2020 Advanced Placement tests – 8 tips to succeed


If you have teenagers who expected to take Advanced Placement tests this year, the College Board recently released detailed information about this year’s unusual roll out of AP exams.

How the College Board is dealing with AP tests during the COVID-19 pandemic was bound to be controversial and it is.

Some people wanted the College Board to cancel the AP tests for a year although most students didn’t. Others advocated postponing the traditional AP exams until the fall.

The College Board, however, took a different tact. It decided to move back the exams one week, slash 75% off the AP test format and create radically different exams.

With this rush to produce new AP tests, no one really knows how many colleges will give students college credits for high scores. Or how students will fare with tests that have never been, well, tested.

It’s a mess.

And so, you may be wondering, now what??

What you need to know about 2020 AP exams

To help you out, I’m sharing the most up-to-date information about the 2020 Advanced Placement exams thanks to my friends at Compass Education Group, a highly respected test-prep firm.

I turn to Compass when I want to learn the real story about the SAT, PSAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT and AP tests.

Adam Ingersoll, Compass co-founder, allowed me to share the Compass blog post below that should answer a lot of your questions about the AP tests that will take place on various dates and times in May.

Here is an even more in-depth post from Compass that was written for high school counselors and college consultants:

2020 AP Tests and Updates

What we know about this year’s AP Exams:

  • They will be 45 minutes long, online and in-home.
  • They will consist of free response questions only, no multiple-choice.
  • Online AP classes are available on YouTube’s AP Channel.
  • They will test content covered through March.
  • Test dates and format for each subject are available here.
  • Exams will be open-book / open-note.
  • Questions will require more than simple recall; they will resist being answered with a simple Google search.
  • Testing accommodations will be provided. Any student who was approved for accommodations will get them.
  • Students must have registered before March 13 for the AP Exam. Generally, students cannot decide now that a 45-minute AP is appealing and sign up to take it. Students should be able to confirm their registration here.
  • Several schools, including the UCs, have said that they will award course credit for AP scores as with previous years.
  • The College Board will provide video tutorials and online simulations of the computer-based AP Exam. (Details TBA)
  • The College Board will also provide a guide in a few weeks with more details about how the test will be administered.

How students should apply this information to AP preparation

1. Students should plan to take their AP Exam(s) on the primary test date in May.

Makeup dates are provided in June for students who run into technical issues on the primary test date or have genuine conflicts with the primary date. Security measures will be put in place to prevent students from taking the test on both dates.

2. Students should practice time management.

For essay questions, 10-20% of the time allotted for a question should be spent brainstorming and outlining a response.

English and history exams will consist of one long essay question. Most of the other exams will consist of two free response questions: a 25-minute question and a 15-minute question.

3. Get organized!

With an open-book / open-note test, memorization takes a bit of a backseat. Well, the test is still only 45 minutes long, so memorization perhaps takes more of a passenger seat.

Students won’t have time to relearn, for instance, the events leading up to the Civil War. But for the student who can’t remember the specifics of a particular physics formula, an open-note test takes some pressure off of memorization.

Students just need to organize their materials so that information they will need can be found quickly. Use post-it tabs, sticky notes, etc. The College Board provides additional tips and advice here.

4. Check the College Board’s FAQs.

Among other things, find out what kinds of materials are permitted as “open-note.”

5. Read the information about the subject exam!

This information should guide students on things like the following:

For some tests (i.e. humanities), students should practice typing their responses in a blank word document (unless the student has an accommodation where they will not be typing).

For some tests (e.g. calculus, sciences), students might be more comfortable handwriting responses. College Board will provide a tip sheet “in advance of the exam” for typing mathematical expressions on a standard keyboard. Try both methods, typing and handwriting, to determine which is better for you.

6. Focus on analysis.

See above re: questions will require more than simple recall. Use recent free response questions as a guide. Each AP course exam page provides sample FRQs.

7. Be prepared to pivot.

Details about the “online simulations” are still unknown. We’re not even sure if there will be a simulation for every subject. Once these are released, a student may find that the format is easier (or harder) to use than expected.

Once details are released about how students will submit photographs of handwritten work, students may decide it’s something they don’t want to hassle with. We just don’t know. The best you can do is make sure that you are aware of all the resources available and then make the best choices for yourself.

8. Finally, focus on what you know.

You know which units need review. You know there will be no multiple-choice or simple fact-recall questions.

The number of unknowns around this year’s APs may feel unsettling. That’s OK.

Remember that everyone is in the same boat, and we are here to help! Don’t hesitate to send us any questions you have; we’ll do our best to figure it out together.

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  1. I am a junior in high school, and as a student, I really like that College Board is letting us take the test(s). I know for a fact all of my friends do too. We have worked hard all year, and we believe we deserve the credit!

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  2. I question whether it’s a good idea to even take the AP tests for seniors. Many colleges already barely accept them for credit and how can they be used for placement when the year is incomplete? So far in the virtual admitted student information sessions, I’ve experienced, the colleges are not committing to accepting this year’s AP scores for seniors. Wouldn’t it be better to get the refund and apply it to the college deposit?

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      Hi Mia,

      I think the smartest move would have been to cancel AP tests this year. Of course, the College Board wouldn’t want to do that because it would lose a tremendous amount of money. The AP test fees are a big cash cow for them. The College Board has more than $1 billion in reserves so the “non-profit” could have done the right thing if it wanted to.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy