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Updated: April 15, 2020

AP Exams: What You Need to Know

The Advance Placement (AP) Exams cover a wide variety of topics, from Physics to Art History to Environmental Science, but nearly all exams have several things in common. Most exams are 2 to 3 hours long and split into two sections: multiple-choice questions and free response questions. Most schools proctor one AP Exam per subject, and all students who have taken the AP course and elect to take the appropriate exam will test together. Exams are typically scheduled during the first two weeks in May. Students are generally excused from the classes that they would normally attend during the hours the exam is proctored.

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Exams Offered

The College Board offers over 30 different AP Exam every year, although your school many not offer all of them. They can be broken up into six categories: Arts, English, History and Social Sciences, Math and Computer Science, Sciences, and World Languages and Cultures. Exams within categories often share similarities, like History exams requiring students to respond to a DBQ, or document-based question, in the free-response section. If you are interested in a particular AP exam, but your school doesn’t offer the course, talk to your school counselor.

Types of Exams

AP Art Exams

“Exams” may not be the best way to describe how the AP Art courses are assessed. Instead of studying to take an exam, students in AP Art work all year long on pieces that they will submit as a portfolio to the College Board. This portfolio will include artwork that demonstrates principles covered by the course, as well as writing explaining your understanding of techniques and your approach in art-making. All portfolios will be graded by experienced art educators, so you don’t have to worry about explaining hue and saturation or 3-D lighting effects to a math or English teacher.

AP English Exams

Two exams are offered in the English Category – AP English Language and Composition, and AP English Literature and Composition. While preparations for both exams involve reading and writing, what they test is more delineated. AP Language has a broader scope, and asks students to examine rhetorical techniques and argumentative strategies in both fiction and non-fiction. In the free response section, the AP Language exam asks students to synthesize six to seven texts – some which may deviate from being purely text – and derive an argument that combines at least three of the sources. AP Literature is more focused in scope, and centers primarily on novels, essays, short stories, poetry and the art of literary analysis. Students are asked to reflect on the works of literature they read in the course during the free response section of the exam, which also includes poetry and prose fiction analysis.

AP History Exams

The College Board offers a variety of courses for students interested in history, including AP World History, AP European History and AP U.S. History, often referred to as “APUSH”. Unique to the AP History exams is the splitting of Section 1 into Sections 1A and 1B. 1A is the standard multiple-choice section of the test that most AP exams feature, whereas Section 1B is dubbed the “Short Answer” section and acts as a bridge to the longer essays of Section 2. Two questions in Section 1B are accompanied by text, graphics, images or maps, and will ask the student to respond to the question while citing these primary or secondary sources. For the third question, students can choose between a topic from the earlier half of the course (1491–1877) or the latter half of the course (1865–2001). No printed sources will be offered for citation, so pick the time period and historical texts that you are more familiar with from your studies.

AP Math and Computer Science Exams

AP Math and Computer Science exams are fairly straightforward, featuring multiple-choice questions and free response questions that students will be familiar with from their previous math courses. Students may use a graphing calculator during specific sections of both the AB and BC Calculus exam, and only those sections. The questions asked in the calculator-less sections will be possible to be completed without a calculator, so don’t worry – if you’ve committed formulae to memory, you will be able to tackle those questions. Unique to the AP Computer Science Principles course is a secondary Portfolio Assessment that students will add to throughout the year and submit digitally. Both the Assessment and the Exam will factor into the end score for AP Computer Science Principles.

AP Sciences Exams

For students interested in science, the College Board offers exams in Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science and Physics, which is split into 4 sections – Physics 1 (previously Physics A), Physics 2 (previously Physics B), and Physics C – which itself is split into Electricity & Magnetism and Mechanics (both Physics C exams are typically taken together.) For all AP Science exams, the multiple-choice and free response sections are weighted equally. Students will be asked not only to remember the facts they learned in class but also the experiments they performed and the results they achieved.

AP World Languages and Cultures

Students with a knack for foreign languages are able to take AP Exams that assess their written and spoken language skills in Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Italian and Spanish. Unlike other AP exams, which exist purely in booklets and scantrons, AP Languages and Cultures exams include a listening portion in the multiple-choice section and a speaking portion in the free response section. For the latter, you’ll be asked to hold a conversation in the language and give a small spoken presentation about the culture of the language’s native speakers. These audio recordings will be sent to the College Board and used to determine your final score. Two other exams are offered in this category – AP Spanish Literature and AP Latin. Spanish Literature is much like English Literature, but focuses on reading and responding to works of fiction by Spanish-speaking authors. Latin, being a “dead language”, does not have a verbal section, and is focused more on translating and studying specific Latin works rather than Ancient Roman culture.


AP Exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. The multiple-choice section of the exam is scored by a computer, while free response section is scored by college professors and experienced AP teachers of the subject in question. Both scores are added up into a final composite score, which is then translated into a score out of 5. The scoring process is designed to ensure that scores hold consistent value over the years the exams are administered. Unlike the SAT or ACT, schools do not require that students take AP Exams in order to apply, but reporting your score, especially a 4 or a 5, might earn you college credit or allow you to place into a higher-leveled course.