AP Exams and the Coronavirus: 10 Things You Need to Know

AP Exams will NOT be canceled this year due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Instead, they will be shortened to 45 minutes (from 3+ hrs), converted to all free-response questions (from both multiple-choice and free-response), and administered at home and online.

Additionally, the AP Exams will be OPEN BOOK

The College Board is the maker of the AP. Their decision is in contrast to its counterpart, the IB, which has canceled their exam. The decision also differs from the College Board and ACT’s decision to cancel/postpone several testing dates for the SAT and ACT.

The College Board states that their decision is based on a survey of 18,000 students, 91% of whom indicated they still wish to take the test.

We can only assume that the College Board also weighed the potential negative impacts on college credit (if canceling) and the increased burden on students during college application season (if postponing to the Fall or later).

Read on below for more info and tips to help students navigate through these changes.

Last updated: April 3rd, 2020 at 7 PM ET


1) Test Length – The AP exam will now be 45 minutes

Most AP Exams are between 2 and 3 hrs. Some clock in at 3 hrs and 15 minutes (e.g. AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, AP English Language, AP History).

How can a 45-minute test, which is typically shorter than a regular high school midterm, properly predict mastery of a college-level course? In an interview with the Washington Post, College Board psychometricians claim that a 45-minute test that covers only 75% of the coursework will still “show sufficient mastery for college credit”.

This might be true, but it really depends on how successfully the College Board is able to develop their test questions and adapt to an online format.

2) Question Format – The AP exam will now be 100% free-response.

AP exams typically have both a multiple-choice and free-response section. These sections are usually equally weighted.

However, the format varies slightly for certain tests:

  • The AP History exams (i.e. AP US History, AP European History, AP World History) also have a short answer component, which comprises 20% of the score
  • The AP language exams usually have a spoken component (25% of the score)
  • AP Computer Science Principles (not AP Computer Science A) requires submission of code and written responses by a certain deadline

The bad news – free-response questions are typically harder than multiple-choice questions. If you were relying on the multiple-choice portion to boost your grades, then you’re out of luck.

The good news – Most students struggle more with free-response questions, so everybody will be in the same boat.

The transition to 100% free-response will have an even more pronounced impact on those AP exams that typically weigh this section less. For example, the free-response section is only 33% of the total score for AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics, and AP Psychology.

Conversely, the transition will have slightly less impact for those AP exams that more heavily weight the free-response (e.g. AP English Literature and AP English Language free-response sections are weighted at 55%)

There are some AP exams which shouldn’t be impacted at all (e.g. AP Drawing and AP Studio art require portfolio submissions).

What will these free-response questions (FRQs) look like? There will be 1 to 2 FRQs per AP Exam, with time allocated for both answering the question and uploading the answers. For example:

AP English Literature:

    • 1 question
    • This question presents students with a passage of prose fiction of approximately 500–700 words, and assesses students’ ability to respond with a thesis, select and use evidence, explain the evidence and how it supports a line of reasoning, use appropriate grammar and punctuation
    • 45 minutes to read and respond + 5 minutes to upload their response
    • Covers Units 1 – 7 (excludes Units 8 – 9)

AP Calculus BC:

    • 2 questions (“multi-focus” free-response questions)
    • These questions will “assess student knowledge and skills developed in 2 or more of the eligible units and topics” and “will consist of similar components to traditional AP Calculus exam questions, with minor modifications to enable students to choose to submit either typed or handwritten responses.”
    • 25 minutes to answer Question 1 + 5 minutes to upload response (60% weighting)
    • 15 minutes to answer Question 2 + 5 minutes to upload response (40% weighting)
    • Covers topics in Units 1–8 + 5 topics in Unit 10 (10.2, 10.5, 10.7, 10.8, and 10.11) 

Please click here to learn course-specific exam information for each AP Exam.

3) Location – The AP Exam will now be administered online.

The College Board is “investing in the development of a new at-home testing option.” This is obviously a huge change to the test. If your school re-opens, the exam will still be online, but might be administered at school.

Students will be able to take the test on a desktop, tablet, or phone. Students will also be able to submit pictures of their written work.

Unless you absolutely have no other choice, you should avoid taking the test on your phone. We can’t see how taking the test on a small phone would not put you at a disadvantage.

What if you don’t have access to the appropriate technology? This is a legitimate concern for our low-income and rural students. If this applies to you, please submit this form ASAP – https://collegeboard.tfaforms.net/74

4) Open Book – The AP Exams will now be Open Book/”Open Note”.

Trevor Packer, Senior Vice President of Advanced Placement and Instruction at the College Board, revealed in a 3/27 tweet that “these exams will be open book/”open note.” and exam questions will be focused on “skills and thematic understandings” vs “thematic recall”.

This is surely an attempt to reduce the impact of cheating. Free-response questions are difficult enough. Let’s hope that making them open book as well won’t increase the difficulty.

Also, there’s the question of social inequity – what about those students who don’t have access to reliable internet or other books? 

5) Content – This year’s AP Exam will only include topics and skills that most AP teachers and students will have covered by early March.

The College Board provides detailed guidance to AP teachers about the specific topics that will be covered on the AP Exam. This upcoming test will cover only ~75% of this material.

The specific “units” tested can be found on this page in the table titled “Course-Specific Exam Information”.

For example, AP Physics 1 will cover the topics in Units 1 – 7 only, which includes:

  • Kinematics
  • Dynamics
  • Circular Motion and Gravitation
  • Energy
  • Momentum
  • Simple Harmonic Motion
  • Torque and Rotational Momentum

AP Physics 1 will NOT cover the topics in Units 8 – 10:

  • Electric Charge and Electric Force
  • DC Circuits
  • Mechanical Waves and Sound

You can find the specific topics and units for each AP exam here.

If you’re like most students, covering less information is better. However, because each AP teacher decides the order in which they teach the course topics, there’s a chance you haven’t yet covered the material.

6) Testing Dates – There will now be 2 testing dates.

The College Board will provide 2 testing dates for each exam:

  • Exams will be given from May 11 through May 22 – These are earlier dates that will allow students to take the exams sooner “while material is fresh”
  • Make-up test dates will be available for each subject from June 1 through June 5 – these later dates will allow students more time to prepare

If you’ve been diligently studying and already feel comfortable with the material, especially the free-response questions, then you might want to consider the earlier testing date.

However, most students would probably benefit from the 2nd later testing date to not only provide additional study time, but also to give the College Board some time to work out the kinks of transitioning online.

Dates for each AP exam can be found here – AP Exams Schedule 2020

Make-up dates can be found here – AP Exams Schedule 2020 Makeup Dates

7) Cheating – “Test security is a concern.”

Here’s what College Board says about how they will combat cheating:

“The exam questions are designed and administered in ways that prevent cheating; we use a range of digital security tools and techniques, including plagiarism detection software, to protect the integrity of the exams.

Scoring at-home work for an AP Exam is not new to the AP Program. For years the AP Program has received and scored at-home student work as part of the exams for the AP Computer Science Principles and AP Capstone courses.”

While the College Board is researching and implementing several tools, they do acknowledge that testing security is a concern. And rightly so. The legitimacy of the exam and whether colleges can trust the scores is largely a function of how well the College Board is able to mitigate cheating.

The good news is that a shorter test, a move to free-response open book, and additional tools, will all inhibit cheating. Furthermore, the vast majority of students are honest.

However, cheating is going to happen. Especially considering that these are high stakes tests.

If you’re thinking about cheating, don’t do it. The ethical implications and the risk of getting caught isn’t worth it. The College Board is purposefully not publicizing all of their tactics to make it more difficult to game the system. 

The College Board might have experience with administering at-home work, but scaling it out to all of their exams and to all of their students while also updating the format of the test questions under a compressed timeline will not be an easy task.

Learn more about the College Board’s take on AP Exam Security

9) Canceling – Students can cancel at no charge

Students who have registered for an exam can cancel at no charge for a full refund.

It seems like most students are going to move forward with the new exam. However, if you’re considering canceling, we recommend that you familiarize yourself with all aspects of the new test before making your decision.

9) Free Resources – The College Board will be releasing some free resources.

To help students prepare for the upcoming changes, the College Board is releasing 2 kinds of free resources.

Free AP Review Videos

AP teachers from across the country will be releasing live and recorded classes. You can access the course schedule here

You can also find all videos on the “Advanced Placement” YouTube Channel

Please note that the majority of these videos will be focused on the 75% of the course that will be tested on the exam.

However, they will also cover some supplementary lessons related to the final 25% of the course. Skip these videos if you’re focused purely on preparing for the upcoming test.

Additional Free Response Practice

Free-response questions that were previously only available for in-classroom use by teachers will now be unlocked so students can access more practice questions.

Log into your AP Classroom to access these questions.

10) College/Admissions Impact – Many colleges will honor AP scores.

The College Board states that “colleges support this solution and are committed to ensuring that AP students receive the credit they have worked to earn”.

They reason that colleges historically have accepted shortened exams for credit when students have experienced emergencies.

COVID-19 would certainly constitute an emergency, but it’s unclear exactly which colleges will or will not accept these scores for credit.

Some schools have already officially confirmed that their current policies for AP credit will remain in effect (e.g. Vanderbilt University). Other schools are still deciding what to do and were taken by surprise when the College Board made their announcement.

If you believe that even 1 school on your college list will accept your scores, you’re better off taking the test vs canceling it.

College credit is one thing, but what about the impact of AP scores on improving chances of college admissions? 

If the College Board is able to convert to a shorter online format without a hitch (e.g. acceptable limits on cheating, seamless online experience, accurate scoring and curving), then college admissions teams should evaluate your AP scores with the same weighting as before the Coronavirus.

If there are significant issues with the test, though, admissions offices will treat your AP scores within this context. At the very worst, they will not consider your scores at all.


As students prepare for the new exam, consider these tips:

  • Focus all of your practice on free-response questions. Make good use of any free-response questions you can get your hands on and make sure to check the additional free-response questions that will be unlocked in your AP Classroom.
  • Confirm which topics/units will be covered for your test. If your teacher taught things out of order and you haven’t learned certain topics yet, then get caught up on these topics ASAP. If you fall into this category, your AP teacher will most likely have already come up with a plan to get you up to speed.
  • We would probably recommend the later “makeup” testing date for most students. However, if you know that you won’t be able to commit to extended studying on a regular basis, you might be better off signing up for the 1st testing date despite the risk of being the guinea pigs.
  • If you’re not a senior, one extreme option is to consider putting off the test until next May (2021). While it might be tempting to simply deal with things next year, we probably wouldn’t recommend this option. Each year gets progressively more challenging with busier schedules, and next year will be even more challenging as you catch up on lost time due to COVID-19.
  • Ideally, you would combine a deep understanding of the material with tailored prep based on test format. Given the uncertainties of the test format, you’ll want to focus on understanding the material to the best of your abilities. This is probably a painfully obvious statement, but we’re going to make it anyway. The good news is that you can focus your studying on only the 75% of the course that will be tested. Put more focus on topics that are foundational or more heavily weighted.
  • Don’t despair. Free-response questions are generally more difficult but everybody is in the same boat, which should be reassuring. You’ve been preparing all year long and the test is not going to be THAT different. There’s only so much that the College Board can change in such a short amount of time.
  • Expect some hiccups. We’re rooting for the College Board to get this right, but we would not be surprised if students run into unexpected challenges.

Also, check out this post – Coronavirus Updates for SAT and ACT Test-Takers – if you plan on taking these tests this year.

Lastly, if you have any additional questions or if you’d like a tutor to help you prepare, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

Greg & Kevin

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.