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An All-Inclusive Guide to Ace AP Biology Exams

Nov 13, 2021

If you find the stages of mitosis and meiosis more interesting than mathematical equations, chances are your interest lies in biology. For all those who find solace in learning about the strands of DNA and RNA over other subjects, AP Biology is an excellent option. It can especially be true if you plan to take up pre-med after high school. 

This AP Biology course will help you understand topics and skills you will learn early in college. The exam will further test you for the same. Choosing AP Biology exams, and passing them with a high score (four or five AP scores) can even earn you college credit. If you have decided to take up this exam or are wondering if you should, we are here to help. 


Our today’s post will familiarize you with the AP Biology exam, its format, the concepts involved in it, and a lot more before you get too far into the course. By the end of the article, you will also find tips on how to achieve a high score in the exam. This way, you can earn that much-needed college credit and get other benefits. Let the scrolling begin! 

The Structure of The AP Biology Exam 

If you want to enroll in the course and take up the AP biology exam, you must first get acquainted with its structure – it is three hours long. Also, the structure consists of main sections – the multiple-choice section and the free-response section. Further, for the year 2021, the exam took place in two modes – pencil and paper mode and digital mode. Let us discuss it further. 


Paper vs. Digital AP Biology Exams 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many AP exams in 2021 took place both in paper and digital mode. The same is the case with the AP Bio exam. Here is the difference between the two – the paper version of the AP Biology exam took place at school while the digital versions (on a computer) took place both at home and school.  

Further, the school had the choice to decide which kind of version they wanted to administer. It means, they had the option to choose between the in-school paper mode, at-home digital mode, and in-school digital mode. While the mode of these exams is different, the college board tried to keep the exams as similar as possible. 


All the AP Biology exams had the same difficulty level based on the content tested. However, since for the digital exam, students had to type using a keyboard, no drawings and graphs were asked on the paper. Also, the app used for the digital exam had all the symbols the students needed for their exams. 

The Pattern of The AP Biology Exams – What’s on The Paper? 

Above, we have answered one of your questions – “how long is the ap bio exam?” Now, here is what you have to answer in the exam. As already said, the exam consists of two sections – multiple-choice and free-response. Here are all the details about them that you must know: 


AP Biology Multiple-Choice Section 

Also called the grid-in quantitative section, this part of the exam has 60 multiple-choice questions that you have to answer in 90 minutes. All of these questions are designed to test your understanding of the fundamentals of biology and how you can apply these to solve problems. Here is what the questions are about: 

  • Visual representations 
  • Statistical tests and data analysis 
  • Argumentation 
  • Concept explanations 
  • Questions and methods 
  • Representing and describing data 

The other name of the section – grid-in quantitative section is because earlier (until 2020), it also comprised grid-in questions. These are the ones that have more than one answer correct. However, students do not have to worry about this. Now, the questions only have one answer correct out of the four given choices. 

Key Points About the AP Biology Multiple-Choice Section 

  • It has 60 multiple-choice questions. 
  • Each question has four answer choices (A-D). 
  • The section is 90 minutes long. 
  • It is equal to 50% of the entire AP Biology exam score. 
  • It has both stand-alone questions and questions in sets. 
  • The sets may have 4-5 questions per set. 
  • The multiple-choice section is checked with the help of a computer. 

AP Biology Free-Response Section 

The second section, the free-response part, has long as well as short response questions. There are two long-response questions and four short-answer questions. While the former AP Bio FRQ focuses on analyzing experimental results, the latter covers the following topics: 

  • Scientific Investigation 
  • Analysis of Data 
  • Conceptual Analysis 
  • Analysis of Model  
  • Analysis of Visual Representation 

Further, both the long-form questions require data analysis. The short ones, on the other hand, need only a paragraph-length response. Your response should explain and justify the given scenario. Moreover, where the multiple-choice section is scored using a computer, this one is graded by college and high-school teachers. They can give you partial credits for your answers if you are partially correct. 

Key Points About the AP Biology Free-Response Section 

  • It has two long-response questions. 
  • Long-response questions carry 8-10 points each. 
  • It has four short-answer questions. 
  • Short-answer questions carry 4 points each. 
  • The second short-answer question needs you to graph something. 
  • The section is 90 minutes long. 
  • It is equal to 50% of the entire AP Biology exam score. 
  • The free-response section is graded by college and high-school teachers. 

AP Biology Exam Expectations 

Below, you can find what both the AP Biology exam sections expect you to know. Have a look: 

  • You must know how to interpret data. 
  • You need to understand how to use graphical and mathematical models to explain basic principles and concepts related to Biology. 
  • You must know how to implement your knowledge of all the concepts. 
  • You need to make predictions and also know how to justify events based on biological principles. 

AP Biology Exam Topics: 4 Big Ideas 

When it comes to the concepts covered in the AP Biology exam, are centered around four major themes called the four big ideas. The College Board is very detailed about these official Big Four Ideas: 

  • Big Idea 1 
  • Big Idea 2 
  • Big Idea 3 
  • Big Idea 4 

Here is all you need to know about these big four ideas in detail:  

Big Idea 1: Process of Evolution 

As per this idea, the factor that drives the diversity and unity of life is the process of evolution. It covers the following topics: 

  • Biodiversity 
  • Species classification 
  • Natural selection 
  • Mathematical modeling of populations 

Big Idea 2: Energetics 

As per this, energy and molecular building blocks are used by biological systems. They use them to grow, maintain dynamic homeostasis, and reproduce. The topics included in this big idea are: 

  • Molecular biology 
  • Cell structure 
  • Cellular respiration 
  • Photosynthesis 
  • Thermodynamics and homeostasis 
  • Immune response  

Big Idea 3: Information Essential to Life Process 

As per this big idea, all living systems react to information essential to life processes. They can store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to any of this information. The topics under this idea are: 

  • Genetics 
  • Endocrine system 
  • Nervous system 
  • Cell cycle 
  • Communication between cells  
  • Viruses 

Big Idea 4: Interaction of Biological Systems 

As per this big idea 4, all the biological systems interact. Also, these systems and their interactions show complex properties. All the topics under this idea are as follows: 

  • Enzymes 
  • Plant structure 
  • Ecology 
  • Circulatory system 
  • Digestive System 
  • Musculoskeletal system 

Thus, to get through these four ideas well, you need to have an understanding of the following topics: 

Chemistry of Life 

  • Important properties of water 
  • pH 
  • Carbohydrates 
  • Proteins 
  • Lipids 
  • Nucleic acids 
  • Origins of life 

Cell Structure and Function 

  • Prokaryotic cells 
  • Eukaryotic cells 
  • Cell organelles 
  • Membranes and transport 
  • Cell junctions 
  • Cell communication 

Cellular Energetics 

  • Change in free energy 
  • Enzymes 
  • Coupled reactions and ATP 
  • Photosynthesis 
  • Cellular respiration 
  • Glycolysis 
  • Krebs cycle 
  • Oxidative phosphorylation 
  • Fermentation 

Cell Communication and Cell Cycle 

  • Mitosis 
  • Meiosis 


  • Mendelian genetics 
  • Inheritance patterns 

Gene Expression and Regulation 

  • DNA and genome structure 
  • Transcription and Translation 
  • Mutation 
  • Fundamentals of Biotechnology 

Natural Selection 

  • Evidence of evolution 
  • Phylogenetic trees 
  • Impact of genetic variation 
  • Speciation 
  • Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium 


  • Behavior and communication 
  • Food webs and energy pyramids 
  • Succession 
  • Communities and ecosystems 
  • Global issues 

Scoring of The AP Biology Exam 

For the AP Biology exam, the multiple-choice section and the free-response section make up 50% of your score each. For the former, you get 1 point for each question you answer correctly. Also, there is no negative marking for incorrect or blank answers. So, you can easily calculate your raw score.  

For the free-response section, scoring is a bit more complicated. The section is scored by actual graders rather than a computer. Further, you don’t need to get full marks. The section has partial scoring.  

When you get the scores for both sections, you will need to do a couple of calculations to get the final score (1-5). Any AP Bio score calculator online can help you with it. Manually, you can do the following: 

  • Firstly, multiply your multiple-choice section points by 1.03. 
  • Then, multiply the two long free-response question points by 1.5. 
  • After this, multiply the short free-response question points by 1.43. 
  • Lastly, add them all to get your raw AP Biology exam score. 

If your raw score is between 92-120, your AP score will be 5. Similarly, here are what other scores correspond to: 

  • 72-91 Raw Score: AP Score 4 
  • 52-71 Raw Score: AP Score 3 
  • 31-51 Raw Score: AP Score 2 
  • 0-30 Raw Score: AP Score 1 

What to Bring to the AP Biology Exam? 

For the digital AP Biology exam, a laptop/computer is needed. If you are taking it at a testing location, make sure to arrive early. On the other hand, those taking it from home must confirm their digital login details beforehand. Then, for the paper mode, bring the following: 

  • 2 sharpened No. 2 pencils (for multiple-choice section) 
  • 2 pens with black or blue ink (for free-response questions) 
  • Four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator 
  • Government-issued or school-issued photo ID. 
  • College Board SSD Accommodations Letter (for testing accommodations, if any) 

What Not to Bring to the AP Biology Exam? 

Here is a list of all that you must not carry with you to the paper AP Biology exam in person at school: 

  • Electronic devices like phones, smartwatches, tablets, cameras, laptops, timers, etc. 
  • Any devices that communicate in any way 
  • Any devices that access the internet 
  • Mechanical pencils 
  • Colored pencils or pens 
  • Scratch papers 
  • Reference guides 
  • Food and snacks 
  • Drinks including bottled water 

Note: you can keep food and drinks in the break room. 

How to Study for the AP Biology Exam? 

Now that you know the structure, pattern, syllabus, and scoring of the AP Biology exam, let us move on to how to study for it to get that perfect 5 AP score. Here are 5 steps to get a 5: 

  • Firstly, determine your AP Bio exam date and format, and come up with a schedule to prepare for the exam. 
  • Then, take an AP Biology practice test of 3 hours to identify your areas of strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Prioritize areas where you struggle the most and focus on the heavily weighted units. 
  • Also, review those units you know better to stay sharp in those topics and to be able to answer questions related to them quickly. 
  • Lastly, make use of as many AP Biology exam practice resources as possible and focus on time management. 

AP Biology Exam At-Home Study Tips 

While it is advised to take up AP Biology classes, you can also study yourself for the exam. Also, even if you take up the classes, self-preparation is crucial. Here are some tips for it: 

Always Be Consistent 

First things first, always take out time for studying and preparing daily for the AP Biology exam. Even if your study time is a few minutes to an hour a day for the subject, be consistent with it. When you study every day, you are sure to get done with the concepts by the time your APs arrive in May. 

Focus On Key Terms 

Then, focus on all the crucial terms. Use flashcards and study guides to memorize them. You can either make flashcards the old-fashioned way for it or use various study apps available online. This way, you can study even on the go. 

Get Rid of Distractions 

Then, make sure to get rid of everything that distracts you. After all, these days, it can be really easy to become distracted during studying. During your study time, stay away from all these things. 

Study with A Friend 

 It is also a good idea to study with a friend occasionally. You might talk out concepts and guide each other. Also, this way, you will study at a regular pace and not slack off. The only thing you need to take care of here is that your planned study time should focus on studying. 

Use Your Calculator 

Lastly, when you study at home, do not use your phone as a calculator. Instead, use a real calculator that meets the requirements for the exam. 

AP Biology Exam Tips for Multiple-Choice Questions 

Our next set of tips is solely focused on the multiple-choice section of the AP Biology exam. Have a look at them: 

Manage Your Time 

For the 60 multiple-choice questions, you will have only 90 minutes. Therefore, divide your time well. During your first pass through the questions, never spend more than 2 minutes on a question. If you are stuck on a question, move on to the next one and come back later. Also, since there is no negative marking, fill in an answer for each question. 

Imagine the Question 

When you read a question in your AP Biology exam, form a mental image of the question. Then, look at the answer choices and see if any of them matches the image you have in mind. Justify why you eliminated the others and once you are sure about your answer, mark it. If you cannot choose an answer, make your best choice since no mark is deducted for a wrong answer. 

Examine Visual Materials Carefully 

When it comes to visual materials, you must know how to interpret them correctly to know the answers. For it, carefully examine any labels, titles, axes, etc. Also, go through tables, figures, graphs, or images with utmost precision. 

Handle Questions Grouped Like Sets Wisely 

There are a few sets of 2-4 questions in this section. All of these questions are related and typically associated with one or more images, figures, tables, etc. While they are related, do not give up if you cannot crack the first question. Most of the time, each of the questions in the set can be answered independently too. 

Re-check Your Answers 

Always make sure that you have at least 10-15 minutes at the end of the exam to check your answers. Manage your time accordingly. During these 10-15 minutes, guess the answers to the questions you have not answered. Do not leave any questions unanswered. Also, start from the first page, and check if all your answers are correct.  

AP Biology Exam Tips for Free-Response Questions 

After the exam tips for multiple-choice AP Biology questions, here are some of our best tips for AP Bio free-response questions. Go through them! 

Follow These 5 Must-Do’s 

  • Do not restate the question when answering a free-response question. It is not needed at all and wastes time. In place of it, simply answer what the question is asking directly. In simple words, your response should not beat around the bush and be to the point. However, do not provide only a single sentence answer to a question. 
  • If the free-response question is broken into parts, pay attention to each of them. Answer all parts while taking care of answering only what each question is asking. In the case of questions that require calculation, always mark your final answer. The work of how you reached that answer is also important. 
  • When making a table or graph for the long-answer question, follow standard conventions. It means that your graph or table must have a title with labeled columns, units, plot lines, etc. Here again, draw the line/curve only through the provided data. Never extrapolate anything if not asked. 
  • For all the free-response questions, points are rewarded for quality over quantity. Writing a lengthy answer will not get you points if you do not answer what the question asks clearly. 
  • Lastly, for all the questions that involve making an argument, follow the “claim-evidence-reasoning” structure. 

Alongside all these five rules, you must do the following: 

  • Always keep track of time as you get only 90 minutes to complete the section. Make sure that you have time for revising your answers at the end. 
  • Also, understand the scoring rubrics provided by the College Board. Make sure to check all the related guidelines before you appear for the AP Biology exams. 
  • When writing the answers, focus on Grammar and spelling. It is also a great idea to underline or circle keywords in your answers. 
  • Outlines, diagrams, or bulleted lists alone are not acceptable in the section. Therefore, make sure to write complete sentences and paragraphs if you want your answers to be scored. 

Final Thoughts: AP Biology Test Day Tips 

So, this is all you need to know about the AP Biology exam. While the exam is challenging, consistent practice can easily help you get through it. Also, on the test day, take care of the following: 

  • Always get a good night’s sleep the night before your AP Biology exam. 
  • Pack your bag the night before and review the items in it twice. 
  • Make sure to change the batteries in your calculator with a fresh set. 
  • Always eat a healthy and balanced breakfast on the morning of the AP exam. 
  • Make sure you are free of any kind of electronic gadget that is not allowed. 
  • Lastly, be positive and confident throughout your exam, and perform well. 

Good luck!



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