Because Newton Didn't Use a Calculator: Why you shouldn't fear the AP Calculus Exam

Many students have great fear about AP exams: it’s an “AP Exam,” it’s the College Board, I won’t get credit for the course if I don’t do well.  But there is no reason to fear any of these tests if you’re well prepared, and the AP calculus exams are no exception.

There are two AP Calculus exams: AB and BC.  Both are scored on a scale of 1 through 5, with 5 as the highest score.  A score of 4 or 5 will, generally, give you college credit for your course.  For the AB test you would receive one semester of college calculus credit, and for the BC test, two semesters’ credit.  The BC exam includes an “AB subscore,” so that you can actually get credit for the AB part of the BC course if you don’t score well enough on the overall BC test for BC credit.  For example, you might get a 3 on the overall BC test, but score a 4 or a 5 on the AB parts.  You would receive one semester’s college credit for your work.

Both AP exams have the same format with 45 multiples choice questions and six “free-response” problems to solve.  First, there are 28 multiple choice questions for which you have 55 minutes, and for which you may NOT use a calculator.  What?  You can’t use a calculator?  Yep, and this is why your calculus teachers are training you to not use one! Besides, Sir Isaac Newton didn’t have one when he invented calculus, so there really isn’t much need for it, other than to do calculations for final answers to three decimal places, which is not a requirement for non-calculator problems.  After these questions, you have a second part of 17 multiple choice questions for which you have 50 minutes.  Now, think about this.  You have about the same amount of time for the calculator problems as you have for the non-calculator problems, but you have many fewer problems to do.  Therefore, expect the calculator problems to be a little harder, more involved, and have more steps necessary for a final answer.  But you can do them!  Unfortunately, the College Board does not release the multiple choice questions and answers, so you have to find a source of practice problems that you can do.

There are a few topics that are likely to appear exclusively on multiple choice questions, because they are straightforward questions that lead to a simple answer, and can’t have multiple steps.  Topics for this include simple differentiation, evaluation of limits, evaluation of integrals like arctangent and arcsine, partial fractions, integration by parts and u-substitution.

After the multiple choice sections, you get to the “Free-Response Questions.”  There are six problems, for which you have a total of 1 1/2 hours, but these problems are separated – you guessed it – by whether, or not, you’re allowed to use a calculator.  You may use a calculator on the first two problems only, and you have 30 minutes for those.  You then put away your calculator and do the remaining four problems, for which you have an hour.  You can work on the first two problems during that final hour, too, but you may not use your calculator.

Most of the free response questions have four or five parts, and you receive points for each part that you can do, up to a total of nine points per problem.  Some of the parts require you to perform a calculation to come up with an answer, but some involve merely setting up an integral that would be way too complicated to evaluate, or ask you to interpret a result, e.g. “The particle is moving to the left at 5 units per second, while decelerating.”  The neat thing about the free response questions is that the College Board releases them, every year, together with the answers and the scoring rubric, so you can see how the parts are weighted.  Remember, there are just so many different variations of each problem type, so practicing many years’ worth of problems will mean that you will know just about any variant that may come your way, and you will be able to more successfully answer a similar question on your upcoming exam.

As for AP Calculus exam scoring, you don’t need anything close to a perfect score for a 4 or a 5.  In recent years, a raw score of about 75% has earned a 5, and a score of about 60% has earned a 4.  There really is nothing to fear about the AP Calculus exams and, with a little practice, you can do very well and be on your way to earning college credits.

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