How to Study for AP Biology – a General Method

Posted by Kisha Clune on 3/7/16 9:00 AM


When I was in high school, it was actually my AP Calculus teacher who gave me this AP Bio study tip. I used it with great success that year in AP Bio, and it continued to serve me well throughout college as I majored in molecular biology.

You’re probably used to your science classes being full of math, practice problems, and challenging conceptual work. But biology can be distinct from physics and chemistry, as biology exams often ask you to apply concepts to proposed scenarios by solving problems. Biology can feel like a lot of memorization, which is often reflected by exams packed with multiple-choice questions. 

Learning biology starts with learning a new language. AP biology is chock full of new words to learn, plus a bunch of good old words you already know that have suddenly acquired a new meaning that is very specific and not often intuitive. You probably didn’t know the word mitosis until you took biology, but my guess is that you thought you knew what “fixed” means. Well, think again, because when you’re talking about genes, the word “fixed” has a very specific meaning, and now you need to know it.

 This method takes advantage of a bunch of learning styles and cuts to the chase—learning vocabulary and learning the stories that the vocab fits into. Here’s the strategy: 

1) Get multiple sheets of blank printer paper or scrap paper with one side blank, and settle in to read the chapter.

One reason I like to use scrap paper is to remind myself that I’m not making a precious study guide. Students often get overwhelmed with making a study guide that is “most complete”, “best organized” or “best looking”. Writing by hand using a piece scrap paper can be a useful reminder that these notes are only being taken to enhance your own learning. You’re not getting graded on this—don’t waste time or energy trying to get it perfect.

2) As you go, write down all the terms you don’t know, by hand.

Define them.

3) When you read something interesting, write it down as a bullet point.

The key here is to write down important parts of a bigger narrative, not just route facts that require memorization. For instance, don’t write, “There are 8.4 million possible combinations of maternal and paternal chromosomes in humans.” Instead write, “Independent assortment allows for a huge number of different gene combinations in offspringàthis is useful for genetic diversity”

4) Use note-taking as a chance to ask yourself “what kinds of test questions could I be asked on this material?” 

Don’t write down “there are 14,321 categorically different types of soil.” Is anyone going to ask you how many types of soil there are? No. Don’t waste brain space even considering learning that. However, someone might care that you know there are a lot! You can write, “There are tons of different types of soil” and move on.

5) When you’re finished with the chapter, you now have a study guide. 

Read it over a couple of times in the days leading up to your exam. 


Sure, AP Bio will still throw some problem solving conceptual work at you, like restriction enzyme mapping or Hardy Weinberg equilibrium questions, but this method will cover the majority of the course. One of the challenges of AP Bio is the sheer quantity of material. Simply reading the chapters your teacher assigns and learning the vocab has, in both my own experience and the experience of my students, been enough to put you seriously ahead of the curve on those challenging multiple-choice exams.


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Tags: biology, AP exams