The AP Calculus AB Exam: Your Guide to Success!

11/03/202428 minute read
The AP Calculus AB Exam: Your Guide to Success!

This expert guide to the AP Calculus AB Exam is designed to help you succeed on testing day. You’ll quickly find essential information about the AP Calculus AB Exam, including what’s on the exam, what’s weighted most, how long the exam takes, and what are the best ways to study and prepare.

The AP Calculus AB Exam: A Quick Overview

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are rigorous, college-level courses, with corresponding assessments. The courses are ones you'll find offered in many US high schools. Curricula and exams are governed by the College Board.

Doing well on AP assessments can translate to college credit in US and Canadian universities, and perhaps more importantly, can significantly elevate your university application profile, constituting a distinct marker of your ability to master rigorous academic content in core subject areas.

AP Calculus AB vs BC

AP Calculus is offered in two different course formats: AB and BC. The main difference between the two is that BC covers more content.

AB Calculus is equivalent to about one semester (or a bit more) of math concepts, while BC Calculus is designed to be the equivalent of a full year of calculus. Which one you take is largely a question of personal choice and circumstances...

For example, depending on your level of comfort with math, and/or out of consideration for other courses and commitments you have on your plate, it may simply make more sense to take the less ambitious AB course for one semester of college credit.

Alternately, of course, you may find taking the more comprehensive BC course a better fit, allowing you a chance to earn two semesters of college credit.

The AP Calculus AB Exam corresponds to material covered in AP Calculus AB curriculum only, which is devoted to the study of differential and integral calculus.

The course content for this exam is broken down into

  • 3 Big Ideas
  • 8 primary subtopics

The exam takes 3 hours and 15 minutes, not including breaks and administration time.

Are Calculators Allowed?

Yes. Students sitting for the exam are expected to bring a graphing calculator. The calculator is required for two sub-sections of the exam but not allowed on the alternate sub-sections.

Key Elements:

  • 45 Multiple Choice Questions (MSQ), counting for 50% of the total score
  • 6 Free Response Questions (FRQ), counting for the remaining 50% of the total score

With this overview in mind, let's delve into the core content covered on the exam and other essential information that will set you up for success when it's time to take your AP exam.

What's Covered on the AP Calculus AB Exam?

The knowledge and skills tested on the AP Calculus AB Exam revolve around 3 Big Ideas that capture the major themes guiding AP Calculus AB curriculum, what students learn when enrolled in the AP Calculus AB Course in high school.

The 3 Big Ideas for AP Calculus AB
Understand change by using derivatives to describe rates of change of one variable with respect to anotherUnderstand how to use calculus to model real-world behaviorUse calculus to analyze the behaviors of functions by relating limits to differentiation, integration, and infinite series
Understand change by using definite integrals to describe the net change in one variable over an interval of anotherUnderstand how to discover and understand important ideas, definitions, formulas, and theorems in calculusUse calculus to analyze the behaviors of functions by relating each of these concepts to the others

Calculus is broadly defined as the study of mathematical formulas used to model and calculate change, such as the physical motion of an object, including rates of deceleration or acceleration.

As such, calculus concepts can be understood not only theoretically, but offer many practical and essential applications you can use to stand out in STEM fields, such as engineering, physics, and chemistry.

With a high enough score on your AP test, you'll be able to move ahead faster in college in majors like these.

And, and even if you don't score well on an AP exam, taking any AP course is likely to be rewarding: helping you prep for success in college and elevating your skills and knowledge. If AP Calculus AB is not offered at your high school, find out if you're eligible to take AP Calculus AB and other AP courses through our top-rated Crimson Global Academy (CGA).

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The 8 Primary Units Covered in AP Calculus AB

To prepare students for the AP Calculus AB Exam, the AP Board breaks the core content into 8 Units, providing a comprehensive aerial view of AP Calculus AB content.

For each content area, we've also listed the corresponding exam weighting, based on College Board exam guidelines.

Curriculum Units and Exam Weighting: Multiple Choice Section
AP Calculus AB UnitsAP Calculus AB Exam Weighting
Unit 1: Limits and Continuity10–12%
Unit 2: Differentiation: Definition and Basic Derivative Rules10–12%
Unit 3: Differentiation: Composite, Implicit, and Inverse Functions9–13%
Unit 4: Contextual Applications of Differentiation10–15%
Unit 5: Applying Derivatives to Analyze Functions15–18%
Unit 6: Integration and Accumulation of Change17–20%
Unit 7: Differential Equations6–12%
Unit 8: Applications of Integration10–15%
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What’s the Format of the AP Calculus AP Exam?

The AP Calculus AB Exam consists one Multiple-Choice Section (MCQ), and one Free-response Section (FRQ).

Each of these sections is divided into two parts also, based on whether or not using a calculator is allowed.

Multiple-Choice Section

  • Consists of 2 Parts
  • 45 questions total
  • 1 hour 45 minutes total
  • Worth 50% of your total score
  • Calculator only allowed on the second part
SectionNumber of QuestionsDurationCalculator?
Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQ) — Part A3060 MinutesNo Calculator Allowed
Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQ) — Part B1545 MinutesGraphing Calculator Required

Topics Covered in the MCQ Section

  • FUNCTIONS: Algebraic, Exponential, Logarithmic, Trigonometric, General
  • REPRESENTATIONS: Analytical, Graphical, Tabular, Verbal

Free-Response Section

  • Six questions total
  • 90 minutes total
  • Worth 50% of your total score
SectionNumber of QuestionsDurationCalculator?
Free-Response Section (FRQ) — Part A230 MinutesGraphing Calculator Required
Free-Response Section (FRQ) — Part B460 MinutesNo Calculator Allowed

Topics Covered in the FRQ Section

  • Various types of functions and function representations
  • A roughly equal mix of procedural and conceptual tasks
  • At least 2 questions incorporating a real-world context, application, or scenario
  • No calculator is allowed on the second part
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How Much Time Does the AP Calculus AB Exam Take?

The AP Calculus AB Exam takes 3 hours and 15 minutes.

  • The MCQ Section (parts A & B included) takes 1 hour and 45 minutes total.
  • The FRQ Section (parts A & B included) takes 90 minutes total.

Be prepared to spend more time sitting for the exam than the exam takes. You need to factor in time for scheduled administration and scheduled breaks. (Don’t forget to bring water and a snack!)

How is the AP Calculus AB Exam Scored?

MCQ Section

The AP Calculus AB Exam is scored based on the weight assigned to different mathematical concepts.

The tables below show you exactly how the College Board weights each concept or 'mathematical practice.'

Exam Weighting for the Multiple-Choice Section of the AP Exam:

Mathematical Practices 1, 2, and 3 are assessed in the multiple-choice section and weighted as shown below (Practice 4 is not assessed).

How the MCQ Section Is Scored
Mathematical Practices Tested on the AP Calculus AB ExamThe Corresponding Scoring Weight (AP Calculus AB)
Practice 1: Implementing Mathematical Processes53–66%
Practice 2: Connecting Representations18–28%
Practice 3: Justification11–18%

Exam Weighting for the Free-Response Questions Section of the AP Exam:

All four Mathematical Practices are assessed in in the multiple-choice section and weighted as shown below.

How the FRQ Section Is Scored
Mathematical Practices Tested on the AP Calculus AB ExamThe Corresponding Scoring Weight (AP Calculus AB)
Practice 1: Implementing Mathematical Processes53–66%
Practice 2: Connecting Representations18–28%
Practice 3: Justification11–18%
Practice 4: Communication and Notation13–24%

Remember: The total number of points you score for each section contributes to 50% of your total score — so both sections are equally important!

Overall AP Calculus AB Exam Scores

Once all parts of your exam are assessed and scored, you'll be assigned the corresponding numeric point value or 'score' on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Each numeric score corresponds to a qualification rating, as shown in the table below.

AP Statistics Exam ScoreQualificationClosest Equivalent College Grade
5Extremely well qualifiedA+ or A
4Very well qualifiedA-, B+, or B
3QualifiedB-, C+, or C
2Possibly qualified-
1No recommendation-

To increase your chances of getting credit at a top university, you’ll need a score of 4 or 5 - that’s the score most schools accept to grant college credit.

Why AP Exams Matter More Than Ever

What’s a Good Score for the AP Calculus AB Exam?

Generally, many students hope to score either a 4 or 5, in order to demonstrate a qualification higher than ‘qualified.’

For you personally, a good score for AP Calculus AB will likely depend to some degree on your personal circumstances and goals.

That said, since a score of ‘3’ or higher means you demonstrated a basic or higher level of understanding and skill, you should definitely consider a score of '3' as a good reference point in deciding where to aim!

Also, most people agree that some AP subjects are more challenging than others, so you may want to consider the real percentages of students who typically score at each level on the relevant exam.

For instance, the chart below shows you the percentage of students who scored at each level on the AP Calculus AB Exam in 2023.

2023 Score Distributions: AP Calculus AB Exam
AP Calculus AB Exam22.4%16.2%19.4%21.7%20.3%

How to Prepare for the Exam: Expert Tips

1. Study Past Questions

Practice makes perfect, and this definitely applies to getting good grades on the AP Calculus AB Exam.

Digging into past AP Calculus AB exam questions for review and practice is a good way to get a feel for the format, question types, and the level of difficulty you can expect. It's an exercise that will not only help you identify your weak spots, but also boosts your confidence as you become more familiar with the exam's nuances.

2. Review the Chief Reader Report

Review the Chief Reader Report for AP Calculus AB exams provided by the College Board. This report is your secret weapon for understanding what the examiners are looking for.

The report also provides quicks insights into common mistakes made by students in previous years, helping you avoid similar pitfalls and fine-tune your strategies for success.

3. Understand Common Tasks Verbs Used on the Exam

Understanding specific task verbs and corresponding definitions also sets you up for success, with insights into how to properly interpret test items.

Fortunately, the College Board provides lists like these specific to each test and subject. You'll find the AP Calc AB Task Verbs below for your convenience.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this! As you prepare for the exam you can become more familiar with these verbs and tasks by, applying the definitions below when reviewing past questions or taking practice tests.

ApproximateUse rounded decimal values or other estimates in calculations, which require writing an expression to show work.
Calculate/Write an expressionWrite an appropriate expression or equation to answer a question. Unless otherwise directed, calculations also require evaluating an expression or solving an equation, but the expression or equation must also be presented to show work. “Calculate” tasks might also be formulated as “How many?” or “What is the value?”
DetermineApply an appropriate definition, theorem, or test to identify values, intervals, or solutions whose existence or uniqueness can be established. “Determine” tasks may also be phrased as “Find.”
EstimateUse models or representations to find approximate values for functions.
EvaluateApply mathematical processes, including the use of appropriate rounding procedures, to find the value of an expression at a given point or over a given interval.
ExplainUse appropriate definitions or theorems to provide reasons or rationales for solutions and conclusions. “Explain” tasks may also be phrased as “Give a reason for...”
Identify/Indicate Indicate or provide information about a specified topic, without elaboration or explanation.
InterpretDescribe the connection between a mathematical expression or solution and its meaning within the realistic context of a problem, often including consideration of units.
JustifyIdentify a logical sequence of mathematical definitions, theorems, or tests to support an argument or conclusion, explain why these apply, and then apply them.
RepresentUse appropriate graphs, symbols, words, and/or tables of numerical values to describe mathematical concepts, characteristics, and/ or relationships.
VerifyConfirm that the conditions of a mathematical definition, theorem, or test are met in order to explain why it applies in a given situation. Alternately, confirm that solutions are accurate and appropriate.

4. Be a Graphing Calculator Master!

It's important to remember that preparing for the AP Calculus AB Exam also includes being sure you're confident using a suitable calculator.

Students sitting for the AP Statistics Exam are expected to bring a graphing calculator.

Be sure you know how to perform tests on your calculator, interpret data, and use graphing functionalities.

Getting practice using your calculator is one important way to prepare, since calculator mastery will help you answer questions much more quickly, especially the MCQs.

Try to use the same calculator when taking practice tests, so you're already familiar at using it for this purpose.

Learn which graphing calculators are approved for use by the College Board for this exam.

5. Work with a Tutor

Tutors are typically the most results-oriented method for AP test preparation. A highly qualified tutor can provide personalized assistance, offer targeted feedback, and help you navigate challenging topics. It's like having a dedicated coach in your corner, ensuring you're fully prepared for whatever the exam throws at you.

If you’re looking for the perfect score, the support of a strong tutor matched to your learning style is crucial.

Thanks to our network of tutors, many with Ivy League backgrounds, we provide an easy way to find expert tutors ready to help out.

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Tips For the Exam Day

1. Get a Good Night’s Rest

Let's start with the foundation — a good night's sleep. This isn't just a casual suggestion; it's a game-changer.

Your brain needs to be firing on all cylinders, and a well-rested you is more likely to tackle those AP physics challenges effectively.

Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep before exam day. Create a bedtime routine to wind down, avoid caffeine late in the day, and resist the urge to pull an all-nighter — it’s never worth it.

2. Deep Breaths and Mindfulness

As you enter the exam room, find your zen zone. Take a few deep breaths — in through the nose, out through the mouth. This isn't a cliche; deep breathing calms your nervous system, reducing anxiety.

Remind yourself that you've prepared for the AP Calculus AB Exam thoroughly. Read each question carefully, underlining key terms. This helps organize your thoughts and signals to your brain that you've got this under control.

3. Manage Your Time

Time management is your invisible companion in this AP test-taking adventure. Mastering time management and monitoring your time carefully during the exam is crucial — here’s how to do it:

  • Don't get stuck: If a question feels like quicksand, don't let it pull you under. Mark it, skip it, and revisit it later.
  • Be efficient: Use your mastery of the task verbs (listed above) and apply this as you're reading and interpreting exam questions. Don't let your mind wander: identify key terms, underline essential information, and focus on what's being asked.

4. Show Your Work

The College Board recommends you show your work — all the steps you took to reach your solutions on questions involving calculations. And remember, they want you to do this even when...

  • a calculator is allowed and you're using one
  • a question doesn't explicitly tell you to do so

Remember to write your work in standard notation (not calculator syntax).

Learn more about showing your work and check out additional testing day reminders and tips here.

5. Pack Smart

When packing your exam essentials, think like an organized physicist.

As mentioned above, you’ll need the right calculator, but you’ll need to pack a few other things too:

  • ID
  • Sharpened Pencils
  • Erasers
  • Water Bottle
  • Your laptop (when required for online/digital test formats)

Maybe a lucky charm too??... If it brings you comfort, toss it in!

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