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A Layman's Guide to Surviving AP Calculus

I should've named this article, "Hitchhiker's Guide to Hell."

Disclaimer: These are tips to help you pass the class, not to get a 5 on the AP test.

Ah, AP Calculus... the class that made even the smartest students at my school tremble.

Unfortunately for me, my senior-year self was not academically smart. However, I was still able to pass the class with a grade I was proud of—so this mini survival guide's to both groups, the super smart kids and the kids who are taking this class for god-knows-what-reason.

Here's a list of tips that'll hopefully help you survive this upcoming school year. 

1. Pay attention in class!

I know, this slogan is probably slapped on every poster you see at school. But there's a reason for that.

Calculus isn't a fun class by nature—and if you find math fun, trust me, calc could get so boring at times. But you need to stay awake.

Actively listen. Engage in the class. Take notes. Don't be afraid to ask questions. All that effort is worth it.

2. Know your unit circle (and other pre-calc/trig theorems).

So, imagine this:

You spent all of summer break to forget about pre-calc and trig. You've probably spent your days swimming or getting tan or playing whatever-video-game-is-trending until the sun rose.

On the first day of school, you slide into whatever desk the teacher assigned and expect the course to be easy. Instead, you're struggling to catch up five minutes in.

Not reviewing my unit circle -- not reviewing pre-calc and trig functions and theorems, period -- is one major setback that I didn't expect to slap me in the face.

Calculus builds off all those principles. At least look over them once.

3. Know how to use your calculator!

Not remembering those important functions might have tripped me up... but not knowing how to use my calculator felt like being repeatedly run over by a truck called Embarrassment.

If your unlucky, you'll get a teacher that doesn't care to slow down and show you the steps. If you're lucky, you'll get a teacher who sometimes slows down to show you the steps.

Either way, if you don't immediately understand what order of the buttons they're pressing (because your teacher is going at the speed of light) then ask for help from another student or said teacher after class. And if you're still confused... consult that little nifty handbook that came with your calculator. Because you kept that, right??

(I didn't keep mine, which was stupid of me.)

However... if you're severely unlucky, you'll walk into class with a completely different version of the calculator everyone is using.

You might feel all fancy, walking in with your Casio on the first day of class. Or, you might be the opposite and walk in with a solar-powered scientific calculator. Either way, if your teacher and everyone else is using TI-84s... then that's bad news for you, because the way they'll input formulas on their calculator will/might be different from how it works on your calculator.

So make sure to consult with the teacher beforehand on what calculator models they recommend. It's a lifesaver in the long run.

4. If the curriculum textbook is confusing you, don't be afraid to study from other sources!

This is what saved my life. There will be times when the words on the curriculum's textbooks seem to fall of the page and your teacher seems to speak gibberish. To save you from failing that homework set, find other sources that make the lesson easier to understand.

There's a ton of AP Calc prep books out there that are written specifically to help you grasp what you can't understand from the textbook. If you can't afford one, rent it. If you can't rent it, borrow it. (That's when being nice to your teacher and librarian helps.)

And there's tons of help online to. We all know of Khan Academy -- but if you need a more elaborate explanation, just Google it and search for a few minutes. Help is never out of reach.

5. Review!

Review, review, review. I can't say that enough. If there's two things I wish I did more during that class, it's a) don't sleep, and b) review more.

Remember those notes you took because you were paying attention in class? Review them. Daily. And if it's the day before the test, rewrite them. Rewriting notes helps you memorize them easier.

Oh, no, you got a few questions wrong on the quiz? Once you get your quiz back, redo them until you get the right solution. That's when you really know you've learned from your mistakes.

Have a midterm coming up and need to refresh on a topic? That's when those other sources come in. Even if you understand the topic when you re-read your textbook, learning about the subject from another angle (a.k.a., a different writer) helps you understand it better.

Review, review, review, even when it seems tedious and hard. Remember: perfect practice makes perfect.

In Conclusion

Look. I want you to realize that I'm not the perfect student. I wasn't the kid who got all As in every class without studying. I was the kid who academically struggled, the kid who pulled all-nighters to finish course work that others found easy, the kid who felt inadequate.

I want you to realize that your experience might not be the same as mine. You might be really smart, and that's great. Or you might have a harder time then I did.

But I want you to remember something: it's not all about the test. Everyone will tell you that it is -- your teachers, your peers. But whether you choose to take the test or not is up to you, and if you don't get the score you expected on the test, that's okay. It's not the end of the world.

Personally, I took the course more for experience than to immediately test out of a Calculus class. I've always had a harder time with math-related courses, and I knew that I needed a college-level math class to prep me for college.

If you don't pick up everything immediately, don't get discouraged. Keep studying hard. Keep studying smart. And if you end up dropping out, that's okay. This is going to sound cliche, but as long as you do your best, the experience is worth it.

So, whether you're taking AB or BC... good luck. I'm rooting for you.

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