How to Study for AP Exam Free Response Questions at Home


How to Study for the Free Response Questions on the AP Exams

With the widespread COVID-19 crisis in 2020, the AP exams were held online, and there were no multiple choice questions. Instead, the exams consisted solely of 'free response' answers. While the College Board has not yet stated what the 2021 exams will look like, it is safe to say that this year's AP students would be wise to practice their free response technique.

You can learn plenty of strategies and tactics that will you help you to improve your skills with these type of questions, which may include:

  • Essays
  • Visual data displays
  • Word problems

The online learning platform could easily become your quality go-to website for your AP exam preparation. Samples of relevant lessons include 'AP Macroeconomics Exam: Tips for Short Free-Response Questions' and the related 'AP Macroeconomics Exam: Tips for Long Free-Response Questions' too. In addition, the website contains hundreds of lesson relating to various AP courses.

College Board

  • The College Board, which administers the AP exams, gives some advice to students on its own official website. It recommends:
    • Asking your AP teacher to review the testing format with you
    • Reviewing the College Board's 'AP Classroom' digital tools
    • Going to the 'AP course index' to find your exam, along with date, details, and tips
    • Going to 'exam preparation' to find suitable practice materials

Understand the Question

Now let's get started with how to study! The first mistake many students make with free response questions is rushing to answer, and thus misunderstanding the question in the first place. It is a good idea to read the question a second or even a third time to make sure you don't misinterpret what is being asked of you.

Show Your Work

Okay, you understand the question, and now you are performing calculations or emphasizing a point, depending on which AP exam you are taking. Remember that one teacher who always told you 'show your work' in your answers? You definitely want to do that whenever possible for these tests. Why? It may get you partial or full credit from the exam grader if they think you at least grasp the concept. In fact, if you don't show your work you probably will only get partial credit instead of full credit.

Using an Outline

Have you ever watched construction workers as they put a large building into place. They don't just start putting up brick or concrete walls. First they put down iron scaffolding that will hold the walls in place. Do the same for your free response answers. Write down a brief outline of what you want to say, or if you trust your memory at least create an outline in your head.

How to Write

Do you like to fancy yourself a William Shakespeare type, regaling your readers with flowery prose? The AP exams are not really the time for that style of writing. The word 'concise' is what you should think of here, which means to be comprehensive but to be as brief as possible too. On the other hand, the AP exams are not the time to write too casually either. Don't use any slang, jargon, or 'inside words with hidden meaning' you would use with your friends. You still want to maintain an air of professionalism in your writing.

Support Your Position With Evidence

Have you ever watched a courtroom drama television show, and noticed how the lawyers had to support their positions with evidence and facts? Well, you will utilize a similar procedure with free response questions. It's not just enough to state your opinion, but back it up with relevant information that will convince the grader you have developed comprehension of the subject matter.

Organize Your Thoughts

Have you ever tried to bluff your way through an essay question, only to end up rambling on in a somewhat pointless fashion? However, the AP exam graders are professionals who do this every day for a living, and will catch on right away. Therefore, try to stick as much as possible to making organized statements that you can back up with actual facts.

Answering a Portion of a Section

So you are completely stumped on a section or portion of the test. What do you do now? Don't panic. The AP exam graders will often give you partial credit, so once again make sure to show your work, and complete as much of each section as possible. If you have time, reference back to a previous section, where a portion of information may give you a clue or hint to a subsequent section.


The AP exams don't penalize for incorrect guessing, so try to answer every question you can in your allotted time.

Time Management

When you study for your exam, be aware of the exam's time limit. You may want to practice answering free-response questions with a timer during study sessions. During the exam, don't get stuck on one problem or section. Take quick glances at a clock or watch to see how far along you are at regular intervals.

Charts, Diagrams, and Graphs

What's as bad as missing a math question on the AP exam? Getting the question right but not getting credit because you didn't label your charts, diagrams, and graphs properly is pretty bad too. Don't forget to add a title when necessary as well.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You know when someone plays a musical instrument or a sport the countless hours of practice required for that person to become good at their respective skill. Well, answering free response questions isn't much different. You will need to practice these questions until you become almost as comfortable as you are with multiple choice questions. When you get to that point, your confidence will soar when you go online to take your AP exams.

Study Old AP Exams

Lastly, how do you even know what the exams will be like? For starters, you can go online to the U.S. Government and Politics page, and there you will see plenty of actual free response practice questions to review.

Many colleges grant credit or advanced placement to students with qualifying AP Exam scores. Read on to find out when AP Exams are offered and get information about exam costs and preparation.

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