately 250 hours of college-level classroom instruction. Native speakers or students with exceptional exposure to the Chinese language may take a different course of study leading to the AP Chinese Language and Culture course, or might completely self-study for the exam. 

Unlike most other AP exams which are paper-based, the entire AP Chinese Language and Culture exam is delivered to your school on a CD and administered at a computer. You will follow directions spoken by the proctor, read on the screen, listen through a headset, type using the keyboard, and speak into a microphone while taking the exam. There is no paper component, but you may use paper to take notes. Your proctor will collect the notes at the end of the exam, but they will not be scored.

You will have some control over the display of your test questions and answers on the computer.  You can view all Chinese text displayed on the screen in either traditional characters or simplified characters and can toggle between the two versions if necessary. When inputting text, you can type Chinese text using the Microsoft Pinyin IME (MSPY), which is based on Hanyu Pinyin, or the Microsoft New Phonetic IME, which is based on Zhuyin Fuhao (Bopomofo). The display and input options you choose will have no effect on your exam score.   

The AP Chinese Language and Culture exam is one of the shorter exams, clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, and comprised of two sections. The first section takes one hour and 20 minutes to complete, contains 70 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 50% of your total score. In this section, you will spend 20 minutes completing 30-35 multiple-choice questions responding to recorded prompts, and another 60 minutes completing 35-40 multiple-choice questions based on written prompts. 

The second section of the exam takes approximately 40 minutes, contains four tasks, and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score. During the first part, you will complete two writing tasks in 30 minutes. During the second part, you will listen and respond orally to prompts, taking approximately 10 minutes.

In 2016, students generally did quite well on the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam. Of all test-takers, 93.7% received a score of three or higher (typically considered passing), including 74.9% of standard group students (excluding native or heritage speakers). 62.8% of all students received the top score of five, while less than 4% scored a one on the exam. These high scores are likely directly linked to the high number of native-speakers who take this test, though scores do remain above average for standard group students as well.

Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities can be found here.

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

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

It’s important to start your studying off with a good understanding of your existing knowledge. 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. Although the College Board does not provide a complete practice test, you can find sample questions with scoring explanations included in the course description. Additionally, the multiple-choice questions from the 2007 exam are available online here. You may also find practice or diagnostic exams in many of the commercial study guides.

Step 2: Study the theory

In the case of the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam, you will need to master the six learning objectives. You will be expected to:

  • Engage in spoken interpersonal communication;
  • Engage in written interpersonal communication;
  • Comprehend information from a variety of audio, visual, and audiovisual resources;
  • Comprehend information from a variety of written and print resources;
  • Plan, produce, and present spoken presentational communications; and
  • Plan and produce written presentational communications.

To really devote yourself to this study, you should endeavor to immerse yourself as much as possible in the Chinese language and culture. You should listen to, speak, and read Chinese as much as you can.  Try to find interesting books in Chinese, watch Youtube videos in Chinese, or listen to Chinese podcasts. You might also find comic books, news, or websites in Chinese. Try to find engaging sources of information presented in Chinese and use them as much as possible. You will be amazed by how much your own listening, spoken language, and written Chinese will improve simply from exposing yourself to the language as much as possible.

You can find a variety of Chinese texts at multiple comprehension levels available from Chinese Breeze and you can find news stories written for student-level Chinese comprehension at The Chairman’s Bao. You can also prepare for the exam by reviewing the College Board’s Exam Practice Tips and by previewing the exam’s sample audio files.

For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you may consider using a commercial study guide. Because the AP French Language and Culture course has not been updated in over five years, many study materials are available. Barron’s AP Chinese Language and Culture with MP3 CD, 2nd Edition provides a very comprehensive guide to the exam content including two full-length practice exams with all questions answered and explained, along with an MP3 CD containing exemplary conversations and oral presentations. Barron’s is the top-rated choice for AP Chinese Language and Culture studying, but some reviewer’s note that it assumes an already advanced-level of Chinese language knowledge and presents much of its content solely in Chinese, including information about Chinese culture. Another solid option is the Strive For a 5: AP Chinese Practice Tests which receives good reviews for the volume of practice material it includes, but some users note that the audio files are difficult to download.

In addition, there are tons of study resources available online, including many from AP teachers who have posted comprehensive outlines and study guides. One course homepage includes links to practice materials, online textbook chapters, and explanations of Chinese idioms.

Another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from free to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. The FluentU app has a free version with basic video content that is highly rated for foreign language acquisition, but watch out for in-app purchases. The “Plus” version can set you back between $30 and $240.

Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out 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.

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

Your preparations for the free response section of the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam will differ from the preparations you’re probably used to for other free-response sections of AP exams. Although you’ll still need to practice some writing responses, you’ll also need to practice your listening skills and oral responses.

Regardless, you should begin your preparations for the free-response section by brushing up on your vocabulary and grammar. Make sure you have a solid selection of verbs to fall back on in both conversational and formal tones, and practice using them in multiple contexts. Although you won’t officially be scored on your grammar, you’ll still need to be able to communicate effectively, so make sure you can get your point across.    

As far as the specific writing skills you should focus on, you will tackle two forms of written communication on the free-response section. One prompt will ask you to demonstrate your interpersonal writing through reading and replying to an email which should take you about 15 minutes. The other writing prompt will ask you to demonstrate your presentational writing by narrating a story as suggested by a series of pictures. You will have 15 minutes to complete this prompt.

Your best preparation for the written prompts is simple: repeated practice prompts. You can find tons of past exam prompts dating back to 2007 on the College Board’s AP Chinese Language and Culture Exam homepage. While you’re there, also check out the Student Performance Q&A links which give you insights from the Chief Reader of the AP Exam who compiles feedback from members of the reading leadership to describe how students performed on the FRQs, summarizes typical student errors, and addresses specific concepts and content with which students have struggled the most that particular year.

The second portion of the free-response section will ask for you to record oral responses. The first section of these, referred to as the Interpersonal Speaking portion, will contain a series of thematically linked questions as part of a simulated conversation that you’ll respond to over the course of four minutes. The next section, Presentational Speaking, will ask you to deliver a presentation about a given aspect of Chinese culture over seven minutes. 

This oral portion of the free-response is perhaps the hardest to prepare for, since it can be difficult to gauge your own speaking abilities. One suggested practice method is to record your own sample answers using the past exam prompts, and then replay them for yourself after you’ve reviewed the scoring criteria. You might also team up with a classmate to compare responses and offer each other some constructive criticism. Another less direct method of preparation is simply to make sure you are hearing and speaking as much Chinese as possible on a daily basis.          

Step 5: Take another practice test

Once you’ve put some studying in, take another practice test. You should see a steady progression of knowledge you’ve accumulated, 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 Chinese Language and Culture Exam will be administered on Thursday, May 4 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)?

If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
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.