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Hints to Help Students Do Well on the AP* Environmental Science Exam

Florence E. Gullickson, PAEMST, NBCT
Environmental Science Teacher
College Board AP Consultant—Environmental Science

Updated February 2016


Advanced Placement courses have been offered in high schools across the nation since 1965. The push for students to take these advanced courses has caused the programs to grow exponentially. These courses are of a higher level, and after taking an exam at the end of the course, many students get college credit. The AP® Environmental Science Exam went from 5,000 participants in 1998 to 138,700 in 2015.

The exam is given in 2 parts. Section I has 100 multiple-choice questions, and Section II has 4 free-response questions. There are 90 minutes for each test section with a short break in between. Multiple choice counts for 60% of the test score, and free response counts for 40%.

Section I: Multiple choice

Each multiple-choice question has 5 options. Students should carefully read the question and eliminate the choices that are not the best fit. There is only 1 right answer. Points are no longer deducted for wrong answers on the exam, so remind students to answer every question. The multiple-choice section has several types of questions. The option-first questions have a set of options for several questions. There are also questions with negative stems, such as “except” or “which of the following is not.” Data interpretation questions have data, graphs, or charts that must be interpreted for the answer. Most of the questions are the traditional multiple choice.

Section II: Free response

There are 4 free-response questions and 90 minutes to answer all of them. That gives students about 22 minutes for each, with 2 minutes to look them over first. There is 1 document-based question, 1 data set, and 2 synthesis questions.

  • The document-based question is prompted by a reading, which gives information about what the question discusses.
  • The data set question, or what students call the “math question,” uses graphs, diagrams, charts, etc., to introduce the question. This question involves solving a math problem.
  • The synthesis and evaluation questions ask students to demonstrate their knowledge about the topics studied in the class.

Students should carefully read all 4 essays and pick the one they know the most information about, starting with that one and working from most to least familiar. By doing this, they should have more time at the end to work on what they consider to be the most unfamiliar essay.

After reading the essays, students should read each question carefully and underline key words, such as “describe,” “identify,” “discuss,” and “explain.” It’s important to look for the 3 E’s in the question: environmental, ecological, or economic. If asked to answer about economics, students should think about money, cost, etc. Environmental and ecological answers should include plants, animals, and the ecosystem—not humans. Note the number of answers requested, as the reader will only grade what is asked for. For example, if the exam asks for 1 answer, the reader will only grade the first choice students write. There are about 3 pages available to answer each question, so answers needn’t be crowded. If students want to cross out what they have written, they can just draw a line through their response, and it will not be graded.

Additional helpful hints

Students need to have a good vocabulary base and become familiar with the language of the test, as well as the specific vocabulary of the course. Each course chapter has specific words relating to the APES language, such as remediate, bioaccumulate, biomagnify, etc. Have students define and become familiar with these terms. Also, try to use them frequently in class lectures.

Calculators are not allowed for use during the exam. It is very important that students practice simple algebra from the beginning of the course. Using old free-response questions gives students an idea of the type of math that is used.

Questions must be answered in complete sentences, preferably several sentences. A good practice is to follow through with the thought, which may take several sentences. Bullets, single-word answers, and lists will not earn points.

Diagrams will not be graded unless questions ask for them. During the math data set questions, students must show the setup, units, and answer; the answer alone will not be scored. When asked to plot graphs, students should label the x and y-axes, plot a smooth curve, and make sure to include an appropriate title. Have students label their answers. All of the questions have specific parts, such as a, b, c, d, or i, ii, iii. This helps students make sure that all parts are answered and also helps the reader find the points.

Several free-response questions typically ask students to design an experiment. To earn the points, students should state the hypothesis, clearly indicate the control, distinguish between the dependent and independent variable, describe the actual experiment, and state what the conclusion should be. The answer should be thorough and complete.

The course outline is very important and should be given to students at the beginning of the course. It’s also recommended that students get a review book that follows the course outline and that they become familiar with all the topics listed. Have students read the review book and summarize each topic in their own words as a review. If you take the outline and space it out so students have room to summarize, they are more likely to do so. This ensures that students will have covered every topic.


AP Central is a wonderful resource for both teachers and students. Encourage students to search the Web for practice essays and questions. The more they see how the questions are written, the easier the test will be for them. The math is always the second free response, and seeing how this is written and what is expected helps tremendously. Just remind them they cannot use a calculator. If students want a “5,” they will have to work to earn it.

*AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board®, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, these products.