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AP Test-Taking Strategy
Teaching at a top-ranked high school in SF
He has been a teacher at Lo High School - a top-ranked high school in San Francisco - for over 20 years.
Episode 15, the final chapter. Look, I know that for most of you, this isn’t your first AP exam. You’ve already learnt what you can from your instructor, from your review books and just from your advanced placement experience. But, just before you graduate, maybe I can share a few things that I’ve learnt over the years, from teaching AP Government.
Let’s get started. First of all, don’t take your AP experience for granted. You may have taken, three, four, five, AP exams already, but this exam is different. What other exam could you be asked to write four essays in one hundred minutes? You’re not going to need to write prose for these essays. The multiply chose, 60 questions, 45 minutes; you’ve got 45 seconds per question. It’s not the longest AP test, but it’s going to be different and you need to respect it by practicing for this exam. Practice for content and timing. I really believe that when you practice AP exams, you not only find out where you’re at, but you also get content from that. But most importantly, if you can practice through several practice exams, you’re also going to be able to figure out your timing. When do I guess? When do I skip? When do I come back to it? That sort of thing. Will I be able to finish these four essays in a hundred minutes? Will I be writing abbreviations and going crazy in the last essay?
I was once in High school and I used to pull all nighters just like you do. So I know that it’s a badge of courage. But cramming for an AP exam is not generally a good idea. There is tons of research that suggests that you will retain much more information, if you systematically study for maybe even 20 or 30 minutes, for maybe 10 to 14 days before the exam, than if you pull out your review book and look at it for three hours the night before. Take it step by step. You’ll do better on your exam. I know that in the last month of High School, things get crazy. To take a practice AP exam that’s two and a half hours out of your life. How many times do you really have two and a half hours to stop what you’re doing, and say I’m going to take the AP practice exam? But I’m going to encourage you to actually do this. And if you do it once, you might be able to do it again.
The research also shows that people who take full practice exams, and take multiple practice exams, score higher than people who do not. So if you get an opportunity to do it, please do. If you can’t do it, do part of it. Maybe even a part of a part of it. If you did 20 multiple choice questions in 15 minutes, and then did that again and did that again, you’ll be able to get your timing for the multiple choice section. If you can do back to back essays for example, in 50 minutes instead of 100 minutes, you’ll get a sense of how am I with timing? I strongly suggest that you do that.
I’m sure that most of you have made use of the College Board materials. For AP Government, I think they’re some of the best that I’ve seen. You should know by now that the free response questions for the last five years are posted on their website. And not only that, but they have sample essays for each one of those and they also have grading comments. And it will be very, very helpful for you to do the questions and not only do that, but also look at the grading, how it’s graded and the commentary with it. It’s in your best interest and then practice again.
You need to be prepared on exam day. There’s always a page or two in your test book letter. You’ve heard this or you’ve done it from practice or your past experience.
Number two; pencils. Bring several. I really suggest strongly that you use a free flow. You’re going to either use a black or blue pen, and you’re going to bring two or three of them as well. But bring a free flowing pen instead of a ball point pen. You’ll be able to write faster and it will not be so taxing on your hand.
Also, very strongly recommend that you do not drink too much coffee or have too much sugar in the morning. The test carries out over three, four hours with a break in the middle. And if your blood sugar is high, from coffee or sugar, it’s going down. You don’t get a break during the test to go to the bathroom, if you know what I mean.
When you’re doing multiple choice questions, time them out. Know when to skip the question. We’ll talk a little bit about when to guess and how to guess, that sort of thing, in a minute. But there’s never a reason, ever to take more than one minute per problem, unless you’ve already finished the test and you’re now back tracking. Get comfortable with your own way of doing it, especially with the AP Government questions. You may not know quite a bit about a subject, but have it narrowed down to two. You don’t get to think more than a minute on a problem. Otherwise you’ll run out of time.
First of all, you know what you’re shooting for. Are you shooting for a five on this exam? If you are, you have to have 49 points or so, on the multiple choice exam. So you know that since they are deducting a quarter points for each incorrect answer, you’ve taken several practice tests, you’ve scored it out, get a sense of how many you can absolutely skip, in order to get the score you’re looking for. For 40 points, that will get you a four. 28 points will get you three which is passing grade and many American colleges, give it a chance.
Let’s just do something that you already know. I’ve got five cards here. There are five choices in an AP exam multiple choice question. If you don’t know the answer, when do you guess? Well it’s very clear. If you take a random walk through these and you just picked a, b, c, d, or e, by just bubbling something in you’ve got a one in five choice of getting it right. And since I get one point for a correct answer, this would be your correct answer. One point here, I lose one point for these four incorrect answers. It’s a wash if I get one out of five. But look at it this way, if I can remove one of these because I know this one is wrong, now let’s do the math.
If I get one our of four right, which statistics say will definitely happen in the long run, I get one point for the correct answer, but now I’ve only lost three fourths of the a point. So if you can eliminate one of the choices, you must guess. Looks what happens when I eliminate two of the choices. One point for a correct answer. I’m going to get this right, one out of three times on average. One point for the correct answer and one half points lost. I must guess. It’s even better, one out of two, one point, loss of a quarter points. So what do you do? You must guess if you can even eliminate one of the choices. That just makes sense.
It is really, really important that you read these questions carefully. If you make a mistake in reading and you answer the question in a vain that’s not asked, you’re really going to be in trouble here. Take the time to read the question carefully. Your thesis statement needs to be an accurate response to the specific question that’s being asked. In general, you want to write at least two or three body paragraphs to support this thesis. Every body paragraph is going to include a new idea that supports it. Write a concluding paragraph where you evaluate your information, if you have time. That’s what your essay’s going to look like. Practice them. Practice two in a row or three in a row in order to do that.
Let’s do a little quick math for the essay exam. Many of the essays are going to ask you to do different things. The first one might be very simple and have only four or five quick tasks. They may ask you for example, to talk about how to amend the constitution and to give some example, and you’re just going to go through and spit out some information. Whether it’s a simple question or a more complex question, all essay questions have the same value at 12 and a half percent of your exam. Essay’s worth half, divide by four and that’s how you get there.
Balance your time between all the questions. Just because you’ve got one question that you like or two questions that you like, doesn’t meant that you get to hammer even harder. Make sure you leave time for all. I recommend that of the 25 minutes, you spend the first five minutes brainstorming. What do I know about this subject? Then I want you to write some of these down in the form of an outline. And then you can get going. It is worth the five minutes. You can write all these, write on your green document. You’ll do much better in the long run to manage your time.
I call this plan B, but maybe you’ve taken AP exams before, maybe you haven’t. But it’s possible you’re going to see an essay question that you are not prepared to answer. Oh my God! What is this, we never talked about this in class. It’s really important if you want to do well here, to not panic. In Science, in Engineering, in NASA they say, work the problem. And I’m going to ask you to work the problem as well. What do you do? What I suggest that you do, if you don’t know how to answer that, is save it till last. You don’t have to answer them in the order they’re presented. If it's question number two, you can do one, three, four and then go back and do number two. Free your mind and say what do I know about this subject? You know something about the subject and just start brainstorming. What are the things I know? And then take those, and weave them into an answer. Work the problem.
If you’re time challenged, at the end and you shouldn’t be, if you’ve done enough practice, and you know how to manage your time. But if you are, I strongly suggest that you use abbreviations. And you can even omit the concluding paragraph on your last essay. AP graders know that sometimes people run out of time, and they’ll be looking for content information. So if you can just find a way to serve it up to them, you’re going to get at least partial credit. We’ll be back in a moment with some final thoughts.
So you’ve just finished fifteen episodes of AP Government. You’ve read your notes, you’re systematically organized and you’ve read your review book. You’re about as ready as you’re ever going to be for you AP Government exam. So now nothing left to do, but just step up to the plate and hit one out of the park!
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