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Life > High School

6 Tips for Rocking Your AP Classes

You’ve heard the horror stories: Making the decision to take AP classes means you’ve thrown away any hope of having a social life and replaced it with endless nights of homework and cramming for an impossible-sounding exam. In reality, however, AP classes aren’t the monstrous beasts survivors of said classes make them out to be. In fact, they can be a great option for collegiettes looking for a way to boost their college applications, earn credit before stepping foot inside a university and push themselves to learn a lot in the process. Check out HC’s pointers to learn how to transform your AP-filled schedule from a nightmarish semester to a killer opportunity for you to excel. 

1. Make sure you understood any summer work that was assigned.

As torturous or inhumane as it may have seemed, any work you were assigned to complete over the summer was given to you for a reason. The goal of summer homework is usually to help you get a sense of how much homework is assigned during the year as well as the level of difficulty of the class. Oftentimes this work is also meant to re-teach or reinforce past concepts of which you’re expected to start the year with a solid grasp. Obviously some of what you’re reading might also be new (e.g. a new fiction novel you had to read), but it’s also a great chance to review concepts like how to analyze a book to an English teacher’s satisfaction, or how to think critically about reading.

“Advanced Placement courses are very dense in terms of the content, and they are often cumulative, meaning the content builds upon itself over time,” says Jason Szporn, an AP Economics teacher at Edina High School in Minnesota. “What may begin as a small hole in content knowledge can quickly grow larger if a student doesn’t keep on top of the material.”

Ask your teacher questions if anything you learned over the summer was unclear or confusing. Make sure to ask for feedback about work completed over the summer and ask for advice about how to do better on future assignments to make sure you’re performing at the level expected of an AP student. Now is the perfect time to ask questions and clarify anything you didn’t understand; don’t wait until November or December to finally grasp what you were supposed to cover in August or September!

“If you get really stuck on something, definitely go ask for help right away. Don’t wait till the last minute before a test to ask someone about it,” says Chloe Lee, an AP student at Hong Kong International School who offers tutoring for several AP classes.

2. Don’t procrastinate!

The reality of many AP courses is that they’re intentionally difficult. After all, these are classes taught at a college level that will hopefully earn you credit once you actually make it to the hallowed halls of a particular college or university. “Don’t underestimate the difficulty and the amount of work that will be needed,” Chloe says.

Alexis Zimmer, an AP student at Viera High School in Florida, agrees. “If studying and practice is done consistently, then the end-of-year cramming should be nonexistent,” she says. “In fact, I really believe that small revisions at home every day after lectures in class is the best way to go, especially if students are balancing more than a few AP classes.” 

With the higher degree of difficulty associated with AP classes, it’s important to have a good grasp on how to manage your time. “Once enrolled in the course, I believe the key is to stay on top of the material and never to let oneself get too far behind,” advises Szporn.

Play with your schedule and figure out which times allow you to be most productive when working on assignments. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to complete your work initially to make sure you’re allowing yourself enough wiggle room to fully understand and finish everything that’s assigned or recommended by your teacher. 


3. Try different study methods.

Don’t be afraid to try out new methods of studying or prepping for assignments, quizzes and exams, especially if you’ve never been in a college-level class before. After all, it’s a different kind of class, so you may need different study methods than you’re used to!

“I’d say successful AP students are also flexible, trying multiple strategies for note- or test-taking in order to find the one that works for them,” says Elyssa McIntyre, an AP US History Teacher at Wayzata High School in Minnesota. “There is no one magic formula for success, and students have to be actively advocating for themselves with teachers and trying different approaches on their own until they find the one that works for them.”

Used to studying alone? Try getting together with your classmates to review before your next exam. Never used flashcards before? Break open a pack of index cards and give it a try for your next AP French quiz. Always taken Cornell notes? Try being a little more freeform and breaking up your notes into a loose outline in your AP Statistics class. Don’t be afraid to play around and see if a different method might be a better fit if you’re having trouble understanding your notes or aren’t totally grasping the material. If you find something that works, definitely stick with it!


4. Take time outside of class to teach yourself the material.

Amazing teachers can make a world of difference in a classroom. That being said, “Don’t expect that you will learn everything in class, even if you have an amazing teacher, because AP classes require a lot of self-learning,” says Chloe. “It’ll be extremely helpful if you go home and just review.”

When it comes down to it, you’re the one taking the test at the end of the year, not your teacher. How much you get out of an AP class depends on how much you put into it, especially when it comes to completing work on your own time. “As many of my AP teachers have said, ‘Only you can get yourself to a 5 [on the AP exam]’ …especially since a lot of AP classes don’t have enough time in school to cover all of the material thoroughly,” says Alexis.

Chloe suggests “finding videos online, or other resources that will help you.” Sites like the College Board can be great resources to supplement the instruction you receive in the classroom. “Motivation and self-advocacy can go pretty far, assuming your school supports you in developing the raw reading and writing skills that are necessary for a college prep course,” says McIntyre.

5. Learn what to expect from the AP exam itself.

Just like when you take a big test like the SAT or ACT, part of doing well in an AP class or on an AP exam at the end of the year revolves around knowing how the class and exam are structured. A big part of your classroom experience should focus on preparing you for the AP exam at the end of the year and give you plenty of chances to practice taking the test. Use this from the very beginning as an opportunity to get used to working within a time constraint, handwriting answers to an essay prompt, integrating primary sources into your answers like you’re required to do for DBQs (that’s document-based questions for all you AP newbies) and learning the terms, phrases and structure required to score highly on an AP exam.

“It’ll be helpful to look over past work, which includes tests, quizzes, worksheets and more. If you are taking an AP science course [for example], look over past labs and understand them,” says Chloe.

Practicing early and often allows you to start working on your own or with a teacher to improve in areas where you have difficulty. “When [studying] for AP exams, it’s also important to look at the test breakdown when deciding where to place your efforts,” says Alexis. “If you’re uncomfortable with a heavily tested topic, it’s important to dedicate more time studying than a less-tested topic.”

If your class doesn’t offer chances to practice taking an AP exam or you’re prepping for an AP test on your own, it’s never too early to take a look at past exam questions and scoring rubrics to get an idea of what you should integrate into your own responses. The earlier you start looking at what exam takers are expected to do, the sooner you can start working on your own strategies to remember and include necessary information come exam time in May. Examples of past questions and scoring guides are super easy to access on the College Board’s website

“Become best friends with the College Board’s website. The previously released FRQs [free-response questions] are a godsend, and they’re a great way to practice for the exam, as they give insight to what the exam actually asks and have student responses of varying scores,” says Alexis. Develop good AP habits early by knowing all you can about the exam itself! 

6. Enlist classmates and help one another out throughout the year.

Get to know your classmates; these people can be great resources when it comes to reviewing concepts, forming study groups and going through the AP experience together. 

Karen Terhark, an AP English Language and Composition teacher at Eagan High School in Minnesota, says she has students work together on essay prompts throughout the year to help strengthen writing skills that are super important for the exam in May. “I have students assess one another’s free responses using the rubrics the College Board has developed for assessing the essays,” she says. “This seems to be a great way for students to gain more than one perspective on the AP exam—the exam taker and the scorer.”

Make Terhark’s strategy work for you, regardless of the subject. Work with friends to discuss homework questions or prompts you find confusing, and use the benefit of a group to bounce ideas off of one another to see if you can arrive at a consensus about the correct answer. Working in a group is also a great way to gain exposure to lots of different opinions and viewpoints, as well as different strategies you can use to tackle tough exam questions. 

AP classes don’t need to be the doomsday experience many students make them out to be. The classes themselves can even be fun because you get to engage with more advanced topics and hopefully feel a little bit closer to college. Be smart about what you take on, pay attention to how you approach the material, use your resources wisely and you’ll become an AP pro in no time! 

Sydney is a junior double majoring in Media and Cultural Studies and Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a short trip away from Minneapolis, her hometown. When Sydney is not producing content for a variety of platforms, she enjoys hanging out with friends, watching movies, reading, and indulging in a smoothie or tea from Caribou Coffee, the MN-based version of Starbucks.