The Biology Exams

AP Biology

The AP Biology test is intended to test college level biology knowledge.

Importantly, the AP exam was updated in 2013 in several ways: first, the multiple choice questions became highly based on reading-comprehension and analysis; second, the essay questions became a lot less open ended and, again, highly based on reading-comprehension and analysis; finally, the percentage of test takes allowed to receive a 5 (the highest grade) dropped from approx 20% to approx 5%. That’s right, only 5% of students receive a 5 on the AP Biology exam. To get a 5 on the exam, students must get ALL possible points on the essay section and at least 80% of the points on the multiple choice section.

While students need to understand the content of the course in order to answer the questions, content memorization is insufficient preparation for the exam. Lab work (or, an understanding of lab work) is vital—students will have to interpret and re-design experiments. Students will have to make logical inferences. Student will have to actually think quite a bit!

The new AP Biology exam is like a mashup of the SAT Bio and the ACT science section.

Many test-prep companies claim to have updated their materials for the new exam. They are massively exaggerating. By comparing to the updated practice exam issued by the College Board, we can see that Princeton, Kaplan, Barron, and CliffsNotes are asking questions in the style of the old AP, not the new. A few niche test prep companies have published better (but still imperfect) approximations of the exam, which we make available here at SpringLight. Additionally, many teachers have stepped up to write exercises that develop reading comprehension and analysis to help train their students for the test.

Note regarding content: there is a common misconception that the entire Campbell Biology book needs to be memorized. This is incorrect. At SpringLight, we only teach the necessary chapters, as defined by the College Board.


This is a competitive test that, frankly, would prove highly challenging to the average biology PhD graduate.

The questions cover such a wide array of knowledge, at such a deep level, and pick on such obscure topics, that even students who do perfectly on both the SAT and AP Biology exams will be challenged by the USABO.

Content: there are always several completely unpredictable questions on the USABO—students cannot merely memorize a couple of textbooks to ace the test. Teachers cannot “teach to the test”.

On the other hand, we have to start somewhere! The Campbell Biology book is a good, thorough textbook with which to begin the studying process.

SpringLight’s summer and fall USABO class covers the Campbell book entirely. (Students who begin in summer have an easier time, but it’s ok to begin in fall.) In December, SpringLight offers a Campbell cram course. In January and February, SpringLight offers an intensive test prep course during which students complete all the released USABO tests from previous years, practice recurring types of questions, and review the most frequently asked-about subjects.

Because the USABO can be taken four times over a student’s high school career, the ambitious student may chose to embark on a 3 or 4 year study plan. SpringLight’s summer and fall USABO for 2nd and 3rd Timers class covers biology more widely and deeply than merely the Campbell book.

While the AP Bio may expect you to remember a concept (for example, polarity in a developing embryo), the USABO will expect you to remember the specific proteins involved. While the AP Bio expects you to apply the Hardy Weinberg theorem (a biological model), USABO expects you to solve complicated mathematics involving Hardy Weinberg under timed conditions. While AP Bio expects you to design an experiment, the USABO expects you to be familiar with graduate-level lab techniques.

How does Mrs. Webster help students USABO:

a. helping organize learning and providing many practice opportunities
b. explaining difficult concepts from Campbell, physiology, botany, and lab experiments.
c. explaining why certain answers are more correct on previous years’ USABO tests, both open and semi.

SAT Biology

This test is designed to evaluate the students’ grasp of high school level biology. Questions are primarily knowledge-based, though there are some simple analysis-based questions.

Unfortunately, taking a standard high school biology class may not prepare you for the entire test—it depends on your teacher. Even if you have memorized all the necessary knowledge, it is highly recommended that you take several practice tests to get used to the style of questions asked.

Further note regarding content: test takers don’t need to obsess about lab work or designing experiments in order to do well on this exam. On the other hand, they should know the scientific method, be able to interpreted basic graphs and tables, and identify dependent, independent, control and experimental variables and groups.