Kate Sundquist 10 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the AP Seminar Course and Exam

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is administered by the College Board and serves as a standardized set of year-long high school classes that are roughly equivalent to one semester of college-level coursework.


AP classes are generally stand-alone subjects that easily translate to traditional college courses. Typically, they culminate in a standardized exam on which students are graded using a five-point scale, which colleges and universities will use to determine credit or advanced standing. However, starting in fall of 2014, College Board began to adapt the traditional structure to reflect less stringent rote curriculum and place a heavier emphasis on critical thinking skills.


The AP Capstone program is at the center of these changes, and its introductory course is AP Seminar. Read on for more information about the AP Seminar Course and Exam and how they can prepare you for college-level work.


About the Course and Assessment


The AP Seminar course is the first of two classes required for the AP Capstone™ Diploma. During this course, you will practice collaborative problem-solving, critical thinking, and student- led investigation. During the second year of the program, you will go on to study AP Research, which applies the skills you developed in AP Seminar to a prolonged research project for which you develop your own research topic, build an evidence-based argument, and present it through written and oral defense. Students who receive a score of 3 or higher on both courses earn an AP Seminar and Research Certificate™. Students who receive a score of 3 or higher on both courses and on four additional AP exams of their choosing receive the AP Capstone Diploma™.   


The AP Seminar course will help to develop and strengthen your analytic and inquiry skills by exploring two to four relevant issues chosen by you and/or your teacher. The College Board suggests topics like cyber security and genetic engineering as possible examples. You will use an inquiry framework to practice reading and analyzing articles, studies, and foundational, literary, and philosophical texts. You will also listen to and view speeches, broadcasts, and personal accounts, and examine artistic works and performances. By examining materials like news stories, research studies, and literary works, you will learn to craft arguments to support your point of view and communicate it effectively by using various media.


This course will also support you as you investigate real-world topics of your choosing from multiple perspectives, which often are different or competing. In addition, you will learn to collect and analyze information with accuracy and precision, develop arguments based on facts, and effectively communicate your point of view.


Only schools that currently offer the AP Capstone Diploma may offer the AP Seminar course. Because it is a part of a larger comprehensive, skills-based program, students may not self-study for the AP Seminar course or exam. At this time, home-schooled students, home-school organizations, and online providers are not eligible to participate in AP Capstone.


Your performance in the AP Seminar course is assessed through three tasks. The first is the Team Project and Presentation, which accounts for 20% of your total score. In this project, you will work with a team to create a Team Multimedia Presentation and Defense, in addition to writing an Individual Research Report. Although the official submission deadline for this task is April 30, the College Board strongly recommends that this portion of your assessment be completed by February 28 in order to allow enough time for the remainder of your assessments.


The second portion of your assessment is the Individual Research-Based Essay and Presentation, which accounts for 35% of your total score. For this assessment, you will use cross-curricular stimulus texts (released each year in early January by the College Board) to identify thematic connections, compose a research question, conduct research, analyze and evaluate evidence to develop an argument, and present and defend your conclusions. In doing so, you will produce an Individual Written Argument, an Individual Multimedia Presentation, and an Oral Defense. Your teacher will ensure that you have at least 30 school days to complete this project. It must be submitted by April 30, but the College Board recommends that you complete your preparations no later than April 15 to allow time for oral defenses before the submission date.    


The final portion of your assessment is the AP Seminar End-of-Course Exam which is administered like the more traditional AP exams, at a specific time on a specific day, in a formal standardized testing environment. This exam is worth 45% of your total score, clocks in at two hours, and is comprised of three short-answer questions and one evidence-based argument essay. For the short-answer section, you will read one passage and answer three questions relating to it. For the essay section, you will read four sources, identify a common theme, and write a logically organized, well-reasoned, and well-written argument that presents your own perspective on the theme or issue you identified.


In 2016, only 12,000 students took the AP Seminar assessments, but the class is rapidly growing and saw a 133% increase in participation between 2015 and 2016. Scores from the 2016 exam reveal an assessment with a high pass rate (score of three or higher) but a difficult rate of mastery. While 73% of students taking the assessments scored a three or higher, only 6.6% received the highest score of a five, while 53.8% received a three.   


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


Tips For Preparing for the Exam


Step 1: Assess Your Skills


Before you dive into studying, it can be helpful to take a formative assessment to gain insight into areas you understand well and those that challenge you. 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?


Although the AP Seminar is only in its third year, the previous two end-of-course exams can be used to help assess your skills. They are available on the College Board AP Seminar Exam Practice page. There are also additional practice questions in the course description. Once you have taken some kind of formative assessment for the end-of-course exam, score it to identify the areas you already understand and those in need of improvement. It can be helpful to have a friend help to score it as free-response questions are more subjective than the multiple-choice questions you find on many other AP exams. From an accurate formative assessment, you will get a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.


It is more difficult to evaluate your readiness for the in-class portions of your assessment, but you will work with your teacher on developing these skills throughout the year so you should receive plenty of feedback as you go. If you do not feel that you have a solid understanding of your abilities in this area, make sure to arrange a meeting with your teacher so that you can get some honest feedback about your performance in the class so far. 


Step 2: Study the Material


In AP Seminar, you will investigate real-world issues from multiple perspectives, gathering and analyzing information from various sources in order to develop credible and valid evidence- based arguments. You will accomplish this through instruction in the AP Seminar Big Ideas, also called the QUEST Framework. These include:


  • Question and Explore: Questioning begins with an initial exploration of complex topics or issues. Perspectives and questions emerge that spark one’s curiosity, leading to an investigation that challenges and expands the boundaries of one’s current knowledge.
  • Understand and Analyze Arguments: Understanding various perspectives requires contextualizing arguments and evaluating the authors’ claims and lines of reasoning.
  • Evaluate Multiple Perspectives: Evaluating an issue involves considering and evaluating multiple perspectives, both individually and in comparison to one another.
  • Synthesize Ideas: Synthesizing others’ ideas with one’s own may lead to new understandings and is the foundation of a well-reasoned argument that conveys one’s perspective.
  • Team, Transform, and Transmit: Teaming allows one to combine personal strengths and talents with those of others to reach a common goal. Transformation and growth occur upon thoughtful reflection. Transmitting requires the adaptation of one’s message based on audience and context.


In addition, you will use four distinct reasoning processes as you approach your coursework. The reasoning processes are situating, choosing, defending, and connecting. When you situate ideas, you are aware of their context in your own perspective and the perspective of others, ensuring that biases do not lead to false assumptions. When you make choices about ideas and themes, you recognize that these choices will have both intended and unintentional consequences. As you defend your choices, you explain and justify them using a logical line of reasoning. Finally, when you connect ideas you see intersections within and/or across concepts, disciplines, and cultures.


The AP Seminar course particularly stresses connections within and across AP courses, encouraging cross-curricular conversations that explore the complexities of academic and real-world topics and issues by analyzing divergent perspectives. The AP Seminar course “aims to equip students with the power to analyze and evaluate information with accuracy and precision in order to craft and communicate evidence-based arguments.”


For a glossary of terms that you should be familiar with in this course, see page 119 of the course description. For more information about class structure and specific curriculum content, check out a sample syllabus or review one AP teacher’s end of course study materials


Step 3: Practice for the End-of-Course Exam


Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing with sample material for the end-of-course exam. You can find some sample questions in the course description and more on the AP Seminar Exam Practice Page. As you prepare for this portion of the exam, keep in mind that the four questions on the exam will remain the same each year, though sources and texts will vary.


On the first portion of the exam, you will read a source and answer the first three questions. These are:


1. Identify the author’s argument, main idea, or thesis.

2. Explain the author’s line of reasoning by identifying the claims used to build the argument and the connections between them.

3. Evaluate the effectiveness of the evidence the author uses to support the claims made in the argument.


You should allow approximately 30 minutes for the first three questions. The last question asks you to read four sources and you should allow approximately 90 minutes for it. The last prompt is:


Read the four sources carefully, focusing on a theme or issue that connects them and the different perspective each represents. Then, write a logically organized, well-reasoned, and well-written argument that presents your own perspective on the theme or issue you identified. You must incorporate at least two of the sources provided and link the claims in your argument to supporting evidence. You may also use the other provided sources or draw upon your own knowledge. In your response, refer to the provided sources as Source A, Source B, Source C, or Source D, or by the authors’ names.


As you write your response, you should keep in mind that the College Board has a very stringent set of rules regarding plagiarism. If you’re at all in doubt about whether you should cite a source, do so just to be on the safe side. The full AP Capstone™ Policy on Plagiarism and Falsification or Fabrication of Information can be found on page 35 of the course description. 


Step 4: Practice Through-Course Assessment Pieces


The through-course assessment pieces for the AP Seminar class are unique from other AP assessments in several key ways. First, they are not administered in a traditional standardized testing environment and instead are completed over an extended period of time in the classroom. Second, they have collaborative elements in which you are required to work together with classmates. Finally, your assessment on these sections is scored by your teacher, not an anonymous AP reader. This is a tremendous advantage. Be sure to maintain good communications with your teacher throughout the year, frequently soliciting feedback on your progress so that you will have a realistic idea of your strengths and areas for improvement. This is the single most effective way to prepare for the through-course assessment pieces.


These assessments are completed over several months of the course. The first one, the Team Multimedia Presentation and Defense, consists of a team presentation and an individual research report. In a team of three to five students, you will work to identify, investigate, and analyze an academic or real-world problem or issue. Your team will design and/or consider options and alternatives, develop a multimedia presentation to present the argument for your proposed solution or resolution, and provide a defense to questions posed by the teacher. Your team will divide the group research into individual questions for each team member. Individually, you will then investigate your assigned question on the issue or topic and present your findings and analysis in a well-written individual report.


The team project and oral defense will be scored by your teacher alone. The individual research report will be scored by your teacher and validated by the College Board. Complete instructions for this performance task, along with a list of ways in which your teacher may or may not assist you during it ,and a list of suggested oral defense questions, may be found beginning on pages 36 and 47 of the course description.


The second through-course assessment that you will complete is an Individual Research-Based Essay and Presentation, consisting of an Individual Written Argument, Individual Multimedia Presentation, and Oral Defense. You will develop a research topic in response to stimulus texts released by the College Board in early January. Using these materials, you will identify thematic connections, compose a research question, gather additional information through research, analyze, evaluate, and select evidence, and develop a logical, well-reasoned argument of approximately 2,000 words. You will also develop a 6-8 minute presentation to convey your perspective and present your conclusions, and then respond to questions posed by your teacher in an oral defense.     


Your presentation and oral defense will be scored by your teacher alone. The individual written argument will be scored by your teacher and validated by the College Board. Complete instructions for this performance task, along with a list of ways in which your teacher may or may not assist you during it and a list of suggested oral defense questions may be found beginning on pages 40 and 52 of the course description.


Step 5: Take Another Practice Test


As you did at the beginning of your studying, take a practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see your knowledge developing and be able to identify patterns in 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 Seminar end-of-course exam will be administered on Thursday, May 4 at 12 PM.   


Because this exam is only available to students enrolled in the AP Capstone program, your teacher will register you for the exam when you enroll in the course. You should confirm with your teacher that you are registered for the exam no later than March 1. 


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)?

Does you feel like you need more help on the AP Seminar exam, or you are not sure that you can do it on your own? Consider CollegeVine’s Early Advising Program. Students work one-on-one with graduates from a top-30 college or university who are familiar with the exam and can help you ace it too, just like they did.


For more about information 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.