How to Answer Free Response Questions on AP Exams

While the average student can generally make sense of multiple-choice questions, the threat of a free response question can be nerve-wracking. On AP exams, free response questions present a particularly difficult challenge on an already strenuous test, and many students devote multiple resources (e.g. guidebooks, study groups, tutors) and weeks of prep to them. But learning to negotiate the free response portion of the AP exam can ease students’ worries, offer a structured way to study, and increase your likelihood of a more positive testing experience with a higher pass rate.

So, take note—here are several strategies to help you answer free response questions on AP exams.

Organize your efforts

Poor penmanship (and an unreadable free response) is a terrible reason to sacrifice points. Ensure your answers (whether drawn or written) are neat. If you are constructing a diagram or graph, label all of its parts and title it.

Begin your free response answer with an outline to prevent confusion and disorganization. Use this outline as a blueprint to construct your answer, and pay special attention to the verbiage utilized in the question—double-check that you are explaining, describing, contrasting, comparing, or calculating as the question requires. 

Understand that you will be graded on the whole product—not your final answer alone. How you communicate your response is of great importance. Here are some great tips on how to prep for AP exams.

Focus on the question

It is all too easy to become lost in lengthy or especially difficult questions, and there are a number of them on AP exams. Read the question more than once. Can you describe the task at hand? Answer only the question asked of you. If the question prompts you to compose an essay, do not solely provide diagrams.

For multi-part problems, determine how the various components relate to one another. Dissect questions to make sense of them, and include answers from prior parts if the question requires you to. Attempt to answer all portions of a free response question, even if you must skip a portion.

Even if you have no idea how to address a problem, do not leave it blank. There is no penalty for an incorrect answer, so draw upon your knowledge base and do your best. These are 3 common mistakes to avoid on AP exams that you should be aware of.

Think about your language

While you may be creative, the free response section on AP exams may not be an ideal opportunity to express yourself. Focus more on language that is functional, rather than striking. Be as specific as possible in your vocabulary, and draw from the terminology within the question.

Define those terms that you use, and opt for high syntax only if the context is appropriate. You are not expected to act as a thesaurus, so aim for function, not style. If you are struggling to remember a particular term, describe the larger concept instead. Here are a great test prep timeline for AP exams that may help you prepare.

Use your time wisely

This may go without saying, but it is important that you monitor your time. AP exams often contain more than one free response question. Do not allot the bulk of your time to a single prompt.

Above all, remember to relax as you enter the free response portion of the test. Take a deep breath, allow yourself time to read and analyze the question, and then do your very best!