How to Answer AP® Psychology Free Response Questions | (2024)

One of the unique characteristics of AP® Psychology is the fact that the FRQ section accounts for just a third of a student’s score. While the free response may not be as greater weighted as the FRQs of other Advanced Placement classes, the two questions posted are still very important to a student’s ability to score a 3, 4, or 5. In this post, we’re going to review the best tips and tricks for answering AP® Psychology free response questions so you can feel confident about your FRQs.

Keep reading to get the scoop on everything you need to make the most of your AP® Psychology exam review.

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5 Steps on How to Write Effective AP® Psychology Free Responses

There are a few vital steps when it comes to putting your best foot forward in your AP® Psychology free response section.

1. Understand the difference between the concept application question and the research question.

The concept application and the research question are the two types of questions you’ll find on the AP® Psychology free response section.

For the concept application question, you’ll be presented with a scenario in which you will need to apply concepts to the scenario to demonstrate your content mastery. The intent of this question is to assess what the College Board calls Skill Category 1: Concept Understanding.

Concept Understanding is the ability to define, explain, and apply concepts, behavior, theories, and perspectives.

For the research question, you’ll often be given data from some form of research (i.e. experiment, survey, etc) and you’ll be assessed on your mastery of analyzing research studies.

The two skill categories assessed here are Data Analysis and Scientific Investigation.

Data Analysis is as you can imagine, the ability to read and interpret quantitative data.

Scientific Investigation is the ability to analyze psychological research studies.

A few years ago, it wasn’t always guaranteed that students would receive a research question; however, the College Board in recent years has made this more explicit that students should expect one of the two FRQs to be research questions.

Here are two examples of concept application questions from the 2019 and 2018 AP® Psychology exams:

How to Answer AP® Psychology Free Response Questions | (1)

Source: College Board

How to Answer AP® Psychology Free Response Questions | (2)

Source: College Board

Notice how the key directive for students in these concept application questions is to explain and apply concepts you learned in class.

Here are two examples of research questions from 2019 and 2017:

How to Answer AP® Psychology Free Response Questions | (3)

Source: College Board

How to Answer AP® Psychology Free Response Questions | (4)

Source: College Board

Notice how in these research questions, one part is dedicated to assessing your ability to analyze the set up of the research study, while the other part is more similar to a concept application question and requires explanation of how certain concepts relate to the scenario.

Here is a link for AP® Psychology past released exams

These past exams include scoring guidelines PDFs which outline how points were distributed for each respective question.

2. Learn from the mistakes of students from the past exams.

The nice thing about AP® Psychology is that it hasn’t changed all that much in the last decade. This means referencing past released exams can be a way to gain more insight than you might be able to get from other places.

You can learn a lot from these scoring guidelines. For example, if you read through the 2017-2019 guidelines, you’ll notice the College Board emphasizes a few general rules of thumb regarding the concept application question:

  • Answers need to be complete sentences (but spelling or grammatical mistakes are not penalized).
  • Just defining concepts or repeating terms given in the prompt is not enough to earn the point.
  • You can’t lose points for misinformation unless it directly contradicts correct information that would have scored a point.

When it comes to the research question:

  • Answering the wrong question won’t score you points (this shouldn’t be a big surprise).
  • Wishy washy answers do not score points. For example, if you’re asked whether or not the data supports the hypothesis, a response that falls into “it depends on how you view it” would not score points.
  • Connecting the concept to the behavior addressed in the question was one of the most common student mistakes. Students knew the general idea of a concept but couldn’t apply it.
  • Correlation does not equal causation.
  • Just knowing methods of research is not enough; you need to be able to compare and contrast related research methods and psychology concepts with each other.

Work your way through the last three year’s worth of scoring guidelines and read about the mistakes of past students. This will help familiarize you understand what to be mindful of when you start answering your own FRQs.

3. Underline or circle what each question part is asking you.

The bulk of the time, you will be asked to identify, describe, or explain.

To properly identify, you must provide 1-2 sentences where you directly answer the question. You will need to name the particular concept and connect it to the question prompt.

To describe, you’ll need to characterize something. This will typically take 2-3 sentences since after you characterize it, you’ll want to apply it back to the prompt. Similar directives more occasionally used could be expressed as show or illustrate.

When asked to explain, these responses often will be three sentences. One sentence to directly respond to the question, followed by 2-3 supporting and specific facts that support your answer. You’ll need to go into depth about how the particular concept or theory connects back to the prompt. Teachers often refer to these questions as ones where you want to “show the why”. Similar directives could be expressed as discuss or relate.

Aside from the directives, build the habit of also marking key vocabulary words or influential people brought up.

4. Plan out your response BEFORE you start writing.

Taking just a couple minutes to think about your response to each part of the AP® Psychology free response questions can make a huge difference in the thoroughness of your answers.

Consider what studies from your class you can bring in; citing past studies you’ve been exposed to is a stronger response than giving a personal life example when responding to an FRQ. Think about how clear it is as to why you’re bringing up an example or study.

Finally, consider what your topic sentence will be in each explanation of yours. Writing one can help bring clarity to your thoughts as you mold your response to the question.

Remember, the College Board uses the free response of the AP® Psychology exam to assess your ability to apply concepts, read and interpret data, and analyze psychological research studies.

This means this section just recalling definitions is not enough to earn you points. You must be able to apply what you know to the situations described to you.

5. Practice, practice, and then practice some more.

There is no better way to build your AP® Psychology free response test-taking confidence than through practicing.

You need to practice in order to gain exposure to enough past AP® Psych FRQs to better understand what sorts of questions will be asked of you.

For example, when it comes to the research question, you’ll be tested to demonstrate you know what is a hypothesis, independent variable, dependent variable, random sample, potential biases, and more.

The College Board provides a plethora of past released exams to help you navigate the preparation process, so use them!

We recommend teaming up with a friend or two to work on the same year together. Then, use the scoring guidelines to review the sample responses, and then to grade each other’s work. This will help you understand how a peer may have responded to the same question you answered, as well as what would and would not score you points.

20 AP® Psychology FRQ Tips to Scoring a 4 or 5

Now that we’ve gone over five steps to writing effective AP® Psychology free response questions, we can dig into test taking tips and strategies to help with approaching the concept application and research question.

We recommend you read through a few of these every time you start and end your AP® Psychology FRQ practice. Then, in the days leading up to your exam, read the entire list so they stay fresh in your mind.

7 AP® Psychology Concept Application Question Tips and Test Taking Strategies

  1. Be mindful of your time spent for the concept application question. The research question typically takes more time so you need to allocate time accordingly.
  2. Always define your term before you provide an example that relates back to the prompt. This helps serve as backup and demonstrates what you know.
  3. Remember to apply the term. Defining the term alone is not enough.
  4. Some teachers have told their students to underline the term in their responses; this is up to you, but could be a nice way to cue your reader in when they’re looking for whether or not you understand the definition of the term.
  5. One way to remember the last time is UDA: underline the term or concept being tested, define the term without using the term itself in the definition, and apply the term to an example.
  6. Use synonyms when elaborating on your definition of a term. Don’t use the term itself with its definition.
  7. Leave a line break or space after each part of your response. This makes it easier for your reader to follow along vs. a long block of text.

3 AP® Psychology Research Question Tips and Test Taking Strategies

  1. Review your definitions every day in the two weeks leading up to the exam. Make sure you’re confident in identifying the operational definition of different variables, what is a hypothesis, independent variable vs. dependent variable, etc. Here is a link to a series of operational definition flashcards.
  2. Include topic sentences when you’re explaining. They help give your responses direction as you translate the question for yourself.
  3. When providing supporting examples or studies, clearly state the purpose of you doing so. Avoid abstract references.

10 General AP® Psychology Free Response Tips and Test Taking Strategies

  1. Write in complete sentences. You should not outline or bullet your AP® Psychology free response answers.
  2. Outline your responses before you begin writing by using your question sheet.
  3. Be concise and direct. Don’t skirt around in your responses.
  4. This is not an AP® History class. There is no need for an introduction or conclusion paragraph.
  5. Don’t make diagrams or lists; you only get points for responses that use sentences.
  6. Use the appropriate psychological terms when responding to the FRQs. Same goes for the proper names of theories and theorists.
  7. Remember you can’t lose points for incorrect answers unless they contradict part of a correct response.
  8. Answer what you know first. Leave space for the things you don’t know or need more time to think about to go back to that part later.
  9. If you’re low on time and need to squeeze out a response, feel free to scratch out what you don’t want your reader to read. An erasable pen can also be helpful.
  10. Watch YouTube videos to refresh your memory on key concepts and theories. Crash Course has a great playlist that is a little dated but still helpful here.

Wrapping Things Up: How to Write AP® Psychology FRQs

We’ve gone over a lot in this AP® Psychology study guide. At this point, you should have everything you need to begin practicing writing your concept application and research question responses.

As we wrap things up, here are a few takeaways to remember:

  1. It’s important to always define the term, and then apply the term to an example. One cannot happen without the other.
  2. Create a system for yourself on how you’ll respond to each part of both questions. Consider using the UDA method for term-based questions. This is where you’ll underline the term, define the term, and then apply it.
  3. Plan your responses before you start writing by using your question sheet. Make sure your response is concise and direct, and structured in a way that is easy to grade.
  4. Master all your key psychological terms. Go through at least three years of past exams to familiarize yourself with the sorts of questions asked on the research question.
  5. Budget your time accordingly. Make sure you do not spend too much time on one question that you’re left with insufficient time to fully address the other question.

We hope you’ve taken away a lot from this AP® Psychology review guide.

If you’re looking for more free response questions or multiple choice questions, check out our website! Albert has tons of original standards-aligned practice questions for you with detailed explanations to help you learn by doing and score that 4 or 5.

Try Albert’s AP® Psychology practice questions for free

If you found this post helpful, you may also like our AP® Psychology tips here or our AP® Psychology score calculator here.

We also have an AP® Psychology review guide here.

How to Answer AP® Psychology Free Response Questions | (2024)
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