AP Biology Exam

August 15, 2020
By AdmissionSight

AP Biology Exam: Your Questions Answered

There are a seemingly endless number of tests that high school graduates can take to improve their chances of getting into their ideal colleges. The AP exams are one such group of tests designed to give students an opportunity to flex their academic muscles and show admission officers their interest in a particular field. The AP Biology Exam is one of the more popular tests within this group with over 260,000 students opting to take it in 2019 alone. If you’re planning to attend a biology-focused program or you’re pursuing a related major, taking the AP Biology Exam can give you an upper hand in the admissions process. Whether you’ve recently taken a biology course or need a prompt refresher, this AdmissionSight guide will answer all of the questions you have about the AP Biology Exam.

Young woman looking serious while studying.

When is the AP Biology Exam?

There’s no set date upon which the AP Biology Exam falls each year. Generally speaking, it typically falls within the first two weeks of May. Currently, the next AP Biology Exam is scheduled for May 14, 2021, at 8:00 am. You can visit this site for an accurate and complete list of times for all AP exams.

What does the AP Biology Exam contain?

The AP Biology Exam is a fundamentally science-oriented exam that requires students to be familiar with the fundamentals of scientific inquiry, including:

  • The design of experiments and procedures required to test a prediction or theory
  • The ability to analyze and collect data.
  • The skills required to interpret data and draw relevant conclusions.
  • The development and support of a scientific claim with empirical evidence.

All of these skills will be tested over the course of eight different sections into which the AP Biology Exam is divided. If you’re interested in learning about these sections in greater detail read on.

Unit 1: Chemistry of Life – This portion comprises anywhere between 8% and 10% of the test and covers the basics behind the chemistry of life. For example, it covers the fundamental understanding that water forms the structural basis of all life, the functions of carbs, proteins, and lipids, as well as the structure of DNA and RNA.

Unit 2: Cell Function and Structure – In this unit, students are asked about the structure and function of cells and other evolutionary fundamentals. You’ll need to know about individual components of a cell and each part’s specific function. The questions will focus on the cell’s interaction with the surrounding environment. This section makes up 10% to 13% of the test.

Unit 3: Cellular Energetics – The third unit covers 12% to 16% of the overall exam and focuses on how the fundamental processes of cells use, store, and generate energy. You’ll need to know about the function and structure of enzymes, cellular respiration, the process of photosynthesis, and other related topics.

Unit 4: Cell Communication and Cell Cycle – In this section, students will be asked questions regarding the communication between cells as well as their growth and reproduction habits. You’ll need to know about the primary events that make up a cell cycle and the various feedback mechanisms that maintain homeostasis. Unit 4 makes up roughly 10% to 15% of the AP Biology Exam.

Unit 5: Heredity – Making up 8% to 11% of the overall exam, Unit 5’s topics will focus on heredity. You’ll need to understand how organisms pass certain traits onto the succeeding generation through asexual reproduction and meiosis. Students will have to understand the fundamentals of these processes, the general history of genetic understanding, why genetic diversity is important, and the plethora of factors contributing to how genes are expressed.

Unit 6: Gene Regulation and Expression – This unit focuses on much of the same material covered in Unit 5 but at the molecular level. Students will be asked questions about the functions and roles of RNA and DNA, along with the mechanisms of gene expression. You’ll need to know about biotech, natural selection, genetic diversity, and mutations – among other related topics. Unit 6 comprises 12% to 16% of the AP Biology Exam.

Unit 7: Natural Selection – This unit covers 13% to 20% of the overall test and covers the most important concepts related to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, including natural selection, speciation, microevolution, and evidence that contributed to the development of this theory. Some questions in Unit 7 will also relate to the origin of life.

Unit 8: Ecology – In this section of the AP Biology Exam, students will be asked questions regarding the interaction of larger organisms with their ecosystems. You’ll have to understand the concepts behind the community, ecosystem dynamics, and population growth. There will be a heavy focus on the relationship between environmental changes and the equilibrium of ecosystems. Unit 8 comprises 10 to 15% of the overall exam.

Marine Biologists working at the beach coast

How is the AP Biology Exam broken down?

Although the AP Biology Exam has been administered for years and years, it was just recently updated in 2020. The test consists of two sections that take up 90-minutes each. Your overall score on each exam makes up half of the final raw score. If you’re familiar with the test structure of previous AP Biology Exams, all of the grid-in questions within the multiple-choice section were removed. In addition, two short-answer questions were removed from the section with free-responses. Below, we’ve outlined the skills you can expect to be tested on in each section along with some other updated information.



Types of Questions

Skills Covered

Section 1:

Multiple Choice

1 hr 30 mins

60 MC questions

1. Explain biological models, processes, and concepts.

2. Analyze flow charts, diagrams, and various visual models.

3. Apply the scientific method

4. Analyze data with mathematical calculations

5. Use evidence to support scientific claims

Section 2:

Free Response

1 hr 30 mins

4 short-answer and 2 long-response questions

1. Evaluate and interpret the results of an experiment

2. Analyze and graph data

3. Comprehend the fundamentals and procedures of laboratory investigations

4. Predict the effects and/or causes of a particular change within a biological system

5. Analyze visual representations of biological phenomena

What are the passing rates of the AP Biology Exam?

2019 Exam






AP Biology






A passing grade on the AP Biology Exam is defined as a 3 or higher. In 2019, around 65% of those students who took the test receive a passing grade or higher. In the same year, 2.92 was the average score. Despite being one of the most popular exams, the AP Biology Exam is actually considered one of the more difficult ones. Still, with the right amount of preparation and effective studying techniques, most students have no problem getting a great score.

What are the best ways to prepare for the AP Biology Exam?

Study the material thoroughly: It might sound obvious, but the most important component of acing the AP Biology Exam is by studying the material covered on the test in-depth. In order to do this, you’ll need to know what concepts and topics the test actually covers. This in-depth description of the AP Biology Exam will come in handy for this purpose. There are main ideas outlined that you should focus on when deciding what to study for the test.

Not only will you have to know the underlying concepts associated with each main idea, but you should also be able to make connections across the concepts and content. A student’s success on the AP Biology Exam can be directly linked to their ability to use critical and conceptual thinking about these major ideas and the underlying concepts related to each. You’ll also need to leverage the ability to use illustrative examples to underscore your main points.

In addition, there are seven scientific fundamentals that you’ll need to master, including:

  • Generating questions for an investigation
  • Choosing the variables needed to investigate
  • Designing and conducting experiments
  • Designing bespoke experimental procedures
  • Collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and displaying data
  • Determining the best method for presenting your findings.

In order to get a better idea of where you should be focusing on your studies, you can get an official study guide. Make sure you get an updated version since the AP Biology Exam was recently redesigned.

Use practice tests: AdmissionSight strongly recommends that students use practice tests when preparing for any AP exam. Not only do these tests give you a good idea of what content you’ll find on the AP Biology Exam, but they also provide you with accurate questions with which you can practice test-taking itself. Always make sure you’re using an updated practice test since the AP Biology Exam was recently redesigned.

This College Board site gives you some fundamental sample questions. Although it’s not a complete test, these questions are a great place to start for a general understanding of what you can expect to find on the AP Biology Exam. One of the best ways to get your hands on full-length and comprehensive practice tests is by using commercial study guides. You can find these offered in PDF format online or in book format. Either way, you might have to cough up a little money, but it’s definitely worth it.

When you have a better understanding of how you’re responding to the multiple-choice questions, you might want to ask a friend or family member to help assess your free-response essays. With no accurate way to “grade” your own responses, it’s helpful to have an independent, third-party review your answers since there’s no objective metric with which to judge it.

Maintain a list of tricky concepts or terms: As you gain a better understanding of what you’ll find on the test, you’ll no doubt come across terms, concepts, and ideas that are giving you trouble. Instead of pausing your workflow to dive deeper into these roadblocks, it’s a good strategy to keep an updated list of tricky concepts or terms with which you need more practice. Maybe your biology course in high school didn’t cover something in great depth or perhaps you simply struggle with one particular concept.

After you’ve reviewed the contents of the AP Biology Exam and taken a few sample tests, this list of tricky concepts should be decently long. Now, you can go about tackling the holes in your knowledge with precision and accuracy. Instead of reviewing everything over and over again while wasting valuable time, you’ll know exactly where to focus your efforts. To really get a better idea of what you know, you could even include a list of strengths or topics that you know forwards and backward. The whole idea is to cover all of the topics you’ll need to know for the exam in the most efficient way possible.

old school building

Time yourself on a practice exam

One thing that students consistently forget to prepare for is the conditions of the actual AP Biology Exam. While it’s critical to have an excellent grasp on all of the concepts covered on the test as well as an understanding of the types of questions being asked, these two things alone won’t leave you perfectly prepared to take the exam. There are other factors that will impact your performance – all of which have to do with the setting of the test.

In other words, the conditions under which you study and the manner in which you study aren’t necessarily indicative of what you’ll find on test day. For example, you might be listening to music while you study but will have to confront an eerie silence come test day. Those breaks you take to talk to friends, take a nap, or grab a snack won’t be mirrored by anything similar during the uninterrupted time you have to take the exam. In order to get the most accurate idea of how you’ll perform under these conditions, you should replicate them as best as possible and take a practice exam.

Find a well-lit room with little to no distractions. Make sure you limit all interruptions and carve out a few hours of your day where you have no other obligations. Clear your desk or table of any study guides, notes, books, and your phone. You should only have the sample test, a pencil, and a timer within arm’s reach. Obviously, it’s advisable to save the most accurate AP Biology Exam sample test to which you have access. It should also be one you haven’t already reviewed or previously taken. You should also have detailed answer explanations available so you can make sure your responses are correct.

While you won’t be able to perfectly replicate what you’ll find come test day, this preparation strategy will give you the most accurate idea of what you can expect. Studying the material helps you prep for the information you’ll be required to know on the test, but this step helps prepare you for the actual test-taking – a component of the AP Biology Exam which many students overlook.

A male college student doing homework at home.

AdmissionSight has your back

There’s no question that these AP exams can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for students who are banking on a great score to help increase their chances of getting into their dream college. Whether you’re aiming for the creme de la creme Ivy League Schools or simply want to earn a scholarship to your local state college, AdmissionSight has the expertise to help you achieve your academic goals. We offer support for all facets of the admission process from essay editing and personalized academic coaching to summer program placement and AP exam prep. No matter what you’re struggling with, we’ve got your back. AdmissionSight has already helped countless students gain admittance into the schools of their choice. We want you to be that next success story. Feel free to reach out to learn more about what we offer and how you can get started.


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