Devin Barricklow 5 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the U.S. Government and Politics Exam

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Taking an AP Exam is far from easy or stress-free. In the case of the AP U.S. Government and Politics Exam, this certainly isn’t a feat to be taken lightly. Whether you’ve taken the U.S. Government and Politics course, or if you’ve decided to self-study for the exam, AP exam season can be nerve wracking. After all, AP exam scores can help your application stand out for college admissions, and sometimes these scores can even earn you college credit.

That said, you might be confused on how to study for the U.S. Government and Politics. Before you panic or buy a bus ticket to Washington, D.C. in order to learn anything and everything about American politics, read on for tips and tricks on mastering this AP exam.

About the Exam

The U.S. Government and Politics Exam measures your understanding of American political culture. According to the College Board, “Students must be able to define, compare, explain, and interpret political concepts, policies, processes, perspectives, and behaviors that characterize the U.S. political system.”

You can check out the College Board website for more information about the exam. Keep in mind that the AP U.S. Government and Politics course is currently under review for changes. However, these changes won’t be put into place until 2018 at the earliest. You can find more information about the proposed changes here.


The exam will last 2 hours and 25 minutes. There is one multiple choice section that has 60 questions and lasts for 45 minutes, worth 50% of your exam score. There is also a free response section with four questions; it lasts 100 minutes and will be worth 50% of your score.


According to a Score Split from 2016, 12.4% of students who took the exam earned a 5 and 13.5% of students earned a 4. You should be aware, however, that these numbers are likely skewed by students who tend to self-study for the exam (these students have often not taken the actual U.S. Government and Politics course).


For more information about the what the U.S. Government and Politics course is like, check out the course description from College board website.


Step 1: Start with assessing your skills


In high school, teachers will generally start any new unit in a course with what is known as a “formative assessment.” This well-known cornerstone of teaching helps educators determine what their students already know and what they may have to focus on more. The formative assessment is based on the idea that you can’t know where to begin if you don’t have a realistic idea of where you are starting from.


You should start studying for the AP Gov exam by taking a practice test as your own formative assessment.These two practice tests from the College Board and Barron’s Books offer a good starting point. Score your own multiple choice section and free response, and then ask a friend to score your free response as well—and average the two scores since this area is subjective. After you’ve taken your formative assessment, you can better identify the areas in which you need to improve.


Step 2: Study the theory


Next, study the theory in the U.S. Government and Politics exam. There are many helpful study guides in this area, including Cracking the AP U.S. Government & Politics Exam 2016, Premium Edition—this offers very good comprehensive guide to the exam, although some people criticize it for having too much information. You should think of this study guide as a textbook, rather than  a resource to help you cram the night before the test.


There are also many online study resources. Some AP teachers post complete study guides or hand out review sheets and test questions as preparation for the exam. You can check out these study guides from,, and quizlet for more review.


Apps are also a new, fun way to study for AP exams. Just be sure to read the reviews before you purchase one, as you don’t want to end up spending a lot of money on an application that isn’t actually effective! Two highly regarded AP Gov and Politics study apps are AP US Government & Politics Exam Prep by Brainscape and AP US Government: Practice Tests and Flashcards by Varsity Tutors.


Step 3: Practice multiple choice questions


After you’ve determined what your strengths and weaknesses are and have reviewed the theory, you should practice the multiple choice questions. There are many practice multiple choice questions available in study guides and online.


Be sure to focus on understanding what each question is asking, and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar to you.


Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions


Next, practice the FRQs. Be sure to pay attention to task verbs in questions. These will be words like “describe,” “define,” “discuss,” “explain,” “compare/contrast,” “evaluate/assess,” and “analyze.” Make sure that you understand what each word is asking you to do, and allow this to guide you when answering the free response questions.


You should also be extra careful when answering questions that have multiple parts. Underline each section of the question and check them off as you write—students often lose points by forgetting to include a given part of a multipart question.


When you’re writing your FRQs, use task verbs in your answer. If you are asked to “give a specific example,” start that part of your answer with “One specific example of this would be…”


It might also be helpful to review scoring examples via the College Board site to understand where students often go wrong or how they might lose points on this section of the exam.

Step 5: Take another practice exam


After you’ve taken a formative assessment, studied the theory, studied the multiple choice section, and worked on your FRQ writing skills, take another practice exam. Score it the same way as before, and repeat the studying process, making sure to target the areas that are still weak.


Step 6: Exam Day


Register to take the test through your high school. If you’re homeschooled or attend a school that doesn’t offer the test you want to take, you can contact AP Services no later than March 1st to get a list of names and phone numbers of local AP coordinators that might be willing to test outside students. You can look at the College Board site for more information on this process.


Be sure to bring #2 pencils and pens with either black or dark blue ink with you. This year, the exam is on Thursday, May 4th, 2017 at 8:00 am.


For more information about AP exams and classes, check out these blog posts:


What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave At Home?)

AP Exam Scores: All Your Questions Answered

How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class)

What Is an Advanced Placement (AP) Class?

Devin Barricklow
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).