How to Study for AP Biology | Tips and Tricks for a High Score In the 2019 Exam

Planning on signing up for AP Bio for the next semester? This Advanced Placement course is one of the most popular options available, especially for those who are thinking of majoring in the life sciences. But before you take the plunge, it might be best for you to learn how to study for AP Biology first.

This course may be a top pick by many students but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a good deal of hard work. It would be best to come prepared for this class or you might just find yourself drowning with coursework.

To help you manage this advanced course and ace the AP Bio exam that comes with it, check out our roundup of the most effective study tips and tricks below.

AP Biology: What is It About and Why You Should Prepare for It?

Before we start teaching you the best tricks and techniques in studying for AP Bio, you might want to get to know the course better. What exactly is AP Biology?

This is a college-level AP Biology course for high school students offered by the College Board, the organization that handles standardized testing and creates the curricula of K-12 and other post-secondary educational institutions. It’s practically a pre-requisite for introductory college-level biology courses. However, if you pass the AP Biology test with a score of 3 and higher, you can get free entry-level Biology course credits from most colleges.

This means that if you were able to ace your AP Bio class, you might be able to get free course credit in college. This is an amazing deal since it can help you cut down your expenses for your college education.

Is AP Bio hard? This is possibly one of the most commonly asked questions about this topic. Answering it isn’t as straightforward as one would like, however.

Besides, what could be difficult for one person might not necessarily be the same for others. Some experts try to quantify the difficulty of AP Bio in three ways. 

In terms of content, it’s said that it’s not necessarily hard but it can be quite extensive. The breadth of the coverage of this course is large so there will be lots of concepts and topics that you’ll need to understand and know about. This can make it a bit overwhelming for some but nothing a good study plan can’t fix.

As for the AP Biology exam, if you’ll base it on the passing rate, it can be suggested that it’s a mid-difficulty course. About more than half the takers pass the exam which is a good thing because there are lots of AP Bio students. Its 5 rate, or the number of students who got a 5, on the other hand, is very low. This suggests that the exam in itself can be quite difficult. 

While these might not concretely demonstrate how hard the course can be, they might already give you an idea on whether you can handle its challenges or not. The fact alone that it’s an advanced science class should readily clue you in whether you can take it on and get good marks.

If you choose to dive in, however, you might find some study tips useful. The very act of studying for AP Bio might prove to be hard but the process doesn’t have to be. With the right techniques, you can boost your chances of getting a 5 in this tricky AP class.

Top Tricks and Tips on How to Study for the AP Biology Exam

Studying for an AP class isn’t just about opening your notes and retaining the information found in your textbooks or discussed in class. If you want to get the highest marks, you have to know the right strategies to go about it. There are just so many bases to cover that it will be more efficient if you know exactly what you need to do before you take on this class.

What exactly are you supposed to do? Here are the most important tips and tricks that you should follow to boost your chances of getting a passing grade or higher in your AP Bio class.

1. Get to know what you’re getting yourself into.

As mentioned above, it’s important for you to know a lot about the course if you want to ace it. This will help you prepare as much as you possibly can. Try to learn more about the experiences of former AP Bio students, for starters. Nothing beats an anecdotal account of this process, as it can tell you very crucial details that can help you weigh your options properly.

In most cases, former students will also be more than willing to share some tips with you. They’ll tell you what worked for them and what didn’t. You can take note of these and opt to follow them if you feel inclined to do so. Some of these tips are passed down from one student to another so they might really come in handy for you.

2. Create a study plan and strategy that will suit your learning preferences and schedule.

As mentioned before, AP Biology has a large content. In some cases, classes don’t even cover more than a half of what’s in the textbook. This can seriously affect a diligent student’s chance of getting a 5 if they only rely on the pace of the class. By having a study plan, however, you can ensure that you’ll cover all of the areas that you need to take on to get ready for the exam.

Study plans aren’t cookie-cutter creations, however. For them to be effective, they should be made with your study ethic and preferences in mind. This is why it’s best to create your own study plan instead of just looking for a ready-made one.

study plan

How do you create an AP Bio review study plan that will work for you? In all honesty, you should just really think of a way how to better divide your time so you can spend some self-studying.

These plans are mostly about scheduling and planning your progress to ensure that you’ll cover more areas of study before the exam day.

To do this, you should start by mapping out your semester. Having a timeline will help you allocate your time and schedule when you should already cover certain topics.

Learning how to prioritize would also be an essential part of this task. By scheduling and mapping out your semester, you should also improve your time management skills. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that you’ll render your schedule useless entirely.

Aside from your time, you should also learn to prioritize information. Not everything in your textbook will come out as a question in the exam so it’s important that you know which ones to pay full attention to and work hard on retaining.

To make this easier, it would be best to try to fully understand concepts instead of just memorizing the ideas that are related to them. If you thoroughly comprehend what a topic is about, you won’t have a hard time recalling smaller concepts in relation with bigger ones.

3. Look for the best AP Biology review materials that you can use.

In most occasions, your teacher and textbook won’t be enough to help you fully understand the course topics or cover all of the areas that will come out in the exam. This might make you feel like you’ll need to boost your self-study efforts.  

Getting an AP Bio study guide is a good solution to this concern. These items are designed to help you understand the concepts mentioned in the course in a more concise manner. They usually serve as companion materials to textbooks but some also function as workbooks.

The best AP Biology prep book work as both, however. They will not only explain concepts in a way that’s easier to digest but they will also grill you if you really got what they’ve discussed about. They can also come in very handy while doing an AP Biology exam review because they often have practice tests that are designed to reflect the structure of the actual exam.

Some of the supplemental materials that you can get are AP Biology study guide books, flashcards, and workbooks. The hardest task is to opt for one out of two or more AP Bio prep books, like Barron's AP Biology vs Cliffs AP Biology. We recommend getting both plus other useful study materials.

4. Pay attention in class.

Make the most of your time and make sure to pay attention while you’re in your AP Bio class. Even if you find your teacher lacking in some areas or if the class is already falling behind in terms of topic coverage, you can still pick up a lot of things in class. This is also true even if you’re more of a self-learner.

There are just some biological concepts that are easier to grasp when they’re explained to you by a pro. And if the class is slowly moving forward and you’ve already taken the initiative to study ahead, you’ll be able to refresh your knowledge during these sessions.

5. Create your own study sheets.

While you will be able to find readily available and completed AP Biology formula sheets and review sheets online, it’s still recommended that you make your own. The processes of organizing and writing each concept and topic down will help you brush up on your knowledge.

The sheets can also come in handy as easier to digest reading materials as the exam day looms near. They’re not as cumbersome and overwhelming as study guides, so you’ll be more likely to carry them around.

study sheets

It’s also recommended that you make several sheets over the semester. The repetitive activity can also be a good way to help you remember the information you’ve taken in. Make them after you’ve completed a chapter or topic.

With their help, you might also be able to brush up on certain areas that you need to improve on.

For example, you’re not as confident as you are in other areas when it comes to the AP Biology evolution test. If you’ve made a study sheet for the topic, you can easily and immediately just go back to it, helping you efficiently work on your problem area.

Making your very own AP Bio formula sheets are crucial, too. Sure, they’re easy to find online but by writing them down on your own, you can more easily memorize what the process should be like. This can then help you effectively keep such tricky details in mind.

6. Study the actual AP Biology Exam.

By this, we don’t mean that you should study for the exam diligently, although, you should also clearly do that. By saying that you should study the actual AP Bio test, we mean that you should also study the actual exam format, rules, and scoring. Doing so will boost your odds of acing the exam because you’ll be able to cover all your bases and avoid making any crucial mistakes that can cost you a high score.

Fortunately, information about the exam itself is readily available online. You don’t have to know someone who took the exam last year just to learn about its details. The College Board’s website actually has a dedicated page for the AP Biology exam so you can get a lot of information there. 

Make sure to learn how long are the AP exams and when they’re holding it. Even if your teacher will inform you of these things, it would be wise to check the official College Board website for such a vital detail.

Next, take note of the rules and policies in place for the exam. Doing this will help you avoid making the crucial mistake of bringing a prohibited calculator. They only allow the use of scientific, four-function (with square root), or graphing calculators during the exam.

Learning about what the exam is like is also very important. Doing this is possibly just as crucial as learning the actual concepts discussed in the course because it can thoroughly prepare you for the exam. It can also help boost your confidence in test-taking because you have a good idea of what’s going to be asked to you.

What should you do to become more familiar with the exam? Here are three vital points that you should pay close attention to:

The Exam Format

If you know the exact format of the exam, you’ll have a better idea at what you should do to prepare for it. In the case of AP Bio, the exam will use three answering methods: multiple choice, grid-in, and free response.

For the AP Biology multiple choice section, you might want to memorize key concepts and ideas. This way, you can easily spot the right answers to the related questions. The same thing works for the grid-in as this will require you to calculate the right answers. By memorizing the formulas necessary to finding the right answers to the grid-in questions, you’ll have a better chance at getting a high score.

As for the AP Biology free response section, you’ll need to elaborate on your answers. To ace this part, you should make sure to thoroughly understand the concepts and topics related to the question.

The Exam Questions

Knowing about what kinds of questions are asked in the exam will also help you get ready to take the test. The information you’ll get from knowing what the questions are like will help you fine-tune your studying so you can answer similar questions.

As it will be impossible to learn about the questions they’ll ask in your upcoming exam, the next best thing to turn to would be the questions asked in the previous exams. While it might be a challenge to find the actual questions for the multiple choice section, the College Board posts the AP Biology FRQ (free response questions) in their website.

What’s even better is that they post them by year, starting with the most recent set. This should give you a good idea on what the questions will be like for your exam. You can even use them as AP Biology practice exam questions since they also come with sample responses.

It’s best to focus on the previous year’s questions, however, as there’s a higher likelihood that the questions the following year will be somewhat similar. If it won’t focus on the same topics, at least the format will be alike.

If you want to check out the questions from years before, keep in mind that the ones from 2012 and previous years might not have the same structure and format as the ones that will be asked this year. With the revisions made for the AP Bio curriculum in 2013, the test questions from the years before it aren’t aligned with the current structure and format anymore. Using these older test questions might still help you brush up on your knowledge but they might not be very useful if you want to be better versed in the current exam format. 

Aside from the actual questions, you might also want to know about the ‘4 Big Ideas’ that the restructured AP Bio exam tackles. These are pretty much the themes that the exam will include in the exam. By learning about them, you’ll have a better chance of covering the areas that the College Board will most likely include in the exam. 

You should also never forget brushing up on your Labs. This area comprises 25% of the entire course so you will need to understand how they are conducted and what the principles behind them are. They will help you tie up the entire course together and get a better grasp on the concepts discussed.

The Scoring Guidelines

Knowing how you’re going to be scored is also a good way to prepare for the exam. This will allow you to realize the worth of each question. It can also help you create a strategy in achieving your target score.

Aside from referring to the score guidelines provided by the College Board, you can also use one of the AP Biology score calculators available online. Just double check if they use the similar method as the previous year’s guidelines, however, to ensure accuracy.

Pro-tip: Study the previous year’s exam in its entirety.

Another good way to familiarize yourself with the exam and brush up your knowledge is to study the previous year’s actual exam and use it as an AP Biology practice test. Doing this will help you build confidence in your preparation. It can also help you feel more ready to take on the exam so you can relax a bit and not fully stress out about the upcoming event.

7. Try out some study hacks.

Aside from the conventional study techniques and strategies, you might also benefit from trying out some study hacks. While a lot of them sound outrageous, there are also those backed by science that can also help in jogging your memory, establishing associations, boosting your motivation, and improving your focus. They might also make your study sessions a bit less drab with just how silly they are.


AP Biology will seem to be overwhelming to some but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be taken on effectively. Many have aced this course with the right study techniques, so if you’re also gunning for a 5, it will be ideal to follow their steps.

The key here, like in many other AP courses, is that you lay out a good plan of attack. We hope that this guide helps you create one that will work best for you. All of the tips mentioned above are highly recommended and proven effective, so you might just benefit from giving them a try.

Lastly, here's a short video with useful tips from a student, Estelle, who took AP biology. Not only are these useful tips, but she also recommends our own top pick for a 5 at AP Bio, Barron's AP Biology book which you can get here.

Leonard Haggin

I created this site to help students like you learn from the experiences my team had learned during our extensive academic careers. I am now studying Law at Stanford, but I also make time to write articles here in order to help all you fellow students advance in your academic careers and beyond. I hope our efforts on Study Prep Lounge will arm you with the knowledge you need to overcome whatever trial or test you find in front of you.

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