AP Exams 2020: How to prepare for an open note test

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This year’s AP exams are open book and open note, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to prepare. In fact, open note exams are often harder than traditional exams because open note exams place a greater emphasis on the analysis and application of concepts rather than the recollection of facts. Given that the exams still have a time limit, a key aspect of your preparation should focus on maximizing the time you are able to answer questions rather than to access information. Therefore, a well-prepared student not only possesses the analytical skills necessary to succeed, but has a strong organization strategy as well.  Here are some tips for organizing your notes and utilizing them on test day:

  • Less is more. You will almost certainly run out of time if you rely too heavily on your sources and notes for every answer. In addition, if you have too many resources or notes that are too wordy, you run the risk of devoting too much time to skimming or re-reading while trying to access information. The time to re-learn information from the course is not during the test. Your notes should be no longer than necessary and should primarily be used to summarize key definitions and concepts wherever possible.
  • Create a table of contents. The goal of organizing and preparing your notes is to decrease the amount of time you will need to find information and thus maximize the amount of time you will have to answer questions. Start by numbering the pages of your notes. Then, create a table of contents, so you can quickly find key information on test day.
  • Tag useful chapters or pages. As you are reviewing your resources, mark useful chapters or pages with a sticky note or other type of page marker. Make sure to label your tags for easier and more efficient use on test day.
  • Prepare a cheat sheet. Make a one-page list of the most important information (formulas, key definitions and concepts, etc.) that are likely to come up on the test. If you anticipate that a concept or formula will appear multiple times, it should go on your cheat sheet.
  • Compare with a friend. Study and compare notes with your friends to further master key concepts. But remember not to borrow or use your friend’s notes during the test - this could easily get you into plagiarism territory, which is unacceptable in general and detectable by the College Board.
  • Practice. After you make your open notes, practice answering historic FRQs (or whatever your exam will consist of) using only your notes, in the amount of time listed on the College Board website. Aim to complete at least 4 timed practice FRQs before your test day. After each round, jot down what went well and what didn’t, and make any needed changes to your open notes based on what you learned. If you have a tutor, ask them to grade your answers and give you feedback.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are generalized plans. If you have specific questions or want a personalized plan, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Rose Paik

About Rose Paik

Rose masterminds the development and design of ArborBridge’s modern, data-driven digital curriculum and learning platforms. After attending the University of Washington Foster School of Business, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where her graduate work focused on employing digital-age learning to enhance standardized test preparation instruction and create personalized learning experiences for every student. With over a decade of tutoring experience, Rose also remains one of the highest-performing tutors in ArborBridge’s history.

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