How to Approach Free-Response Questions - Part IV: Test-Taking Strategies for the AP Psychology Exam

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How to Approach Free-Response Questions
Part IV: Test-Taking Strategies for the AP Psychology Exam


Section II: free response. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? That word free gives it a melodic sound. Well, don’t be fooled. On the AP Psychology Exam, “free response” is simply a euphemism for timed essays. Let’s review the facts about Section II.

· You are required to answer two essays.

· There is no choice—two essays are presented, and you must do both.

· Each essay is worth 16Image percent of your score, or 25 out of the 150 points on the exam.

· Each essay has a specified number of pieces of information you need to provide, usually 7.

How Do They Score Them?

Before the graders begin reading essays, they are given a “checklist” of points they should look for. The AP Psych bigwigs determine exactly how many points each essay is worth by doing a count. Keep in mind that the readers are locked into that scale—they will not give you an extra point for unrelated information or anything else.

Sound Familiar?

Often, when a student realizes he needs to write an essay under timed conditions, panic sets in. As he begins to read the question, his heart races, and he has difficulty concentrating on what the question is asking. He knows he should outline something, but he is afraid he will run out of time, so he just jumps in and starts writing. Midway through paragraph one, feeling a little light-headed, he realizes that he doesn’t really understand the question. He glances back at the question but, worried that he’s losing precious minutes, decides he needs to forge ahead.

Partway through paragraph two (yes, he did remember to use paragraphs), he realizes that he has skipped a big point he needs to make. Should he cross off what he has written, or do the verbal backpedal until he can work it in? “How much time is left, anyway?” he asks himself. And on it goes.

Relax: All of us at one time or another have felt our sympathetic nervous system kick into gear at the mention of a timed essay. How can you effectively write not one but two essays in a limited period of time? By being a smart tester, of course.


Compare the smart tester’s approach to our panicked tester from above. The smart tester knows that she can’t write an effective essay without understanding the question. She spends her first 1—2 minutes “working the question over,” pulling it apart to make sure she knows exactly what she is being asked to do. Next, she sets up a chart and spends 3—5 minutes outlining the points she will make. She then counts up her points and sketches out the layout of the essay.

In that first 7—10 minutes, the smart tester has done the bulk of the work for her essay without actually writing a word of it. She can then spend the next 15 minutes writing the essay, whose framework she has already created; no skipped points, no major cross-outs. She may even be able to put in some impressive vocabulary. Spending time planning the essay actually gives you more time for writing the essay.

Be the Smart Tester

Because you have read this far in the book, you must be a smart tester. We’re now going to teach you all the secrets of writing a great essay (or two, for that matter) without activating your adrenal glands. To become the smart essay writer, you first need to know what the readers—the people who will grade your essays—are looking for.

What’s in an Essay

There are lots of different ways to write a quality essay. However, you have a more specific goal in mind when it comes to the AP Psychology essays—you want to get points. Therefore, you need to know what the graders want so that you can write an essay that will earn a good score. Let’s start by taking a peek at what they say they want from a good essay.

According to the College Board’s published materials on the AP Psychology free-response questions, you may be asked to do one of the following:

· Construct/Draw: Create a graph that illustrates or explains relationships or phenomena.

· Define: Provide a specific meaning for a word or concept.

· Describe: Provide the relevant characteristics of a specified topic.

· Draw a conclusion: Use available information to formulate an accurate statement that demonstrates understanding based on evidence. This is sometimes phrased as, “What is the most appropriate conclusion?”

· Explain: Provide information about how or why a relationship, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning to support or qualify a claim. Explain “how” typically requires analyzing the relationship, situation, or outcome. Explain “why” typically requires analysis of motivations or reasons for the relationship, situation, or outcome.

· Identify/State: Indicate or provide information about a specified topic, without elaboration or explanation.

“Huh?” you ask. Let’s simplify. To get a good score on an AP Psych essay, you should do the following in order to make it easy for the grader to award points to you:

· Get right to the point—a sentence or two is enough of an introduction.

· Use psychology terms and proper names of theories, theorists, and so on.

· Define all terms.

· Support everything with an example or study, preferably from your course work (not an example from your own personal life).

· Clearly state the purpose of the example or study (support or contrast).

· Be clear, concise, and direct.

· Underline all key terms.

What Not to Do

In addition, there are a few no-nos that the College Board implies or states outright.

· Do not restate the question in your essay.

· Do not suggest anything that can be misconstrued as unethical.

· Do not write everything you know on the topic; stay focused on the question.

· Do not spend a lot of time writing your introduction and conclusion.

· Do not begin writing until you have a clue about what you are going to write.

Beginning to get the picture? Although this may seem like a tall order, let us ease your mind a bit: each of your essays will receive approximately five minutes of the reader’s time. What? All that work for a lousy five minutes? Yup. Check out how AP essays are scored.

The Reading

After the AP Exams are given, the College Board and ETS get together a slew of high school teachers and college professors and stick them in a room for six days to do nothing but read essays. ETS and the Board fondly refer to this process as the Reading (always capitalized). During the Reading, the readers are typically required to read hundreds of essays.

The readers first create a rubric by which to grade the essays. Most essays require between 6 and 10 pieces of information. Each essay is then read, and a point is given for each required component covered accurately and completely. The points are then added together; most recently, each essay was worth 7 points. Here’s an example. A particular essay question has 10 required pieces of information, of which you wrote accurately and completely about 7. In this case, 2.5 is the multiplier because there were 10 points available (2.5 × 10 = 25). Because you supplied 7 pieces of information correctly and accurately, 7 is multiplied by 2.5, giving you 17.5 out of a possible 25. Note that there are no deductions—just points given for discussing the information correctly and completely. Your essay may be read and scored by a number of readers. For the most recent essay questions, you can read the individual rubrics and required information at

Talkin’ About Good News

This is all good news for you because it means that you can put together a high-scoring essay without panicking about time constraints and exact wording. Let’s work through the smart-tester strategies for writing a high-scoring essay, and then finish up with some pointers for adding polish.

Smart-Tester Strategy #1: Work It


Imagine you are in the boxing ring of the AP Psychology Championship. You have already sustained 70 minutes of multiple-choice sparring, and now you have to take on two more big questions in 50 minutes to come out the winner. When the proctor says “go,” you come out of your corner ready to take on that essay question. You’re not hanging back, passively reading the question, hoping to understand it. If you took that approach, you’d get pummeled, and so would your score. Instead, you get in there and work it over; you pull it apart, examine each piece, and determine what the important stuff is.

Work It

The first step is reading the entire question. Then, start taking it apart piece by piece.

1.Although popular in American culture, the efficiency of the “time-out” method in modifying children’s behavior is under much debate.

Now you should “work over” the above statement. Circle the trigger words—words that indicate transitions and changes in the direction of the sentence—and then underline the critical terms. Make notes as needed to ensure that you understand the point of the sentence.

Here’s what we did:

1.Although popular in American culture, the efficiency of the “time-out” method in modifying children’s behavior is under much debate.

Popular here, but does it work?

Smart-Tester Strategy #2: Chart It


Most Section II essay questions begin with a statement like the one we just saw and then go on to ask you to do some detailed stuff. Often, the essays have two parts (A and B) that you have to write about. Look at one part at a time:

A.Basing your answer on psychological knowledge, discuss both the pros and cons of the time-out in regard to each of the following:


Cognitive Development

Adult Relationships

Let’s work Part A together. The first phrase emphasizes the importance of using what you have learned, not just what you feel about the subject. This is the AP Psychology Exam, after all. Next, the statement says to discuss both the pros and cons of time-out in regard to the three topics. Before you go any further, draw a chart next to the list of three topics. At the top of one column, write “pro,” and at the top of the other, write “con.” You know you have to do at least two things for each of the topics: address the pros of each in regard to the time-out and then the cons. The chart will help you keep track of what you are doing.


Next, look at each topic to make sure that you can 1) define it and 2) illustrate it. Before you can list the pros and cons for any of the three topics, you will need to clarify what each is and give an appropriate example. You may wish to add a column to your chart in front of the other two that reminds you to define and illustrate each term.

This is what Part A should look like now:

A.Basing your answer on psychological knowledge, discuss both the pros and cons of the time-out in regard to each of the following:


So far, so good. Now let’s look at Part B:

B.Explain how the following methods of teaching behavior could be used instead of the time-out:


Positive Reinforcement

Once again, mark the critical stuff—what are you being asked to do? Define each method, and illustrate how each could be used in place of time-out. Draw a chart with two columns: “define” (you should always define the term even if the question doesn’t ask you to) and “use instead” (illustrate how this method will be used in place of the time-out). Here’s how the chart should look:


But Wait, There’s More

You’re well on your way to a great essay, but there are a few more things you need to do. And don’t worry about this taking a long time; it won’t after a little practice. Let’s put everything together and look at what we have:

1.Although popular in American culture, the efficiency of the “time-out” method in modifying children’s behavior is under much debate.

Popular here, but does it work?

A.Basing your answer on psychological knowledge, discuss both the pros and cons of the time-out in regard to each of the following:


B.Explain how the following methods of teaching behavior could be used instead of the time-out:


Before you write your essay, fill in your charts. Blank charts are not going to make your life easier. If you jot just a few notes under each column, you will be able to better organize your thoughts before you begin writing. Let’s do the first part of A together:

For the “Attachment” part of A, write the following in your first column:

Bond with parents, ex. geese, separation anxiety

But What If?

What if you are unfamiliar with the topics the essay is addressing? Unfortunately, there’s no way to fabricate your way to a good essay. You need to get working on those review chapters. The stuff you need to know to answer this question can be found in Chapter 13: Developmental Psychology.

You will define attachment in your essay as critical bonding with primary caregivers (parents). The first column shows that you plan to emphasize the critical nature of this attachment by explaining imprinting—the tendency of young animals, such as goslings, to attach to the first moving object they see (presumably their mother). Next, you will underscore the importance of human attachment with an explanation and illustration of separation anxiety.

What are the pros and cons of time-out in regard to attachment? Jot notes in your pros column such as:

Not many, authority figure, should attach after time-out

These notes indicate that the time-out is not a benefit to attachment. However, it does establish the parent as the authority figure and can be done without significant damage to attachment if loving attachment is pursued at the conclusion of the time-out.

How about cons?

Mistrust of parent, separation anxiety

The time-out may in fact lead to problems associated with attachment, such as mistrust of the parent’s care and affection or problems associated with separation anxiety. By taking the time to jot down your thoughts, you ensure that your essay is well on its way to being written—and written well, for that matter. Continue this process for the points of Part A and Part B.

Smart-Tester Strategies #1 and #2

Let’s review. Smart-Tester Strategy #1: Work It—work the question over so that you know exactly what you are being asked. While you are working over the question, you will also begin to do Smart-Tester Strategy #2: Chart It—draw your charts and, if you feel comfortable, fill them in at the same time (why add another step?). You may wish to give the question a quick read-through before you begin, but you don’t need to artificially separate working the question from writing your outline. This entire process should take you between five and seven minutes.

Smart-Tester Strategy #3: Count It


Most recently, the College Board readers score your essay on a scale ranging from 0 to 7. You can actually estimate what that number is and use that information to make sure that you don’t lose any points. Once you have finished the Work It and Chart It steps, take a minute to number all the possible points that you could earn. A point is given for each of the main things you are asked to do in a given essay. Flip back to the time-out essay question and number each part that you would consider “point-worthy.” Then count up. We’ll wait here.

Finished? What did you get? If you counted 13 points, that’s right. Here’s how we got it:

If you write your essay well, you will get 3 points for each of the three categories in Part A (attachment, cognitive development, and adult relationships)—1 point will be awarded for defining each term, 1 point will be awarded for illustrating a con argument, and 1 point for having a pro argument. Therefore, Part A is worth 9 points.

Part B is worth 4 points—1 point for each of the two topics that you address: 1 point awarded for the definition of each term and 1 point for each explanation of how they can be used instead of time-out. Part B is typically awarded fewer points than Part A.

The reader would then take however many points you got correct and multiple it by a constant (in this case, 1.923) to get an overall essay score out of 25 points. Why should you care about how many points an essay is worth? Because you don’t want to miss a major component and, consequently, lose points. You also will use this information to complete the last smart-tester strategy before you start to write the essay.

Smart-Tester Strategy #4: Sketch It

Sketch out your essay in the one minute or so before you begin to write. Insert your “points” so that you know exactly how the whole thing is organized. Then use your sketch as your checklist while you write your essay.

First, draw a box to represent a paragraph. In the box, write the word open so that you don’t forget your opening line and then insert the first points you will make:


1 define and illustrate attachment

2 pros and cons re: time-out and attach.


But What If?

What if you don’t know one of the terms in the question? Remember, you will get no points for supplying no information, so do your best to analyze (pull apart) the possible meaning of the word and then make up an answer.

Each time you think you need a new paragraph, draw a new box and insert your points.

3 define and illustrate cognitive dev.

4 pros and cons re: time-out and cogn. dev.

5 define and illustrate adult relationships

6 pros and cons re: time-out and adult relat.

7 define shaping—use instead of time-out

8 define pos. reinforcement—use instead of time-out Closing

Smart-Tester Strategy #5: Write It

Now that you have a sketch, your essay will practically write itself. You just need to piece it together in a clear, concise manner. As you write, check off each point on your sketch as you complete it. That way you’ll be sure not to skip anything. Keep in mind that the readers will not grade your charts or outlines. The essay must be written in paragraph form. Be sure to write in complete sentences. Don’t use symbols or bulleted lists to define or give examples. If you are running out of time, continue writing pertinent information. Your essay should take about 10 to 15 minutes to write. Then it’s on to the second essay!

The Opening

Did you think we’d desert you without first guiding you through the actual writing? Never! Let’s review how to get a good score according to the College Board.

Essay-Writing Guidelines

· Write an introductory sentence that is not a repeat of the question.

· Use psychology terms and proper names of theories, theorists, and other important concepts.

· Define and underline all key terms.

· Support everything with an example or study, preferably from your course work (not an example from your own personal life).

· Clearly state the purpose of the example or study (support or contrast).

· Be clear, concise, and direct.

First, write an opening. Your opening sentence needs to introduce what you are going to say and to incorporate what the question says without simply rewriting the question. Restating the question is a big pet peeve of the College Board. Let’s try an opening sentence for the “time-out” essay:

In the United States, the “time-out” has become an acceptable means of dealing with inappropriate behavior of children, but it may have both positive and negative effects on the development of our youth.

Pretty good, huh? It says what it needs to, introduces your point, and tells the reader that you are going to look at both sides of the issue. From here, jump right into your discussion of attachment.

Choose Your Words Wisely

The more appropriate psychological terms you use, the better the point-value of your essay. In the “time-out” essay, a point-getter is to use the term separation anxiety, relating to attachment issues. Even though the readers are scanning your essay pretty quickly, they have been trained to look for appropriate psychological terms. When they see one, they will slow down (possibly even smile a little) to read more carefully. But remember this: you cannot earn points if you do not define, illustrate, or give an example of the psychological term.

Examples, Examples, Examples

All the College Board literature clearly states that the graders like, and often expect, to see students’ points supported by appropriate examples. When inserting examples, remember the following:

1. Don’t use examples from your personal life.

2. Make sure they are relevant to your point and make a clear reference to the question being asked.

3. Flag your examples with the words “for example.”

A good example is something that you learned in your course, from your own reading, or from this book. A bad example is, “my little brother hates it when Mom puts him in time-out.” Enough said.

Before you give the example, make it clear whether it is supporting your point or contesting your point. This procedure ties in perfectly with the third point about examples: always flag your examples with an introductory phrase. Again, the readers are reading your essay quickly. They will pause if they see an example and will be impressed by examples that are clearly delineated. If your example supports a point you just made, flag it with “for example.” If it contrasts the point, insert a sentence that introduces it:

Most will agree that the time-out is clearly an improvement over corporal punishment. However, attachment dysfunction can have far-reaching effects. For example…

Note that the word however introduces the change in direction of the paragraph. Putting your example after that sentence makes it clear that your example is in contrast to a previous point.


Once you have included all the points you need to make, write a final closing sentence that summarizes your overriding theme:

Thus, while the time-out may have some benefits, the potential emotional scars it can leave behind should not be underestimated.

You tell ’em!

Plain, Good Writing

Finally, don’t add in a lot of fluff. The AP Psych essay questions are pretty meaty. Your job is to write an essay that has no additives or fillers. At the same time, it’s important that your essay be complete. Don’t skip over points. Your reader is counting up the 7 points you are supposed to make. If you miss one, you lose a point. That also goes for running out of time. There is no reason to run out of time on an essay, and if you do, it will hurt your score. To avoid this problem, use the plan below.

Essay Smart-Tester Strategies

Total Time 7—10 minutes

#1 Work It

1—2 minutes

#2 Chart It

3—5 minutes

#3 Count It

1 minute

#4 Sketch It

1—2 minutes

Essay Smart-Tester Strategies

Total Time 10—15 minutes

#5 Write It

Keep track of your own time. Finish the essay before time is called.

Follow this same timetable for both essays. When you hit the 25-minute mark, you better hustle on to the second essay. If you are still working on essay number one, finish up as quickly as possible and move on.

Finishing Touches

There are just a few more things to make sure you get all the points you can. First, when you’ve finished an essay, double-check that you have addressed all the points you originally counted. Second, as you move from one thought to another, use trigger words and transitional phrases. For example:

Another important area to examine when considering the possible repercussions of the “time-out” is the cognitive development of children.

As compared with:

Cognitive development of children comes in stages.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with the second sentence, the first sentence creates better flow and more overall cohesion to your essay.


Don’t rely on your proctor to keep the time accurately or to remember to give you the 25-minute warning. If, for some reason, your proctor is a flake, you won’t be able to use that excuse to explain why your essay is only half done. Wear a watch, and keep your own time.

Also, use the highest level of vocabulary that is comfortable for you. In other words, don’t use too much slang, but don’t write in a way that will sound awkward or forced. Do your best to use the most concise terminology possible. Misused words stick out like sore thumbs. Err on the side of caution.

Lookin’ Good

Lastly, remember that first impressions count. In the case of your essays, the better they look, the more positive a reader is likely to regard them at the outset. Readers can’t help but feel better about an essay that is legible and long enough to appear complete. Make sure you indent the paragraphs and neatly cross out mistakes (if you need to).

Put It All Together

Now that you have the knowledge to be a smart essay writer, put your skills to the test on the following question. When you are finished, check your work against ours (this page). You can find many more sample prompts from real tests to practice on at Good luck and good writing!

2.More and more, stress is being cited as a major contributor to both physiological and psychological problems.

A.Define how stress can have both physiological and psychological consequences in light of each of the following scenarios:

Daily hassles

Significant life events


B.What tactics can individuals employ to better cope with stress? Choose two methods that would effectively reduce the individual’s stress level.