5 Steps to a 5: AP Microeconomics 2017 (2016)

  STEP 3

Develop Strategies for Success

CHAPTER 4   How to Approach Each Question Type


How to Approach Each Question Type


Summary: Use these question-answering strategies to raise your AP score.


Key Ideas

Multiple-Choice Questions

Images Read the question carefully.

Images Try to answer the question yourself before reading the answer choices.

Images Guess if you can eliminate one or more answer choices.

Images Remember that drawing a picture can help.

Images Don’t spend too much time on any one question.

Free-Response Questions

Images Write clearly and legibly.

Images Be consistent from one part of your answer to another.

Images Draw a graph if one is required.

Images If the question can be answered with one word or number, don’t write more.

Images Pay attention to the prompts.

Section I: Multiple-Choice Questions

Because you are a seasoned student accustomed to the educational testing machine, you have surely participated in more standardized tests than you care to count. You probably know some students who always seem to ace the multiple-choice questions and some students who would rather set themselves on fire than sit for another round of “bubble trouble.” I hope that, with a little background and a few tips, you might improve your scores in this important component of the AP Microeconomics exam.

First, the background. Every multiple-choice question has three important parts:

1.   The stem is the basis for the actual question. Sometimes this comes in the form of a fill-in-the-blank statement, rather than a question.


Average fixed cost is computed by dividing total fixed cost by


If the economy is operating below full employment, which of the following fiscal policies is most likely to decrease the unemployment rate?

2.   The correct answer option. Obviously, this is the one selection that best completes the statement, or responds to the question in the stem. Because you have purchased this book, you will select this option many, many times.

3.   Distractor options. Just as it sounds, these are the incorrect answers intended to distract the person who decided not to purchase this book. You can locate this person in the exam room by searching for the individual who is repeatedly smacking his or her forehead on the desktop.

Students who do well on multiple-choice exams are so well prepared that they can easily find the correct answer, but other students do well because they are savvy enough to identify and avoid the distractors. Much research has been done on how to best study for, and complete, multiple-choice questions. You can find some of this research by using your favorite Internet search engine, but here are a few tips that many economics students find useful.

1.   Let’s be careful out there . You must carefully read the question. This sounds pretty obvious, but you would be surprised how tricky those test developers can be. For example, rushing past and failing to see the use of a negative can throw a student.


Which of the following is not true of firms in perfect competition?

A. Firms produce a homogenous good.

B. Firms engage in price discrimination.

C. Firms earn a normal profit in the long run.

D. Firms have no ability to influence the market price.

E. Firms produce the output where price is equal to marginal cost.

A student who is going too fast and ignores the negative not might select option (A) because it is true of perfectly competitive firms, and it was the first option that the student saw.

2.   See the answer, be the answer . Many people find success when they carefully read the question and, before looking at the alternatives, visualize the correct answer. This allows the person to narrow the search for the correct option and identify the distractors. Of course this visualization tip is most useful for students who have used this book to thoroughly review the economic content.


The profit-maximizing monopolist sets output where

Before you even look at the options, you should know that the answer is MR = MC. Find that option, and then quickly confirm to yourself that the others are indeed wrong.

3.   Never say never . Words like “never” and “always” are called absolute qualifiers. If these words are used in one of the choices, it is rarely the correct choice.


Which of the following is true about production in the short run?

A.  MP is always greater than AP.

B.  MP is never increasing.

If you can think of any situation where the statements in (A) and (B) are untrue, then you have discovered distractors and can eliminate these as valid choices.

4.   Easy is as easy does . It’s exam day and you’re all geared up to set this very difficult test on its ear. The first question looks like a no-brainer. Of course! The answer is 7, choice C. But rather than smiling at the satisfaction that you knew the answer, you doubt yourself. Could it be that easy? Sometimes they are just that easy.

5.   Sometimes a blind squirrel finds an acorn . Should you guess? If you have no clue which choice is correct, guessing is a no-lose strategy. Even with a wild guess, you have a 20 percent chance of getting it right. If you leave it blank, you have no chance. I am sure that you can do the math.

6.   Draw it, nail it . Many questions can be easily answered if you do a quick sketch in the margins of your test book. Hey, you paid for that test book; you might as well use it.


In the automobile market, a decrease in consumer income will cause output and the price to change in which of the following ways?


These types of questions are particularly difficult because the answer requires two ingredients. It also requires a very thorough understanding of the demand and supply model, and here is where your graph comes in. The first thing you should do is quickly draw the situation given to you in the question: the market for automobiles. Show a downward-sloping demand curve shifting to the left and you can see that option (B) is correct. The graph speaks for itself.

7.   Come back, come back! There are 60 questions and none of these is worth more than the other. If you are struggling with a particular question, circle it in your exam book and move on. Another question deeper into the exam might jog a memory of a theory you studied or something you learned from a practice exam in this book. You can then go back and quickly slay the beast. But if you spend a ridiculous amount of time on one question, you will feel your confidence and your time slipping away. Which leads me to my last tip.

8.   Timing is everything, kid . You have about 70 seconds of time for each of the 60 questions. Keep an eye on your watch as you pass the halfway point. If you are running out of time and you have a few questions left, skim them for the easy (and quick) ones so that the rest of your scarce time can be devoted to those that need a little extra reading or thought.

Other things to keep in mind:

•   Take the extra half of a second required to clearly fill in the bubbles.

•   Don’t smudge anything with sloppy erasures. If your eraser is smudgy, ask the proctor for another.

•   Absolutely, positively check that you are bubbling the same line on the answer sheet as the question you are answering. I suggest that every time you turn the page you double-check that you are still lined up correctly.

Section II: Free-Response Questions

Your score on the FRQs amounts to one-third of your grade and as a longtime reader of essays, I assure you there is no other way to score highly than to know your stuff. While you can guess on a multiple-choice question and have a one-in-five chance of getting the correct answer, there is no room for guessing in this section. There are, however, some tips that you can use to enhance your FRQ scores.

1.   Easy to read = easy to grade . Organize your responses around the separate parts of the question and clearly label each part of your response. In other words, do not hide your answer; make it easy to find and easy to read. It helps you, and it helps the reader to see where you’re going. Trust me, helping the reader can never hurt . Which leads me to a related tip: Write in English, not Sanskrit. Even the most levelheaded and unbiased reader has trouble keeping his or her patience while struggling to read sloppy handwriting. I have seen three readers waste almost 10 minutes using the Rosetta stone to decipher a paragraph of text that was obviously written by a time-traveling student from the Byzantine Empire.

2.   Consistently wrong can be good . The free-response questions are written in several parts, each building upon the first. If you are looking at an eight-part question, it can be scary. However, these questions are graded so that you can salvage several points even if you do not correctly answer the first part. The key thing for you to know is that you must be consistent, even if it is consistently wrong. For example, you might be asked to draw a graph showing a monopolist who has chosen the profit-maximizing level of output. Following sections might ask you to label the price, economic profit, consumer surplus, and deadweight loss—each being determined by the choice of output. So let’s say you draw your diagram, but you label an incorrect level of output. Obviously you are not going to receive that point. But if you proceed by labeling price, economic profit, consumer surplus, and deadweight loss correctly at your incorrect quantity, you would be surprised how forgiving the grading rubric can be.

3.   Have the last laugh with a well-drawn graph . There are some points that require an explanation (i.e., “Describe how . . .”). Not all free-response questions require a graph, but a garbled paragraph of explanation can be saved with a perfect graph that tells the reader you know the answer to the question. This does not work in reverse.

4.   If I say draw, you better draw, Tex . There are what readers call “graphing points,” and these cannot be earned with a well-written paragraph. For example, if you are asked to draw the monopoly scenario described above, certain points will be awarded for the graph, and only the graph. A delightfully written and entirely accurate paragraph of text will not earn the graphing points. You also need to clearly label graphs. You might think that downward-sloping line is obviously a demand curve, but some of those graphing points will not be awarded if lines and points are not clearly, and accurately, identified.

5.   Give the answer, not a dissertation . There are some parts of a question where you are asked to simply “identify” something. For example, “Identify the price if this firm were a monopolist” or “Identify the area that corresponds to deadweight loss.” This type of question requires a quick piece of analysis that can literally be answered in one word or number. That point will be given if you provide that one word or number whether it is the only word you write or the fortieth that you write. For example, you might be given a table that shows how a firm’s output changes as it hires more workers. One part of the question asks you to identify the optimal number of workers that the firm should hire. Suppose the correct answer is 4. The point is given if you say “4,” “four,” and maybe even “iv.” If you write a 500-word Magna Carta concluding with the word “four,” you will get the point, but will have wasted precious time. This brings me to . . .

6.   Welcome to the magical kingdom . If you surround the right answer to a question with a paragraph of economic wrongness, you will usually get the point, so long as you say the magic word. The only exception is a direct contradiction of the right answer. For example, suppose that when asked to identify the optimal number of workers, you spend a paragraph describing how the workers are unionized and therefore are subject to a price ceiling and that the exchange rate between those workers and the production possibility frontier means the answer is four. You will get the point! You said they should hire four, and “four” was the magic word. However, if you say that the answer is four, but that it is also five and on Mondays it is seven, you have contradicted yourself and the point will not be given.

7.   Marginally speaking . This point is made throughout the microeconomics review contained in this book, but it bears repeating here as a valuable test-taking strategy. In economics, anything that is optimal, or efficient, or rational, or cost minimizing, or profit maximizing can be answered by telling the reader that the marginal benefits must equal the marginal costs. Depending upon the situation, you might have to clarify that “marginal benefit” to the firm is “marginal revenue,” or to the employer “marginal revenue product.” If the question asks you why the answer is four, there is always a very short phrase that readers look for so that they may award the point. This answer often includes the appropriate marginal comparison.

8.   Identify, Illustrate, Define, Indicate and Explain . Each part of a free-response question includes a prompt that tells you what the reader will be looking for so that the points can be awarded. If the question asks you to “identify” something, you may need only one word or a short phrase to receive all of the points. Writing a paragraph here will only waste your time. As mentioned, any reference to “illustrate” will require you to draw, or redraw, a graph to receive points. If the question asks you to “define” a concept, you will need to devote more time to providing your best definition of that concept. If you are prompted to “indicate” something, you must simply state what is expected to happen. For example, suppose you are told that a price floor has been installed in the market for soybeans and you are asked to indicate what will happen to deadweight loss. All you need to do to earn the point is to indicate that deadweight loss will increase. You may also get the point if you clearly indicate, preferably with an arrow, in a graph of the money market that interest rates are rising. The most time-intensive prompt is usually one that involves “explain.” Suppose you are told that the government has eliminated the minimum wage. Then you are asked to explain how this will affect wages and employment in these labor markets. To give yourself the best chance at receiving all of the points, your response must provide two parts. First, give a clear statement of what exactly will happen; second, explain why it is going to happen.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

•   The free-response section begins with a 10-minute reading period. Use this time well to jot down some quick notes to yourself so that when you actually begin to respond, you will have a nice start.

•   The first parts of the free-response questions are the easiest parts. Spend just enough time to get these points before moving on to the more difficult sections.

•   The questions are written in logical order. If you find yourself explaining Part C before responding to Part B, back up and work through the logical progression of topics.

•   Abbreviations are your friends. You can save time by using commonly accepted abbreviations for economic variables and graphical curves, and you will get more adept at their use as your mastery improves. For example, in macroeconomics you can save some time by using “OMO” rather than “open market operation,” and in microeconomics you can use “MRP” rather than “marginal revenue product.”

•   Show your work. In recent years, the exam has included more mathematical components that allow you to demonstrate that you know a particular economic concept by computing something. Virtually all of these problems include the prompt “show your work,” and you will not earn points if you have not set up the mathematical problem correctly and shown your work clearly. For example, suppose that price is $5 and 10 units are sold at this price; you are asked to compute total revenue and show your work. You know that total revenue (P × Q) is obviously $50, but if you simply state that total revenue is $50, you will not earn the point, because you did not show your work. The simple fix for this is to write: TR = P × Q = $5 × 10 = $50. Point earned!