What To Do Leading Up to a Standardized Exam Like AP Calculus BC

by Justin Skycak on

Six weeks of pure review and six official practice exams.

Final Review Phase

If a student is taking a course that is meant to prepare them for a cumulative standardized exam at the end of the year, then they should aim to finish the course and enter a “final review phase” about 6 weeks before the exam.

This final review phase is absolutely critical when it comes to test prep. Even after a student initially learns a topic, each successive review will increase their level of automaticity, thereby increasing the likelihood that they answer the corresponding topic correctly on the actual exam.

Just think of the final review phase as the final leg of an Olympic athlete’s training regime. Students need to get into peak performance across all topics in their course leading up to the exam, just like Olympic athletes need to get into peak performance across all their events leading up to the Olympics.

OFFICIAL Practice Exams

In this final review phase, students should also take official practice exams (especially Free Response sections) under timed conditions.

Taking official practice exams is the only way that students will become familiar with the format of the test, especially the grading expectations surrounding Free Response questions, which most students do not fully understand until they have received feedback on several practice exams.

It’s essential to take these official practice exams under timed conditions, just like the real test. By practicing under timed conditions, students become less nervous during the actual exam and develop a good feeling for the pace that they need to move at.

(If a student runs out of time while taking a practice exam, they should continue to work through any remaining questions – but they should not count these questions in their score when grading.)

It’s also essential that these practice exams are OFFICIAL practice exams from the organization that develops the actual exam. (If you use a non-official exam from a different organization, then it may skew too easy or too hard, and the problem wordings/framings/scenarios likely will not match those that are most likely to show up on the actual exam.)

Whenever a student misses a question on an official practice exam, they should work through the solution and then re-attempt the question the next day without referring to the solution. Every time a student learns how to solve a question that stumped them previously, they increase their expected score on the real exam.

(If they miss the question again the next day, then they should continue working through the solution and re-attempting it the following day until they are able to solve it without referring to the solution.)

How Many Practice Exams?

In my experience prepping students for AP Calculus BC, students need to work through at least 4 official practice exams, and ideally 6, to reach their peak performance on the exam.

Even students who end up acing the AP Calculus exam typically take a handful of practice tests to reach the point where they are consistently scoring a 5 out of 5. Many of the students started off scoring 2’s and 3’s just due to pacing issues (time pressure), unfamiliarity with the specifics of free response grading, and general nervousness.

It usually takes about three exams until a student enters the territory of a 5 (meaning that they might get a 5 on the actual exam if they have a good day), and six exams until they consistently score well into 5 territory (meaning that they’re likely to get a 5 even if they have a bad day and underperform a bit).