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Ultimate Study Guide - Evolution in AP Biology

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Evolution is one of the ‘Big Ideas’ in the AP Biology curriculum. What topics fall under this unit? Which concepts are the most commonly tested on the real AP exam? Knowing these will help you focus on exactly what the study in the Evolution unit, and that is what we will talk go over in this post. Let’s jump into the ultimate study guide for Evolution in AP Biology.


Evolution refers to the change in populations and species over multiple generations that determine the rest of existence for that specific species. Put more formally, it is the change in genetics and adaptability from generation to generation and occurs due to genetic variation present in a population, natural selection, and survival of the fittest.




What are the topics covered in Evolution?

Evolution covers a wide range of concepts, so let's divide it into more digestible sections:


1. Descent with modification

While this topic seems to jump straight into the 'complicated' territory, that is not the case. This subtopic contains sections such as:

  • Darwin's ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest. It is a good idea to be familiar with some examples of natural selection

  • Lamarck's theory of use and disuse and acquired traits

  • Evidence supporting evolution

2. Evolution of populations

Evolution in population takes the information provided in the former subtopic to an entirely new level and considers more than individual organisms. Instead, it considers variations in the population’s gene pools and how they affect the species as a whole.

This is popularly known through the following sections in this subtopic:

  • Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, the five conditions, and how to apply the two Hardy-Weinberg equations

  • Microevolution

  • Sources of genetic variation, such as mutations

  • Evolutionary fitness

  • Types of natural selection: directional, stabilizing, and disruptive selection. Understand the causes of each type of selection and some examples of each



3. Origin of species

The third section you explore in Evolution is the Origin of Species. Straightforward and interesting! It also connects with the last topic, phylogeny, and consists of the following subtopics:

  • Biodiversity

  • Categorization of organisms

  • How new species arise

  • Convergent versus divergent evolution. Also know they relate to homologous and analogous structures

4. Tracing phylogeny

Phylogeny, as you may know, is the study of relationships between different groups of organisms. It is important to understand how to draw and interpret phylogeny trees, and what type of information we can and cannot glean from them. Phylogeny trees can be put together based on several pieces of evidence, including the fossil record, molecular/DNA similarities, and the formal taxonomy of various species. The purpose of phylogeny is to trace the evolutionary history of living organisms, which is why we have included this topic in the Evolution study guide.



What is the best way to study Evolution for AP Biology?


You know all the topics - all you need to do now is memorize, understand, and apply.

This part is often the most difficult.

How does one happen to memorize, understand, and apply? Especially when AP Biology is so extensive and with excruciating amounts of detail.

Well, this is your lucky day! Here I've got a few tips for you that will make your life easy and have you a master of evolution in no time at all.

Draw Diagrams

As my students already know, I always encourage drawing out diagrams as a way to remember the content and make connections between different concepts. In particular, I recommend drawing the graphs for the three types of natural selection, as well as practicing with phylogeny trees.

Know What to Focus On

Before jumping into memorizing the whole bunch of information (and wow that is a lot), you have to figure out which bit of information is, quite frankly, useless.

Let's face it, a lot of the stuff is repeated multiple times, and wasting time on that might ruin all the work you put into learning the actual flesh of the material.

So to save yourself the pain (and the brain space), filter out the overly detailed information that most likely will not appear on the exam and stay focused on everything else.




Think of Real-Life Examples

Evolution is often a favorite unit among students because it is so relevant to real life. For example, the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a great example of evolution at work. Use this to your advantage and think of some interesting, real-life examples for the various topics in evolution, such as natural selection, adaptive radiation, and descent with modification. Knowing these examples will help you make connections more quickly and identify correct examples on the exam.


Most likely, a good portion of your exam questions will be about evolution or be related to evolution concepts because it is such a key part of the curriculum. Use this study guide, class notes, and our Practice Portal (which has problem sets focused specifically on Evolution) to prepare well!


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