How to Approach AP Biology Free-Response Questions
The free-response section consists of six broad questions. It is important that your answers to these questions display solid reasoning and analytical skills. The two long essays together carry approximately the same weight as the four short-response questions combined. Expect to often use data or information from your laboratory exercises as you answer some of the questions.
Answers for the free-response questions must be in essay form. Outline form is not acceptable. Labeled diagrams may be used to supplement discussion, but in no case will a diagram alone suffice. It is important that you read each question completely before you begin to write. Write all of your answers on the pages following the questions in the booklet.
AP Biology Free-Response Tips
Some important tips to keep in mind as you write your essays:
The free-response questions tend to be multipart questions. You can't be expected to know everything about every topic, and the test preparers sometimes throw you a bone by writing questions that ask you to answer two of three parts or three of four parts. This gives you an opportunity to focus in on the material that you are most comfortable with. It is very important that you read the question carefully to make sure you understand exactly what the examiners are asking you to do.
You are given 80 minutes to complete six free-response questions. The two long free response questions should take 20 minutes each, and the four short questions should take about ten minutes each. This may not seem like a lot of time, but if you write a bunch of practice essays before you take the exam and budget your time wisely during the exam, you will not have to struggle with your timing. Below are suggestions for budgeting your time:
Read the question carefully and make sure you know what it is asking you to do.
Construct an outline that will help you organize your answer. Don't write the world's most elaborate outline. You won't get points for having the prettiest outline in the country—so there is no reason to spend an excessive amount of time putting it together. Just develop enough of an outline so that you have a basic idea of how you will construct your essay. Your essay is not graded based on how well it is put together, but it certainly will not hurt your score to write a well-organized and grammatically correct response.
If the long essay is a two-part question, spend 10 minutes on each part. If it is a three-part question, spend 6–7 minutes on each part. Keep your eye on the clock and make sure you give yourself enough time to address each part of the question.
Both of the long free-response questions on the AP Biology exam are worth the same number of points. But each question is not created equal. Some questions ask you to answer two sub-questions. Some questions ask you to answer three sub-questions, and some questions ask you to answer four sub-questions. The free-response questions are graded in a way that forces you to provide information for each section of the question. There are a maximum number of points that you can get for each subsection. For example, in a question that asks you to answer three sub-questions, most likely the grader's guidelines will say something along the lines of:
Part A — worth a maximum of 3 points
Part B — worth a maximum of 4 points
Part C — worth a maximum of 3 points
This is a very important thing for you to know heading into the exam. This means that it is far more important for you to attempt to answer every part of the question than to try to stuff every little fact that you know about part A into that portion of the essay at the expense of part B. Based on the grading guideline above, no matter how well you write your answer for part A, you can receive at most 3 points for that section. At the risk of being repetitive, we'll say it again because it is so important: no matter how great your essay may be, the grader can only give you the maximum possible number of points for each subsection.
The free-response section is graded using a "positive scoring" system. This means that wrong information in an essay is ignored. You do not lose points for saying things that are incorrect. (Unfortunately you do not get points for saying things that are incorrect either . . . if only!) The importance of this fact is basically that if you are unsure about something and think you may be right, give it a shot and include it in your essay. It's worth the risk.