The Icing on the Cake – Final Preparations for the AP Exam

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Bruce Merz

In the previous article, we discussed the importance of spreading the cognitive load throughout a course as much as possible. One way to do this, especially in a course that includes a rigorous AP exam, is to bake the cake in layers, so to speak. For instance, the first layer is the course foundation itself, from its design, instructional style, pedagogical framework, accessibility for students, etc. (We intend to discuss this in greater detail in a future article.) Another layer would be covering the course content in a way that it is understood at a fundamental yet thorough level. Then the next layer would involve taking students’ understanding to a deeper level, doing things like solving sophisticated questions and problems on each topic. And then, another layer would be combining topics and competencies. And so on. Again, the previous article covered this in more depth.

With that in mind, in this article, we discuss the last layer — the icing on the cake — the final preparations for the AP Exam.

I must admit that I love chocolate cake. And I especially love a generous layer of chocolate icing on top of my chocolate cake. Without that icing, sure the cake might already be good, but it’s not great in my books. Similarly, having robust exam preparation at the end of the course can make your students go from good to great on the AP exam.

Now, there are already many articles with AP Exam study tips and there is no need for me to rehash the same content again. Thus, I’d prefer to simply share some helpful links to a few such articles and then spend most of my time presenting a study guide and five-stage preparation timeline for AP exam preparation with your students.

Some helpful links:


A five-stage preparation timeline to consider:


  1. Leave enough time at the end: If possible, finish covering topics four to five weeks or more prior to the exam.
    • This may sound daunting, but as we showed in our last article, this fits with a layered approach to learning the content. Again, this is ideal, though two weeks should be considered a minimum, in my opinion. However, using an online program like StudyForge Calculus made leaving a sufficient margin for AP Exam preparation easier than when I taught in the classroom. While features like scripted videos have allowed for efficient-yet-thorough coverage of the material, the flexibility of an online course more easily accommodates a slightly faster pace than a traditional classroom.

  2. Exam familiarity: Prior to preparing, students should get familiar with the AP Exam itself (format, questions, timeframe, calculator vs. no-calculator sections, etc. — see the articles referred to above). You can summarize and share this information directly and/or send students to the College Board to read up on the most up-to-date info.

  3. Unit review: As mentioned in the previous article in detail, I recommend students spend considerable amount of this allotted preparation time (approx. 60%) with a quick review of each unit followed by AP exam-style questions on that unit, including the ones available in AP Classroom (this is an excellent resource) or old released AP Exams (the more recent, the better) . Again, students should do this unit by unit, to help them identify troublesome areas to focus on and not get overly broad yet.

  4. Doing full AP exams: Again, as mentioned in the previous article, the remaining 40% of available preparation time can be spent practicing doing AP exam questions which cover the entire course (Multiple Choice and Free Response questions) as well as full practice AP Exams in AP Classroom and in a study guide like Barron’s or The Princeton Review, etc. An exam or two can be done with no time limit, but ideally, students should eventually be practicing under the same parameters and conditions as the actual exam. In either case, students should be going through the detailed solution of every question afterwards — multiple-choice questions included — to see not only where they went wrong, but if some of their processes or reasoning were faulty. As you know, one can get the correct answer for the wrong reasons!

  5. The night before: The evening before the exam, I encourage students to:
    • Re-read through the Tips, Hints, and Top Errors, from before, because it can’t hurt to refresh those (see earlier links).
    • Re-familiarize themselves with the format of the exam (see earlier links).
    • Eat well and get a good night’s sleep. When people are tired, math skills can be among the first to go. So, I encourage students to get some good nutrition and a great night of rest, and not to do any late cramming at this point. Sleep will help them more at this point than an extra hour of studying.
    • Relax 15 minutes before the exam, and then just do their best.


So, whether it’s final-exam preparations, such as specific unit reviews, doing old AP exam questions and even full practice AP exams, or specific exam prep throughout the course, such as AP Classroom beautifully facilitates, or the course design itself, which is so critical, everything should be coordinating together to ultimately help students succeed. Following that principle and keeping cognitive load in mind, educators like you can create a robust learning environment that truly allows students to thrive. Even on the AP Exam.

Happy baking!

About the Author

Bruce Merz

Bruce Merz, M.A.(Curriculum & Instruction), M.Sc.(Math)

Bruce is a passionate educator who has taught for over 25 years at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, in the classroom and online, and in the public and private/independent educational sectors, including educational work for the government. Bruce is the STEM Curriculum Specialist at StudyForge. He loves designing courses that create amazing learning experiences for students and help them achieve their potential. He also loves seeing how digital curriculum can help students in developing regions such as in the townships of South Africa, where he was able to see this firsthand, and is excited about what the future holds for education around the globe.

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