How to Master the Free Response Section of the AP Chemistry Exam

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  • 0:00 Overview of Free Response
  • 1:50 Preparing
  • 4:16 Taking the Test
  • 8:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth (Nikki) Wyman

Nikki has a master's degree in teaching chemistry and has taught high school chemistry, biology and astronomy.

Learn specific information about the free response portion of the AP Chemistry exam in this lesson. Learn tips to help you prepare for the test, as well as strategies to improve your performance on the exam.

Overview of Free Response Section

The Free Response Questions (FRQs) of the AP Chemistry exam are like the final quarter of the game, the closing act, the last dance. It's tempting to be intimidated by this rather long section of intense chemistry questions, but I encourage you to adopt a proactive, perseverant and positive attitude. This is your ultimate opportunity to prove to the AP graders that you understand chemistry.

The FRQ section consists of 7 questions, 3 long - 4 short, that you have 105 minutes to complete. You are allowed use of calculator and allowed use of periodic table and formula and constants chart. This section counts for 50% of your grade. Unlike the multiple choice section, points may be awarded for showing work, even on simple calculations!

Questions in this section cover big idea topics. Each question may ask you to understand and apply information from several different big idea topics. Needless to say, your ability to synthesize concepts and find ties between different big ideas is essential to success. The six big ideas include:

  • Atomic structure and theory
  • Intermolecular forces, particle attractions and properties of matter
  • Chemical reactions
  • Kinetics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Equilibrium

Both the short and long FRQs are multi-step questions. The kinds of questions you are likely to see include:

  • Experimental design
  • Analysis of lab data or observations to explain a phenomenon or pattern
  • Creating or analyzing atomic or molecular views to explain observations
  • Articulating and translating between representations
  • Quantitative problem solving


The AP Chemistry test has a reputation for being difficult. Not only do students have to remember lots of information and understand a substantial number of challenging concepts, they also have to apply and analyze them! To boot, they also have to evaluate lab procedures, quality of data and then create their own experiments!

This test involves every higher level of thinking. Simply remembering and understanding the information will not get you a passing grade. You must apply, analyze, evaluate and create as well. Doing well on the AP test will require not just learning the information but using it.

An awesome way to prepare for the FRQ section is to do sample questions from previous years. The AP Central Chemistry Exam website has examples of previous questions and scoring rubrics. Do some sample problems and then check your work against the key. In fact, you can take entire FRQ practice tests! The closer you get to test date the more helpful this will be. Set a timer for 105 minutes, sit down in a quiet workspace with a calculator and the formulas and constants chart and get to work!

The formula and constants chart can be a very useful study tool, as well. Print out a copy from the AP Central Chemistry Exam website, and study the formula and constants on there. Make sure you understand what the formulas are for and what the appropriate units are. Notice that some formulas do not appear on there. That doesn't mean that they are not important; it just might mean that you have to memorize them!

Get an exam preparation book. These are excellent study tools because they break material into easily reviewable chunks and include practice FRQs. These books include questions that are similar to AP-style FRQs; however, they are not actually from previous tests. The AP curriculum changed in 2014, so make sure you get a review book that is for 2014 or later.

Lastly, pay attention in lab! Skills and techniques, as well as safety practices, are testable aspects of your chemistry knowledge. On the test, you will be analyzing genuine laboratory data or generating your own experimental design. AP graders want to see that you understand why certain practices should or shouldn't be used. For these kinds of questions, experience is the best teacher.

Taking the Test

When you're taking the test, make sure you pace yourself. AP Central recommends 16 minutes per long question and 10 minutes per short question. If you cannot finish a question in that time, move on. Of course, if you finish a question in less than the time you've allotted yourself, move on! Use excess time to work over problems that are especially challenging.

The most important thing you can do is read carefully. Reading ensures that you really understand what the question is asking. Don't be afraid to actively read the question - underline, circle and make notes in the margins. When you read, make sure you identify the desired information, the given information and any supplemental information. If you get stuck, check out the formula and constants chart for ideas.

Many of the multi-part questions are related and build on each other. Your answer to part (a) may be necessary to answer part (b). Pay attention to when that happens and make sure you use your answer. If you can't get an answer, make something up - just be sure to explain why you did what you did.

When solving a problem that requires quantitative reasoning always - always, always - show your work. The graders want to see evidence that you are following a logical, analytical path to solve problems. Even if you don't arrive at the correct answer, you will be rewarded with partial credit for showing how you got there.

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