If you’re preparing for the AP Environmental Science exam, you’re probably shooting for a score of 4 or 5. But how can you give yourself the best chances at a great score? There are so many study tips out there that it can seem overwhelming. Luckily, this list of AP Environmental Science tips is here to help you sort through the confusion and come up with a study plan that works.
First, you need to be aware that the exam is difficult. Are you ready for a scary statistic? Only 7.5% of all AP Environmental Science test takers earned a 5 on the 2015 exam. On this particular exam, students had the most difficulty with the free response questions, so it’s worth noting that low FRQ responses have the power to prevent you from getting a 5. On the same exam, 24.1% of students received a 4, 15.2% earned a 3, 25.5% scored a 2, and 27.7% got a 1. This means that over half of all test takers only earned a 1 or a 2!
Do not fret, though! Even if the statistics seem intimidating, you have the power to be in the top 30%, earning a score of 4 or 5, if you commit to doing it! It will take hard work, effort, confidence, and time, but nothing worthwhile in life is ever easy. Are you committed? Are you ready to embark on this AP journey? If yes, then you’re about to see the ultimate list of 45 AP Environmental Science tips. Let’s go!
1. Understand the structure of the exam. The most important thing to know before you start studying for the AP Environmental Science exam is what the exam is made up of. The exam is three hours long and consists of two sections:
• Section I: Multiple-Choice
‣ 90 minutes
‣ 100 questions
• Section II: Free-Response
‣ 90 minutes
‣ 4 questions
It’s also worth noting that the multiple-choice section is worth 60% of your score, while the free-response section is worth 40%.
2. Buy a review book! More than likely, you’ve been given an environmental science textbook as part of your AP class. While textbooks are a great way to learn information, they are simply not enough. Textbooks give details, specifics, and an in depth view of environmental science, while review books focus on the topics you need to know for the exam. Review books also come with sample questions, diagnostic tests, overviews of essential topics, and other strategies for taking the exam. There are tons of review books out there, so choosing one may not be easy. However, you can’t go wrong if you give the Princeton Review, REA’s Crash Course, or Barron’s a try.
3. Watch the news daily. Did you know that you should add anecdotes and current event examples in your free-response answers? You will always need supporting evidence for your responses on the exam. Sometimes, learning only from the textbook or a review book won’t give you adequate examples to use on the exam. That’s where the news comes in. If you watch the news daily, or read about current events involving the environment, you are building up an arsenal of potential examples to use in your FRQs. Even better, supplementing your learning with current events will help you remember certain topics and key concepts, without having to rely on rote memorization.
4. Check out TED Talks. Along the same lines as watching the news, TED Talks are an excellent way to digest information. If there’s a topic you’re struggling with, a topic you find boring, or a topic you want to know more about, try watching a TED Talk about it. TED Talks have a way of making you feel excited about something you may have been uninterested in before. There are a wide variety of environmental TED Talks, ranging from pollution to food waste, and from biodiversity to natural resources.
5. Focus on pollution. When in doubt, study pollution. According to the CollegeBoard, 25% to 35% of all multiple-choice questions are related to pollution (impact on the environment, economic impact, pollution types, sustainability, etc.) All other topics comprise between 10% to 15% of multiple-choice questions, so it’s clear that pollution is very important to know about for the exam. Spend some extra time studying pollution and make sure you have an expansive knowledge of it.
6. Make flashcards. There’s a reason flashcards are a common study technique – they work! For an exam that focuses so much on vocabulary words, flashcards are essential. To make effective flashcards, hand write the term and draw a picture or diagram relating to it on the front side, and put the definition, significance, and how/why/when the term is used on the backside. It’s not enough to simply put the term and its definition. You have to make sure you understand how the term connects to other terms and what it means in context. For a good, comprehensive list of words you need to know for the APES exam, use this review sheet. It would be beneficial to make flashcards on each one of these terms.
7. Watch review videos. It’s worth it to search out videos on topics you’re studying. YouTube is not the only source for videos, either. HippoCampus has a great collection of short review videos on key topics from institutions like NASA and National Geographic. It also has simulations you can interact with on topics like solar radiation, gas properties, the greenhouse effect, and more. Since reading can get boring, watching informational videos or interacting with simulations can help break up the monotony and keep you motivated.
8. Follow environmental science social media accounts. A good way to incorporate environmental topics into your everyday life is through social media. You probably spend a good chunk of your day scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, so why not inject some studying into that time? Like National Geographic on Facebook, follow Guardian Environment on Twitter, or follow environmental science boards on Pinterest. Whatever social media you prefer, you can find useful information to connect with.
9. Study infographics. What happens when you get tired of your textbook, review books, and videos? Try infographics! Infographics, a hybrid of information and graphics, tell stories, explain important topics, and display statistics in visually appealing ways. While statistics and specific numbers aren’t too important for the APES exam, infographics can help give you a clearer picture of certain ideas. Next time you need to take a break from flashcards or reading textbooks, check out some infographics like The Real Impact of Environmental Disasters, Deforestation: Our Disappearing Woodlands, and The Global Water Crisis: The Invisible Threat to Humanity’s Future.
10. Check out environmental science Apps. Studying for the AP Environmental exam is all about finding different resources to keep you interested. What better way to fight off boredom than through Apps? The best environmental Apps are not free, but $0.99 can get you a lot! Try downloading Environmental Science Buddy, which includes lessons, quizzes, videos, and up-to-date current event information. The APES Crash Course is also an excellent App to use for reviewing information specific to the AP Environmental Science exam.
1. Focus on specific themes. The AP Environmental Science exam follows a pattern when it comes to multiple-choice questions. Instead of just a random selection of questions across topics, the exam adheres to a percentage of questions for each theme of the course. It’s helpful to know these so you can plan your studying accordingly.
Percentage of Questions
|Earth Systems and Resources||10%–15%|
|The Living World||10%–15%|
|Land and Water Use||10%–15%|
|Energy Resources and Consumption||10%–15%|
As you can see, pollution is the most covered topic on the multiple-choice sections, with all other topics having generally the same amount of coverage.
2. Familiarize yourself with the types of multiple-choice questions. On the APES exam, you will see a variety of different types of multiple-choice questions. The table below details the question types you’ll see and an example question. Familiarize yourself with these questions so you’re prepared come exam time.
Type of Question
|Definitional||Any factor that influences a natural process under study is a(n)(A) Independent variable
(B) Dependent variable
(E) Experimental value
|Cause and Effect||_______ contributes to the formation of _______ and thereby compounds the problem of _______.(A) Ozone, carbon dioxide, acid rain
(B) Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone depletion
(C) Sulfur dioxide, acid deposition, global warming
(D) Nitrous oxide, ozone, industrial smog
(E) Nitric oxide, ozone, photochemical smog
|Sequencing||Which of the answers below correctly describes the order in which environmental legislation would pass through Congress?I. Reports the bill out of the appropriate committee
II. Debates the bill on the floor of the respective houses
III. Rejects or accepts amendments to the bill
IV. Resolves any differences in a conference committee
(A) I, II, III, IV
(B) I, III, IV, II
(C) II, IV, I, III
(D) III, I, II, IV
(E) IV, III, II, I
|Generalization||What is generally considered to be the most significant factor in terms of being a causative agent for cancer?(A) Smoking
|Solution||A country currently has a population of 100 million and an annual growth rate of 3.5 percent. If the growth rate remains constant, what will be the population of this country in 40 years?(A) 150 million
(B) 200 million
(C) 300 million
(D) 400 million
(E) 800 million
|Hypothetical Situations||Converting to a solar-hydrogen energy source could theoretically be achieve by(A) attracting private investors
(B) passing legislation that would fund “seed money” for entrepreneurs
(C) passing legislation that would discontinue government subsidies of fossil fuels
(D) education the public as to the environmental benefits of solar-hydrogen fuel source
(E) all of the above
|Comparing/Contrasting||Compared with more developed countries, which of the following statements is true of less developed countries?(A) A higher percent of the labor force is engaged in food production.
(B) The population pyramids exhibit narrower bases.
(C) The per capita consumption of energy is higher.
(D) The natural increase of the population is lower.
(E) Fertility rates are lower.
|Multiple Correct Answers||Reasons that the population size of an exotic species often grows rapidly when the species is introduced in a new environment include which of the following?I. The exotic species is resistant to pesticides.
II. There is a large, underutilized food source in the new environment.
III. The exotic species has few natural predators in the new environment.
(A) I only
(B) II only
(C) I and III only
(D) II and III only
(E) I, II, and III
|Negative||Which of the following is LEAST likely to be an effect of global warming?(A) Loss of fertile delta regions for agriculture
(B) Change in global patterns of precipitation
(C) Extinction of some species that have narrow temperature requirements
(D) Decreased rate of photosynthesis in vegetation
(E) Increased frequency of hurricanes
|Graph/Chart/Sketch||A point source discharges organic waste into a stream. Which of the following graphs best depicts the expected pattern for dissolved oxygen (DO) in this stream as a function of distance from the discharge point?|
For more practice multiple-choice questions like these, visit Albert.io.
3. Answer every single question. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the APES exam! This means you should answer each question, no matter what. If you find yourself running out of time, quickly look over your exam to make sure you’ve answered everything. If not, be sure to bubble in an answer, even if it’s just a guess!
4. Practice, practice, practice. The key to really doing well on the AP Environmental Science exam is practice. There are lots of resources that include practice multiple-choice questions. Take advantage of them! Many review books come with full-length multiple-choice sections you can take, complete with detailed explanations of the answers. You can also check out Albert.io for tons of sample multiple-choice questions from all topics of the exam. There’s a reason “practice makes perfect” is a common phrase!
5. Stick to the course outline. The CollegeBoard has a list of the topics covered in the APES exam, which they call the Topic Outline. This is a great resource to use if you have no idea what to study, because it tells you the general topics you absolutely must know. For example, on the topic of Pollution, the exam will cover: pollution types, impacts of the environment and human health, and economic impacts. When in doubt, look at the Topic Outline.
6. Be aware of time. Since you’re given 90 minutes to answer 100 questions on the APES exam, you should spend an average of less than a minute on each multiple-choice question.
1. Know the types of free response questions. The free response section of the AP Environmental Science exam contains four questions of three different types:
• 1 Document-Based question
• 1 Data Set Analysis question
• 2 Synthesis and Evaluation questions
It’s also worth noting that each question is graded on a 10-point scale.
2. Know how to make a graph. If a free-response question asks you to make a graph, there are a few key things you should do to get full credit for your answer. A 2008 APES FRQ asked test takers to create a graph of data based on a given table of information. The question provided students with the axes. Now, to answer this type of question, you should immediately label the x- and y-axis. Then, determine if you’re going to make a bar graph or a line graph. A good rule of thumb is if the information contains two sets of number, make a line graph, and if the information includes one set of numbers and one set of words, make a bar graph. There are times when either one can work. You then need to come up with a consistent scale for your graph, plot a smooth curve, make sure your data points aren’t misaligned, and title the graph.
3. Know how to answer a “describe” question. A 2012 AP Environmental Science FRQ asked students to “Describe TWO characteristics that are used by scientists to define an area as a wetland.” In questions that include the keyword “describe,” you need to define the topic and elaborate, using specific examples. For this particular question, two points were awarded: one for each characteristic, and nothing more. Only the first two responses were graded. A correct response would look like this:
“An area is a wetland if the soil is annually saturated with water. Moreover, wetlands contain plants and vegetation with adaptations that allow them to live under these conditions. If the area meets both of these characteristics, scientists define the area as a wetland.”
This response, which would receive full credit, is specific, gets to the point, and answers the question fully.
4. Include all the parts in a lab design question. Some FRQs will include a laboratory design question. In 2012, the AP Environmental Science exam included a lab design question about whether pesticides were toxic to minnows. In this type of question, you need to design an experiment that could actually be conducted. To earn full points for lab design questions, you need to include four key components:
Hypothesis: Make sure your hypothesis is testable and doesn’t include phrases like “I think…” When in doubt, use “if, then” format, although this is not required. In the case of the pesticides and minnows, you would need to predict a relationship between the two, making sure you’re being as specific as possible. A correct response would be:
“Higher concentrations of the new pesticides will result in higher mortalities in a given population of minnows.”
Methods to test hypothesis: You need to be as specific and detailed as possible when coming up with methods to test your hypothesis. Act as if you are designing an experiment that you could do right now if you had the supplies. In the case of the minnows and pesticide, an example method would be:
“Four separate freshwater tanks will each contain 20 minnows. Tank 1 is the control and contains no pesticide. Tank 2 will have a .05% concentration of pesticide, Tank 3 will have a .1% concentration of pesticide and Tank 4 will have a .2% concentration of pesticide. After each day of exposure, the number of dead minnows will be counted and recorded. Exposure should last for 30 days.”
As you can see, this student included specific details (amount of pesticide concentration), a procedure that can be followed, an adequate amount of experimental groups, and a measured duration for the experiment.
Control: State exactly what the control is in your experiment. You can simply state it in your method as the student did above (“Tank 1 is the control and contains no pesticide”), or add it as a separate part to your response.
Dependent variable: Explicitly state the dependent variable in your response. Something simple like “The dependent variable is the number of dead minnows,” will get you full points.
5. Show all of your steps in mathematical problems. If a FRQ asks you to “calculate” something, you know that it’s a math-based problem. You may be given a graph or a table of information to base your answer off of. Pay attention to the formulas and data given to you, and be sure to use it. For these types of questions, you need to correctly set up the calculation (1 point) and arrive at a correct answer (1 point). The steps to getting your answer are just as important as the answer; so make sure you show all of your steps, even if you think they’re implied. Use scientific notation if possible, units, and write your final answer with a label.
6. Solve each part of the question. It may seem obvious, but make sure you solve every part of the question! Almost every APES free-response questions is divided into several different parts such as a, b, c, and d, often with i, ii, iii, etc. Don’t forget to answer each part. Even if you answer part (a) incorrectly, you can still receive credit for a correct answer to part (b).
7. Avoid vague phrases. Certain terms, such as the ones listed below, may sound specific to you as you’re writing them, but they usually carry no meaning and are very ambiguous. Avoid these phrases when writing your FRQs:
• “bad for the environment”
• “cause environmental degradation”
• “human impact”
• “harm the environment”
• “save the planet”
• “stop global warming”
• “global solution”
• “mother nature”
• “harmful chemicals” (without being specific)
• “human footprint”
• “sustainable” (without additional details)
• “make it illegal”
As an example, say you wrote, “Acid deposition hurts forests” as your answer. This provides no examples and the word “hurts forests” is too vague. How does it hurt forests? A better response would be, “Acid deposition can hurt forests in several ways. One way is by reducing the topsoil’s ability to retain vital nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and potassium which are needed by trees.” This response includes specific details and is the kind of response you should shoot for. Thanks to Mr. R. from Shaker High School for the list and example.
8. Think about the 3 E’s. Environment, ecological, or economic? Determine what the question is asking about. Responses to environmental or ecological questions should include plants, animals, and ecosystems – not humans. Responses to economic questions should involve money, costs, etc.
9. Brush up on simple algebra. You cannot use a calculator on the APES exam and although the exam isn’t AP Calculus, you still need to be familiar and comfortable with certain math concepts, such as dealing with percentages, rounding, fractions, and scientific notation.
10. Explain technical terms. You can’t get away with simply dropping in vocabulary words without explaining them. You have to show that you have a complete understanding of the terms you use in your responses. For example, you can’t just write: “bioaccumulation increases the likelihood of biomagnification.” What do these words mean? Have you included specific examples?
11. Focus on the how and why of environmental processes. While it may be beneficial to know quantities and measurements, the AP readers don’t expect you to know them. Instead, make sure you know how environmental processes happen, why they happen, and the significance of them. Make sure you know specific examples of environmental processes.
12. Write practice FRQs. Practicing is absolutely essential for a great score on the AP Environmental Science exam. Seeing how questions are written, reading real responses from past test takers, and looking through scoring guidelines and rubrics will help you tremendously. Write practice FRQs as often as you can and have your classmates or teacher objectively grade them. Have your teacher help you pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses and how you can improve. The CollegeBoard website has past APES free-response questions from 2003 to 2015, including scoring commentaries, statistics, and sample responses. Look at which response get high scores and which get low scores. Determine what makes a response a good response and why.
13. Organize and label your responses clearly. Since APES free-response questions usually have so many parts, organization is essential to having a great response. You have to remember that real people will be reading and grading your response, so make sure your answer is neat and easy to follow. Label your answers according to the part you’re answering, such as (a), (b), (c), etc. This not only helps the graders, but also helps you keep track of your responses and make sure you’re not missing anything.
14. Answer in complete sentences. You will not receive credit if you respond with bulleted lists or 1-word answers. You also shouldn’t draw a diagram as your response unless the question explicitly states that you should. Always write in complete sentences
1. If a fourth grader could say it, it is too vague. When you’re writing your free-response answers, include specific examples to keep your response from becoming too vague. Name specific chemicals, name specific species, name specific laws, etc. Eliminate “flowery” terms and phrases. Thanks for the tip from Mr. R. at Shaker High School!
2. Rewrite the notes from class/text. After class, rewrite or type-up your notes. Underline vocabulary words and new concepts. Annotate your notes with definitions for these terms. Make flashcards based on your notes from class. Thanks to Mrs. K. from Savannah Arts Academy for the tip!
3. Watch “Home” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand from the GoodPlanetFoundation on YouTube. This video covers many topics you need to know for the AP Environmental Science exam. Thanks to Ms. R. at Tallwood High School for the tip!
4. Appreciate the outdoors. To help understand the importance of taking AP Environmental Science, spend two or more hours camping, hiking, canoeing/kayaking, visiting a state or national park, or volunteering for an environmental group or learning center. Take pictures of nature and write about your experience. Thanks to Ms. Melanie L. at Perry High School for the tip!
5. Read The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy, And Environment. This eye-opening book covers topics like food supply, population, and energy and puts things into perspective. If you’re struggling to make connections between the economy, energy, and the environment, this book is for you! Thanks to Mr. Nick H. at Easton Area High School for the tip!
6. Do not be fragmentary in your explanations. Everything should fit together logically into a complete answer. Make sure you tie all the “pieces” of your answer together. Thanks to Dr. S. from Northridge Academy High School for the tip!
7. Checkout the 70 Years of Environmental Change Timeline. Thanks to Dr. E. from La Canada High School for the tip!
8. Avoid “enviro-speak.” For example, some students use words like “pollution,” generally. You should always specify the type of pollution. Thanks to Ms. B. from East Carolina University for the tip!
9. Include obvious details. No detail is too small for the FRQ! Include obvious details, such as “light is necessary for photosynthesis.” Most points are given for the basics. Thanks to Dr. D. from John Burroughs School for the tip!
10. Outline your answer. Think ahead before you begin to write. Create an outline on a separate sheet of paper or on the green packet of the AP exam. This helps to avoid confusion and disorganization and decreases the chances of rambling. Thanks to Mrs. P. from Grayslake North High School for the tip!
11. Participate fully in class lab activities. It is AP Environmental Science not AP Environmental Studies. Labs are a great way to learn important concepts in depth – something that can be hard to do through textbooks. Lab activities help develop your critical thinking skills and can help cement ideas in your mind for the exam. Thanks to Mr. G. from Kimball Union Academy for the tip!
12. Score sample FRQs. Try scoring one of your classmate’s free-response answers. Use rubrics and scoring guidelines from the CollegeBoard website to help you. This can give you a good insight into the AP reader’s perspective and show you just how much clarity, thoroughness, and neatness counts. Thanks to Mr. S. from Palos Verdes Peninsula High School for the tip!
13. Simplify and organize your notes. Organize your notes in a logical sequence. Simplify your notes by using graphic organizers, tables (issues, pros/cons, examples, etc.), terms, and figures. Thanks to Mr. K. from Camden Hills Regional High School for the tip!
14. Look for the common thread. On the AP Environmental Science exam, a free-response question might ask you to analyze how several topics from different parts of the course support a specific theme. Look for the common thread and answer each part of the question with respect to how that topic supports the theme. This type of question will allow you a choice of several topics, so choose the one you’re most comfortable with. Thanks to Mr. S. from Washington Township Public School District for the tip!
15. Try not to second-guess the multiple-choice answers. Changes usually are wrong. Trust your gut. Thanks to Mr. B. from Lakeland High School for the tip!
Are you a teacher or student? Do you have an awesome tip? Let us know!
AP Environmental Science has the power to be a really fun, engaging, and exciting class. The exam, however, will be difficult. Facts and vocabulary terms are especially important in APES and you must have knowledge of terms beyond just their definition. You have to be able to connect concepts together and understand the significance of key terms. Having good math skills is also important, so be sure to brush up on your algebra. Overall, as long as you’re dedicated to the course, use some of the study techniques in this post, and know what to expect on exam day, you’re on your way to a great score on the APES exam! Good luck!
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