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Ultimate Guide to the AP Art History Exam

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In 2019, only about 24,476 of the more than five million students taking AP exams took the AP Art History exam. If you’re planning to take the AP Art History exam, whether you’ve taken the class or have self-studied, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how to best prepare for it.


When is the AP Art History Exam?


The 2020 AP Art History exam takes place on Friday, May 8, at 12 pm. For more information on all of the AP exams and their 2020 test times, check out our blog post 2020 AP Exam Schedule: Everything You Need to Know


What Does the AP Art History Exam Cover?


The AP Art History course teaches students the nature of art (its uses, meanings, and production) and societal responses to art throughout history. It seeks to immerse students in rich artistic traditions across cultures dating from prehistory to the present while fostering an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the history of art.


In this class, you can expect to learn “visual, contextual, and comparative analysis applied to a variety of art forms, understanding of individual works and connections between processes and products throughout history.” Although there are no official prerequisites for the coursework, students who have excelled in the humanities, such as literature or history, or in studio art classes, will find that these experiences enrich their perspective as they undertake the studying of art history. 


The AP Art History course was redesigned for the 2015-2016 school year, and while much of the course content remains the same, it is now presented alongside clear learning objectives for the exam. The scope was also narrowed to focus more on conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and analysis skills, with less emphasis placed on knowledge of specific artworks. The course does still require that students become familiar with a set of specific artwork, but this set shrunk from over 500 pieces in the previous curriculum to 250 included in the course redesign. 


The AP Art History course is commonly broken into 10 units. Below is a sequence of the units suggested by the College Board, along with the percentage of questions from each unit that will appear on the multiple-choice section of the AP Art History exam. 


AP Art History Unit Percentage of Multiple-Choice Questions 
Global Prehistory, 30,000–500 BCE About 4%
Ancient Mediterranean, 3500 BCE–300 CE About 15%
Early Europe and Colonial Americas, 200–1750 CE About 21%
Later Europe and Americas, 1750–1980 CE About 21%
Indigenous Americas, 1000 BCE–1980 CE About 6%
Africa, 1100–1980 CE About 6%
West and Central Asia, 500 BCE–1980 CE About 4%
South, East, and Southeast Asia, 300 BCE–1980 CE About 8%
The Pacific, 700-1980 CE About 4%
Global Contemporary, 1980 CE to Present About 11%


AP Art History Exam Content


The AP Art History exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours. It comprises two sections: one section of multiple-choice questions, the other of free response questions. 


Section 1: Multiple Choice 

1 hour | 80 questions | 50% of score


The first section lasts one hour, is made up of 80 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 50% of your total score. Of these 80 questions, there are approximately 40 individual questions, some of which are based on a color image of a work of art. The other 40 questions are grouped into eight sets of 3-6 questions, each set based on a different color image. 


Section 2: Free Response 

2 hours | 6 questions | 50% of score


The second section is the free response section, which lasts for two hours, includes six questions, and accounts for the remaining 50% of your total score. This section is divided into two 30-minute essays and four 15-minute essays, which often include images of art as stimuli for the given prompt.


30-Minute Essays: The longer of the free response questions will provide you with 3-5 works of art from the AP Art History course with a unifying idea. They may also call upon you to respond with a choice of artwork of your choosing, either from within or outside of the required course content. 


Question 1: The first 30-minute free response question focuses on comparison, tasking you with comparing select artwork from the course (images provided), and articulating the similarities and differences between the works. 


ap art history sample question

Question 2: The second long-answer free response question is about visual/contextual analysis, requiring you to analyze the visual and contextual features of a work of art from the AP Art History course (this is the only free response question which will not provide an image of artwork), and respond to a prompt with a thesis supported by evidence.  

ap art history sample question

Question 3: This question tests visual analysis, and requires you to examine the visual elements of a work of art—image provided—and connect it to a tradition, style, or practice. 

ap art history sample question

Question 4: The fourth question covers contextual analysis and asks you to evaluate the contextual elements from an image set and explain how context can influence artistic decisions. 

ap art history sample question

Question 5: This question focuses on attribution. Here, you must attribute a work of art to an artist and justify your assertion using visual evidence. 

Question 6: The final free response question spotlights continuity and change. You’ll need to identify the relationships—including artistic tradition, style, and/or practice—between works of art. 

AP Art History Score Distribution, Average Score, and Passing Rate


Exam 5 4 3 2 1
AP Art History  11.9% 24.6% 26.6% 24.7% 12.2%


The AP Art History exam is a tough one to master, though many students pass it with average scores. In 2019, 63.1% of students who took the AP Art History received a score of 3 or higher. Of these, only 11.9% of students received the top score of 5, with another 24.6% scoring a 4. If you’re curious about other score distributions, see our post Easiest and Hardest AP Exams.


Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Though a score of 3 is typically considered passing, it is not always enough to receive credit. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities can be found on the College Board website


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


Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Best Ways to Study for the AP Art History Exam

Step 1: Assess Your Skills


Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. Although the College Board AP Art History website provides a number of sample test questions and exam tips, it does not provide a complete sample test. However, practice tests are readily available in commercial study guides such as Barron’s AP Art History, 3rd Edition. Varsity Tutors also offers a handful of free diagnostic tests for AP Art History. You can also find an older version of test questions from the College Board’s 2011 exam or image-based questions from the 2013 exam to get a general idea of the test’s structure and content.


Step 2: Study the Material


The content and curriculum of the AP Art History course are based on three sets of big ideas and essential questions. These overarching concepts are intended to encourage critical thinking, analysis, and appreciation of art throughout time and place, and to foster your understanding of the field of art history. The big ideas and their associated essential questions are:   


  • Big Idea 1: Artists manipulate materials and ideas to create an aesthetic object, act, or event. Essential Question: What is art and how is it made?
  • Big Idea 2: Art making is shaped by tradition and change. Essential Question: Why and how does art change?
  • Big Idea 3: Interpretations of art are variable. Essential Question: How do we describe our thinking about art?


Through the exploration of big ideas and answering essential questions, you should develop a foundational set of art historical thinking skills. Below are eight distinct art history skills you’ll develop in the AP Art History course and the percentage of the multiple-choice section of the AP Art History exam you can expect them to represent. 


Skill Description  Percentage of Multiple-Choice Questions
Visual Analysis Analyze visual elements of works of art. 15%–19%
Contextual Analysis Analyze contextual elements of a work of art, and connect contextual and visual elements of a work of art. 28%–32%
Comparison of Works of Art Compare two or more works of art. 11%–13%
Artistic Traditions Analyze the relationships between a work of art and a related artistic tradition, style, and/or practice. 20%–25%
Visual Analysis of Unknown Works Analyze the visual elements of a work of art beyond the image set. 6%–8%
Attribution of Unknown Works Attribute works of art. 6%–8%
Art Historical Interpretations Analyze historical interpretations of art. 6%–8%
Argumentation Develop and support art historical arguments. Not assessed in the multiple-choice section


In addition to these specific art history thinking skills, you will also need to be familiar with the official AP Art History image set which contains “250 works of art categorized by geographic and chronological designations, beginning with works from global prehistory and ending with global contemporary works.” These works are found in the College Board AP Art History Course Description.   


The College Board refers students to Khan Academy’s comprehensive AP Art History Study Guide. This website has a wealth of free material for effectively and efficiently learning what you’ll need to know for the exam. The College Board also provides a series of useful videos on the AP Art History teacher site that give an overview of the curricular framework, exam format, and writing tips.


There are also a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions—for example, this website from Valerie White, a ceramics teacher. Be careful when accessing these, as many will be from previous versions of the exam.


Finally, another convenient way to study is to use one of the recently-developed apps for AP exams. These can make studying on-the-go a lot easier. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one—their quality varies widely. Here’s an AP Art History app from Varsity Tutors that currently has 4.2 stars.


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 another practice exam.


The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple-choice questions along with explanations of their answers. There are additional questions available in commercial study guides. As you go through these, try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Focus on understanding what each question is asking and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.


Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions


All free response questions on the AP Art History exam include either images of works of art (from the required course content, except in the case of attribution questions) or a list of works from the required course content to prompt student responses. For questions that ask you to identify a piece of work, you should try to include all available identifiers including title or designation, name of the artist and/or culture of origin, date of creation, and materials. You should be able to provide at least two correct identifiers, but you will not be penalized for any additional identifiers that are incorrect. 


On the free response section of the AP Art History exam, a distinct emphasis is placed on the strength of your writing. To be successful, you will need to use clear, appropriate, and descriptive language. Your ideas should be organized logically with coherent evidence to support your assertions. You will need to make fact-based inferences and closely align your writing with the prompt’s directives.


As you complete the free response questions, make sure to keep an eye on the time. Though you will be reminded of the time remaining by the exam proctor, you will not be forced to move on to another question. Make sure you stay on track to address each section of every question. No points can be awarded for answers left completely blank when time runs out.


A fantastic way to prepare for the free response questions on the AP Art History exam is to practice with them. The College Board has the free response questions from the 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016 exams posted on its website. Another helpful resource when preparing for the AP Art History exam is also found on the College Board website—this presentation from Heather Madar of Humboldt State University provides a small sampling of the free response questions, along with insight into how students performed and the places they struggled.


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, 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


If you’re taking the AP course associated with this exam, your teacher will walk you through how to register. If you’re self-studying, check out our blog post How to Self-Register for AP Exams.


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


Wondering what your odds of acceptance are to your dream school? Using your GPA, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and other data points, our chancing engine lets you know your chances of acceptance to over 500 colleges in the U.S. You can also see how you stack up against other applicants, and learn how to improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to start using our chancing engine today!


Looking for more great information about AP exams? Check out these other posts from CollegeVine: 


2020 AP Exam Schedule

How Long is Each AP Exam?

Easiest and Hardest AP Exams

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
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.