Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How Not to Get a Two on AP Exams

I had a student the other day beg me for tips on, "How Not to Get a Two on My AP Exam...Because That's Totally Humiliating."

I had to laugh, first because I completely understood, but also because I know that the AP exam scores quite literally get pinned to the wall in the faculty lounge.

I admire my student's desire to do well on her AP English exam. The perfectionist in me can absolutely relate...while the young-at-heart, "I'd rather read a book...and you should probably just read more books, too!" portion of my personality thinks there are better ways to honestly, deeply increase one's knowledge and prepare oneself for success in life than by test prep and cramming.

But because that's where the demand is, and that's what I do (I have written portions of these and other standardized exams, and I've consulted on two very nice AP test prep books, so I probably know the ins and outs better than many other people), I will oblige here.

When it comes to standardized exam advice, it must be remembered that I, like any other teacher, can only do my best. There are no guarantees that my advice will prevent the dreaded AP score of two.

Also, remember: your score is actually not your teacher's responsibility; it is yours. It is not fair to judge any teacher on one morning of test-taking. She can't take the exam for you; the students are filling in the bubbles and their score is to their own credit (or not).

Important to note is the sad fact that a certain portion of a school's population will ALWAYS get twos. There is--I kid you not--a quota for twos, and thus, twos must be doled out by the test-graders with some regularity.

This does not make the practice right (what if all the exams are really brilliantly completed from a particular school? Well, tough. Some kids are still getting twos, because life wouldn't make sense if everyone got a good grade, now would it? It might seem that something was corrupt or amiss), but it is just how it is.

If you don't want a two, my primary advice is: ANSWER THE ESSAY PROMPTS COMPLETELY AND EXACTLY (in fact, remember this: AP means Answer the Prompt).

There are prompts for all essays. Do not ignore any portion of them. Do precisely what they, in each case, say. 

If, for example, the prompt refers to a Civil War-era political speech and asks you to analyze its rhetorical strategies, but instead you pump out some Tea Party platitudes in response and never talk about the use of language (only content, because you feel comfortable doing this and you're crammed full of platitudes, anyway), you are going down--hard--and not because of what you wrote.

You are going down because you ignored the assignment...which, to the minds of the graders, means that you are probably an idiot.

Remember, your job here is to give them what they want. I am as much of a rebel as anyone is, but AP exams are not the place to be rebellious. Give the people what they want, and what they want is what they told you they want.

  • If they want you to discuss nonfiction, then do not discuss a novel. You will fail.
  • If they ask you to discuss the use of ONE SYMBOL in a work of literature, do not discuss seven symbols. More is not better here. Doing more than they ask for means you didn't do what they asked you, and--perhaps counter-intuitively, to your mind--you will fail.
  • If they are asking you to respond to an excerpt of ancient Egyptian literature, don't discuss "The Shack." Actually, do not ever discuss "The Shack" on an AP exam, but that's a post for another day.
  • Do not skip any essays (doh!). You can't get a good score with an incomplete exam.
  • Make sure you study literary terminology that I believe (from experience) is mostly ignored in schools. You will need this high-level vocabulary in order to make sense of the quite difficult multiple choice questions.

Remember, you have three essays on AP English exams (lit and language). Your essay scores will be averaged, but nearly half of your ultimate grade comes from the m/c section. Do not ignore it. Doing well here can seriously make all the difference in your score.

Most AP exam takers get a solid half of these questions wrong, so if you can beat that, you are already starting to shimmer a little bit...get it? You are nearly golden. (Of course, the essays DO count, but there are three of them, so you could potentially zone out a tad on one and still get by. That said, I only shoot for a 5, because there's no point in shooting for lower. So, I am a bit of a hardass, and I think you should try your best on everything).

I have a book to edit, so I can't say much more right now. See my posting in May of last year ("Day of Reckoning") for more specific test-taking and AP exam essay-writing tips.

Good luck!