A basic guide to the AP Chemistry Exam

Posted by Sandra on 3/14/16 9:30 AM




The AP Chemistry exam is on May 2nd, leaving less than two months to prepare!  You might still be struggling with where to begin, and that’s how this blog post can help.

In 2014, the exam was revised to focus on six big ideas in chemistry. The new format is intended to test your understanding of big picture concepts and apply them to the practice of chemistry. Thus, it is critical that you be able to think deeply about concepts, draw connections across topics, and interpret experimental data.  Reviewing everything you need to know for the exam can seem daunting, but these effective studying tips will ensure that you can maximize your score:

Know the structure of the exam

The overall exam time is 3 hours and 15 minutes, with two sections that each count for 50% of your total score. Here’s a table listing the differences:


Section 1

Section 2


90 minutes

105 minutes

Number and format of questions

60 multiple-choice

3 long-response

4 short answer

Content specifics

Questions are either individual questions or question sets based on given data

Questions test your ability to analyze authentic lab data, explain observations from an atomic and molecular point of view, and solve problems analytically

Calculator allowed?



Things to be aware of

When in doubt, use process of elimination. No extra points will be lost for getting it wrong.

You’ll get an equations and periodic table, so no need to memorize, just know how to use.

Review the 6 Big Ideas  

To effectively study for the AP Chemistry Exam, you should know that the course is framed around 6 big ideas, which can be broken down into enduring understanding and essential knowledge.

  • Big Idea 1: The chemical elements are fundamental building materials of matter, and all matter can be understood in terms of atom arrangements. These atoms retain their identity in chemical reactions.
  • Big Idea 2: Chemical and physical properties of materials can be explained by the structure and the arrangement of atoms, ions, or molecules and the forces between them.
  • Big Idea 3: Changes in matter involve the rearrangement and/or reorganization of atoms and/or the transfer of electrons.
  • Big Idea 4: Rates of chemical reactions are determined by the details of molecular collisions.
  • Big Idea 5: The laws of thermodynamics describe the essential role of energy, and explain and predict the direction of changes in matter.
  • Big Idea 6: Any bond of intermolecular attraction that can be formed can be broken. These two processes are in a dynamic competition, sensitive to initial conditions and external perturbations.

Since there are 6 main topics, I encourage you to focus on one topic per week leading up to the exam to make sure you have a depth of understanding of the concepts and their applications.  

The breakdown of these concepts can be found here under The Concept Outline. I advise you to use The Concept Outline as a guideline when studying, and make sure that you understand and can apply each of the essential knowledge points.

If you are crunched for time, you can also find similar content in the Appendix: AP Chemistry Concepts at a Glance, which condenses all the information in The Concept Outline.

Do Timed Practice Exams

Practice tests are the best way to assess your knowledge of the topics on the exam. They give you an idea about the depth of understanding you will need to be successful on the exam and how questions will be phrased. It is essential that you time yourself while doing practice exams to simulate the real exam as much as possible.

You should allot about 20 minutes for each long-response and 7 minutes for the short-responses, which will still leave you time to review your answers. Getting used to timing yourself will get you accustomed to real-test time constraints, which can cause additional pressure if you are not well prepared!

Study how the past exams are scored

  • The multiple-choice section: Scoring the multiple-choice section is based only on correct answers. You are not penalized for incorrect or unanswered questions, so you should at least make a reasonable guess.
  • The free-response section:  Points are given for correct answers throughout the question. Long-response questions are worth a total of 10 points, and short-answer are 4 points. Knowing what the question is asking for can be one of the biggest challenges on the test, but reviewing how past points were distributed and where students usually struggle will allow you to optimize your study habits.

You can find both the Scoring Guidelines and Student Performance Q&A here along with the 2014 and 2015 free response questions. Reading through each of these sections will give you an idea of what the question is looking for and how to receive full credit.

Read carefully, show your calculations, and use “sig figs”  

Lastly, to maximize the points that you receive on the free response questions, remember to read each question carefully and respond specifically to the question prompt! This may seem obvious, but if they ask for justification, give one, and if they ask you to circle the correct choice, be sure to circle your choice. Label which question you are answering as well. You won’t get any points for putting the correct answer under the wrong section. When studying, get in the habit of showing your calculations and rounding your answers to significant digits! Points in the 2015 exam were deducted for incorrect use of significant figures.

Need help with the AP prep?

Check out our academic tutoring!

More on APs:

How to Study for AP Biology – a General Method

The DBQ (The Writing Sample) on AP Exams

Crunch Time for Advanced Placement and SAT Subject Tests

Tags: AP exams