How to Earn an A in Your AP® Course

by Heather Garcia

Being an AP® student can be intimidating, impressive, and exhausting. As a high school student, you are taking a course that gives you high school credit, is based on a rigorous college-level curriculum, and culminates in a high-stakes exam at the end of the school year that could make you eligible for college credit. That isn’t an easy feat for most high school students.

There are, however, some tips and strategies to help get you closer to earning an A in your AP® course and ultimately, closer to earning a 3 or higher on your AP® Exam.

  • Understand the structure of the test you will take at the end of the year. If you want to know what skills your teacher will expect you to master by the end of the year, you should take a look at a sample AP® Exam. These can be found on the College Board website, and they will give you an advantage when it comes time to take practice tests in class—you will already know the format of the exam and what to expect.
  • Identify any pitfalls that may get in your way. Once you can anticipate where your pitfalls may lie, it can be easier to anticipate them and set up plans to stop them from becoming roadblocks to your success. Look at each of the questions below and answer them. Determine where your weaknesses may lie:

  • Stay organized. If your backpack has papers shoved in it from the first week of school, and it is November, chances are you might be a bit disorganized. Being a successful AP® student requires a level of organization that not all students inherently possess. You will need binders with dividers and you will need a tidy backpack or desk space if you are working from home. None of that happens magically. Once a week, or every few days, you will need to make a conscious effort to tidy your papers (or your electronic folders), put papers into the binders where they belong, clean out your bag, and allow yourself a fresh start.
  • Use a planner. Whether your planner is electronic or on paper, using it well is essential for success as an AP® student. You will need to ensure that you record deadlines (I put mine in red), and you will need to make certain that you pace out larger tasks and create mini-due dates. Having a planner doesn’t serve you well unless you get into the habit of using it every morning before school to see what to expect for the day, update it with each class to make sure you don’t forget anything, and check it at night to make sure you have completed all of the tasks that need to be completed for the day. Creating a planner habit can feel strange at first, but once you have tried it for at least a month it starts to feel more natural and, ultimately, more helpful.
  • Stay on top of the work. While you have your planner out, take larger reading assignments and projects and pace them out. If you have a four hundred page book that needs to be read, break it into smaller, more manageable goals, and put those into your planner. Put post-it tabs in the book to mark where you should be at the end of each day. Create small incentives for yourself after you reach a mini-goal. Without these small-goals, many students tend to procrastinate, and then try to cram all the reading in towards the end of the due date, and the book is either not read, or not read well. The same is true of projects. Break those larger projects into small, manageable chunks—and then stick to the pacing.
  • Practice the multiple-choice section. The multiple-choice section of an AP® Exam can be a challenge, so it is a great strategy to practice these on your own. The more exposure you have to multiple-choice questions, the more comfortable you will be with the pacing and the structure of the exam, and the better you will score on the AP® Exam at the end of the year (and the practice your teacher assigns in class).
  • Eliminate distractions. Seriously, put away your phone! When you are focusing on schoolwork (or are supposed to be), put your phone on airplane mode. Notifications are distracting even if you don’t immediately check them, and whether you are taking an AP® class at home or in person, it is important to dedicate your full attention to your course. You should also eliminate the television in the background when you are focusing on homework or virtual coursework.
  • Avoid negative self-talk. Katie Upton, fellow AP® teacher and Marco Learning AP® English Language expert, says “If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself” and that is the wisest advice I can imagine. Beating yourself up is not the way to increase your ability to grasp a course or a concept. AP® curriculum is challenging, and if you convince yourself you can’t do it, then guess what, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You won’t be able to do it. Avoid negative self-talk and change the narrative. Convince yourself that with enough effort you CAN learn the material, and you will. AP® coursework isn’t impossible, but it is a challenge. Ensure you mentally prepare yourself for that challenge.
  • Ask questions. Make sure you ask your teacher for clarification if a concept is troubling you or you are struggling to master a skill. Never in my years of teaching have I been annoyed by a student asking a question who genuinely wanted to learn. If you are asking questions about information that is already in the syllabus (or written on the board), that is annoying. But, if you are asking clarification on the difference between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, then, by all means, ask away. Your teachers can’t help you if they don’t know you are struggling, and we all want to help.
  • Make it a team effort. Find a small group of students to take the AP® journey with you, and lean on each other for study groups and discussions. There is power in a group of students who have similar goals working together to accomplish a task (even if that together-ness is in a virtual form).
  • Take care of yourself. Sleep regular hours. I have heard of AP® kids taking bizarre after school naps, waking up for dinner, staying up until three in the morning to do homework, and then sleeping for another couple of hours before school. Stop the madness! Our bodies are designed to sleep for seven to ten hours EACH NIGHT! There is no badge of honor to win when students compete to see who got the least amount of sleep the night before. If you use your time wisely and don’t waste precious minutes (or hours) plugged into social media, the work of most AP® courses can be completed before bed—at a normal bedtime. Allow your body a chance to recover each night so that you are fresh and ready to focus the next day.
  • Sign up for extra help. There are all sorts of free resources available for AP®. The College Board is releasing videos to AP® Classroom every day in the 2020-2021 school year to help kids in every AP® subject. Marco Learning has free events ALL the time that help you learn more about AP® content. You can also find helpful videos on the Marco Learning YouTube channel. No matter where you turn for help, it is important that you seek out reputable and trusted sources and dedicate the time to practicing and learning.

Heather GarciaHeather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP® English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.