Patrick Roisen

M.Ed., Stanford University
Winner of multiple teaching awards

Patrick has been teaching AP Biology for 14 years and is the winner of multiple teaching awards.

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Writing the Free Response Essay


The AP Biology Test

Patrick Roisen
Patrick Roisen

M.Ed., Stanford University
Winner of multiple teaching awards

Patrick has been teaching AP Biology for 14 years and is the winner of multiple teaching awards.


You’ve been working hard. You’ve been studying your Biology both in class, watching my videos, doing your best to prep for the test. But if you don’t know what the test is going to be like, it’s like spending a year doing exercises, practicing your motor skills, and then you walk into the stadium and somebody hand you a stick and say all right we’re going to play lacrosse.

If you didn’t know what game you’re going to play, you’re going to have a harder time. So similarly, I want to make sure that you know what to expect on the day of the AP test, so that you’ll be able to perform your best. Not get tripped by saying I didn’t know they’re going to ask this kind of question.

First, I’m going to discuss what’s the overall format of the test? How much time do you have for each section? Then how is your score determined? Next, after that, I’ll go through with the multiple choice questions and describe some of the major kinds of multiple choice questions that they’re going to give you. Last, I’ll take a quick look at the essay question, so that you can see the kind of question that may appear on the essay portion. If you’re really interested, I’m also going to do is separate episode, where I’m going to take a closer look at the essay question. I’m gong to give you a whole bunch of tips on how to defeat them. If you really want to prep your essay skills, I recommend you watch that one.

Now that we’ve talked about the overall view of the test, let’s take a quick look at the format of the test and how it’s going to be scored. Now when you come in and you take the test, you’re going to begin with the multiple choice section. You’re going to get 80 minutes to take 100 questions. I strongly recommend that you go through it pretty quick. Your first time through and any questions that you hit that you think those are tough, circle them in your test booklet. Be very sure not to make a mistake on your answer document, and then just go through. Because every question is equal to any other question.

Then you’ll get a 10-minute period to read the four essay questions. After you’ve read through those essays and you can jot whatever notes you want, you’ll get 90 minutes to write all four essays.

So that’s an average of 22, 23 minutes per essay. But you can allocate that as much as you want. So let’s take a look at how your score is generated by those two sections.

Now the multiple choice question generates 60 percent of your score. The essay portion generates 40 percent of your score. So to figure out your score in the multiple choice section, what they do, is they take the number of questions that you answer correctly. Then to accommodate or adjust for the effects of kids just randomly guessing, E the entire way through or C all the way through, they take the number that you got wrong and multiply that by one-fourth. Since there’s five questions, out of five, you should randomly be able to guess correct once and then those four are wrong. So this winds up a fourth, a fourth, a fourth, a fourth lost plus 1, is in that effect zero. Then they multiply that by a fudge factor of 0.6 or 0.60 to make that 100 questions equal 60 percent of your score when added to the essay portion.

For example, if you got 76 of the questions right, and you answered all 100, that means you got 24 of those wrong. So we do our little multiplication and we find that 76 minus, a fourth of 24 is 6. 76 minus 6 is 70. You multiply that by our fudge factor, and we get a composite score of 42.

Now just a little side note, they tell you don’t guess, because it’s not going to help you. That’s kind of a lie. They don’t want you to guess, because it ruins their statistics. If kids start guessing, that means the accuracy of their scores starts to go down. They can’t sell their tests so well to all the colleges, that's being accurate,predictors of your abilities. The Princeton review people say go ahead and guess. Especially if you can eliminate any of the five possible answers, go ahead and guess. Because then the odds are going in your favor. It’s not going to mean well, I just pumped up my scores by 30 points by guessing. No, but if you can pomp up your score by one or two more points, that helps.

Let’s take a look at the essay.

The essay section each essay is worth 10 points. With a total maximum for those four essays, are 40 points. So, we don't need to do a fudge factor, because remember I told you it’s 40 percent of your grade. So let’s take a look at what happens with your total composite. What they do is, they just add the multiple choice section, after we’ve done our Math and the essay score. You see that out of our total possible composite score of 100, 60 to 100 equals to 5. Now every year, these numbers change a little bit. Because what they do by definition 60 percent of the people who take it, pass with a three or higher. So don’t worry if you are going to that test score, holy crap they’re asking all these question about blue folded and wiffle waffle birds. What was that all about? Don’t worry. Around the nation 80,000 plus students go 'ah' and they’re all blowing it. So these numbers will go, but these numbers will stay the same.

As you can see 60 percent out of that 100 possible is a 5. 45 to 59 on average, typically that one is being a 4. You can get as low as a 35 composite score, and often expect to get a three. Don’t try to hit for the lower end of the spectrum here. Try to pump up your score to get as high as possible. But don’t worry this is not like a standard test in one of your classes where 90 percent equals an A. In this, if you can get a 70 percent, you’re really pretty strongly assured of getting yourself a five.

Now that we’ve looked at how the overall test goes, let’s take a look at how the multiple choice questions are formatted. One of the most common ones is what I call the five choice question. That’s the kind of one that you’ve seen all over the place, ever since elementary school when you started taking standardized test. So let’s take a look at an example of one of those. Organic polymers are made of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and that may be broken apart into glycerol, and fatty acids are? You have to pick which of these words matches this definition. Easy peasy.

Let’s take a different kind. I call these the reverse five choice questions. Now, a lot of kids haven’t seen this on test that you’ve taken in the classroom. They’re pretty much the same as the other ones, but instead of having question with answers, they put answers, and then a number of questions. If you realize, it’s just a standard five choice question only with the answers above, then you should do fine. For example here we have a number of different kinds of organelles and here we have question one. This organelle is the site of photosynthesis, you have to figure out the right answer here. Here is number two, where does photosynthesis happen? Again you find it.

Now you’ve got to be careful. A lot of kids will think I can use process of elimination. Sometimes that’s true, but I’ve seen them occasionally use same answer for multiple questions. So if you’ve got no other option but guessing, go ahead and use process of elimination. But don’t think, "But I’ve already said mitochondria, I can’t use it again," because sometimes they’ll get tricky like that.

The next question is the one that kids often will screw up on, because they’re so used to which of these answers is correct. Well, with the 'find the wrong answer' you have to figure out which of these five options is actually the wrong option. So membranes are parts of all the following except? So what you’ve got to do is when you see except here, or which of the following is not true, circle the except. Circle that, not true. That way, it’ll help remind your brain must find the wrong answer.

Now, if you see this kind of question, actually be happy. Because after you’ve properly answered it, they’ve given away information. You can use, "Hey I know microtubules is the one that does not have membranes." I now have a reference, because all four of these must be true. I can often use these options to help answer other questions. Most test writers what they do with the AP Biology test, they write hundreds and hundreds of questions.

Then they randomly say, well we’ll need to have this 10 percent of our test on this, 10 percent on that. They don’t necessarily go through and make sure every question doesn’t give away answers for the other questions. When I was in college, I became nearly good at taking test. One of the things I found is, I could use a question like this as a reference material to find correct answers in other questions. So one of the tricks that’ll help pump up your score.

The next one is called a category question. What they’ll do is they’ll have some categories up here; Which of the following are components of the building blocks of DNA? Here we have our possible choices and category one, category two and three, category two, three, and four. And so on and so forth. So that shouldn’t be a big problem. Again, this is something where teachers like myself love to put in trick questions, because, I might put this out as which of the following are organelles found in plant cells?

Now a standard trick question is kids will think plant cells have chloroplast, because they do photosynthesis. They always will fall for the idea that they think plant cells don’t have mitochondria, because that’s for respiration. Remember plants are green just like us. Why are they making food? For their own purposes. What breaks down food in your cells? It’s the Mitochondria. What I’ll do is which of the following are organelles found in plants? I’ll say mitochondria, chloroplast, cell wall, centrioles. I’ll give you the choice of choosing just the chloroplast and the cell wall. I’ll make that one of my earlier options. Later on, I’ll put in an option mitochondria, chloroplast, and cell wall. To see if I can suck you in, because you’ll think that one can’t be right. I’ll go with the chloroplast and cell wall. That’s an incomplete answer. So that’s a standard trick.

Another kind of multiple choice question is pretty simple. Hopefully you’ve seen these sorts of things before. They’ll have a diagram and you have to pick which answer here describes where the arrow is pointing to.

A common one is they’ll have a diagram with a cell, with a number of the organelles pointed to and you have to identify which organelle is arrow one at. Which one is arrow two at and so on and so forth? Or they get at parts of mitochondria, parts of the chloroplast similar things like that.

Next up are the Lab Based Questions. These are the ones where you really need to be familiar with those 12 official laps. There is a couple of ways that they’ll do these Lab Based Questions. One is, they’ll give you some data, then start asking questions about analyzing the data. Like here; which of the following occurs in tissue that’s placed in the 0.6 Molar sucrose? You have to use your abilities to read that graph and find out the correct answer.

The other Lab Based kind of question that they may be showing you, is one where they go through and they’ll describe an experiment, and then you have to make some conclusions or draw some conclusions from that experiment. Then they’ll often include a question where they say using the concepts of that lab, here are some applications.

Now that we’ve finished going through how the multiple choice questions will appear, what about those essay questions. What will you see there? Here is an example essay question. Cellular transport is a key process in biology. Notice how they’ve broken it down into part A and part B. That means a couple of things to you. First, when you’re writing your answers, put part A and then start vomiting forth anything and everything that could possibly address that part of the question.

Now remember with the multiple choice, they subtract points for being wrong. In the essays they don’t. They only give you points for being right. That’s a key trick that a lot of kids don’t realize. In writing the essays, if you’re wrong who cares? Just throw anything and everything that you think might apply, and hope that one of them sticks to the wall. I call it the shot-gun effect or more grossly, just vomiting up answers.

The one thing to be aware of is first, never directly contradict yourself. Don’t say plants only have cell walls. Plants never have cell walls, then you’re screwed.

The other thing to be ware of absolutes. Never ever use absolutes like never or ever. The reason for that, Biology is this science of exceptions. There’s always going to be some exception to your rules. With your luck, you’re going to have the reader, who is the researcher, who discovered in his lab, but hasn’t published yet, the one exception to thing that you said this always happens. If you write this always happens, he's just, "You’re not familiar with my work, you’ve died I don’t give you that point." On the other hand, if say 'almost always this happens', he goes, "Almost always, you’ve pout in the exception for my work, I love you." Then he gives you that point. In fact he may come along later and even give you an elaboration point for knowing about his research.

I talked about how you should just vomit up all the information. Next up, you notice here, this is another common thing that kids will fall for. It says describe how cellular transport is involved in two of these three options. Kids see all three options and they go okay, and they start answering for all three. Thing is, when they grade your essay, they address only the first two responses. Even if your first response says transport of oxygen in the blood was awful, because it’s the first one there, they grade it. Maybe your third one awesome, they ignore it because they said, only two of the three. When you’re looking at the essays and you see two of the three of three of these four, circle that.

The other thing to remember with the essay questions is for you to get that maximum 10 points, you need to at least have a one or two points in each section. So put in at least two or three sentences per thing that you’re writing. What I do, is I’d write A, start writing, then skip a bunch of lines put B and start writing. That way if in the course of answering maybe something about transport of oxygen in blood I go oh! I’m talking about diffusion of oxygen from my blood into my muscle cell. Diffusion is a kind of pass of transport and I can go back later and add that into part A.

The other thing to be aware of is that there’s almost always a Lab Based Question in the essay. So again, if you haven’t already, go online, check out the step in your bonus materials about the virtual online 12 official labs. That’ll really help you in the essay portion.

Now we’ve gone through and we’ve seen what the test is like. You know that you have 80 minutes to write the multiple choice section, 90 minutes to write the essays, with a 10 minute period to red through the essay question. Make sure that you spend that 10 minutes reading through and identifying what they’re asking, not what you hoped they asked.

Then we went through and we discussed the kinds of multiple choice questions to expect. So you’re pretty warned on that. Then we looked at the essay questions. And I briefly hit on some of the techniques used to go through those essays, to maximize your scores. Again, I have a separate episode where I go into greater depth about the essay. I highly recommend if you’ve not written a lot of those essays, that you watch it. But you're ready to go, so, beat them.

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