5 Tips for a 5 on an AP Exam

So you want that elusive 5 on an AP exam? Well, I have good and bad news for you. As for the good news, I’ve got a little cheat sheet just for that! As for the bad news, you will still need to study along with using this cheat sheet. I know, I know you want the magic pill for this exam. I wish there was one, but I’ve got the second best thing. This cheat sheet will help you save hours and hours of inefficient studying by laying out some tips and tricks to hack the AP exam and study smarter, not harder.

First, to lay out my qualifications – I have been teaching and tutoring for over a decade. My students, both classroom students and the students I tutor, have a pass rate OVER 95% on their AP exams since 2016. These include APUSH, AP Art History, AP World History, and AP European History. 

Despite my years of experience teaching AP courses, I strongly disagree with everything about the AP tests – standardized tests are at best a waste of everyone’s time and at worst a discriminatory test. They are also a huge cash grab for the companies that run them – looking at you CollegeBoard. AP looks good to the very competitive colleges you are applying to, so students feel forced to get into these AP courses – thus driving up the number of students taking the courses and paying the fees. 

CollegeBoard is a not-for-profit that brings in OVER A BILLION DOLLARS in revenue a year. All those $94 exam fees add up. CollegeBoard then invests that money, along with finding other avenues to create “expenses” to get back down to “zero profit.” It’s a scam – but because it’s a scam, the test is catered to quick grading and turnaround with a very specific rubric instead of grading a student on actual writing skills, etc. Because of this system though, it can be hacked to give yourself a much better chance of getting a 5. So, let’s stick it to the man! Which brings me to my first tip on the cheat sheet:

1. Know the AP Rubric! 

From my experience teaching multiple AP courses, this is the most overlooked aspect that can dramatically raise you scores. I make sure to always beat this rubric into my student’s heads. The AP exam is NOT a test of actual knowledge so much as it is a test of how well you follow directions – especially on the writing section. You are not graded on how well you write. Let me repeat that, in an essay section YOU ARE NOT GRADED ON HOW WELL YOU WRITE. As long as you are writing in complete sentences and attempting to put your essay in paragraph form (bullet points will NOT be graded on the AP exams), you can only be graded on what information you get correct. Think of the rubric as a checklist. Just make sure you check each point off as you write.

This color by numbers style of grading system for the writing section causes the rubric to become your best friend and the key to unlocking this whole exam. The DBQ and LEQ rubrics lay out exactly how to get each point. It would take too long to break down each point here, but I have linked to the rubric – which includes each section and how to gain the points. You can also always email me to ask questions or set up a session. I will also be sending out a more detailed rubric cheat sheet soon.

2. The Shotgun Method

The last point here, and this is a major one, is that the graders can only give you credit for what you get right – they cannot remove points for incorrect material. What this means is that you have room for error on essay questions you are not so sure about. You can use a little method I refer to as the shotgun method. The shotgun method is simply throwing out a couple different answers so that hopefully at least one of them is right – thus gaining you the point when you don’t really know the answer. To be blunt, this is actually bad writing. I hate that I’m telling you to do this. But again, I’m not giving you advice on how to be a good writer here – just hacks to write to get a 5 on the AP exam.

Here is an example of how to use the shotgun method using the outside evidence section of the rubric: You need to back up your thesis statement with one specific piece of evidence outside the documents. If you throw out 3 pieces of evidence and 2 are dead wrong, but only 1 is correct – guess what – you get the point (as long as you are using the evidence to back up your point, not just throwing out a list of evidence points). 

3. Primary Sources, baby!

The AP exams advertise themselves as college level courses for high school students. The one area where they do actually manage to get closer to college level courses is this focus on primary sources. In case you don’t remember middle school social studies, primary sources are documents that come from the time period you are studying: a newspaper article, political cartoon, letters between people, a senator’s speech, etc.

Secondary sources are written about a time period, usually much later, by people who were not directly involved. The most common type of secondary source is the textbook. While a typical high school course relies most heavily on the textbook and asks students to repeat facts, the AP course requires the ability to read and analyze historical documents. This skill is super important, especially in college, and is the one area where the AP people got something right.

If you look at the AP exam – EVERY multiple choice question is related to a primary (and sometimes secondary) source document, and obviously the Document Based Question is based entirely on using primary (and sometimes secondary) source documents. The multiple choice section is 40% of your exam score and the DBQ is 25%. So, 65% of this exam is based on your ability to read, interpret, and analyze documents. Reading these sources – which are often in older versions of English that can be difficult to understand – and applying the material to the question asked is key. This is good and bad news though.

The good news is that the answers are usually somewhere right inside the text! The bad news is that those answers are usually a little hidden inside the text – so you will need strong reading comprehension skills to find them. This is a skill that probably can’t be covered well in a single blog post, but it is a skill your teacher should be hammering home this year, and one that I can help with during tutoring sessions. 

So take the documents from class or homework to your teacher, schedule a meeting with them, and ask them to help you break down primary source documents. You can also reach out for private lessons. Reading comprehension is a skill that every single person can learn! There are also quite a few tricks to make reading comprehension a little bit easier that we can work on, so don’t let a fear of primary sources stop you from taking an AP course and succeeding.

4. Practice Makes Perfect

My favorite cliché is “Work Smart, Not Hard.” I’ve never understood people taking 3 hours to do a 1 hour task even when there is obviously a more efficient manner. 

So, yes, here’s where the cheat sheet moves away from tricks to beat the system and starts to require a little more work on your part. But I’m gonna help you learn to work smart and not hard. You can actually be studying LESS than you are right now and get better scores.

AP practice exam materials are going to be your best friend as you prepare for the AP exam. Remember that this exam is a scam and it needs to be graded quickly and without causing much of an uproar from either students, parents, or faculty. This is why the exam follows such a hard standardized test rubric. But it’s also why the practice materials are so important.

There are only so many types of questions that the AP exam asks – and only so many types of answers they will accept. Practice tests give you these questions to work on plus answers with explanations. You can use these examples as a format to base your answers on. These practice exams show you exactly what a good answer looks like. If you continuously work on practice exams and use the answer keys to help you figure out why you got some wrong, you will be incredibly prepared come AP Exam season.

 I’m NOT asking you to spend 2 hours a day memorizing facts. Don’t do that in fact – that’s working hard, not smart. Do, however, go through the AP practice tests in the study guides, or find the old AP exams online if you can, and try to answer the questions as you study. Usually these practice exams have sample answers – so you can compare your answer to a perfect one and see how the graders are grading certain types of questions.

For example, almost every single DBQ and LEQ question on the new APUSH format starts with the phrase “To what extent…” You now know exactly what type of question the AP exams are going to ask you. You just need to plug and play with the material you learned this year once you master writing to the rubric. Come back soon for a whole post on how to answer a “To what extent” question.

5. It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Here’s another work smart, not hard tip. The AP US History Exam covers over 300 years of history that needs to be taught in less than 9 months. That’s a lot of material. Your teacher has to move fast! He/she can only cover so much, and you are responsible for filling in the blanks through reading your textbook and using practice exam materials. For any runners out there, imagine trying to run a marathon on one month’s practice. That is what most students do for this course. They only study for their next test all year, and then wait until May to cram everything from August 15th to May 1st in before the exam. Will you really remember the very first Supreme Court cases you covered back in September on May 1?

 It is so much more helpful to do consistent review all year round. Again – smart not hard – I’m not asking you to set aside an hour a day for this. Just find a system that works for you and stick to it. Personally, I always found that reviewing a single period once a week for an hour or two worked just fine. I would do it Sunday during the early slate of professional football games (You know which trademarked league I’m talking about – unless you suffered from too many concussions after playing in the league). I turn the games on, mute the volume, and lay out my notes and textbook next to me on the couch for just one unit. I would usually pick the worst game of the week to do this, so I wasn’t too distracted. But you could also do 15-20minutes a night, Sunday-Thursday. Whatever works for you!

For example, we may be on Unit 7 in class, but I decided to go back to Unit 3 on this particular Sunday.  I’ve picked a time to review when I already have a “ritual” – a time and place set aside each week – in this case Sunday from 1pm-4pm on my couch in my PJs. I’ve just added one piece to that ritual – reviewing one unit (and muting the TV). This is even better if you’re a fan of the team in Jacksonville (or Miami. Or Cincinnati.) because you aren’t really missing that much. Who needs to see EVERY pick-six your quarterback throws that week. Just look up at the screen every 10 minutes or so to check the score and see that awful pass interference penalty.

If you do this twice a month, one unit each review session, you will have reviewed 2 units a month over the 10 month period of August-May. You will therefore have reviewed every unit twice over the course of the year, plus the time you went over it in class. That means you studied each unit THREE times over the course of the year by taking 2 or 3 hours out of two days a month. That’s smart – not hard. I will also be linking a free review sheet that further breaks down how to review for the AP Exam over the course of the year soon. So keep an eye on the blog or sign up for the mailing list for that material.

Five steps, that’s it. Know the darn rubric. Use the primary sources (instead of memorizing every fact). Work smart, not hard. Take advantage of the materials at your disposal and be consistent in how you review year round. And remember, sign up for the email newsletter for new tips and tricks, and you can always schedule a lesson to go over this material in more depth with me.