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Format of the New AP Biology Exam 2021

Following the global pandemic, the AP exam format has been updated to meet the virtual education needs and challenges. If you are planning to review for your AP Biology exam 2021, this guide will help you get started and understand the new exam format and curriculum coverage.

Confused about where to begin? We suggest you start by understanding the format of the new Advanced Placement Biology Exam. You do not want to find that out on the day of the actual exam, do you?

Knowing what to expect on test day is the key to avoid panicking during your exam. The AP Biology Exam is complex, and reviewing for it may seem daunting initially. But once you make yourself familiar with the format, structure, and contents of the exam, you will find yourself enjoying the learning process!

The Format

The AP Biology Exam consists of 2 sections:

  • Section 1: Multiple Choice

  • Section 2: Free Response

Section 1

The first section contains 60 questions (as opposed to 69 questions in the previous years). These are of 2 types:

  • Discrete questions

These are individual questions.

  • Questions in sets

Sets contain 4-5 questions per set.

Important note: Grid-in questions are no longer included in the AP Biology exam.

Section 2

Section 2 has six questions (as opposed to 8 questions in the previous years). There are two types of questions:

  • Long questions

Two long questions focus on your skill to interpret and evaluate experimental results (one requires graphing)

  • Short-answer questions

There are four types of short-answer questions, as follows:

  • Scientific Investigation

  • Conceptual Analysis

  • Analysis of Model or Visual Representation

  • Analysis of Data


Each section carries 50% weightage in the exam's total.

In section 2, each long question carries 8-10 points each, while each short answer question has 4 points.

Tip: There is no penalty or negative marking for wrong answers, so feel free to guess the answer if you are not sure what the correct answer would be.


Total exam time is 3 hours, while the time allotted for each section is 1 hour and 30 minutes. Make sure to approach each question depending on its type, weightage, and finally, the level of difficulty. You shouldn't lose points because you wasted your time on something straightforward or carrying low weightage in the total.

What topics will the AP Biology exam 2021 cover?

The AP Biology exam has been well-known for its content-heavy curriculum that focused a lot on memorization. However, recent changes to the exam have revealed a shift in this focus to a more concept-based and analytical assessment.

This means that the new questions on the AP Biology exam will test your skills to reason, interpret, evaluate, and inquire scientific questions. Instead of remembering tiny details and tidbits of the syllabus, you will need to work on the core concepts in each topic to help you master each question on the test automatically.

On the bright side, you will not have to commit everything to memory, but at the same time, you need to develop a complex skillset to answer the questions correctly. As a whole, this approach is better not only to score well on the exam but also to help you out throughout your university courses.


As stated in the College Board's course description, the Advanced Placement Biology exam covers four big ideas – 4 major topic areas that further classify smaller topics. These are described in detail below.

Big Idea 1: Evolution

The central concept that drives this Big Idea is the process of evolution responsible for both the diversity and the unity of life.

You need to have clear concepts in the following subtopics to master this Big Idea fully:

  • Natural selection

  • Hardy-Weinberg

  • Biodiversity and categorization of organisms

Big Idea 2: Energetics

This Big Idea revolves around the concept that biological systems employ energy and molecules to grow, reproduce, maintain a homeostatic environment, and thrive.

The subtopics you will need to master for this Big Idea are as follows:

  • Molecular biology

  • Biological systems and reactions

  • Photosynthesis

  • Cellular respiration

  • Cell structure

  • Cell membrane properties (diffusion and osmosis, proteins)

  • Thermodynamics/homeostasis

  • Immune response

Big Idea 3: Information Storage and Transmission

The central concept for this Big Idea is that the various processes that govern life use information that is stored, retrieved, and responded to by living systems.

To master this section, you need to understand the following topics:

  • Genes and gene mutations


  • Cell cycle (mitosis, meiosis) and cell communication

  • Mendel and laws of inheritance

  • Viruses

  • Endocrine system

  • Nervous system

Big Idea 4: Systems Interaction

This Big Idea's central concept is that systems interact with one another and exhibit complex properties. The main subtopics you will need to learn are:

  • Enzymes

  • Plant structure and systems

  • Circulatory system

  • Digestive system

  • Musculoskeletal system

  • Ecological principles


To fully understand your topics, you need to experiment with concepts in labs. The topics that specifically require lab work to understand the principles behind scientific experiments include:

  • Artificial Selection

  • Modeling Evolution

  • Comparing DNA Sequences

  • Diffusion and Osmosis

  • Photosynthesis

  • Cellular Respiration

  • Mitosis and Meiosis

  • Bacterial Transformation

  • Restriction Enzyme Analysis of DNA

  • Energy Dynamics

  • Transpiration

  • Animal Behavior

  • Enzyme Catalysis

How to Review

Finally, you'd need to review your exam content very strategically so that its volume does not overwhelm you and you can finish everything in time.

Time management is one of the critical factors to ensure success. You need to decide how much time you will need per question and per type of question. With this, you can calculate how many questions should be done in how much time.

Make sure you leave out some extra time to go back to tricky questions and adequately fill in the answers.

Secondly, do not forget the importance of labs. Experimental design and evaluation of data become clear only when you actually do it. With experience from labs, you will master the art of experiments and solve the questions very quickly.

Thirdly, review appropriate material that can be found on the College Board and other resources online. Thoroughly go through the AP Biology textbook and practice material. Consult your teachers to devise a study set for you and stick to it. For personalized study materials and learning, check out Excel at Science's private tutoring and small-group classes for AP Biology.

Lastly, remember that memorization will be insufficient. This complex exam compels you to think, therefore, exercise your brain to understand concepts rather than memorize them.

Final Thoughts

The new AP Biology exam format has some key structural changes highlighted above. Excel at Science is one of the best online resources that can help you adapt to these changes and prepare for the exam.

With this guide to the AP Biology exam, you will be ready to score high on your exam and that too with smart work!



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