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The Ultimate AP Psychology Review Guide: 5-Step Prep Plan

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Nov 4, 2018 10:29:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Preparing for the AP Psychology exam shouldn't cause you to lose your sanity (pun intended). Some of the material is challenging, but overall it's not that scary compared to other AP tests. If you stay focused during your studying and are familiar with the format of the test, you'll have a good chance of acing it! In this article, I'll provide specific details on the structure and content of the exam and tell you how you can make the best use your AP Psychology review time to end up with a great score.


What’s the AP Psychology Exam Like?

The AP Psychology exam is one of the shorter AP tests, clocking in at just two hours total. You’ll have an hour and ten minutes to complete 100 multiple-choice questions and the remaining 50 minutes to complete two open response questions. Overall, I’d say it’s one of the easiest AP tests based on its length and the complexity of its content.

Since you only have 70 minutes for 100 multiple choice questions, you’ll need to make sure you’re keeping track of time. It’s important to move relatively quickly because you have less than a minute for each question! Try not to spend more than 30 seconds on a question; you can always come back to the question later. There is no guessing penalty on multiple choice (as for all AP exams now) so incorrect answers won’t hurt you any more than leaving questions blank.

The open response questions shouldn’t give you much trouble in terms of time. There are only two of them (much fewer than most other AP tests), and they’re usually very straightforward. In many cases, they will just ask you to explain how terms you’ve learned in AP Psychology relate to a specific situation. You’ll also need some knowledge of the scientific method for certain open response questions that ask about the methodology of a psychological study. I'll give you examples of AP Psychology multiple-choice and free response questions in the next section.


body_penalty.jpgNo penalties for incorrect answers! Finally, the College Board can lay off all those referees and free up some room in the budget.


What’s on the AP Psychology Exam?

Here’s an example of a multiple choice question you might see on the test:


This question is kind of wordy, and it may seem like you need to know a lot to figure it out, but you could actually get the answer without much psychology knowledge at all (though it’s less confusing with some background information). The baby monkeys preferred the soft cloth surrogate mother over the wire surrogate with food, indicating that the comfort of the cloth was more important to them than the food when they were scared. The answer is B! Most multiple choice questions will involve either simple logic, like this one, or basic memorization of the content in the course.

Here’s an example of an open response question that was on the 2015 exam:


Here, it’s easy to see how the points for the question are earned. The seven bullet points correspond to the seven possible points you can get from answering the question. This question is dependent on a comprehensive knowledge of specific terms and concepts from the AP Psychology curriculum.

The College Board provides a breakdown of the different topics on the AP Psychology exam by percentage of questions. Here are the topics you’ll see on the exam (from most to least common):

Topic Percentage of Questions
Research Methods 8-10
Biological Bases of Behavior 8-10
Social Psychology 8-10
Cognition 8-10
Learning 7-9
Developmental Psychology 7-9
Abnormal Psychology 7-9
Sensation and Perception 6-8
Motivation and Emotion 6-8
Personality 5-7
Testing and Individual Differences 5-7
Treatment of Psychological Disorders 5-7
States of Consciousness 2-4
History and Approaches 2-4


This might inform how much of your AP Psychology review time you spend studying each topic, but it’s probably more important to pay attention to where you struggle the most on an individual level. For example, if you know all there is to know about Research Methods but don’t remember much about Treatment of Psychological Disorders, you should spend more time reviewing the second topic even though it relates to fewer questions. In the next section, I’ll give more specific guidance on how to review for the exam.


Preliminary AP Psychology Study Tips

Here are some tips to keep in mind before you start your AP Psychology exam review! They'll help you stay on the right track and make the most of your time.


Tip 1: Plan Out Your Time

How much time do you have before the test? You'll need to take this into account when formulating your study plan. Think about how much time you can afford to spend studying for AP Psychology while considering the amount of other schoolwork you have. For example, if you think you have about 10 hours to study, your plan might look something like this:

  • Take and score a practice test (2.5 hours)
  • Go over your mistakes (1 hour)
  • Review weak content areas and update test-taking strategies (2 hours)
  • Take and score another practice test (2.5 hours)
  • Final review (2 hours)

If you have longer, you might be able to go more in-depth with your mistakes on the second practice test and even take a third or fourth test. Overall, your time should be split relatively evenly between taking practice tests and reviewing the material. Your plan could change depending on your initial scores and how much you’re looking to improve. I would say that you don't need to spend more than 20 hours total studying for AP Psychology. The amount of material isn't overwhelming, and it's not an especially difficult test. I’ll get more specific on how to use practice tests effectively in the next section.


Tip 2: Choose Review Materials Wisely

You’ll need reliable review materials to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your study sessions. I’d recommend buying a review book (5 Steps to a 5 and Cracking the AP Psychology Exam are the ones I like best). Review books cover just the information that you’ll need for the exam, so they’re going to be less overwhelming to study than your textbook or notes from class.

That being said, don’t totally ignore the resources you’ve accumulated in your AP Psychology class. Your notes might include unique methods for remembering concepts and terms which can be useful as an alternative to the information in a review book. Your textbook could be useful as well because it might have diagrams that are better than the ones in review books. I think it’s just nice to have a review book as a backup so that you stay focused on your studying and don’t spend time on topics that are less relevant for the exam.


body_wise.jpgThis wise owl says "hoo hooo hoooooo," which translates to "Choose your review materials wisely like I would!" Either that or "They're coming. Tonight."


Tip 3: Focus on Memorizing Terms

The AP Psychology exam is centered around psychological terms and theories. Some of these can be confusing and hard to tell apart (or not what they sound like intuitively). It's really important to have a solid grasp on all the terms that you learned in the course for both multiple choice and free response questions. Free response questions will often ask you to relate an obscure psychology term to a certain hypothetical scenario, and it's impossible to get points if you aren't completely confident about the meaning of the term.

Flashcards are helpful for this type of memorization. If you have time, you can make flashcards for all the important terms in the class or even just a few terms that always trip you up. These can be physical flashcards, or if that's too old-fashioned, you can use Quizlet to study virtual flashcards (in this case you won't even need to make your own; there are already a ton of user-created study sets). I find that writing down the definitions of terms yourself will drill their meanings into your brain more effectively, so I prefer making my own cards, but you can do whatever works best for your schedule and learning style.


body_mailing.jpgTo put a fun spin on studying and ensure that you never forget terms, you can send flashcards that describe psychological disorders to people who seem to have them based on your expert diagnosis. They'll be sure to thank you later (disclaimer: if you do this you are probably a sociopath).


Tip 4: Go Over Testing Strategies

Before you take a practice test, you should be aware of the testing pitfalls that may impact your score. Don't sacrifice points on practice tests (or the real test!) due to factors unrelated to your knowledge of the material. Here are some strategies for different types of test questions:


Multiple Choice Questions

As I mentioned earlier in this article, the exam doesn’t give you a ton of time for each multiple choice question. If you have a tendency to get stuck on difficult questions, you’ll need to keep this in mind during the AP Psychology test. Try to avoid spending more than 30 seconds on each question, and don't worry too much about skipping a few. It's possible to get a 5 on the test even if you miss 20-30 multiple choice questions. I'm not advocating skipping questions at random, but you should know that it's not the end of the world if you can't answer every single one.

It’s also important not to overthink multiple choice questions. The questions can sound and look complex, but most of the time they’re not overly difficult if you know the material. Underline the parts of the question that are most important so that you don’t get distracted or start to second-guess yourself. If one of the answers seems like it doesn’t make sense, eliminate it.


Free Response Questions

On free response questions, remember that this isn’t an English test! There’s no need to write an introduction and conclusion; go straight for the answer to the question. That being said, you should still write in complete sentences with correct grammar. Make it as easy as possible for the graders to find your answers and give you points. Underline verbs like “describe” or “define” in the question to keep yourself focused on the task at hand.

If the free response question is something like the example I provided in the previous section, it can be easier to work backward by putting yourself in the position of one of the people in the hypothetical scenario. You might say, "if I was looking to purchase a new house, what thoughts would cross my mind and why?" After thinking this through a little bit, you could look at the first term and make a connection. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning and decision-making, so it would be used extensively in the process of committing to the purchase of a new house.


body_starterhome.jpgThis is the only house that would be in my price range right now. Jim doesn't know how good he has it.


Your AP Psychology Review Plan in Action

Here’s a basic outline of the steps you should take once you’ve prepared your materials and made a rough study plan for AP Psychology.


Step 1: Take and Score a Practice Test

The first thing you should do is take an initial practice test to see how high you’re currently scoring. You can find practice tests for AP Psychology in review books and online. If you don’t have a review book, Googling “AP Psychology practice exam pdf” will yield many results. Use tests that were created as recently as possible (ideally within the last 5 years) to ensure that they are relatively similar to the test you’ll be taking.

Here’s a conversion table that shows you how raw composite scores from practice tests translate to the AP scale:

Composite Score

AP Score












To calculate your composite score, add up the number of multiple choice questions you answered correctly. Then, consult the scoring rubric for the free response questions to calculate the number of points you would earn on each question. Convert the number of points you earned on the free response questions to a value out of 50 (for example, if you got 8 out of 15 points on the two free response questions, you would convert that to about 27 out of 50). Then, add the raw score numbers from the multiple choice and free response sections together.

If you earned 75 points (75 questions correct) on the multiple choice section and 27 points on the free response section, your composite score would be a 102, making your official AP Score a 4. See this article for more information on calculating your score.

Once you’ve scored your practice test, you can set a future score goal. This is pretty simple for AP tests because the score range is just 1-5. There’s no reason not to aim for a 5 on the test, especially in the case of the AP Psychology exam. Since it’s one of the less difficult AP tests, a 5 should be achievable for you if you put some effort into studying. If you’re scoring very low right now, you could think about aiming for a 3 or 4 and increasing your goal if you reach it before the test. Even if you’re already in the 5 range, you should still consider doing a bit of studying if you have time. It's important to feel as comfortable as possible on the real test!


body_oldfriends.jpgYou want the AP Psychology test to be like an old friend that you still pretend to like out of pity.


Step 2: Analyze Your Mistakes

Look at the questions you got wrong or had to guess on, and try to figure out why you struggled. Did you forget a term or concept? Were you not sure what the question was asking? Did you make a careless error? Did you run out of time? Which of these issues was most prevalent? Did you notice a certain type of question that you tended to get wrong? Record your findings on the nature of your mistakes so that you can correct them in your studying. This guide will help you with reviewing your mistakes (I know it’s for SAT/ACT practice tests, but the same principles apply here).


Step 3: Review Weak Content Areas

If you made a lot of mistakes related to content or question misunderstandings, you should try to figure out which areas caused you the most trouble. Then, you can consult your notes or a review book to brush up on terms and concepts that you’ve forgotten. AP Psychology involves quite a bit of memorization, so there’s bound to be at least a few areas where you weren’t sure of the meaning of a term or couldn’t remember what a specific psychologist did.

Stay focused on your weak areas, and pay special attention to weak areas that are also big parts of the exam. For example, if questions about cognition give you trouble, but you also struggle with the history and approaches category, put more effort into studying cognition. A knowledge deficit in this area will cost you more points in the end.


body_theweakestlink.pngMake sure you fix any weak links in your psychology knowledge chain before the exam.


Step 4: Revise Your Test-Taking Strategies

If your mistakes fell heavily on the side of time issues and careless errors, you should think more about how you can change your approach to the test. Remember to avoid getting stuck on difficult questions if you’re running out of time. Consider slowing down a bit and reading questions more carefully if you suffer from careless errors.


Step 5: Rinse and Repeat!

After you’ve revised your strategies and brushed up on your content knowledge, you should take another practice test to assess your progress. Then, you can go through the review process again and take steps to improve further. You can do this as many times as it takes for you to feel comfortable with the test and reach your score goal.


When reviewing for the AP Psychology exam, it's important to pay attention to the format of the test so that you know what to expect. You should also devote special attention to topic areas that are the most difficult for you. Both strong content knowledge and smart testing strategies are important if you want to earn a high score.

Practice tests are the most valuable tools in your arsenal for checking on your progress as you review the material. Keep revising your strategies and closing any gaps in your content knowledge until you get to a score that makes you happy!


What's Next?

Want to learn more about specific AP Psychology topics? Start with our discussion of Stockholm Syndrome here.

What does a good score on the AP Psychology mean for you in college? Learn more about how AP credit works at colleges.

AP tests and SAT subject tests can both be important components of your college application. Find out the difference between the two and which type of test is more important.

Are you taking AP US History along with AP Psychology? Read this article for some helpful AP US History study resources.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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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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