Kate Sundquist 8 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the Biology AP Exam

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum, administered by the CollegeBoard, consists of a set of standardized classes and exams for high school students meant to emulate college-level work. AP classes allow students to challenge themselves academically while also possibly earning college credit for their high school coursework.

The Biology AP exam is one of the more common exams taken among self-studiers and enrolled students alike. In 2016, 5% of the 4.7 million students taking AP exams took the Biology AP exam. If you are interested in taking the Biology AP 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

The Biology AP course focuses on developing your scientific inquiry and reasoning skills while building on the core scientific principles, theories, and processes governing living organisms and biological systems. Because the base of scientific knowledge is so rapidly expanding through discovery and research, as is the case with the Chemistry AP course, the Biology AP course focuses on lasting conceptual understandings within the field, and the specific content that supports them. It encourages students and teachers alike to spend less time on factual recall and more time on inquiry-based learning of essential concepts along with the development of reasoning skills.

The Biology AP course was last updated in 2015. The changes instituted correct previous errors in course content, use more precise language, and add three new learning objectives. More information about the updates can be found on the AP Biology teacher’s page, Demonstrating Understanding on The AP Biology Exam.

While taking the Biology AP exam, you may use a simple four-function calculator. You will also be provided with a list of formulas, which is available for your review in Appendix B of the official College Board Course Description. A complete list of calculator guidelines and acceptable models can be found in the College Board’s Calculator Policy.

The Biology AP exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours. It is comprised of two sections. The first section contains 63 multiple-choice questions, some of which come in sets and some of which stand alone. It also contains six grid-in questions focused on the integration of math and science skills. This section spans one hour and 30 minutes and accounts for 50% of your total score. The second section is the free-response section, which also lasts for one hour and 30 minutes and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score. This section is divided into two long essays, one of which is lab or data-driven, and six short response essays requiring paragraph-length responses. It will be up to you to budget your time on this section. The College Board recommends spending 10 minutes reading, 20-25 minutes on each long essay, and 3-10 minutes on each short response. 

The Biology AP exam is a tough one to master, though many students pass it with average scores. In 2016, 60.5% of students who took the Biology AP received a score of 3 or higher. Of these, only 6.6% of students received the top score of 5 with another 21.6% scoring a 4. Over one-third of all test-takers received a score of 3, contributing greatly to the exam’s pass rate. Almost another third of students received a score of 2 while 10.1% of test-takers scored a 1 on the exam. On the 2016 exam, only Physics 1 had a lower rate of students achieving the top score of 5.

Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Though a score of 3 is typically considered passing, it is not always enough to receive credit. 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 exam can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam. 

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. 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 College Board Biology AP website provides a number of sample test questions and exam tips, it does not provide a complete sample test. Because the exam was so recently redesigned, it can be difficult to find updated practice tests. Your best bet is to use those provided in one of the many commercial study guides. Alternatively, you can find an older version of test questions from the College Board’s 2012 practice exam or the 2013 released exam to get a general idea of the test’s structure.

Once you have taken some kind of formative assessment, 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 your free response essays, as these are more subjective than the multiple choice section. From an accurate formative assessment, you will get a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.

Step 2: Study the material

In order to understand the material in the Biology AP course, you’ll need to understand the structure of the course outline, available in the course description. The outline organizes key concepts into four “big ideas” that you will need to comprehend completely. This comprehension should include each of the “enduring understandings” (falling under each big idea,) and examples of essential knowledge to support them.

You will need to learn all of the underlying content in the outline, all of which is preceded by the preamble: “Evidence of student learning is a demonstrated understanding of each of the following:” You will not, however, need to memorize illustrative examples. These are suggested contexts for the underlying content and while you should be able to give context for each, you don’t necessarily have to use the suggested examples. Also make sure to make connections across content and concepts while you’re learning. Your success on the exam will depend on your ability to think critically and conceptually about big ideas and the enduring understandings that relate to them, while using illustrative examples to emphasize your points. 

You will also need to master seven scientific practices. To do this, you should be familiar with the provided lab manual. The course recommends that teachers spend 25% of class time on labs, with at least two labs per big idea. The College Board specifies that in a lab exploration, you should be able to:

  • Generate questions for investigation
  • Choose which variables to investigate
  • Design and conduct experiments
  • Design own experimental procedures
  • Collect, analyze, interpret, and display data
  • Determine how to present their conclusions

For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you may consider using an updated commercial study guide. Because the Biology AP course was so recently redesigned, there are not yet many choices of updated commercial study guides. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Biology Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 is one choice that provides a fairly comprehensive and updated guide, although one user notes that it lacks content on photosynthesis and cell communication. Another solid choice is CliffsNotes AP Biology, 5th Edition, though this won’t be released until December 2016. The previous version of this study guide received high marks from reviewers for its succinct summary of content and its two full-length practice exams. 

There are also a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. Be careful when accessing these, though, as many will be based on previous versions of the exam. Remember, anything produced before fall 2015 will focus more on specific content areas with less emphasis on the big ideas featured on the current exam.   

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.

Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice and Grid-In Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice and grid-in 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.

These questions will typically ask you to:

• use modeling to explain biological principles;

• use mathematical processes to explain concepts;

• make predictions about or justify phenomena;

• implement experimental design

• manipulate and interpret data

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 Biology AP exam gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of key concepts in the context of authentic problems and research, make claims and defend them with sound evidence, and create insightful connections across big ideas and enduring understandings. The College Board specifies that successful students will be able to “clearly connect a biological concept to a larger big idea or enduring understanding while using designated science practices and skills.”

The following types of prompts can be expected on the Biology AP exam’s free response section:

    • Relate a proposed cause to a particular biological effect (e.g., if asked, What is the evidence that a single mutation caused the phenotypic change seen in an organism?)
    • Identify assumptions and limitations of a conclusion (e.g., if asked, If a nutrient has a positive effect on one plant, can you appropriately conclude that it is effective on all plants?)
    • Connect technique/strategy with its stated purpose/function in an investigation (e.g., if asked, Identify the control from a list of experimental treatments.)
    • Identify patterns or relationships (and anomalies) from observations or a data set (e.g., if asked, Is the behavior of an organism the same in different environments?)
    • Rationalize one choice over another, including selection and exclusion (e.g., if asked, Which question from this list of questions can best be investigated scientifically?)

Pay close attention to the task verbs used in the free-response prompts. On the Biology AP these most commonly include:  justify, explain, predict, or describe. Know precisely what each one of these words is asking you to do.  Underline each section of the question, circle the task verb, and check them off as you write. Many students lose points by simply forgetting to include one part of a multipart question.

As you complete the free response questions, make sure to keep an eye on the time. Though you will be reminded of time remaining by the exam proctor, you will not be forced to move on to another question. Remember, you should spend roughly 20-25 minutes on each long answer and 3-10 minutes on each short answer. Make sure you stay on track to address each section of every question. No points can be awarded for answers left completely blank when time runs out.

For examples of the scoring rubric used on this section, make sure to read the sample exam questions and scoring guidelines provided in the Course Description. Also be sure to read the authentic student responses with scoring explanations from the 2016 exam.    

Step 5: Take another practice test

Take another practice test, as you did at the start of your studying. You should be able to identify areas of strength and weakness based off your performance, and can use your practice test results both to gauge the success of your previous studying and chart your course going forward. If time permits, repeat the above steps to continue improving on areas of weakness and reinforcing areas of strength.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the Biology AP Exam will be administered on Monday, May 8 at 8 AM.  

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 need more help on the AP Biology exam, 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 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.