It’s official: this year’s wave of AP exams will be unlike any we have seen before. In response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, The College Board made major changes to the basic format of the exams. In short, each AP exam will be taken at home online and will be an open book test. While open book tests are familiar to college students, they are a new experience for many high schoolers. With that in mind, we want to make sure you know how to study for open-note tests. Below we discuss what you need to know to do your best on these exams, AP or otherwise. The College Board offers some advice on how to prepare, and here are some tips of our own.

Want to know more about 2020 the changes? You can read more about them in our recent blog post.

Looking for the schedule of 2020 AP exams? You can find it here.

What Is an Open Book Test?

Open book or open note tests are what they sound like: tests during which you are allowed to use reference materials. Sometimes teachers will specify what these materials can be, such as “anything you can fit on a single flashcard,” and other times it will be anything-goes. The 2020 AP exams are the latter variety. Textbooks, handwritten notes, flashcards, and carefully organized reference sheets are all fair game.

So, you can take your test and freely reference all of the material and information you need to answer the questions. What’s the catch?

Are Open Book Tests Harder?

Not necessarily. What’s more important is to remember that they’re not easier than your typical test. They’re just different. In theory, all tests are designed to make you show your mastery of the subject. Of course, plenty of tests rely on rote memorization and repetition of facts. An open book exam doesn’t work like that. Instead, it assumes you already know that basic information, and wants to know what you can do with it.

The 2020 AP exams consist of one or two open-response questions, with 45 minutes to complete. There will be no multiple-choice questions. Instead, the exams ask you to write in-depth analytical answers to open-ended questions. Memorization and repetition do not apply here. You need to be able to critically discuss a subject at length. The test assumes you already know the basics and that you don’t need to prove that knowledge. You can reference your notes for basic concepts that support your response. This is not necessarily more difficult than a closed-book test, and it is not necessarily easier, but it is certainly a different kind of test. Notably, this is more in line with college-level exams.

Prepare Like Any Other Exam

Remember: open-book or otherwise, a test is a test. Study for an open note test like any other test. Practice good study habits, make a study plan, and learn the material that you need to know. The fundamentals of test prep still apply.

Avoid the temptation to use your notes as a fall-back plan. If you go into the exam without knowing the material, having your notes or book on hand will not help you. This is a time-proven error of many an unprepared student. Instead, let your notes be a kind of boost to your subject mastery. If you go into the test with a fully-developed knowledge of a subject, having a few easy reference points on hand can only help you.

Don’t Overload Yourself—Make Your own Resources

Overloading on materials is tantamount to cramming. Ultimately, it just wears you out, and you don’t perform as well as if you’d properly prepared. Imagine you’re preparing for a trek through a vast desert on foot. You need to pack for the journey, and everything you pack you must carry on your back. You can pack literally everything you own, or you can pack a carefully-selected assortment of tools and resources. Which option will get you through the journey, and which will make you collapse from exhaustion in the sand?

“Open Book” should not mean “whole book.” Resist the temptation to bring every note and resource you have to the exam. Don’t expect to be able to flip through your entire textbook (or textbooks!) for the answer you need. Instead, pack light. One of the best things you can do is make your own resources for use during the exam. Make your own custom reference sheet, cleanly organized and marked, with the information you really need. We suggest you put a limit on it, too. A single printed page should be plenty of room to cover what you need if you’ve prepared for the exam.

What you include on that sheet is up to you, but you should probably restrict it to quick-reference information. Some popular choices include:

  • Conversion tables
  • Dates
  • Formulas
  • Key terms
  • Names
  • Pneumonic devices (such as PEMDAS)
  • Specific info that you repeatedly forget in study

Don’t Copy Entire Responses

A common mistake is to include entire responses from previous exams or homework on your reference sheet. The problem here is that you don’t know what exam will ask, but you can be sure it won’t ask you something you’ve already responded to. So instead of providing you with a ready-made response, this just provides you with more text to read and take apart, which distracts from the task at hand.

Mind the Clock

Every exam is timed. The 2020 AP exams will be 45 minutes long. That seems like a lot of time to answer a single open-response question, but it’s not. Like with any other exam, you need to manage your time wisely or you might run out of it.

This brings us back to the importance of quality test prep and effective reference materials. You don’t have time to comb through loads of information or read full passages from books. You need to know the subject, and your notes should be used for quick reference only.

Don’t Rely on the Internet

Search engines are amazing tools that allow us to access all kinds of information. Unfortunately, not all information is accurate, and the internet is a minefield of inaccuracy. Don’t use the internet to search for information for your reference sheet. Stick with what you know. Use your notes and your book, and if you’re not sure of something, ask your teacher for clarification.

Don’t Phone a Friend

“Open book” means you’re allowed to consult reference materials during the test. It does not mean you can consult your friends or parents; open book regardless, that’s cheating. Your response to the questions on the exam should display your knowledge and your knowledge alone.

Should All Tests Be Open Book?

There is a time and a place for each kind of test. It is certainly the case that not all formats work equally well for all subjects. The College Board acknowledges that, and there are exceptions to the 2020 format changes. For example, the world languages exams this year are not open book; they’re not even written. Instead, they consist of two spoken components.

Open book tests are just a different kind of challenge, and in the context of this year’s changes make a lot of sense. If you are taking your exams at home, you should be allowed to reference your notes. However, expect things to return to normal in 2020. Prepare and study for open note tests the same way you would for any other test and you’ll do well.

Need some help preparing for the AP exams? Get in touch.