A Guide to the Advanced Placement Research Paper Rubric
  • 6-minute read
  • 18th July 2023

A Guide to the Advanced Placement Research Paper Rubric

It’s that time of year again! Soon, students will pick up their pencils and books (or more likely, their laptops) and start another academic year. In the US, many high school students will enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The AP program enables students to take rigorous, college-level courses while still in high school. If you take an AP course, you’ll start earning college credits before you’ve even graduated from high school. One of these courses is the AP Research project.

What Is AP Research?

AP Research follows AP Seminar in the two-year AP Capstone program, which focuses on building skills you can use in any discipline. When doing an AP Research project, you’ll dive deeply into an academic topic, problem, or issue you are personally interested in. During the year-long process, you’ll design, plan, and conduct a research-based investigation. At the end of this process, you’ll write an academic paper of 4,000–5,000 words detailing your research and give an oral presentation summarizing it.

How Is the Research Project Graded?

Both your paper and your presentation count toward your project grade, with 75% of the grade coming from the paper and 25% of the grade coming from the oral presentation. The paper and the oral presentation each have their own grading rubrics.

How Does the Research Paper Rubric Work?

For the paper, you’re given a score of 1–5 (1 being the lowest, 5 being the highest) on 6 different aspects of your paper. The aspects are your topic, your literature review, your method, your results and analysis, your communication, and your citations.

Let’s break each of these components down.

Your Topic

Choosing your topic is the first and arguably most important part of your project. You know what interests you – the hard part is narrowing it down to a single topic. You’ll want to find one specific aspect to pursue – in other words, one specific question to ask – and focus on that throughout the entire project.

Problems occur when your topic is overly broad; either you try to answer too many questions, or the questions you ask can’t be answered within the scope of the required 4,000–5,000 words. Problems can also arise when your research gets off track. Your topic should be the entire focus of your paper from the introduction to the very last line.

Your Literature Review

To plan your research, you need to know what research has already been done. Your topic needs to focus on a gap in that research. In other words, ask a question that nobody else has answered yet. The only way to know what questions have already been asked (and answered) is to collect and review the literature that already exists. You’ll need a wide variety of scholarly sources that explore all aspects of your topic.

To truly study an issue, you need to understand both sides of it, and you’ll need to collect sources that give varying perspectives.

Finally, you’ll need to explain how there’s a gap in these sources (that’s the question that you’re trying to answer) and draw a clear line between the knowledge that already exists and your topic of inquiry.

Your Method

In research, your method consists of the specific tools and procedures you use to collect and analyze data. If you’re doing scientific or primary research, this might be the steps of your experiment. With secondary research, this might be a meta-analysis or content analysis.

Provide clear documentation of your method so that anyone reading your paper will be able to reproduce what you’ve done. You’ll also need to demonstrate how your method was used to collect and analyze data directly relating to your topic of inquiry. If your method is vague, non-replicable, or only questionably related to your topic of inquiry, you’ll have points deducted.

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Your Results and Analysis

Here it is – the whole purpose of your research. This is, in simplest terms, the answer to the question your paper asked.

Make sure that your results present new data – don’t just summarize or repeat existing knowledge. Avoid making your analysis section a repeat of your literature review. You must convey a new understanding or conclusion and ensure you can make a reasoned argument for that understanding based on your data. You should also avoid making grand, overreaching conclusions based on limited data. Your conclusion should flow logically from your literature review through your method and results.

Your Communication

This is where you polish your paper. You don’t want typos, spelling mistakes, grammar errors, and formatting issues to distract your audience from the awesome job you’ve done researching. If you have an amazing project but your paper is not well organized, your audience is going to have a hard time seeing it. Take some time to go through the fine details to make sure all your points are laid out clearly without any errors to sidetrack your audience.

Your Citations

Remember all that literature you reviewed at the beginning of your project? This is where you let your audience know what sources you used. Make sure to cite your sources both in the paper and at the end in a bibliography. You’ll need a citation style guide appropriate to your particular discipline, and you’ll need to follow it. There are a lot of fine details involved in citing sources, so go through your citations with a fine-tooth comb and make sure the formatting is right.


So, who’s grading these papers?

The College Board (the organization that administers the AP program) scores your research paper. Your teacher scores your oral presentation.

Are there examples of previous papers to follow?

Yes. The AP research website offers sample papers in several disciplines. This is particularly helpful since they include the score of each paper and a comment on why that score was given.

A Word of Caution

The AP Research program takes plagiarism very seriously. Students are prohibited from using any AI tools or essay-writing services in any part of their research paper. While AI can be useful for certain academic pursuits, AP Research is not one of them. The AP Research paper is all about your research and what you’ve learned conducting it.

In Conclusion

The AP Research project is a chance to dive into a topic that you’re passionate about. When the proper steps are followed and the rubric is properly applied, that passion will shine through in your paper for everyone to see.

Need some helpful tips for putting your paper together? Check out our Writing Tips and Academic Writing Tips blogs.

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