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A quest to find the 'key to the APs'

As May arrives, high school teens across the country are thinking about studying for AP exams, and a determined minority actually start.

AP exams, for the lucky few who don't know, are the way that the creators of Advanced Placement can take the beautiful month of May and America's smartest kids and whip them into in a frenzy of cramming facts, figures and formulas for hours upon hours of massive examinations. Think the SAT on steroids. Darth Vader in a booklet. These are the weeks when teens find themselves wandering aimlessly in school hallways and rereading every textbook available in their high school, dates for world history or the formulas for Newton mechanics swimming before their eyes.

As an AP student myself, I find myself skipping back and forth across the dividing line between prepared and freaked out, somewhere between mentally sound and on the verge of a breakdown. Usually somewhere toward the latter. I have thought of nothing in the last two weeks besides the upcoming AP exams. And then, underneath all this thinking, I began to think. I thought, "What if there was one easy way to ace the APs? What if there was one piece of information that would guarantee a 3 or 4 on any exam? What if you could learn one thing that would make you outsmart AP?"

I decided to go on a search. I began my epic and a bit "unconventional" (for isn't that just an AP word for "insane"?) journey to find the "key to the APs."

I sought to find the educational mecca of AP review, the conic intersection of the necessary information and the understanding of it all, the New Deal to save overstressed teens from the depression of their studying. (Hopefully you AP students have a clue what I'm talking about. If not, please keep reading).

Where to begin? I reject math and science (I can't handle facing intense biometric equations right off the bat), and decide on social studies.

I present my idea to the teachers (how is it that ideas always seem stranger when spoken aloud to teachers?). A few minutes of stunned silence later, the AP World teacher gives me my first key to APs.

"Know everything in the world except Europe and America!" she says excitedly.

The U.S. teacher disagrees, asserting that America is the country to know.

It takes a minute for that to sink in. We need to know everything in the whole world, except Europe? That narrows it down to (insert quick math skills) about 149 countries for the AP Worlders out there! I just about abandon my search. I mean, 149 countries!? I don't want to make anyone feel worse about APs, but is the key to the APs really studying like a hermit for weeks ahead of time? Do hermits even study?

Maybe social studies wasn't a wise place to start. I shuffle down to the science department, hoping for someone to say that the key is to show up with a pencil on testing day.

In environmental studies, I am advised that the true idea behind the AP is the principle of interrelated systems and the mechanics of how everything fits together. Going to the physics room, I am reassured that no matter what you get on the AP exam, from a 1 (worst) to a 5 (best), everyone will learn something in physics that's worthwhile. Phew. I let out a breath. I've been bombarding myself with physics formulas all week (Quick! What's Net Force equal to?!). But maybe the key to the APs isn't about the exams but what you get out of them.

Reassured but not really convinced, I move on to biology. The teacher is undeterred.

"Know how to write," she says. "Three-fourths of the exam is writing, and students need to know how to interpret and present the information." I stumble back a few steps. Writing!? In science? Is the key to AP exams writing? I hurry up to the English department to find out.

In AP Literature, three flights of stairs later, I get two answers. The teacher's first thought, when asked what the one thing students should know, is "Hamlet."

"But I don't teach it," he says. "It's so common, that the AP hardly tests it. Know 'Huckleberry Finn.' There are so many different aspects of American culture in there. There's a lot to grapple with that provides a lot of material for the APs. It's a good subject to teach, and it's a good subject to be taught." Is this the key? To enjoy what is being taught?

My last AP visit is to the calculus room.

"Understanding derivatives is important," the calculus teacher says, grinning at the white board that is covered with the pre-calc lesson on tangents of curves, which has something to do with a graph that looks like an eyeless smiley face. A few students are still stumbling out the door, looking scared to death of what they just learned.

"Understanding the concepts involved is the most important," the teacher continued. "It's not your ability to solve a certain type of question, but your ability to understand what's going on."

At the end of my journey, I find myself just as confused as the pre-calc class. I've gotten plenty of advice, everything from understanding the material to knowing everything. And yet I still hadn't had the epiphany, that moment where the mad scientist invents the one great concept that will help teenagers for centuries to come.

A few days pass. Looking back on my search, I realize a few things. The first is that not one of the teachers could present me with the single most important fact. I found that I was not met with "memorize this date" or "know this formula" but rather with concepts and techniques and large areas of the subject. More often, teachers could hardly decide on anything at all. I found that knowing the material isn't the same as being able to evaluate and analyze it.

In the science department, I learned you need to be able to write to succeed. In the English department, I was told there was more than one aspect that needed to be grappled with. In math, I was told that understanding, not solving, is the key.

And then it hit me. What if there is no key? Could the APs be so three-dimensional that no amount of dates or formulas will guarantee success? No teacher found it easy to tell me one thing because any one thing tied into everything else. What if I have been searching for the wrong thing?

I think now it makes sense. We've spent a year preparing, and that big day is coming, where a year of knowledge is tested in a few essays. It's a big deal and deserves attention. But remember -- we are all prepared to some extent. This is our chance to show everything we have learned, whether that's through studying, through class or through skills you have developed through years and years of life.

So here's my advice. Let those AP graders know that you know what you are doing, even if you haven't the slightest clue. Let them see that you see the bigger picture -- whether that's tying in centripetal acceleration with a mass on a string, or tying the Meji Restoration to American foreign policy. Be confident and write like you are an expert in what they are asking (which you will be!). Trust your teachers to get you ready but don't trust them enough to forget to study.

And that's my second part of advice. Study. I recommend the Princeton Review books for all subjects. They surely don't guarantee success, but they help.

Fellow APers, good luck! Have confidence that you know more than you think. Keep this all in perspective and know that while these exams are important, they won't determine your success; success is based on much more than one exam. But in these next few weeks, stay calm, determined and focused.


Rainah Umlauf is a junior at Springville Griffith Institute.