AP Homestretch Study Plan

deskHow a student studies and prepares during the final days and weeks before AP exams can make all the difference. While homeschoolers may enjoy AP courses for the challenge they provide, for most homeschoolers, earning a strong score is also a goal.

AP scores of 4 and 5 are most likely helpful for selective college admissions and earning credit in college. Nationally, many students taking AP exams fail to make a passing test score. Here are five tips to help your homeschooler down that home stretch and toward their goal of a strong AP score

Step One: Understand the Course and Rubric

AP exams aren’t just testing the student’s knowledge of the subject, but instead are looking specifically at how the student can answer questions within the prescribed format of the test. Understanding how the exam will be graded can help your student prepare answers in a way that graders value. Yes, this is basically teaching to the test, and we all hate it. But it is part of the game, and by high school age, it is not terrible for students to learn to understand and meet expectations. Grading rubrics for AP exams can be found in prep books and on the College Board website.  Here is an example from the AP World History Exam:

AP World History Comparative Essay Rubric


Basic Core (skills and knowledge to show competence)


1. Has an acceptable thesis that contains a strong argument and a framework that gives order to the paper (Addresses comparison of the issues or themes specified).


2. Addresses all parts of the question and includes specific literary and historical examples


3. Substantiates thesis with appropriate and specific literary and historical evidence.


4. Makes direct comparisons and uses appropriate transitions between and among ideas; language used is appropriate for its purpose.


Basic Core Subtotal

Up to 6

Expanded Core (skills and knowledge required to show excellence)

The basic score of 6 must be achieved before a student is able to earn expanded core points. Examples of qualities that might earn expanded core points


1. Has a clear, analytical, insightful, and/or comprehensive thesis


2. Addresses all parts of the question and includes (as relevant): chronology, causation, context,  and literary conventions


3.  Provides ample specific literary and historical evidence to substantiate thesis, including direct quotations from the text(s)


4. Shows the ability to relate evidence to a larger thematic concept or global context


5. Language used to enhance argument.


Expanded Core Subtotal

Up to 3

Total Points

Up to 9


Reviewing this grading rubric can help your student understand what is expected by the AP reader. Students can also look at examples on the College Board of exams that have received different scores.

Step Two: Aquire Quality Prep Materials.

Students enrolled in an official AP course with an approved syllabus will have access to the prep materials through the College Board website. Popular homeschool providers such as PA Homeschoolers and the Well Trained Mind typically go through the audit process and obtain approval to offer approved courses.  Some local homeschool co-op teachers and parents also go through the audit process and gain course approval, allowing them to officially list the course as an AP course.

No matter the curriculum your child has used to prepare for the exam, having a great test guide available can be helpful. Some of the best-known publishers of guides include Princeton Review, Barron’s, Kaplan, and CliffNotes. The quality of the guides varies by subject, so there is no one publisher who can provide the best for every subject. Visit a bookstore where you can look at various choices or carefully read reviews on Amazon. Be aware that AP exams are revised periodically, so you want to be sure to have an up to date guide. It may even be worth buying a couple of guides for students who have budgeted plenty of time to review. If you weigh the cost of two $20 books and the potential to earn over a thousand dollars of college credit, it may be worth it to get more than one book.

Step Three: Practice Tests

One of the single most effective methods of preparing for any test is to take sample tests. If at all possible, make sure your student takes at least one full-length practice test under normal test conditions. They should be in a quiet room, use a timer, and take the test all the way through, with the required breaks. The test prep guide will include information about scoring the practice exam. This is a good opportunity to encourage the student to think like a test grader using the rubric. Seeing how the scores add up can help lower anxiety by making it clear that students can still get many multiple-choice questions wrong and earn a good score on an AP exam. Because these exams are intended to be given to students from different schools using widely differing curricula, there is a built-in more of a “wiggle factor” than many exams. So, students be advised they don’t need to get 90%+ correct to get an A.

Step Four: Target Weak Areas

Carefully review the results of the practice exam and identify areas of weakness. Study and review as needed. Rather than taking another full-length exam, students may find it more effective to take isolated sections or questions that review the areas where they need to improve.

Step Five: Good Sleep – Low Stress

Review the tips to make test day successful. Don’t cram the night before. It never works and will increase stress. As your student approaches test day, make sure they have the needed materials (calculator, snack, etc.) and then encourage them to take some downtime and rest well.

1 comment

  • I don’t think that I would call reviewing free-response scoring guidelines as “teaching to the test” so much as understanding the intent of that test section. Some questions ask for an essay. Others aren’t interested in essay conventions like thesis, introduction and conclusion; but do want to see certain points made in short answer responses. One of the big hits many students take is in not actually answering the question fully. If it asks for two example of non-governmental organizations and a country studied in the class that belongs to each one, then you need to be sure you in fact give two organizations and one country each.

    This is more like knowing the rules for a swimming stroke or what is marked off in gymnastics than just teaching to the test.

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