AP Psychology Free Response Strategies

Prompts begin with a paragraph that describes the context for the question, perhaps providing the details of an experiment or describing the situation of an individual facing some life challenge. This is always followed by instructions on a distinct task or tasks that you need to complete, along with one or more sets of bullet points that specify subtasks. These subtasks are always the same: you complete the task with respect to a specific psychological term. In other words, the bullet points will list exactly what you need to write about, while the task(s) will tell you just how to talk about those ideas.

Complete the Tasks

To get all the points possible for a free-response question on the AP Psychology exam, you must complete all the specified tasks and subtasks. Often questions supply a single task (or set of two tasks) that you’ll need to complete for each of the listed bullet points. Sometimes, however, questions will contain a few distinct tasks, each assigned a letter and with some containing their own smaller lists of subtasks. When answering these questions, make sure you complete the appropriate task for each bullet point, and not any of the other tasks.

The types of tasks that the AP Psychology exam requires are relatively few in number. The most common are below.

  • A task that uses the verb identify generally requires you only to name a particular relevant concept and connect it to the prompt.
  • A task that says to give an example requires you to provide an appropriate example of the concept that’s relevant to the prompt.
  • A task that instructs you to describe, show, or illustrate a concept or theory requires you to define the term and apply it to the prompt.
  • A task that uses discuss, relate, or explain requires you to go into greater depth about a particular concept or theory, possibly making connections to other ideas in your response.

Generally speaking, regardless of the task, simply identifying or defining a term will be insufficient; you’ll need to apply that theory or concept to the specific situation in the prompt.

Scores for each free-response question are adjusted to be out of 25 points, regardless of the total number of tasks and subtasks, but each subtask is typically worth the same amount as any other. Thus, even if there are some bullet points you simply don’t remember, you can still get most of the points by addressing everything you do know. Give it your best shot when you’re not sure about the term, because you may still end up saying enough to earn you points. Just try not to contradict anything you say elsewhere in your response.

Plan Your Response

Now that you have a sense of what you need to do to earn those points, let’s consider how you do it. You have 50 minutes for all of Section II, which leaves you only 25 minutes per question. Begin with whichever question seems easier to you and aim to finish it in less than 25 minutes, so you have more time for the harder question.

Don’t just begin writing; first, take about 5 minutes to construct a plan for your essay. You can generally follow the order provided by the list of tasks and subtasks, but it can be helpful to jot down a brief outline on scratch paper to work out how you will complete each subtask successfully. Once you’ve laid out a plan of attack on paper or in your head, you’re ready to begin writing.

Write Simply and Clearly

Start with a brief introductory paragraph that directly addresses the prompt. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, because it won’t directly affect your score; a sentence or two is fine. In fact, it’s okay to closely paraphrase language from the prompt when constructing your introduction, though we strongly recommend that you don’t just restate the question. A nice intro can make it easier to connect the listed terms to the prompt, which is essential for earning those points.

After your introduction, follow the plan you laid out earlier. Use the tasks and subtasks to help you break up paragraphs. For example, you can give each subtask a separate paragraph, or combine two or three related subtasks into a single paragraph. Like the introduction, the body paragraphs don’t need to be masterful works of prose; you just need to put ideas into complete sentences that accomplish the task(s) and are clear enough for a grader to follow.

Write Legibly
It doesn’t matter how how eloquent or effective your essay is if the grader can’t read it. If you have a tendency to produce indecipherable script, slow down a bit and try to write more neatly. Your score might depend on it!

At the end, add a brief concluding paragraph consisting of a sentence or two. This is unlikely to have any impact on your AP Psychology free response score, so feel free to reiterate what you said in your introduction.