Psychology Document Based Questions Essays

The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is a smart choice for students seeking challenging classes and college credit. The Psychology AP exam is one of the APs most commonly taken as a self-study test. Although many students enroll in the class, this particular exam is also well-suited to self-studying, due to its heavy emphasis on vocabulary and highly specific theory. If you are interested in taking the Psychology AP exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.


About the Exam

The Psychology AP course explores concepts, theories, and behaviors associated with the field and research areas of psychology. Successful students will become familiar with the history of the field, past and current research methods, and the biological and emotional bases for behavior. Because psychology is a rapidly changing field, students should ensure that they prepare for the test with the most current materials available. For the 2017 exam, all terminology, criteria, and classifications referred to in multiple-choice and free-response questions adhere to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).


The Psychology AP exam is one of the shortest AP exams, clocking in at just two hours and comprised of two sections. The first section takes one hour and 10 minutes, contains 100 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 66.6% of your total score. The second section takes 50 minutes, contains two free-response questions, and accounts for 33.3% of your score.


In 2016, 64.2% of students who took the Psychology AP received a score of 3 or higher. Only 19% of students received the top score of 5, while 21.6% scored a 1 on the exam. Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities can be found here.


A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the test can be found in the College Board course description.


Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.


Step 1: Assess Your Skills


Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material.To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?


Although the College Board Psychology AP website provides a number of sample test questions, it does not provide a complete sample test. There are, however, three complete practice tests with scoring guides provided on the College Board Psychology AP teacher website. One is a released exam from 1994 available here, another from 1999 is available here, and the most current is a released exam from 2012, available here. You can also find a practice test in many of the commercial study guides, and some even include a diagnostic test to act as your initial assessment.


Once you have taken some kind of formative assessment, score it to identify the areas you already understand and those in need of improvement. It can be helpful to have a friend help to score your free response essays, as these are more subjective than the multiple choice section. From an accurate formative assessment, you will get a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.


Step 2: Study the theory

In the case of the Psychology AP, you will need to master the basic history of psychology along with the fundamental theories and approaches. This includes the following concept areas:


  • History and Approaches
  • Research Methods
  • Biological Bases of Behavior
  • Sensation and Perception
  • States of Consciousness
  • Learning
  • Cognition
  • Motivation and Emotion
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Personality
  • Testing and Individual Differences
  • Abnormal Behavior
  • Treatment of Abnormal Behavior
  • Social Psychology


For a more specific breakdown of the content above, check the College Board’s Course Description.


You will likely need some study resources to help you as you tackle this content. The Myers’ Psychology For AP textbook is the most comprehensive guide as it is designed specifically for the AP class. Some criticize it for having too much information and for being particularly expensive, but it does cover in depth all of the theory necessary for the exam. For information that is presented more concisely, you might consider the Barron’s AP Psychology 7th Edition study guide. There are also accompanying Barron’s AP Psychology flashcards available.


In addition, there are tons of study resources available online, including many from AP teachers who have posted comprehensive outlines and study guides. One high school in California has published a wealth of study resources, chapter outlines, and vocabulary lists available here. Another 14-page study guide can be found here.


Additionally, a new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one — their quality varies widely.


Step 3: Practice Multiple Choice Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice questions. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple-choice section of a practice exam. Many samples questions with answers and explanations can be found in the official course description. Try to keep track of which concepts and vocabulary are still tripping you up, and go back over this material again.


Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

The College Board reports that typical AP Psychology free-response prompts will ask you to “analyze a unique scenario using concepts from different theoretical frameworks or subdomains in the field, or design, analyze, or critique a research study.” As such, on the free-response section you should be prepared to make practical use of your theory. Be familiar with how to apply the most common principles from the field, and know how to effectively design or evaluate a research study.


To effectively master the free response section of your Psychology AP, you should have a good understanding of what task verbs you will commonly encounter, and precisely what each is asking you to do. The College Board provides the following definitions for the most commonly encountered directives on the Psychology AP:


  • Identify requires that students name or point out psychological concepts as they pertain to the question.


  • Show or describe requires students to detail the essential characteristics and/or examples of a particular concept, theory, or phenomenon.


  • Explain, discuss, and relate require that students make logical and coherent connections among the prompt (or premise), question, and psychological concepts.


Before you begin writing, make a brief, strong outline. It will not count towards your score, but it will help to organize your thoughts. Try to include specific examples from your studying and make sure to clearly introduce them in your writing. Common ways to successfully highlight specific examples include “For example,” or “One example of this is”.


The best way to prepare for the free-response prompts is to practice them and study the scoring examples provided by the College Board. These authentic student responses with real scoring explanations should give you a good idea of how free-response questions are scored, and where points are commonly lost. Be sure to check out the College Board’s extensive collection of student samples and scoring explanations.


Step 5: Take another practice test

As you did at the very beginning of your studying, take a practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge you’ve accumulated, and it’s likely that you will see patterns identifying which areas have improved the most and which areas still need improvement.


If you have time, repeat each of the steps above to incrementally increase your score.


Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the Psychology AP Exam will be administered on Monday, May 1 at 12 PM.


For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).

For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?

If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.    

For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts


Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine

Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.

Latest posts by Kate Sundquist (see all)

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