Before you sign up for any AP class, it's helpful to get an idea of whether you'll be able to handle the workload (and the exam!). AP Psychology is a popular AP class that's offered at many schools, so you might have the chance to take it at some point in your high school career.
But is AP psychology hard? Or is it a walk in the AP park? I'll tell you which factors go into judging the difficulty of an AP class and examine what they tell us about the AP Psychology class and exam specifically.
2020-2021 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests were held remotely in 2020, and information about how things will work for 2021 still evolving. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for you with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
What Determines the Difficulty of an AP Class? 5 Key Factors
There are several components we'll need to consider in order to get a clearer picture of how hard AP Psychology is overall. Here are the five factors I'll be discussing in this article.
Factor 1: Pass Rate
The number of students who score a 3 or above on the AP exam can be a good indication of how difficult the class is. If a very high percentage of students earn passing scores, it might mean that the class is less challenging.
It might also mean, however, that the class attracts higher-achieving students who are extremely well prepared and tend to do better on tests across the board. That's why, in addition to score averages, we'll consider the perceptions of students and the actual difficulty of the content tested.
Factor 2: Percentage of Students Who Earn a 5
Another important piece of statistical data that differs slightly from the pass rate is the percentage of students who earn 5s (the highest possible score) on the test.
A large percentage of students might pass, but if only a small group earns 5s, it could mean that true mastery of the course material is hard to achieve. Even students who get 5s haven't always fully mastered the material, as scoring a 5 on many AP tests means answering only 60-70% of questions correctly.
Factor 3: Content Difficulty
The actual content of the course is also, of course, a critical factor to consider in investigating the difficulty of an AP class. Even if many students pass the exam, the class might be challenging because of the amount of ground it covers or the complexity of the material.
Factor 4: How Students Perceive the Class
Another important factor in judging the difficulty of AP classes is the way students view them. As I mentioned, classes with high pass rates and high 5 rates might simply be courses that attract extremely hard-working students. Even if they ace the class and the AP exam, it doesn't necessarily mean that they thought the material was easy—they might just be willing to work through subjects that are hard for them.
Student feedback can give us a different perspective on the difficulty of an AP class.
Factor 5: When Students Take the Class
This is a factor that impacts perceptions of the AP class and exam. If students tend to take the class earlier in high school, they're more likely to say it's difficult. If they take it their junior or senior year, however, they're more likely to feel comfortable with the material since they've gotten used to the workload in high school and might have already taken other AP classes.
These are the five key factors that determine how difficult a particular AP class/exam is. In the next section, I'll go through all these factors for both the AP Psychology class and exam to give you a better idea of their overall difficulty level.
Time to put all the pieces together. Eventually, if you smoosh them together hard enough, a complete puzzle will materialize.
What Do Statistics Say About the AP Psychology Exam?
How hard is the AP Psych exam based on statistical data? To answer this, we'll look at the pass rate and 5 rate.
In 2020, the pass rate for the AP Psychology exam was 71.3%, which is right around average compared to other AP exams. In comparison, AP Physics C: Mechanics has an 84.3% pass rate (one of the highest), whereas AP Environmental Science has a 53.4% pass rate (one of the lowest). The pass rate statistics appear to indicate that the AP Psychology exam has a medium difficulty level when compared with other AP exams.
The 5 rate for the AP Psych exam is 22.4%, which is toward the upper end of the spectrum when compared with other AP exams. There are only 14 AP exams that have 5 rates higher than AP Psychology, compared with the 20-30 with lower 5 rates. This might make you think that the test is on the easier side.
But which is it? What does this data really tell us? Interpreting these statistics means striking a difficult balance. Paradoxically, sometimes AP tests with high pass rates are actually more difficult. Since the subjects themselves are challenging (and have a reputation for it), they only attract the most motivated, well-prepared students.
Similarly, AP tests for easier subjects might have low pass rates because these classes attract less motivated students who don't always prepare thoroughly. Low pass rates can also happen on extremely popular tests for which the number of students taking the test has increased rapidly, but their average level of preparation has declined due to the uneven quality of AP classes.
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Since AP Psychology is in the middle range of pass rate and 5-rate statistics, we might initially assume that it has a medium level of difficulty in comparison to other AP tests. However, because AP Psychology is also one of the more popular tests, the 5 rate and pass rate could actually indicate that it's much less difficult than your average AP test. In most other cases, popular tests have 5 rates that are skewed lower than the 5 rate for the AP Psychology exam.
Taking all this information into account, we can conclude that signs point to AP Psychology being one of the easier tests. The fact that it has only two free-response questions (as compared to six on a test such as AP Biology) and that most of the material can be mastered through simple memorization also support this conclusion.
Only two free-response questions??? WAHOOO!
Is the AP Psychology Content Difficult?
AP Psychology covers many different topics, but the content itself is not that difficult. The class focuses on teaching students about terms and theories that come from a relatively short period of history.
Since the breadth of the content is not as wide as it is for other AP classes, such as World History or Biology, teachers have the luxury of moving the course along at a more leisurely pace.
You can also rely mostly on memorization to do well in this class, as opposed to in-depth analytical skills or advanced problem-solving strategies. As long as you know what the terms mean and are familiar with major psychological theories, you'll probably know the answers to most AP Psychology questions.
There's even some room for interpretation in your answers to free-response questions. If a question asks you to describe how certain psychological terms could relate to a scenario, there will be many different ways for you to earn points.
Overall, the content for AP Psychology is manageable for most students. Compared with other AP classes, it's significantly less overwhelming and less complex.
Do Students Think AP Psychology Is Hard?
Another factor to consider is how students perceive AP Psychology. This can depend heavily on the teacher and the way the class is taught, but the nature of the material itself also plays a significant role. In general, the perception of AP Psychology leans toward the class and test being easier than most other AP classes.
Speaking from personal experience, I thought the AP Psychology class and test were the easiest of any AP class I took in high school. Many students who weren't in any other AP classes took AP Psychology, and they did just fine, both in the class and on the test.
It's a lot of memorization of terms, theories, and psychologists, but the way you're asked to use this knowledge on the test and in the class isn't necessarily highly complex. You just need to have a basic understanding of the definitions of terms and be able to apply them to different situations. The breadth of the material covered also isn't as wide as that in other AP classes.
My guess is that the only reason the 5 rate isn't even higher on the AP Psychology test is because many students don't prepare adequately. They might underestimate the exam since AP Psychology classes are typically easier than other AP classes.
Also, students who don't take many (or any) other AP classes frequently take AP Psychology just to get an AP on their transcripts. The test is definitely on the less difficult side, but the pass rate remains about average because so many kids take it—and many of them aren't adequately prepared.
Furthermore, AP Psychology is commonly taken during junior or senior year when students are better prepared for college-level material. This could be part of the reason students perceive the class as being relatively easy. By junior year, many high school students have taken other AP classes and can compare their experiences in those classes to their time spent in AP Psychology.
Dude, I hear you get to watch movies every day in AP Psych, and you don't have to do, like, any work.
Will AP Psychology Be Hard for You?
Whether AP Psychology will be difficult for you depends on how the class is taught at your school and what your strengths are as a student. Here's what you can do to figure out whether you're in for a challenge when it comes to taking AP Psych.
#1: Ask Former Students, Guidance Counselors, or Teachers About the Class
The best way to learn whether the AP Psychology class taught at your school will be difficult is to ask people who either know about the class or have been through it themselves.
If you're friends with any older students or have older siblings who took AP Psychology, ask them what they thought of the class. You might even ask your current teachers to see how they feel about AP Psychology and if they think you'd be able to handle it.
Your guidance counselor will also be familiar with your school's AP Psychology class and how students similar to you have fared in the course. This is a good way to judge whether the class is disproportionately easy or disproportionately hard in comparison to the actual AP test. It's nice to know beforehand if you'll need to do extra preparation for the test on your own to make up for a deceptively easy course.
#2: Determine Whether Psychology Is Your Kind of Subject
You should also think about whether you tend to succeed in classes that require similar skills to AP Psychology. AP Psychology is memorization-heavy, so you'll probably do well in it if history or biology classes have been your strong suit in the past. You might find it more challenging if you're not great at memorizing facts and instead gravitate toward classes for which the ability to use logical reasoning takes precedence over memorization (such as math).
#3: Consider Your Schedule
If you're taking a bunch of other difficult classes, you might not want to add AP Psychology into the mix. Even if it's a relatively easy class at your school, you'll still have to devote some prep time to it, and taking an additional class could stress you out too much.
AP Psychology could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. And YOU'RE THE CAMEL.
Conclusion: So Is AP Psychology Hard?
After considering all the factors, I would say that AP Psychology is not hard in comparison to other high-level classes. There isn't a huge amount of material to cover, students usually report that the class is easy, and the exam is less demanding and complex than many other AP exams.
This doesn't guarantee that the class won't be challenging for you (every school is different and so is every student), but the amount of work required will probably be less than that of most other AP classes, and the most important skill you'll need is memorization.
Make sure that you don't under-prepare for the exam, especially if your class ends up being especially easy. As long as you don't let your guard down too much, AP Psychology should overall be a manageable class for you!
What are some topics you might cover in AP Psychology? Get a taste with our discussion of Stockholm Syndrome and whether or not it's real.
If you're curious about the difficulty levels of other AP classes, read this article for an overview of how challenging the AP program is in general.
You should also check out this article that lists the average scores for all AP tests. It will give you a better idea of which classes are right for you and how you might structure your schedule going forward.
One of the benefits of AP is the ability to earn college credit. Learn more about how AP credit works at colleges.
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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.