What's Tested on AP Biology: 5 Things to Know

There’s a good way and a bad way to skip the Introduction to Biology class in college. Here’s the good way: Skip the whole Introduction to Biology experience entirely—hundreds of students crammed into an auditorium, the tiny dot that is the professor just visible down in front of an ocean of seats—by getting a good score on the Advanced Placement (AP) Biology exam. Here are 5 things you need to know about the AP Biology exam:

  • Exam Length

    The AP Biology exam is three hours long and includes a 90-minute multiple-choice section (60 questions), a 10-minute reading period, and an 80-minute free response section (6 questions).

  • Exam Scoring

    The AP Biology exam is scored on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being the highest possible score.

  • How to Study

    Kaplan’s AP Biology guide can provide a better understanding of what will be covered on the test. In addition, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) releases a list of topics that will be covered on the exam each year, along with detailed information about how each topic will be tested.

  • Concepts > Content

    Remember that it’s better to understand concepts rather than trying to memorize facts. Having a thorough understanding of the concepts covered in your AP Biology course will help you with the test as a whole.

  • Prepare Efficiently

    Rereading your textbook and class notes isn’t always enough. Assess your test strengths and weaknesses and practice for the exam. The more you prep, the more confident you will feel on Test Day.

What is tested on the AP Biology Exam?

Advanced Placement exams have been around for half a century. While the format and content have changed over the years, the basic goal of the AP program remains the same: to give high school students a chance to earn college credit or advanced placement. To do this, a student needs to do two things:

  • Find a college that accepts AP scores
  • Score well enough on the exam

The first part is easy, because most colleges accept AP scores in some form or another. The second part requires a little more effort. If you have worked diligently all year in your course work, you’ve laid the groundwork. The next step is familiarizing yourself with the test.

Two main goals of the College Board are (1) to help students develop a conceptual framework for modern biology, and (2) to help students gain an appreciation of science as a process. To this end, the AP Biology course is designed to expose the student to four main ideas.

AP Biology: Big Ideas

Big Idea 1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.
Big Idea 2: Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, reproduce, and maintain dynamic homeostasis.
Big Idea 3: Living systems store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.
Big Idea 4: Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.

These four big ideas are referred to as evolution, cellular processes, genetics and information transfer, and interactions, respectively. The four big ideas encompass the core principles, theories, and scientific processes that guide the study of life. Each of these big ideas is broken down into enduring understandings and learning objectives that will help you to organize your knowledge.

This approach to scientific discovery is about thinking, not just memorization. It’s about learning concepts and how they relate, not just facts. Because of this, the College Board is increasing the emphasis on themes and concepts and placing less weight on specific facts in both the AP Biology course and exam. Focus on concepts and synthesizing information from different concepts to better understand, and learn, the AP Biology course and exam content.

How long is the AP Biology Exam?

Now that you know what’s on the test, let’s talk about the test itself. The AP Biology exam consists of two sections, or, more precisely, two sections and one intermission. In Section I, you will have 90 minutes to complete 60 multiple-choice questions with four answer choices each. (However, depending on the form of the exam, the exact number of questions may vary.) This section is worth 50 percent of your total score.

After this section is completed, there will be a 10-minute break. During the break you will not be able to consult teachers, other students, or textbooks. Furthermore, you may not access any electronic or communication device, which means cell phones, computers and calculators are off limits.

After the break, there’s a 10-minute, recommended “reading period.” This doesn’t mean you get to pull your favorite novel out of your backpack and finish that chapter you started earlier. Instead, you’re given 10 minutes to pore over Section II of the exam, which consists of two long free-response questions and four short free-response questions that are worth 50 percent of your total score. You then have 80 minutes to answer all of these questions. The term “long free-response” means roughly the same thing as “large, multistep, and involved.” Although the two long free-response questions are worth a significant amount each and are often broken into multiple parts, they usually don’t cover an obscure topic. Instead, they ask you to interpret and evaluate experimental results. One of these questions will also require graphing on your part. This means it’s less dependent on your knowledge of a specific topic and more important that you can demonstrate how to approach scientific data. For the four short free-response items you are expected to explain or analyze a scientific investigation, perform a conceptual analysis, perform an analysis of a model or visual representation, and perform a data analysis. A typical response for the short free-response items will be a few sentences to a paragraph in length. You have approximately 22 minutes for each of the long free-response questions and nine minutes for each of the short-response questions.

How is the AP Biology Exam scored?

AP scores are based on the number of questions answered correctly. No points are deducted for wrong answers. No points are awarded for unanswered questions. Therefore, you should answer every question, even if you have to guess.

When the 180 minutes of testing are up, your exam is sent away for grading. The multiple-choice part is handled by a machine, while qualified graders—a group that includes biology teachers and professors, both current and former—grade your responses to Section II. After an interminable wait, your composite score will arrive by mail. (For information on rush score reports and other grading options, visit collegeboard.com or ask your AP Coordinator.)

All AP exams are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest:

5Extremely well qualified
4 Well qualified
3 Qualified
2Possibly qualified
1No recommendation

Some colleges will give you credit for a score of 3 or higher, but it’s much safer to get a 4 or a 5. If you have an idea of where you will be applying to college, check out the schools’ websites or call the admissions offices to find out their particular rules regarding AP scores.

How do I register for the AP Biology Exam?

You can register for the exam by contacting your guidance counselor or AP Coordinator. If your school doesn’t administer the exam, contact the Advanced Placement Program for a list of schools in your area that do. At the time of this book’s publication, the fee for each AP exam is $91 ($121 at schools outside of the United States). For students with acute financial need, the College Board offers a $29 fee reduction. In addition, most states offer exam subsidies to cover all or part of the remaining cost for eligible students. To learn about other sources of financial aid, contact your AP Coordinator.

For more information on all things AP, contact the Advanced Placement Program:

Phone: (888) 225-5427 or (212) 632-1780
Email: apstudents@info.collegeboard.org
Website: https://apstudent.collegeboard.org/home