The 4 Layers of a Perfect AP French Study Guide
Whether you’re taking it because your mom is making you, you love French or you want tons of college credit, the AP French test is fast approaching and you need to prepare.
Hopefully, you’re already well prepared and have been disciplined about studying since you signed up for the AP test.
But just in case you happen to have less time than you would have liked, we’ve got a formula for studying which you can tweak and modify to fit your needs.
So take a deep breath, fill up your French press, and hit the books!
- The Essential 4-Step AP French Study Guide
- 1. Know the AP Test: How to Cozy up to the Format
- 2. Comprehension: Because Understanding French May Actually Help
- 3. Communication: How to Put Your Thoughts into French and Wow the Test Proctor
- 4. Grammar: Making Sure Everything Is Polished and Pretty
The Essential 4-Step AP French Study Guide
There are four major areas you need to master to be ready for the AP French test: (1) how to take the test, (2) how to speak and write in French, (3) how to understand what the heck you’re hearing and reading, and (4) grammar (don’t cry).
Before you head for the hills with your Barron’s AP French guide, I have some amazing news.
We can make this fun. No, not like how your French teacher told you that learning the subjunctive would be “fun.” Realistically, you could spend more than half of your studying time watching moves, playing games, reading your favorite books and listening to pop music. All of this in French, of course.
And while, yes, you do need to have a study schedule (and stick with it), you can also integrate studying seamlessly into your free time.
Especially if you only have a few weeks to the test, it’s time to throw all of your English-language pastimes out the window and replace them with (even more fun) French activities.
1. Know the AP Test: How to Cozy up to the Format
This is perhaps the least fun component, but a necessary evil. The AP French Test has a specific format, and you need to be familiar with the time constraints, the types of questions you’ll encounter and how it’s scored. Once you have this part down, the rest can be fun and fancy free.
Choose a Study Guide to Lay the Groundwork
There are three main French study guide resources out there, and I highly recommend picking up one or two of them, even if you plan on studying for the exam using primarily immersion techniques. They all include important information on how the test is formatted, how to best approach it, as well as the grammar and vocabulary that you should know.
- Barron’s — This book is not only the most popular option, but does a good job of breaking down the test into digestible bits: the multiple-choice portion and the free-response portion. In addition to great activities and explanations, it has two full-length tests and MP3s for the listening portions of the exam.
- REA — If you consider yourself something of a techie, then this is a good study guide to get. In addition to the print version, it has mobile and online content to go through. It uses quizzes to test your progress, so if you don’t have any idea where to start, this is a good book. It automatically grades your multiple choice questions on their online practice tests, which is a huge time saver if you’re in a crunch.
- College Board — Straight to the source for materials! While it’s not technically a study guide, the College Board website contains valuable information on how the test is formatted, as well as access to previous tests.
Take Practice Tests Regularly
The best part about these study guides are the practice tests they include. Here are a few tips to use while you test yourself:
- Time yourself. Your French could be as fluent as a native’s, but it won’t do you much good if you buckle under the clock. When taking the practice tests, hold yourself to the time restraints of the test. Speed can be a huge asset when taking the AP test. How nice would it be to have time to look over your answers at the end? Hm?
- Gauge your progress. It’s so important to keep track of how you do! Take notes on the topics/rules you struggled with and the doubts you had while taking the practice exam. If your performance doesn’t improve between practice exams, then it may be time to rethink your studying strategies. The more practice tests, the better, so draw up a graph and analyze the stats. (All the better if you happen to be taking the AP Statistics test too.)
- Base your studying around your results. Did you bomb the speaking portion of a practice test? Was the multiple choice a struggle fest? Well, then spend more time on those areas when you study! (But don’t neglect the other portions either, we want to be well rounded.)
Use Study Guide Content as a Base
All of this does not mean that you should memorize the study guide and use that as your primary source for studying. Your brain will be much happier with you if you explore other avenues and use the guide as a jumping off point. So as you find your strengths and weaknesses with the guide’s activities, relate these back to the immersion techniques below.
2. Comprehension: Because Understanding French May Actually Help
This one goes without saying, but let’s get real, your comprehension skills need to be outta sight for this test. That’s not to say that you have to be fluent (though that would be a huge plus), but you should feel comfortable diving into the various forms of French media. Lucky for you, this is where studying gets pretty fun, because the best way to fine-tune your comprehension is by enjoying the finer things in French immersion.
Whatever English-language books or magazines you’re reading right now, stop! I don’t care if it’s the next great American novel, there’s one simple thing you need to do until this AP test is taken care of: enjoy fine French literature.
Depending on how comfortable you are with reading in French, there are a few different methods to choose from:
Opt for children’s books
There are tons of great French children’s literature and YA novels out there, so this doesn’t mean you’ll be reading baby books. If you want a little extra French on the side, and you feel confident in your reading skills and your study plan, then pick up a translated English-language favorite, like “The Hunger Games” or “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Even a comic book or two will do the trick! Make sure you’re looking up things along the way, highlighting tenses you don’t understand and relating the content back to your grammar lessons. It’ll keep your head thinking in French and you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll enjoy prepping for the test with the likes of Harry Potter or “Le Petit Prince”!
The big leagues
Okay, so maybe your reading comprehension is causing you some anxiety, or you’re looking for a fun way to get in some practice without toiling away at a French textbook.
Pick up a French novel. No really, I know it seems daunting, but work through it and hit the literary tenses along the way. Highlight away, or read an e-book and look up definitions to new words right on your device.
Small time commitments
Okay, so you’re really cramming and don’t have the time to go through a book or two. (Even if you do have time for that, these smaller works are great practice). There are poems, short stories and magazines galore!
You know all that clickbait you read on the Internet—the stuff that leaves you wondering what you did with the last hour? Just because you’re cramming doesn’t mean you can’t consume that stuff, just as long as it’s on the French Internet. But make sure you are gaining vocabulary and grammar skills from all this, and use that nifty French dictionary and those grammar books to fill in the blanks!
We’re entering dangerous territory here. Many eager students tread these waters, only to get sucked into French YouTube.
But when used with a learner’s mindset, French videos can provide great learning and practice opportunities while lessening the stress of studying. There’s a good chance that you feel entitled to a break every now and again from studying, but do your test scores a favor and make that break a sneaky French immersion experience.
Movie night, because you earned it
There are so many French movies, and good French movies at that. If this is the first you’re hearing of them, then why are you learning French in the first place? French cinema is the pinnacle of foreign cinema, and luckily, you can watch many of them online, in the comfort of your own home.
Do pay attention to your subtitle choices, though. If you can cruise through without them, do it. If you need extra help, opt for French subtitles. But please refrain from English subtitles! Your eyes draw to them, and then by the end of the movie, that two-hour long film that could have been comprehension practice, becomes, well, two hours lost.
Hot tip: Invite over some of your fellow AP French test takers and enjoy the movie together. This way, you can talk about it together (hopefully in French), and you can have an excuse to socialize. But then right back to studying, you hear!?
Binge, because I know you were doing it anyway
You know how you keep saying that you’ll get to studying after just one more episode of that new show. Stop. Just don’t. Instead, modify the method above and watch your favorite shows (dubbed in French), or a French series.
This can also be fun if you have a friend do it with you. A lot of the very popular shows on Netflix have French versions available (including “Orange is the New Black,” “Master of None” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). The streaming possibilities are endless!
Overall, video-based content, when used right, can give you valuable reading, listening and speaking practice. So keep your eyes and ears focused and honed with a learner’s edge.
To help you get used to watching like a learner, there’s the language learning program FluentU. It has a library of short authentic French clips organized by topic and difficulty level. Each video has optional interactive subtitles that teach vocabulary in context, which you can then review with flashcards and quizzes.
As you probably know, there is a listening portion of the AP French test. Which means, you should practice your comprehension. Definitely allot some time for listening practice from the test’s format, but if you have extra time in your car, then there are a few good ways to get the French flowing through your ears.
There’s nothing like story time! Audiobooks can be a great way to squeeze in some French literature on the road or during exercise. Make sure that you are checking your comprehension at the end. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a print copy as well, so you can revisit things that sounded muddled.
If you want to really ensure comprehension, revisit a book you’ve already read (in French or in English), so that when you listen to the French audiobook, you’ll already have the basics down and you can concentrate on the details.
Since some of the prompts on the AP test will be news sources, downloading a few podcasts can be helpful. The podcasts will be at speeds comparable to (or faster than) what you’ll find on the test. There are lots of great news podcasts like RFI – Edition Monde or Le Journal de 18h.
Pro tip: If you listen to a news story that you didn’t fully understand, Google the topic and read up on some articles on French news sites. This way, you get both reading and listening practice, plus you become well informed.
Is French news not all that appealing on a Friday night? You studied hard all week, so you probably deserve something light. Turns out, listening to French music is helpful for comprehension. Whether you opt to exchange your current studying music to French tunes (sometimes having a French crooner in your ear can help) or turn it into a learning activity, there are some tunes for all tastes (indie music, popular music, beautiful singers).
If you want to turn listening into a studying activity, try watching the music video for the song and reading the lyrics before and after listening. See what grammar troubles you come across, and what vocabulary you pick up.
3. Communication: How to Put Your Thoughts into French and Wow the Test Proctor
While comprehension makes up only Part A of the test, communication makes up the rest. Part B of the exam involves both responding to an email and writing a persuasive essay. With your REA or Barron’s study guide, you’ll find prompts for these topics and examples, but doing practical applications and extra practice of these skills is key to getting a good score. Not to mention Part C, the speaking portion! Expect both a prompted conversation and a 2-minute presentation on the test.
Unless you’re living in a French-speaking country, it can sometimes be difficult to come up with ways to practice speaking French. So here are a few methods to use (in addition to practicing the test prompts):
Talk to yourself (yes, like a crazy person)
Are you home alone often? Feel like you need to vocalize while studying or driving around town? Tell yourself about your day in French or make up stories. But don’t just do it in your head, say it out loud! The best way to practice French is by speaking it as much as possible.
Talk to your dog, or your mom, if she won’t get too annoyed. You have a pass to act kind of crazy, you’re studying for an AP exam! Keep a little memo pad with you and every time you draw a blank with a word, write it down and look it up later. It’ll increase your fluency, and more importantly, confidence. Speaking French well is all about confidence.
Talk to someone else
This one is a little more obvious. Find another student studying for the French exam and have a weekly hour of conversation, more if you can find the time! Test each other with the test prompts or simply talk like friends do. Any subject will do, as long as it’s in French.
If you’ve got a little more time to study, start a French book club, and meet once a week to discuss the pages you read. And for the crammers out there, a few minutes before and after class talking to your French teacher in French can go a long way.
Many people dread the sound of their own voice, but do it for the good of the exam. Just this once! Use the practice prompts from the College Board website and record a 2-minute speech, then listen to your recording and critique yourself.
This is a good way to get comfortable with the formatting of this portion of the exam, gain some confidence and work on your weaknesses. To hear how some other students faired, here are some sample responses.
For some, it’s the easiest. For others, it’s the most difficult. It’s one of the easiest to practice, but is also where your grammar skills are most on display. Regardless, get pen on paper. It’s a no-brainer that you should time yourself and practice some essay prompts, but for some more enjoyable practice, try these tips.
Keep a journal for de-stressing
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that one of the keys to studying is to… relax. Take a deep breath. Okay, now if that didn’t work, then get out a notebook and keep a French journal on your feelings. Write about your day, your worries, about things you’ve read and listened to in French. Fill it up! It doesn’t matter, nobody is ever going to read it. It will help you smooth out any hiccups you are having with vocabulary gaps and tenses. Keep a dictionary nearby and your trusty grammar websites open.
Tip for overachievers: Try your hand at a short story in French, or a piece of flash fiction (less than 1,000 words). If storytelling is something you enjoy, then this may be a fun way to test your grammar and vocabulary. Then, if you have a gracious French teacher or classmates, let them have a read and red-pen your grammar. Getting peer critiques is a great way to see problems in your writing that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Get a penpal
You shouldn’t have to do this alone! Have friends in your French class that you text regularly? Well, get them to text in French. You can add a French keyboard on most smartphones in your language settings so that the spelling and accents are recognized. No need to change the content of your conversation here, but rather squeeze in a little extra writing practice into your day.
If you need more practice for the email response portion of the test, then start an email correspondence with a classmate. Make stuff up, talk about French news items, and ask for a critique on your grammar. Hey, you may make a few extra friends this way to boot.
4. Grammar: Making Sure Everything Is Polished and Pretty
There was once a dark and dismal time where there was a grammar-based portion of the AP French test. Lucky for you, that horrible little fill-in-the-blank portion is no more, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to know your grammar up and down!
Instead of knowing obscure pronouns and little-known tenses to get a five, you need to master the things necessary for comprehension and communication. Using appropriate tenses, conjugations and gender agreements in your writing, and developing coherent sentences for the speaking portion, will go a long way.
You should be able to identify most all of the tenses, but the ones you’ll use the most are the ones to practice, so make sure you can conjugate the imperfect, the perfect tense, the future, the subjunctive, and the present. The literary tenses won’t pop up often, but just in case, you should know what they look like. Details are important too, so don’t forget your adjective usage and pronouns.
When it comes to grammar, it’s important to have easy access to resources that you are comfortable with. You may already have a French textbook that you can reference, but chances are, it’s lacking in a few areas. Try exploring some of these French grammar books, especially “501 French Verbs.”
There are a few websites that you’ll find yourself coming back to, like Reverso and WordReference. The forums on WordReference can be useful too, especially if you have a question about grammar that you’re having a hard time finding the answer to.
Make It as Fun as Possible
Maybe you’re one of those lucky few who loves practicing French grammar. If so, then get out of here and get back to those exercises in your French book! But if not, then it’s okay, you’re not alone. Here are a few places where you can take quizzes to check your progress and play games to get it down:
- Quia: for tons of user-created games and more.
- ABC Français: for assessments, exercises and French texts.
- Transparent.com’s French proficiency exam: to see how your French has come along.
If you’ve been having a lot of fun reading in French and need the reading comprehension practice to begin with, then you can integrate your grammar practice into your reading time. Analyze sentences from various texts (whether it be magazines, novels, or short stories), by identifying the subject, verb, pronouns and the tense.
Also keep your eye out for any verb-subject agreements. Whenever you come across a tense that you aren’t sure about, a verb that is conjugated irregularly, or a pronoun or agreement that you don’t understand, refer back to your great grammar resources. This is often a better method than cold-reading grammar information. Like anything else, you’ll have your strengths and weaknesses with French grammar. And with so little time left before the test, it’s best to only brush up on the stuff that isn’t clear!
Now you have plenty of resources, book titles, French albums and websites to create a study guide that works for you. All you need now is to commit to a schedule leading up to the test, and to dive into French with some of these immersion techniques.
Remember that the AP French test is all about showing how well you can communicate and understand French, not about knowing every last tense and grammar rule of the language. Build up your confidence in the test, in hearing and speaking French, and working under a time crunch. If you get those major challenges down, then you may be looking at a five on that score report this summer.