Kate Sundquist 9 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the Chemistry AP Exam

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In 2016, over 150,000 of the 2.6 million students taking AP exams took the Chemistry AP exam. This places it among the top 12 most popular AP exams. If you are interested in taking the Chemistry 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 Chemistry AP course focuses on developing your advanced inquiry and reasoning skills, such as designing a plan for data collection, analysis of data, application of mathematical routines, and building connections between concepts across domains. Because the base of scientific knowledge is so rapidly expanding through discovery and research, the Chemistry AP course, much like the Biology AP, focuses on your mastery of lasting conceptual understandings within the field, and the specific content that supports them. The course content 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. Specifically, you will use these skills to explore topics such as atomic structure, intermolecular forces and bonding, chemical reactions, kinetics, thermodynamics, and equilibrium.

The prerequisites for Chemistry AP courses are Algebra II and a general high school chemistry course. If you have not taken these classes before enrolling or undertaking your self study, you are not likely to be prepared for the level of thinking required for success on the Chemistry AP exam.

The Chemistry AP course was last revised in fall 2013. The changes instituted put less emphasis on mathematical skills and specific content knowledge, and more emphasis on a broader base of scientific understanding and research skills. For more information about these changes, their background, and why they represent an improvement from the previous test format, read this explanation from an AP Chemistry consultant.

While taking the Chemistry AP exam, you may use a scientific calculator on the free-response section only. You will also be provided with an equation and formula list and a copy of the periodic table. A complete list of calculator guidelines and acceptable models can be found in the College Board’s Calculator Policy. A copy of the equations and formula list supplied on the exam can be found in Appendix B on page 161 of the official course description.

The Chemistry AP exam is one of the longest AP exams, clocking in at three hours and 15 minutes. It is comprised of two sections. The first section contains 60 multiple-choice questions, spans one hour and 30 minutes, and accounts for 50% of your total score. In this section, some questions come in sets and some stand alone. The questions in sets will relate to a stimulus or a set of data. You will not be allowed to use a calculator on this section, but you will be provided with a periodic table of the elements and a formula and constants chart.

The second section is the free-response section, which lasts for one hour and 45 minutes and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score. This section is divided into three long essays, and four short response answers. You will be allowed to use a scientific or graphing calculator on the entire free-response section of the exam. (A four-function calculator is allowed but not recommended.) It will be up to you to budget your time on this section, as your proctor will remind you of time remaining, but will not force you to move on to the next question at any point.

The Chemistry AP exam is a tough one to master, though many students do well enough to pass (which typically means earning a score of 3 or higher). In 2016, 53.6% of students who took the Chemistry AP received a score of 3 or higher. Of these, only 10.5% of students received the top score of 5 with another 15.6% scoring a 4. Almost one-third of all test-takers received a score of 3, contributing greatly to the exam’s pass rate. Another quarter of students received a score of 2, while 21.6% of test-takers scored a 1 on the exam.

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

A smart first step is to take a formative assessment to get a better idea of your strengths and weaknesses in the course curriculum. 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 Chemistry AP website provides a number of sample test questions and exam tips, it does not provide a complete practice test. In fact, because the exam was recently redesigned, it is difficult to find updated practice tests. There is one updated practice exam from fall 2013 available here. Other than that, your best bet may be to use those provided in one of the many up-to-date commercial study guides.

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 Chemistry AP course, you’ll need to understand the structure of the course outline, which is available in the course description. The outline organizes key concepts into six “big ideas” that you will need to understand completely. This comprehension should include each of the “enduring understandings” (falling under each big idea,) and examples of essential knowledge to support them. The big ideas encompass core scientific principles, theories, and processes that “provide a broad way of thinking about the particulate nature of matter.”

The big ideas of the Chemistry AP course are:

  • The chemical elements are the building blocks of matter, which can be understood in terms of the arrangements of atoms.
  • Chemical and physical properties of materials can be explained by the structure and the arrangement of atoms, ions, or molecules and the forces between them.
  • Changes in matter involve the rearrangement and/or reorganization of atoms and/or the transfer of electrons.
  • Rates of chemical reactions are determined by details of the molecular collisions.
  • The laws of thermodynamics describe the essential role of energy and explain and predict the direction of changes in matter.
  • Bonds or attractions that can be formed can be broken. These two processes are in constant competition, sensitive to initial conditions and external forces or changes.

In addition to the big ideas, 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 merely 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 illustrative examples. Also be 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. These include the following skills:

  • Use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems;
  • Use mathematics appropriately;
  • Engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations within the context of the AP course;
  • Plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to particular scientific question;
  • Perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence;
  • Work with scientific explanations and theories; and
  • Connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts, and representations in and across domains.

To reinforce the seven scientific practices and their practical applications, you should be familiar with the AP Chemistry Lab Manual. If this manual is not included as part of your course materials, you may purchase one here. The course recommends that teachers spend 25% of class time on labs, with at least 16 labs included in the course.

For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you may consider using an updated commercial study guide. Because the Chemistry AP course was recently redesigned, you should check publication dates to make sure you are getting a current study guide. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Chemistry Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 provides a fairly comprehensive and updated guide to the exam, though it is sometimes criticized for its lengthy descriptions of content. Another solid choice is the AP® Chemistry Crash Course Book + Online (Advanced Placement (AP) Crash Course) which provides a more concise summary of content and is often praised for its specific study tips.

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 from previous versions of the exam. Remember, anything produced before fall 2013 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.

This may seem like a lot to absorb at first glance, but remember: if you pace yourself, you can easily tackle this material in small chunks over the course of the school year. 

Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice 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. The College Board provides a set of strategies and tips for multiple-choice questions on its Chemistry Exam Tips page.

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 Chemistry AP exam emphasizes solving in-depth problems and writing essays where knowledge of which principles to apply and how to apply them is the most important aspect of the solution. In this section, you will find three quantitative problems, one question on writing chemical reactions and predicting products, and two essays. One of the questions in the free response section is based on a laboratory inquiry; this question can either be a quantitative problem in Part A or an essay in Part B.

In this section, you should expect questions pertaining to:

  • experimental design
  • analysis of authentic lab data and observations to identify patterns or explain phenomena
  • creating or analyzing atomic and molecular views to explain observations
  • articulating and then translating between representations
  • following a logical/analytical pathway to solve a problem.

Pay close attention to the task verbs used in the free-response essay prompts. On the Chemistry 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 previous exams.    

Step 5: Take another practice test

Take another practice test to assess your knowledge. You should see steady improvement and be able to pinpoint existing areas of weakness. If possible, repeat the above steps to incrementally increase your score.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the Chemistry AP Exam will be administered on Monday, May 1 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 Chemistry 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.