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The Expert's Guide to the AP Psychology Exam

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Aug 25, 2019 7:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Taking AP Exams can be stressful, but if you know what to expect on test day, you can eliminate a lot of that anxiety. The AP Psychology exam is one of the more popular AP tests, and it has a pretty straightforward format and scoring system. In this article, I'll tell you what's on the AP Psychology test, how it's graded, and which prep methods you should use to get a great score.


How Is the AP Psychology Exam Structured?

The AP Psych test consists of two sections: a multiple-choice section and a free-response section.


Section 1: Multiple Choice

Here is a quick rundown of the multiple-choice section format:

  • Number of Questions: 100
  • Time: 70 minutes
  • Scoring: Worth two-thirds of your final AP Psych score

Questions on the multiple-choice section will typically ask you to do the following:

  • Use psychological terms to label specific scenarios
  • Show that you understand concepts from psychological theories
  • Understand the scientific and physiological basis of psychological theories and disorders, and give appropriate explanations
  • Show that you understand the scientific method and how to interpret findings from research studies


Section 2: Free Response

Here is an overview of the free-response section on the AP Psychology test:

  • Number of Questions: 2
  • Time: 50 minutes
  • Scoring: Worth one-third of your final AP Psych score

Free-response AP Psych questions will ask you to do the following:

  • Relate different content areas within the realm of psychology
  • Evaluate and analyze theoretical perspectives and psychological concepts
  • Answer in complete sentences and follow the directions of the prompt


Overview of AP Psychology Test

Overall, AP Psychology is one of the shorter AP exams, clocking in at just two hours in total. The exam will take place on Tuesday, May 12, 2020, at noon.



Ah, May. The flowers are blooming, the birds are chirping—and the rustle of freshly opened AP test booklets fills the air.


How Is the AP Psychology Exam Scored?

Now that you understand the structure of the AP Psychology exam, it's time to learn how your final AP score is calculated. As I mentioned, the multiple-choice section is worth two-thirds (66.7%) of your score, while the free-response section is worth one-third (33.3%) of your score.

For multiple choice, scoring is relatively simple. You get a point for every question you answer correctly. No points are deducted for incorrect answers or questions you left blank. You can earn a maximum of 100 points on the multiple-choice section.

Free-response questions are reviewed by AP graders. You’ll get a score out of 7 for each of the two questions. Each of these scores is then multiplied by 3.125 so that, together, they make up one-third of your total raw score.

Your raw score is then compared with the curve calculated by the College Board to see what score you’ll get on the final 1-5 AP scale.

The following table offers estimated raw-to-AP-score conversions for the AP Psychology test. Keep in mind that each year the curve is slightly different, so this will lead to a rough estimate of your score, not an exact prediction.

Raw Composite Score

AP Score

Percentage of Students Earning Each Score (2019)
















Source: The College Board

For example, let’s say you got 55 questions right on the multiple-choice section and scored a 4 on one free-response question and a 5 on the other. This would add up to a raw score of 83 because 55 + (4 * 3.125) + (5 * 3.125) = 83.125. Based on the chart above, this score would translate to 3 for a final AP score.


Topics and Example Questions on the AP Psychology Test

In this section, I’ll give you some real-life examples of test questions so you can get a better idea of what the AP Psychology test is actually like.

As a preface to the questions, here are the topics you’ll see on AP Psych, ordered from most to least common. You should consult this list to make sure that you've fully reviewed the content for the test and aren't missing anything important (especially in the most common topic areas).

Topic % of Questions
Cognitive Psychology (memory, thinking and problem-solving, intelligence, biases, language acquisition) 13-17%
Clinical Psychology (mental and personality disorders, treatments) 12-16%
Motivation, Emotion, and Personality (theories, stress and coping, personality, behaviorism) 11-15%
Scientific Foundations of Psychology (research methods, the experimental method, ethical guidelines) 10-14%
Biological Bases of Behavior (heredity vs environment, endocrine system, nervous system, neural firing, the brain, sleep and dreaming) 8-10%
Social Psychology (attitude, conformity and obedience, prejudice and discrimination, altruism vs aggression, interpersonal attraction) 8-10%
Developmental Psychology (social and cognitive development in childhood, adolescent development, aging and adulthood, moral development, gender and sexual orientation) 7-9%
Learning (classical vs operant conditioning, social and cognitive factors in learning) 7-9%
Sensation and Perception (visual anatomy and perception, auditory sensation and perception, chemical and body senses) 6-8%

Source: The College Board


Multiple-Choice Question Example

Here is a sample question from the 2014-15 AP Psychology course description:

Which of the following behaviors is most clearly associated with Jean Piaget’s concrete operational stage?

A. Sally thinks everyone’s favorite color is blue because it is her favorite color.
B. Tom received the highest grade in his philosophy course.
C. Gracie forgets about her toy because it is under her blanket.
D. Nikos can consider both the height and width of a container.
E. Ava does not like being around unfamiliar people.

To answer this question, you need to be familiar with Piaget’s psychological theory and the behaviors that correspond with each of his proposed stages.

Piaget’s theory of development has four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operations. The concrete operational stage typically happens between the ages of 7 and 11. This stage is when a child becomes capable of applying logical and operational thought to physical objects but isn’t quite capable of abstract logic yet.

Let’s go through the possibilities!

Choice A doesn’t have anything to do with the concrete operational stage, so we can eliminate that answer.

Choice B seems as though it’s beyond the concrete operational stage. Philosophy involves a lot of abstract reasoning! This choice can be eliminated as well.

The child in Choice C is too underdeveloped. Kids in the concrete operational stage have spatial awareness, so we can get rid of this one.

Choice D seems to make sense! This is the stage at which kids start to understand logically that a tall, skinny glass might hold the same amount of water as a short, wide glass.

Choice E appears to be unrelated to the concrete operational stage, so we can eliminate it.

Therefore, we can conclude that Choice D is the correct answer.


body_babyoncomputer-1.jpg"I ga ga, therefore I goo goo." Tom, please stop.


Free-Response Question Example

The following free-response question was on the 2012 AP Psychology exam:

1a. Annabelle is planning to apply to college but has not yet decided where she will apply. Describe how the following psychological concepts and terms relate to her choice.

  • Availability heuristic
  • Compliance
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Prospective memory

1b. Explain how the following psychological concepts could relate to how well Annabelle adapts when she begins her college career.

  • Agoraphobia
  • Crystallized intelligence
  • Ethnocentrism

For this free-response question, you must understand what each of the terms mean and how they relate to this specific situation. To earn your first point on part a, you have to explain how the availability heuristic might have affected Annabelle’s college decision.

The scoring guidelines state, "Students must establish that Annabelle’s decision-making processes or her choices about college, or both, are influenced by information that comes most readily to mind."

For example, you might say that Annabelle decided to apply to UCLA because her parents had gone there and talk to her about it frequently, so this option was at the forefront of her mind in the decision-making process. You would then go on to relate the three remaining terms to Annabelle's college-search process. You could earn a maximum of 4 points in part a of this question (1 point for each description).

Part b asks you to explain how certain psychological concepts might relate to Annabelle's adaptation to her new college environment. For agoraphobia, the scoring guidelines say, "Students must explain how Annabelle’s fear inhibits her from engaging in college life." This could be something like describing how Annabelle’s fear of crowds caused her to skip orientation activities and miss out on the chance to make new friends.

You'd need to do the same for the other two terms to earn the full 3 points for part b.

For a more detailed description of how responses to this question were scored, you can review the scoring guidelines here.



"Does free will exist, or am I just a made-up person who exists solely to provide context for a question on an exam taken by beings in an alternate universe?" Oh, Annabelle, save it for college.


What’s the Best Way to Prep for the AP Psychology Exam?

If you’re aware of the AP Psychology exam's structure and content, you can use specific prep methods to help you succeed on the test. Here are six tips guaranteed to give you a higher chance of earning a great AP Psych score.


#1: Take Practice Tests

The best way to prepare for standardized tests like this one is to take practice tests so that you have a good idea of where your weaknesses lie. Practice tests will also help you get used to the format of the AP Psych test and the types of questions it asks.

The College Board offers practice free-response questions from previous years (up to 2019). You can also access three full-length official AP Psychology practice tests as free PDFS:

To simulate the real testing experience, I recommend printing out the test and writing/bubbling in your answers to the questions rather than doing them on the computer. You should also time yourself accurately so you can be sure you don't run out of time on the actual exam.

After you take a practice test or two, review your answers to see which content areas gave you the most trouble. Focus on going over the topics for which you had the highest concentration of incorrect answers.


#2: Make Use of AP Classroom

Starting in August 2019, the College Board is releasing a new online portal called AP Classroom. This portal connects students with their AP teachers. You can turn in homework on the portal, get feedback on your assignments, and receive access to official AP Psych study materials, including a question bank with real test questions. Your teacher will run the AP Classroom course page.


#3: Use the Topic Breakdown Information

For AP Psychology, we know exactly which topics will be covered and how frequently we can expect to see them on the test. This is valuable information you can use to your advantage when studying.

Specifically, spend more time reviewing unfamiliar topics that are especially common on the exam. It's better to know the ins and outs of a high-frequency topic super well than to have only a rudimentary knowledge of two low-frequency topics. Prioritize wisely!


body_breakdance.jpgA topic breakdown sounds almost like a topic breakdance! Am I relating to the youth yet?


#4: Learn to Budget Your Time Appropriately

This is something you can do in conjunction with taking practice tests. On the AP Psychology test, you only have about 40 seconds for each multiple-choice question. This means you have to be smart about skipping questions that are taking up too much of your time.

If you take a practice test and find that you’re often running out of time, you might need to push yourself to work faster or move on from difficult questions more quickly.

You’ll also have just 25 minutes for each free-response question on the test. The good news is that free-response questions on AP Psychology are scored based on the information you provide and not on your mastery of the essay format. Basically, you don’t have to write an introduction and a conclusion, which will save you a lot of time.


#5: Go Over Important Terms

On the AP Psych exam, it’s crucial for you to know the meanings of key terms related to the course. Questions often ask you to explain how a scenario relates to a certain psychological concept. But if you don’t remember what the concept means, you won’t be able to answer the question.

There are lots of confusing terms in AP Psychology, which is why it’s so important that you take the time to compile them and go through them methodically when you study. This is especially true of terms you learned at the beginning of the school year, as they'll be less fresh in your mind when the time comes to take the test.


#6: Avoid Cramming

There’s a lot to remember for AP Psychology, and you aren’t going to be able to stuff it all in your brain in one night!

For courses like this that are memorization-heavy, it’s best to get in the habit of studying as you go along and taking the time to review old material periodically. If you can gradually build up your knowledge throughout the school year and avoid completely forgetting what you learned at the beginning of class, the exam will feel much less stressful for you.

Every one or two months, do a comprehensive review of everything you’ve learned so far to refresh your memory. You might be surprised by how little you have to study for the AP Psych test at the end of the school year when everyone else is freaking out!



And remember, ladies, you're never too busy to throw on a little eye glitter between study sessions.


Recap: What to Know About the AP Psychology Test

The AP Psychology exam is a relatively short AP test. However, because it encompasses a variety of content areas, it's important to know all the key terms and psychological theories that are covered in the course.

In order to succeed on this test, you must be able to connect specific psychological terminology to a wide range of different scenarios.

Overall, AP Psychology is probably one of the easier AP exams, but that doesn't mean you should skip studying. Make sure you take official practice tests and are fully aware of the exam's format and content so you won't be caught off guard on test day!


What's Next?

Still not sure if AP Psychology is the right choice for you? Learn more about AP classes and tests to see whether it's worth it to take them. You can also dip your toe in the AP Psych pool with this article about Stockholm Syndrome (something you'll likely learn about in AP Psych).

What do AP scores mean for your future? Find out more about how AP credit works at colleges.

Trying to plan out your schedule? Read this article to get a better idea of how many AP classes you should take based on your college goals.


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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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