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Ultimate Guide to the Human Geography AP 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. Most students enroll in AP courses through their high school to prepare for AP exams, but many others also self-study for the exams, without enrolling in an actual course. 

The Human Geography AP exam is among the APs most commonly taken as a self-study test. Although many students do enroll in the actual class, this particular exam is well-suited to self-studying due to its heavy emphasis on vocabulary and highly specific theory. If you are interested in taking the Human Geography 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 on how you can prepare for it.

About the Exam

Human geography is the study of the “patterns and processes that have shaped human understanding, use, and alteration of Earth’s surface.” Students can expect to learn about geography, cultural patterns, agriculture, and more in this course.    

The Human Geography exam is one of the shorter AP exams, consisting of two sections and clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes. The first section takes one hour to complete and is composed of 75 multiple choice questions worth 50% of your score. The second section, also worth 50%, takes one hour and 15 minutes and is comprised of three free-response essays.

To answer the questions, students will need to be able to synthesize different topics, analyze and evaluate geographical concepts, use and explain real-world examples to illustrate geographic concepts, interpret maps, graphs, and diagrams, and formulate narrative form responses.

In 2016, 51.7% of students who took the Human Geography AP exam scored a 3 or higher. Only 11.9% of students who took the exam achieved the top score of 5, and 29.1% of students who took the exam scored a 1. These scores are likely highly skewed by the popularity of this test with self-study test-takers. Students who take the class and/or prepare seriously on their own, devoting significant study time and energy, will often find that the test is not as difficult as the results indicate.

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

Read on for tips on 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?

Although the College Board Human Geography AP website provides a number of sample test questions, it does not provide a complete sample test. You can find a practice test in many of the official study guides, and some even include a diagnostic test to act as your initial assessment. You can also find free online practice tests online here, and here.

Step 2: Study the theory

In the case of the Human Geography AP, the theory consists primarily of vocabulary, maps, and figures. You will likely need some study resources to help you as you tackle this content.

The Barron’s AP Human Geography study guide is a strong, comprehensive resource. It is sometimes criticized for being too lengthy but it can be used effectively as a textbook, and you can be certain that it does not leave out any important details.

Another good study guide is the Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam. This guide provides more of a summary than the Barron’s guide. Its vocabulary list and maps are great reference guides and it provides good tips on tackling both sections of the exam.

Because the Human Geography AP exam has never changed, there are also tons of study resources available online, including many from AP teachers who have posted comprehensive outlines and study guides. One Florida high school provides the entirety of its course content, including presentations, notes, test review, and selected readings. Another site presents a comprehensive 66-page study guide.        

Because of the heavy emphasis on specific vocabulary and theory, the Human Geography AP lends itself well to flashcard studying. You can create your own, search for a set created by other students on Quizlet, or purchase a set from Barron’s.

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 Questions

After you’ve thoroughly studied the course theory, put it to the test by practicing some multiple-choice questions. Many can be found in study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple choice section of a practice exam. As you’re practicing, be sure to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up so that you can go back over this theory again.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Essays

Most free response questions on the Human Geography AP exam are multi-part questions that ask you to display your knowledge in several different ways. To do this well, first identify all of the task verbs in the question. These include: define, compare, contrast, explain, describe, predict, and forecast. Underline each one in the questions so that you can check them off as you write. The easiest way to lose points on the free response questions is to skip a part of the prompt.

Something to keep in mind while writing free responses is that your time is extremely limited. You only have about 25 minutes for each response. Start by sketching a quick outline of your response. Remember that the limited time means you will probably not include an introduction and conclusion as you would in a typical essay. Instead, dive right into answering the question with specific vocabulary and examples. Try to use the same task verbs from the prompt in your response. For example, if the prompt asks you to define something, begin your answer with the explicit wording, “The definition of _________ is __________”   

Review the scoring guidelines for free response questions on the Human Geography AP website. There are multiple examples of actual free response essays and their scores included with descriptions about why they received the scores that they did and specifically where they lost points. Have a friend or teacher help to score your free responses, and identify areas of theory or writing that need improvement.

Step 5: Take another practice test

Assess your knowledge again once you’ve reviewed the theory and practiced each portion of the exam. Keeping track of your progress and areas that need further reinforcement will help to guide your studying.

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

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the Human Geography AP Exam will be administered on Friday, May 12 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)?


For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts


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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.