The AP Psychology exam has one of the lower average scores of all AP exams. However, if you know how to prepare, it can actually be one of the easier AP exams to take. Reading this guide will make you an expert on the AP Psych free-response section. By the end of this article, you'll know exactly what the format of the free-response section is, what types of questions you'll be asked, what graders will be looking for in your answers, and the best tips for studying for AP Psych FRQ.
What’s the Format of the AP Psychology FRQ Section?
The AP Psychology free-response section is the second and final section of the AP Psych exam. You'll answer free-response questions after the multiple-choice section ends. The AP Psych FRQ section lasts 50 minutes and consists of two questions.
The first AP Psych FRQ is known as a Concept Application question. It often focuses on terminology and explaining examples of different psychological concepts. The second is known as a Research Design question and typically includes a chart or graph you need to analyze.
On the official AP Psychology exam website, it states that you'll be asked to do two main things during the free-response section:
- Explain behavior and apply theories using concepts from different theoretical frameworks or subdomains in the field of psychology.
- Analyze psychological research studies, including analyzing and interpreting quantitative data.
Each free-response question is worth 7 points. When you take the AP exam, your scores will be multiplied by 3.57 so that, in total, the free-response section makes up ⅓ of your total raw AP Psychology exam 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.) You can learn more about the test format by reading our in-depth guide to the AP Psychology exam.
AP Psychology FRQ Examples
Below are two examples of the types of free-response questions you'll see on the AP Psych exam. For each of these AP Psychology FRQ examples we'll go through the answers so you can see exactly how points are earned. Both sample questions come from the second sitting of the 2021 AP Psych exam.
Question 1: Concept Application
As we mentioned above, this question, like all AP Psychology free-response questions, is worth seven points. You might notice there are seven bullet points to answer which makes it easy to see just where you can earn each point!
Let's go through each bullet point to see what you need to include to earn the point. Answers come from the official College Board answer explanations.
Explain how each of the following psychological concepts applies to Damian’s gaming behavior.
Motor Cortex: The answer must state the motor cortex is responsible for some part of Damian's voluntary movement while gaming.
- Ex. Damian uses his motor cortex when playing games because it helps him push the controller buttons.
- Ex. Damian’s motor cortex has a larger area devoted to his fingers because he uses them so much when gaming. This gives him finer motor control over his fingers than most other people.
- NOTE: Can't refer to reflexive or involuntary movements such as, "Damian’s motor cortex would make him jump if he was startled by a sudden noise."
Algorithm: Must indicate a step-by-step procedure (such as a formula, equation, etc.) used when Damian is gaming.
- Ex. Damian applies a step-by-step procedure he learned on the internet to advance through the game.
- NOTE: The response can't refer to heuristics, such as "Damian uses a shortcut rule he learned from his buddy to beat the hardest level
- in the game."
Reciprocity Norm: Answer must state that Damian or another gamer did something helpful for the other because they received or expected to receive something in return from the other.
- Ex. Damian knows that if he shares his best gaming tips with his online friends, they will help him when he needs it.
- Ex. Damian helped one of his online friends who was having trouble with gaming addiction because that friend helped him when he was struggling earlier.
- NOTE: You won't earn the point if you don't mention reciprocity. For example, the response "Damian agreed to give his friend gaming tips" wouldn't earn you the point because there's no mention of reciprocity.
Monocular Depth Cue of Interposition: Your answer must state that Damian, while he is playing a video game, perceives objects that are partially blocked as being further away than the objects blocking them.
- Damian knows a character is farther away from him than a tree due to the monocular depth cue of interposition because the character is partially hidden by that tree.
Mental Set: Your answer must state that Damian continues using the same video game strategies that have previously been successful for him OR Damian needs to modify a strategy that had been successful but no longer is.
- Ex. Damian has been successful in the game so far, so he keeps using the same strategies for every level.
- Ex. Damian had been using the same strategy for every level, but when he reached level 10 the strategy no longer worked so he had to adjust his mental set about his game play to defeat the level.
Explain how Damian’s parents could use a behavioral approach to get him to apply to college using a fixed-ratio schedule: Your answer must state that Damian's behavior will be reinforced after he completes a specific number of application-related behaviors.
- Ex. Damian’s parents let him game for one hour if he writes three essays for his college applications.
- NOTE: Answers that refer to a variable or interval reinforcement schedule, such as "Damian’s parents reward him at the end of each week that he completes a college application."
Explain how a psychoanalyst would use free association with Damian: Your answer must state that the psychoanalyst would encourage Damian to express his thoughts and feelings freely.
- Ex. Damian’s therapist tells him to say everything that comes to mind without censoring to help him figure out his problems
- NOTE: Answers that refer to dream analysis or word association are incorrect and won't earn the point.
Question 2: Research Design
Identify the independent variable presented in the study: Your answer must state that the independent variable is the use of mental imagery or instruction to use mental imagery
- Ex. The independent variable is the students being told to form a mental image.
Identify the control group: Your answer must state that the control group is the group that was not told to use mental imagery OR that the group that didn't receive the independent variable was Group B.
Explain why the type of research design being used is appropriate for this study: Your answer must state that the design is appropriate because it is an experiment AND that the design is appropriate because it is trying to show cause and effect.
- Ex. The only research design that shows a cause-and-effect relationship is an experiment, so that is why the researcher chose this.
Explain what the different standard deviations indicate about the data from the two groups: Your answer must state that the scores in Group B varied more than the scores in Group A OR that the scores in Group A varied less than the scores in Group B.
- Ex. The standard deviation from Group B is higher than in Group A, so the scores in Group B were more different from each other than those in Group A
- Ex. Group A had scores that were more similar to each other than Group B.
Explain the ethical flaw that is explicitly presented in the scenario: Your answer must state that that the researcher required the students to participate.
- Ex. The researcher failed to obtain informed consent.
Explain how the primacy effect could apply to this research: Your answer must state that if the primacy effect took place, the students would remember more of the words they heard at the beginning of the list than they did from other parts of the list.
- Ex. If students remember more words at the beginning of the list, then they have demonstrated the primacy effect.
- NOTE: Describing primacy and recency without accurately identifying primacy will not earn you the point, such as "The students remembered the words better if they studied them earlier."
Explain how levels of processing are related to this research: Your answer must state that students who did better/Group A used deep processing or that students who did worse/Group B used shallow processing OR that the response must correctly relate mental imagery to deep processing.
- Ex. Students used mental imagery which allowed them to process the words deeply.
- Ex. The students who had no instructions did worse because they used shallow processing.
Tips for Answering Free-Response Questions
The AP Psych free-response questions often trip students up. For the two sample questions above, the mean scores were a 2.21/7 and a 2.96/7, respectively. That's quite a bit less than 50% for each of them. But studying can help you make significant progress. Below are three tips to keep in mind while studying as well as when you’re taking the test to help you improve your chances of scoring well on this section.
#1: Know Your Vocab
You basically can't do well on the AP Psych exam if you don't have a good grasp of psychology vocabulary. And you'll need to do some studying to keep all the terms straight. Some definitions are relatively intuitive, but others are almost impossible to figure out if you haven't studied them directly.
Be meticulous about going over all the terms covered in your class so that you don't second-guess yourself on the test. This is especially important for the Concept Application free-response question for which you will be asked to describe how terms relate to certain situations. You need to understand the terms beyond just the ability to pick their correct definitions out of a multiple-choice lineup. Flashcards are a particularly useful study tool for AP Psychology.
#2: Write in Complete Sentences, Not Complete Paragraphs
A lot of students are confused about how in-depth their free-response answers should be. If you write too much, you'll lose precious time, but if you write too little, you can lose points. The trick to getting the balance correct is to write in complete sentences, but not to write entire paragraphs. Psychology is about your grasp of science—not English—so don't bother with introductions, conclusions, or any other fluff in your answers to the free-response questions. But also don't think that one word answers will cut it.
One of the best ways to get a feel for how much to write is to look over the scoring guidelines after you complete a set of practice problems. Here are the scoring guidelines for the two AP Psych FRQ above. You'll see that most answers are 1-2 sentences. That's all you need to earn a high score on the AP Psych FRQ section.
#3: Connect Your Answer Back to the Question
Right in the official scoring guidelines for the AP Psychology free-response questions is the following statement: "The response must apply the concept to the prompt; a definition alone will not earn the point." This is a key point that many AP Psych students overlook. For example, for the first sample question above, simply stating the definitions of motor cortex, algorithm, reciprocity norm, etc. won't earn you any points. You must always relate them back to the question and, in this case, how they relate to Damian and his behavior. The AP Psych FRQs require more than just regurgitating vocab definitions; you must always connect it back to the question itself.
How to Practice AP Psych FRQ
You can know all about the format and types of questions you'll see on AP Psychology FRQ, but the way to really test and improve your skills is by answering practice problems. Doing so helps you become even more familiar with free response types and helps you see more clearly which types of questions are easy for you and which you need to study more.
Choosing high-quality practice questions is key to ensuring you're really practicing what you'll be seeing on the exam. Fortunately, the College Board (who designs AP exams) has dozens of old, official AP Psych free-response questions easily available.
Currently, the College Board has AP Psychology FRQ from 2021 as well as 1999-2019. That's dozens of free-response questions for you to review and try out! The AP Psych exam was updated in 2019, so we recommend focusing on the most recent FRQ, but the free-response question format and topics didn't change all that much, so even older AP Psych FRQ answers and sample questions are still valuable.
Because there are so many free-response problems, you can begin completing practice problems a few months into your class (say, around November) and continuing up until the AP exam in May.
At the beginning of the school year, when you're still learning a lot of the main course material, you can read through the questions to find the ones that focus on topics you've already covered. In order to get the most out of these practice problems, make sure to use a timer and give yourself the same timing limitations the real exam will have.
Summary: AP Psychology FRQ
AP Psychology free-response questions are often the most challenging part of the AP exam. However, by knowing what to expect from this section, you'll give yourself a great shot at getting a high score. The free-response section contains two questions:
- 1 Concept Application question (worth 7 points)
- 1 Research Design question (worth 7 points)
You’ll have 50 minutes to complete this section, and it’s worth 33% of your total exam score. To maximize your chances of doing well keep these three tips in mind:
- Know your vocab
- Write in complete sentences, not complete paragraphs
- Connect your answer back to the question
Taking practice tests is one of the best ways to prepare for AP Psychology FRQ, and you should absolutely take advantage of the many official AP Psychology FRQ examples that the College Board has released.
Are you concerned about the AP Psychology test? Read this article to decide whether AP Psych will be especially challenging for you (or not!).
How should you prepare for AP Psychology? We've come up with the absolute best study plan for the AP Psych exam. Check out the five steps you need to follow!
Want some more study resources? We've found the 4 best AP Psych books you should be using as you study.
Looking for help studying for your AP exam?
Our one-on-one online AP tutoring services can help you prepare for your AP exams. Get matched with a top tutor who got a high score on the exam you're studying for!
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.