Learn More About the Haiku Deck Below
The words and images in the deck above are meant to guide students as they prepare for the AP Biology Exam. The words were chosen based on their emphasis in the AP Biology Curriculum Framework and/or their history of appearing on previous exams. This work builds upon the contributions of many great science teachers. Attributions are listed at the end.
Tips for Answering AP Biology Free Response Questions
It may come as no surprise that many students struggle with answering the free response questions on the AP Biology test. One possible reason is that they don’t know the answer. A less obvious reason is that they don’t understand the question. I’ve read lots of answers to lots of FRQs and I’m surprised how often students miss points for not fully addressing the question. So, if you’re a student, I don’t want you to make the same mistake. Please read carefully.
The good news is that a poor understanding of the question is easy to fix. The free response questions on the AP Biology Test are going to tell you exactly what you need to write. Take a look at a portion of a free response question from the 2012 AP Biology test.
Explain TWO unique properties of human embryonic stem cells that distinguish them from other human cell types. Describe a current medical application of human stem cell research.
Let’s break this down.
Q. How many unique properties of human embryonic stem cells do you need to address?
Q. What must you do with these properties?
A. You must explain or describe them
Q. What does distinguish mean?
A. It means, “to show the difference between two or more things,” so you’re describing something a stem cell can do that a non-stem cell can’t.
Q. What must you do with a current medical application of human stem cell research?
A. You must describe it.
It seems so obvious when you break it down like this. The exam writers even bold key verbs and use all-caps to specify quantities. These questions get straight to the point, and so should you’re answers. There are lots of important details in those little sentences. Read them carefully. It really bothers me when students miss points because they glossed over the details. I know they can do better than this and so can you.
On exam day, the College Board is going to give you some last-minute words of advice. But, wouldn’t you rather hear these words now? Listen to what they say. The Free Response Booklet Instructions state the following:
Each answer should be written out in paragraph form; outline form is not acceptable. Do not spend time restating the questions or providing more than the number of examples called for. For instance, if a question calls for two examples, you can earn credit only for the first two examples that you provide. Labeled diagrams may be used to supplement discussion, but unless specifically called for by the question, a diagram alone will not receive credit. Write clearly and legibly. Begin each answer on a new page. Do not skip lines. Cross out any errors you make; crossed-out work will not be scored.
The free response portion of the AP Biology Exam is 90 minutes long. However, you are advised to spend the first 10 minutes reading the questions and planning your responses. Next to each question is an unlined, blank area called a “planning space.” This area is provided for making notes, outlines, diagrams, or whatever else you need to craft your answers. The Free Response Booklet Instructions state the following:
The proctor will announce the beginning and end of the reading period. You are advised to spend the 10-minute period reading all the questions, and to use the unlined pages to sketch graphs, make notes, and plan your answers. Do NOT begin writing on the lined pages until the proctor tells you to do so.
Think about what they’re saying, take these words to heart. Don’t jump in and start writing until you’re sure of what’s being asked of you. It’s easy to miss the subtle nuances of a question prompt. Slow down. Ten minutes will seem like a long time, but what if you waste twenty-two minutes because you didn’t fully digest the question?
There are a total of eight free response questions in section II of the AP Biology Exam, which account for 50% of your total exam score. The table below indicates the specifications for each question.
|Question Number||Question Style||Point Value||ApproximateWeight||Suggested Minutes to Complete|
If you haven’t seen it already, you should become familiar with the AP Biology – Section II Free-Response Booklet. This document gives you a diagram for how the free response section will be laid out.
AP Biology – Section II Free-Response Booklet
Hopefully these tips for answering AP Biology free response questions will reduce your anxiety and boost your confidence. Knowing the layout and specifications of the items and the meaning of commonly used “power words” ahead of time will allow you to focus on what’s most important: communicating what you actually know.
Have questions about the Do’s and Don’ts of filling in the Grid-In question? Check out my post:
How to Answer the Grid-In Response on the AP Biology Test
I hold a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and have been teaching science in public schools since 2004. I have a love for biology and instructional design. My mission is to share with other educators the best of what I know about teaching.
For Section II, you’ll have 80 minutes (after the reading period) to answer eight questions. That’s an average of 10 minutes per question, which gives you an idea of how much work each question may take. You will likely spend more time on each of the two long free-response questions than on each of the six short-response questions. Take the time to make your answers as precise and detailed as possible while managing the allotted time.
Each free-response question will, of course, be about a distinct topic. However, this is not the only way in which these questions differ from one another. Each question will also need a certain kind of answer, depending on the type of question it is. Part of answering each question correctly is understanding what general type of answer is required. There are five important signal words that indicate the rough shape of the answer you should provide:
Each of these words indicates that a specific sort of response is required; none of them mean the same thing. Questions that ask you to describe, discuss, or explain are testing your comprehension of a topic. A description is a detailed verbal picture of something; a description question is generally asking for “just the facts.” This is not the place for opinions or speculation. Instead, you want to create a precise picture of something’s features and qualities. A description question might, for example, ask you to describe the results you would expect from an experiment. A good answer here will provide a rich, detailed account of the results you anticipate.
A question that asks you to discuss a topic is asking you for something broader than a mere description. A discussion is more like a conversation about ideas, and— depending on the topic—this may be an appropriate place to talk about tension between competing theories and views. For example, a discussion question might ask you to discuss which of several theories offers the best explanation for a set of results. A good answer here would go into detail about why one theory does a better job of explaining the results, and it would talk about why the other theories cannot cope with the results as thoroughly.
A question that asks you to explain something is asking you to take something complicated or unclear and present it in simpler terms. For example, an explanation question might ask you to explain why an experiment is likely to produce a certain set of results, or how one might measure a certain sort of experimental result. A simple description of an experimental setup would not be an adequate answer to the latter question. Instead, you would need to describe that setup and talk about why it would be an effective method of measuring the result.
COMPARE VS. CONTRAST QUESTIONS
Questions that ask you to compare or contrast are asking you to analyze a topic in relation to something else. A question about comparison needs an answer that is focused on similarities between the two things. A question that focuses on contrast needs an answer emphasizing differences and distinctions.
Three Points to Remember about the Free-Response Questions
1. Most Questions Are Stuffed with Smaller Questions.
You usually won’t get one broad question like, “Are penguins really happy?” Instead, you’ll get an initial setup followed by questions labeled (a), (b), (c), and so on. Expect to spend a paragraph writing about each lettered question.
2. Writing Smart Things Earns You Points.
For each subquestion on a free-response question, points are given for saying the right thing. The more points you score, the better off you are on that question. Going into the details about how points are scored would make your head spin, but in general, the AP Biology people have a rubric, which acts as a blueprint for what a good answer should look like. Every subsection of a question has
two to five key ideas attached to it. If you write about one of those ideas, you earn yourself a point. There’s a limit to how many points you can earn on a single subquestion, and there are other strange regulations, but it boils down to this: Writing smart things about each question will earn you points toward that question.
So don’t be terse or in a hurry. You have about 10 minutes to answer each free- response question. Use the time to be as precise as you can be for each subquestion. Part of being precise is presenting your answer in complete sentences. Do not simply make lists or outlines. Sometimes doing well on one subquestion will earn you enough points to cover up for another subquestion you’re not as strong on. When all the points are tallied for that free-response question, you come out strong on total points, even though you didn’t ace every single subquestion.
3. Mimic the Data Questions.
Data often describe an experiment and provide a graph or table to present the information in visual form. On at least one free-response question, you will be asked about an experiment in some form or another. To score points on this question, you must describe the experiment well and perhaps present the information in visual form.
So, look over the sample Data Questions you see in this book and on the actual test, because you can use knowledge of this format when tackling the free-response questions. In a way, this is just another aspect of the good science idea. The AP Biology test wants to show you what good science looks like on the Data Questions. You can then use that information when crafting your free-response answers.
Beyond these points, there’s a bit of a risk in the free-response section because there are only eight questions. If you get a question on a subject you’re weak in, things might look grim. Still, take heart. Quite often, you’ll earn some points on every question because there will be some subquestions or segments that you are familiar with.
Remember, the goal is not perfection. If you can ace four of the questions and slug your way to partial credit on the other four, you will put yourself in a position to get a good score on the entire test. That’s the Big Picture, so don’t lose sight of it just because you don’t know the answer to one subquestion.
Don’t forget—you only receive points for relevant correct information; you receive no points for incorrect information or for restating the question, which also eats up valuable time!
10 Ways to Maximize Your FRQ Score
- Only answer the number of subsections the long free-response questions call for. For example, if the question has four sections (a, b, c, and d) and says to choose three parts, then choose only three parts.
- There are almost always easy points that you can earn. State the obvious and provide a brief but accurate explanation for it.
- In many instances, you can earn points by defining relevant terms. (Example: Writing osmosis would not get you a point, but mentioning “movement of water down a gradient across a semipermeable membrane” would likely get the point).
- While grammar and spelling are not assessed on the free-response portion, correct spellings of words and legible sentences will increase your chances of earning points.
- You do not have to answer free-response questions in the order in which they appear on the exam. It’s a good strategy to answer the questions you are most comfortable with first, and then answer the more difficult ones.
- The length of your response does not determine your score—a one-page written response containing accurate, succinct, yet detailed information can score the maximum amount of points, while other essays spanning three to four pages of vague, inaccurate materials may not earn any.
- Be careful that you do not over-explain a concept. Where the initial explanation gets you points, contradictions cause points to be taken away.
- Keep personal opinions out of free responses. Base your response on factual researched knowledge.
- Relax and do your best. You know more than you think!
Be sure to use all the strategies discussed in this chapter when taking the practice exams. Trying out the strategies there will get you comfortable with them, and you should be able to put them to good use on the real exam.