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.

The World History AP exam is one of the more popular AP exams among self-studiers and enrolled students alike. In 2016, over 265,000 students took the World History AP exam, accounting for over 10% of all students who took APs. If you are interested in taking the World 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 World History AP course investigates the content of world history for significant events, individuals, developments, and processes in six historical periods. In this class, you will develop your ability to analyze historical data, assess historical evidence, analyze significant issues in world history, and understand historical sources, images, graphs, and maps.

In 2016, the World History AP course was redesigned. Though the course content remains largely the same, it is now presented alongside clear learning objectives for the exam. The exam itself has also changed. Starting with the 2017 test, there will be fewer long essays, multiple-choice questions will come in sets, and there will be short-answer questions for the first time. It’s important to remember when preparing for the exam to use material produced in 2016, as older material will be outdated.    

The World 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. Students familiar with the U.S. History AP or European History AP exams will benefit from knowing that the exam format and scoring rubric are exactly the same.   

The World History AP exam is a tough one to crack, largely because of the breadth of material covered in the exam. In 2016, 51.2% of students who took the World History AP received a score of 3 or higher. Only 6.5% of students received the top score of 5, while 19.9% scored a 1 on the exam. Only Physics I and Biology had lower percentages of students scoring a 5.

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

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 World History AP website provides a number of sample test questions and exam tips, it does not provide a complete sample test. There is, however, one complete practice test with scoring guide provided on the College Board World History AP teacher website. This is a released exam from 2013, so its format is now outdated, but since the core content remains the same, it can still be useful for identifying focal areas for studying. You can also find practice tests in many of the official study guides, and recently updated editions will have tests more closely matching the new format of the exam.   

Step 2: Study the material

The World History AP course develops your understanding of the world’s history through the span of approximately 10,000 years. Obviously this covers an enormous amount of material, so you should allow plenty of time to prepare. Material for the course is divided into five themes: interaction between humans and the environment; development and interaction of cultures; state building, expansion, and conflict; creation, expansion, and interaction of economic systems; and development and transformation of social structures. Throughout the course, students use these themes to frame and connect historical developments in different times and places. You will need to learn the significant events, people, developments, and processes from world history in six 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.    

Given how recently it was redesigned, there are few updated study resources for the World History AP exam. While the College Board provides a list of approved textbooks, a series of videos about core content, and an endorsed study guide for the U.S. History AP, it provides none of the above for the World History AP. It does, however, provide some helpful exam tips, and 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, you should consider using an updated formal study guide. Both the Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP World History Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 and Barron’s AP World History, 7th edition have been updated to reflect the changes to the 2017 exam. Of these, Barron’s is regarded as the stronger option for long-term studying of the material, while the Princeton Review is often regarded as a better option for test practice (though some users say that its practice tests in the past have been more difficult than the actual AP exam). 

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, as many will be from previous versions of the exam. Remember, the content is largely the same on this year’s test, but the test will be formatted differently than it was in the past.

Finally, 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, give it a try 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 from the 2014 test available here. 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 World History AP exam is different from many 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. If you are already familiar with the free-response portions of the U.S. History AP or European AP exams, you will find these similar in format.

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 being very specific and limited in scope. In this section you will have an opportunity to explain the historical examples you know best. 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. In this section, you will assess written, quantitative, or visual materials as historical evidence. Be sure to completely review the outline of requirements provided before the prompt, and check them off as you are outlining and writing your response. This generally includes things such as a strong thesis statement and a set number of examples taken directly from the documents. 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, which you will have 35 minutes to complete. 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. 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. You will be asked to explain and analyze significant issues in world history and develop an argument supported by your analysis of historical evidence.

As you complete the last two questions, make sure to keep an eye on the time. Though you will be reminded of 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.

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

Step 5: Take another practice test

Just like at the very beginning of your studying, take a practice test to assess 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 World History AP Exam will be administered on Thursday, May 11 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

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.
Kate Sundquist