Kate Sundquist 7 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the U.S. History AP Exam

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As you probably already know by this point in your high school career, Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams are administered each year under the oversight of the College Board. Although most students enroll in an actual course to prepare for their AP exams, many others will self-study for the exams without enrolling in the actual AP class.

The U.S. History AP exam is one of the most popular AP exams among self-studiers and enrolled students alike. In 2016, nearly 500,000 students took the U.S. History AP exam, accounting for nearly 19% of all students who took APs. If you are interested in taking the U.S. History 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 U.S. History AP exam measures your ability to analyze historical data, assess historical evidence, analyze significant issues in U.S. history, and understand historical sources, images, graphs, and maps. In 2015, it was redesigned at the urging of many AP teachers and the Republican National Committee, to reflect a less partisan account of history and to present information in a more factual manner, with less interpretation offered to students. Instead, students are now expected to understand the sequence of major historical events as presented, and interpret the significance of these events themselves.

In addition, the new exam is more focused on analytical and reading comprehension skills, rather than purely fact-based knowledge. It’s important to remember when preparing for the exam to use material produced in 2015 and after, as older material will be outdated and no longer helpful in preparing for the exam.    

The U.S. History AP exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours and 15 minutes. It is comprised of four sections. Section 1(a) takes 55 minutes, contains 55 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 40% of your total score. Section 1(b) contains four short-answer questions, takes 50 minutes, and accounts for 20% of your total score. The last two sections are both long-answer responses. Section 2(a) is a document-based question spanning 55 minutes (including 15 minutes of reading time) and accounting for 25% of your score. The last section, 2(b), gives two choices of long-essay prompts from which students must choose one and complete it in 35 minutes accounting for 15% of their score.

In 2016, 52.1% of students who took the U.S. History AP received a score of 3 or higher. Only 11.7% of students received the top score of 5, while 24.1% 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, located here.

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

It’s important to start your studying off with a good understanding of your existing knowledge. 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?

Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. Although the College Board U.S. History AP website provides a number of sample test questions, it does not provide a complete sample test. There is, however, one complete practice test with scoring guide provided on the College Board U.S. History AP teacher website. You can also find a practice test in many of the official study guides, and some even include a diagnostic test to act as your initial assessment.

Step 2: Study the material

The U.S. History AP course covers an enormous amount of material, so you should allow plenty of time to prepare. Material for the course is divided into seven themes: American and national identity; migration and settlement; politics and power; work, exchange, and technology; America in the world; geography and the environment; and culture and society. Throughout the course, students use these themes to frame historical developments in different times and places. You will need to learn the significant events, people, developments, and processes from U.S. history in nine historical periods and employ the thinking skills and methods used by historians to study the past. These include analyzing primary and secondary sources, making historical comparisons, chronological reasoning, and argumentation.    

The College Board provides a number of resources for planning your studies. These include a series of videos summarizing the course, a list of approved textbooks, and an endorsed study guide. The official course description is also an invaluable tool to shape your understanding of the course content.    

For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, consider using a formal study guide. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP U.S. History Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 is a very comprehensive guide and includes summaries of every major historical event you’ll need to know, along with scoring explanations. Another solid choice is Barron’s AP United States History, 3rd Edition which is written in much the same format as the AP exam and can be purchased with optional flashcards.

There are also a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. Be careful when accessing these though, as many will be from previous versions of the exam. Remember, anything published before 2015 is obselete for the U.S. History AP course and exam.   

Another 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 another practice exam.

Keep in mind that many of the questions on this exam test your ability to comprehend and analyze a passage of text, a table of information, or a map, rather than recall any specific historical knowledge. As such, practicing multiple-choice questions is just as important as having a solid grasp on the content of the course.

The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple choice questions along with explanations of their answers. 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

The U.S. History AP exam is different from other AP exams in that it consists of six free-response questions of varying length and content. To be successful on these sections, you should know what to expect from each question.

The first four free-response questions are considered short-answer and you will be allowed 50 minutes to complete them all. These questions tend to have multiple parts, with each requiring a very specific and limited response. You will probably be asked to interpret a graph or figure, compare and contrast the effects of different cultural approaches from specific time periods, or list distinct precipitating factors of significant historical events. You should be able to answer each part of these questions in a short, succinct paragraph.

The second free-response section is a document-based question, and you will have 55 minutes to complete it. This one question alone is worth 25% of your total exam score. To master it, you will need to carefully read the question, practice active reading skills while reviewing the documents, and make a strong outline before you begin to write. The exam will provide you with a rough outline of key considerations in the scoring of your work. This includes the definition of a strong thesis and specific elements to include in your essay, such as six of the seven sources, context for at least four of them, and an additional piece of data. Be sure to completely review these requirements and check them off as you are outlining and writing your response. Many points are lost by students who simply forget to include one of the scoring criterion. 

The last free-response section is a long essay response, and you will have 35 minutes to complete it. It is worth 15% of your total exam score. This section gives you the choice of two separate prompts. Remember that you only need to answer one of them, and answering both will not benefit your score in any way. As in the document-based question above, you will be provided with a rough outline of key considerations for the scoring of your work.  These include a strong thesis, application of your historical thinking skills, ability to support your argument with specific examples, and the synthesis of your response into a greater historical context.

For more details about how the document-based section and long-essay section are scored, review the College Board’s scoring rubric. To see authentic examples of past student responses and scoring explanations for each, visit the College Board’s Student Samples, Scoring Guidelines, and Commentary. Be sure to focus on responses from the redesigned exam, administered in 2016.   

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

In 2017, the U.S. History AP Exam will be administered on Friday, May 5 at 8 AM.   

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
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.