What to Know Before You Take the AP Calculus BC Exam

August 11, 2020
By AdmissionSight

What to Know Before You Take the AP Calculus BC Exam 

When it comes to making the most out of your high school years and getting into the very best college or university you can, taking AP courses and exams – such as the AP Calculus BC Exam – is a great way to do it!

Here at AdmissionSight, we know that AP Exams like the AP Calculus BC Exam can be daunting for even the strongest and brightest of high school students. For that reason, we’ve created a simple and easy-to-understand breakdown of many of the most popular, and most beneficial, AP exams that you might be thinking about taking in the upcoming high school year. 

Hopefully, once you have completed this quick breakdown, you will have a much better understanding of whether or not the AP Calculus BC Exam is a great thing for you to pursue!

unidentified student taking an exam

Basic info about the AP Calculus BC Exam

In the case of every AP exam, you are going to want to know some basic information about the course overall before you sign up and start committing your time and energy to it.

Based on last year’s information, a total of approximately 2.8 million United States high school students took an AP Exam in 2019. Out of that 2.8 million, over 440,000 students took some kind of AP Calculus BC Exam. Most of the students within that 440,000 took the AP Calculus AB Exam, which spans topics such as pre-calc, and dives into other exciting topics such as differential calculus and integral calculus.

The rest of the high schoolers who took an AP calculus exam took the exam that we are going over now, the AP Calculus BC Exam. This exam covers the world of calculus in greater detail and difficulty than the more popular exam and covers the same content as it as well as topics such as plus-polar coordinates, sequences and series, vectors as well as introduces students to differential equations. 

This can feel a bit overwhelming as it is likely a lot of phrases and types of mathematics that you are not very familiar with. However, rest assured: The fact that you are putting in the work to learn about the course and related exam before you even enroll in the class is a great sign that you are ready to succeed and take the course seriously.

a student pointing at the math problem on the board

Breaking down the AP Calculus BC Course and Exam

Just like the Calculus AB course, the AP Calculus BC Exam and course allow students to learn about the unifying equations and themes of calculus. It can serve as a fantastic bedrock for students who are interested in pursuing an undergraduate degree or career related to mathematics or other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics.

The exciting mathematical challenges that students will cover in detail both within the classroom and at home during their own homework and study sessions include derivatives, integrals, limits, approximations, modeling, and applications as well as sequences and series. On top of that, students will also get the challenging tasks of learning about the correct methods and applications regarding calculus.

When it comes to both the coursework and the work that students will find within the exam, students are expected to display competence in their computational skills. However, the primary focus of the course and exam is to put on a multidimensional approach to the world of calculus.

To make that a little clearer, students should feel comfortable expressing and solving problems in multiple ways such as graphically, numerically, verbally, and analytically. Overall, students in this course will also focus on the crucial connections and relationships that exist between a number of different functions and representations.

In the AP Calculus BC Course and Exam

In the course itself, students will be expected to enter with a decent amount of foundational knowledge regarding calculus. This makes sense considering the fact that this is considered to be an advanced AP course.

Typically, students are expected to be able to exhibit mastery in many different mathematical topics before enrolling in AP Calculus BC. These subjects include algebra, trigonometry, geometry, analytic geometry, and elementary functions prior to undertaking AP Calc BC. On top of that, students should be at least familiar, if not proficient at polynomial, rational, exponential, linear, logarithmic, trigonometric, and inverse trigonometric and piecewise-defined functions.

Similarly, it is considered highly valuable for students to have some basic understanding of the properties and functions; the graphs of functions, algebra of functions and language, and functions. Due to the fact that this course goes quite a bit deeper than the AP Calculus AB course, students should also be familiar with sequences, series, and polar equations. 

In both the course and the exam alike, students will need to be able to use a graphic calculator.

Units in the class

Through the course of AP Calculus BC, students will cover 10 separate units, with each unit getting covered to varying degrees in the AP Calculus BC Exam.  Below are the separate units as well as the corresponding range percentage that each unit may take up in the end-of-course exam:

While these ten units are taught separately, the course is also broken down into two separate components that students are going to have to master if they want to score a perfect 5 out of 5 on the AP Calculus BC Exam. Of course, scoring 5 out of 5 not only helps students earn college credits, but it also helps students look fantastic in the eyes of college admissions officers.

Overall, this course and the AP Calculus BC Exam is broken down into two different components that students are expected to master in order to express their deep understanding of the foundations of calculus within the exam. There are two key components and they are as follows:

Mathematical Practices: These are the four key skills that every student must be able to master in order to complete the tasks that they will be asked during the AP Calculus BC Exam. The Mathematical Practices of the course are:

Big Ideas: These are the foundational ideas and concepts that students will need to understand in order to develop a greater understanding of calculus. There are three Big Ideas that the AP Calculus BC course covers:

Calculus exam

In the AP Calculus BC Exam

Before going over the exam itself, let’s spend a quick moment going over what you will need to be able to complete on your graphic calculator in order to master the units in the course and ace the subsequent exam. 

Throughout the course and during the exam, students are allowed their graphic calculator in one part of the multiple-choice section of the exam as well as on one part of the free-response section of the exam. 

If you are curious about whether or not your calculator is able to complete the tasks that you will need it to on the exam, make sure that your calculator is able to plot the graph of a function within an arbitrary viewing window, find zeroes of functions, numerically calculate the derivative of a function as well as numerically calculate the value of a definite integral. If you are still looking to clear up some questions regarding your use of a calculator on the AP Calculus BC Exam, reference the Calculator Policy on their official site.

Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s go over the two sections of the exam itself. 

Multiple Choice

The first section of the exam takes one hour and 45 minutes and contains 45 multiple-choice questions. Overall, this section accounts for half of your total score in the AP Calculus BC Exam. 

Within this multiple-choice section of the exam, there are two different subsections. The first is made up of 30 questions, and students get 60 minutes to answer 30 questions. In this section, students are not permitted to use their graphic calculators. 

The remaining section is made up of the remaining 15 questions and lasts 45 minutes here. In this section, students will be allowed to utilize their calculators.

Free Response

Once the timed sections of the multiple-choice questions have been completed, students will be tasked with a 90-minute, free-response section.

Much like the multiple-choice part of this exam, the free-response section is split up into two subsections. The first part contains just two problems and students will get an entire 30 minutes to complete the questions. In the first part of free response, students will be able to utilize their graphic calculators.

The second section takes up the remaining 60 minutes in order to answer the remaining four questions. Here, students will not be able to utilize their calculators.

Female students writing on her notes

How to best study for the AP Calculus BC Exam

As you begin to prepare for the AP Calculus BC Exam, there are some incredible ways that you can increase your chances of success. Here at AdmissionSight, we have worked with a number of students who have aced the AP Calculus BC Exam. When it comes to how they have prepared, here are the primary steps they have taken.

And now you can take the very same steps to improve your chances of success!

Analyze your knowledge and ability

The first step that you will want to take when it comes to preparing for the AP Calculus BC Exam is to take a practice test that is formatted in the same way that the official test is. This will not only give you a taste of the arduous task that is completing the AP Calculus BC Exam, but it will also let you know how deeply you understand the topics that you will be tested on and will show you want you to need to work on to get the best score possible. 

The best resources as your disposal in terms of taking this initial practice exam is either finding official exams from past years or using one of the many practice exams that you will be able to find in the popular study guides that are available for purchase.

Study the material

As you now know, the AP Calculus BC course covers a broad spectrum of calculus and the AP Calculus BC Exam will test your knowledge on those topics. 

Of course, the course at your high school will go a very long way in helping you understand the fundamentals of all of these subjects, but if you want to improve your chances of acing the AP Calculus BC Exam, you will want to go above and beyond the mere lessons that you learn in school.

One of the best ways to increase your understanding of the subjects is to purchase one of the many great study guides and go through it with especially paying focus to the subjects that you are not confident in.

If you are not interested in purchasing a study guide, there are also a number of free resources that students can take advantage of when it comes to mastering the subject matter of the course.

Study the multiple-choice and free-response questions

The next step that you will want to take in order to increase your chances of acing the exam is to go through practice questions for both the multiple-choice section as well as the free-response section.

In every study guide, you purchase; you should make sure that you are getting a large amount of practice questions for all sections of the exam. On top of that, the College Board also offers a number of sample questions as well as with scoring applications.

On top of there, this is another book that is specifically designed to help students prepare for the multiple-choice section here.

When you are beginning to study for the free-response sections, you want to make sure that you are making it a habit of showing all of your work on the page. That even applies to when you are utilizing your calculator. The reason why this is wholly important is that on the exam, you will only be given full credit if you should your full work and find the correct answer. Anything else will not receive full credit.

One of the best resources students can use when studying the free-response section of the AP Calculous BC Exam is the College Board, which has samples of free-response questions dating back over 20 years.

One final thing of note when you are taking both practice multiple-choice and free-response questions are to go over the answers that are provided. This will not only allow you to gain experience through these questions but also offer themselves as a learning experience so that you can find what subjects you are struggling with leading up to the exam. 

Take more practice tests

Once you are getting closer to the actual test date, you will want to be sure that you are taking some practice exams. Not only that, make sure that you are actually timing your tests. While you can take one or two without timing in order to get a better idea of the flow of the exam, you will then want to start timing the exams using the exact timing format of the actual exam. This will allow you to get used to the time pressure that you will be under once the exam date actually arrives.

Of course, after you take a sample test, you will want to go through every answer and compare your answers to the answers that are provided in the study guide, both as a way to see what scores you are earning as well as a way to continue learning as the exam day approaches.

Female student smiling at the camera.

Chances of success

Now that you know all about the AP Calculus BC Exam, you might be interested in finding out what your chances of success are. Believe it or not, the chances of success are actually quite high! Take a look at last year’s scoring breakdown to get a better idea of what chances you have at success.

So, if you are able to commit the time and energy necessary to succeed in this course, chances are quite good that you will make the most of it!


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