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The Best AP US History Books: Full Expert Reviews

Posted by Halle Edwards | Feb 1, 2017 8:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Need some help studying for AP US History? Look no further. In this post, we cover the best AP US History books – from textbooks to prep books, and even study tools like flashcards and websites. Read on to get the best tools for studying for the exam!


Best AP US History Textbook: The American Pageant 


As we covered in our textbooks review, The American Pageant is far and away the most popular APUSH textbook. Not only does it cover all the material for the US History exam, it also has lots of embedded tools as well, including timelines at the end of chapters to help you learn dates and inclusion of primary sources to help prepare you for the Document-Based Question (DBQ).

Plus, The American Pageant reads like a novel, rather than a textbook, so many students find it more engaging than your usual class reading. (That said, if you want a more straightforward, plain-spoken textbook, check out our textbook review post and also keep reading for our thoughts on prep books.)

To take a brief example, this is what The American Pageant section introducing Christopher Columbus reads like:

"Onto this stage stepped Christopher Columbus. This skilled Italian seafarer persuaded the Spanish monarchs to outfit him with three tiny but seaworthy ships, manned by a motley crew. Daringly, he unfurled the sails of his cockleshell craft and headed westward. His superstitious sailors, fearful of venturing in the oceanic unknown, grew increasingly mutinous. After six weeks at sea, failure loomed when, on October 12, 1492, the crew sighted an island in the Bahamas. A new world thus swam within the vision of Europeans."

It definitely sounds like a novel! 

A more straightforward textbook introduction of Columbus (from Making America) goes like this:

"Eager to capitalize on the new technology and knowledge, Christopher Columbus, an ambitious sailor from the Italian port city of Genoa, approached John II of Portugal in 1484 and asked him to support a voyage westward from Portugal, to the East Indies. The king refused when his geographers warned that Columbus had underestimated the distance. Undeterred, Columbus peddled his idea to various European governments over the next several years but found no one willing to take the risk. Finally, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella's defeat of the Moors provided Columbus with an opportunity."

Pageant is also a favorite of many teachers of the AP US History class (it’s mentioned on tons of blogs and reviews from AP US History teachers). So if you’re without a textbook for AP US History, you’re a teacher shopping around for your class, or if you just want extra study material, this is the best textbook for you.

You can rent the latest edition of the textbook for around $34 on Amazon. But here's another tip – you can buy older editions of the textbook used on Amazon for as little as $7. Since the textbook doesn’t change dramatically between editions, buying an older edition used is a great way to get a super-cheap and useful textbook.


Best AP US History Review Book: Cracking the AP US History Exam

cracking ap us history-1.jpg

If you’re looking for a book to help you review for the AP Test, this is your best bet (note: a prep book does NOT replace a textbook you would use during the school year – it’s a big picture overview, not a teacher!).

This book has clean, concise, readable summaries of AP US History to help jog your memory and review what you need to know for the exam. The summaries are very quick and to-the-point, so you don't have to slog through tons of pages. It also contains end-of-chapter review questions to help you retain information as you move through the book.

Plus, not only does the book cover all of the historical information for the US history exam, the book also spends plenty of time explaining the AP exam essays, including the tricky document-based question. So not only does the book prep you for the AP US History exam’s material, it helps you get ready for the exam itself.

The Princeton Review's book also includes two full practice tests which tend to be more challenging than the actual AP test – which is good, because this helps you get the best practice. (Some prep books have the opposite problem – their practice tests are too easy, so you take the real test somewhat unprepared.) These practice tests would be an excellent study resource.

The Princeton Review book also has helpful strategies for tackling multiple-choice questions and helps explain how many raw points you should aim for to pass, or get a 5 on the exam, depending on your goal. This info is extremely useful in helping you develop a strategy for the US History exam.

Finally, the book has been updated for the recent AP US History class changes and, additionally, it gives you access to an online portal for more up-to-the-minute information.

The prep book is currently $10 on Amazon, which is a great price. Perhaps the downside, if you consider it one, is that The Princeton Review's angle is to paint the test as a bogeyman, and the tone can be a bit snarky. (I personally like The Princeton Review books for that reason, but I know others prefer materials that are less biased against the test.)


Other AP US History Book Mini-Reviews

If you’re not a big fan of The Princeton Review’s angle or if you just want another prep book, this is a brief overview of some of the other APUSH books on the market and their pros and cons. Based on your study needs, you can pick out the best prep book (or books!) for you.




The Kaplan AP US History book gives you tons of practice, thanks to the five full practice tests it includes. The practice tests also reflect the AP US History redesign, unlike some past popular favorites which have been criticized for not sufficiently updating their practice tests (for example 5 Steps to a 5 and Crash Course). It’s also a pretty decent bargain at $12 on Amazon ($19.99 list price).

However, some worry that many of their practice tests can be either too easy (with direct questions about the date of events, or DBQs focused mainly on cartoons/images rather than written sources). Readers have also pointed out some of the information in their summaries is incorrect.

Verdict: This is a great book for extra exam practice, but not the best source for a clean, accurate US History summary. This should not be your main review book.


Crash Course

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This is the briefest, fastest read – so it may be the best choice if you’re in a pinch! Crash Course is known for being very clear and concise, and at $14, it’s a decent bargain.

The drawback here is that there is only one practice test – meaning both Princeton Review and Kaplan give you better bang for your buck in terms of practice.

Verdict: This is a great book for a quick review of US History, but not a great book if you want lots of test practice. If you have a teacher who gives tons of practice exams, so you just need a brief review of the material on the AP test, this may be the book for you.




AMSCO’s book has decent reviews and well-written chapter tests that are very similar to the actual AP test. However, it only comes with one full practice test at the end of the book, so for 18.95, it may not be the best deal.

The big drawback of this option is that for some reason the student edition of the book doesn’t automatically come with an answer key, and it’s apparently very hard to order an answer key for the practice tests. Only teachers can order the answer keys, so you have to find a way to ship them to your school.

Verdict: Since practice tests are only useful tools when you can review the answers, unless you want to go out of your way to order this book and the answer key, we suggest one of the other prep books to save yourself the trouble.




Think of Barron’s as the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none: It has a decent summary and practice tests and has been updated for the AP Redesign. However, its summary is not as snappy and readable as The Princeton Review's, it's not as short and concise as Crash Course, and it doesn’t have as many practice tests as Kaplan.

This might be your best bet if you want a second prep book, especially at just $13, but it shouldn’t be your first choice.

Verdict: You should buy a prep book with a clear goal in mind: either for all-around review and practice (Princeton Review), tons of test practice (Kaplan), or a fast, efficient review (Crash Course). Barron's is second-best at all of those things, so it should be your second prep book as opposed to your top choice.


Best Free Study Tool: Online AP US History Quizzes

Just looking for multiple-choice practice and lots of it? Our recent post has a compilation of AP US History quizzes from several textbooks' websites and other free resources around the web. Altogether, there are hundreds of quizzes you can take that focus on each era of US History.

This is a great way to review parts of US History you don’t remember that well, or to get an overall review for the AP US History Test. The drawback here is that these questions are not AP multiple-choice; they are multiple-choice questions from various textbooks and websites. Plus, many of them are focused on just one era of US history, so you don’t get the wide range of questions you see on the actual AP exam. Still, these quizzes will help you master specific eras of US history for the actual AP test. I highly recommend checking them out!


Best Study Tool for Purchase: Barron’s US History Flash Cards


While the Barron's book doesn’t rank as favorably as Princeton Review'sKaplan's, and Crash Course's review books, their flashcards are a great way to review key facts, dates, and figures in US History. Flashcards can be an excellent learning tool, and these save you the hours it would take to make your own.

This set gives you 500 cards that quiz you on everything from the exploration period to present day. Furthermore, the cards are divided into seven general categories: Arts and Sciences, Domestic Policies, Presidential Matters, Wars and Foreign Relations, Economy and Business, Legal Issues, and Society and Culture, to help you prepare for the AP exam's themes.

They’re numbered and labeled so you can quiz yourself by time period or category, which will help you focus your studying. They even come with a metal ring so you can choose which cards to take with you and study! They’re currently $11 on Amazon. These are a great choice if you want to be able to study on the go.


Best Study Website: AP Study Notes

This website has detailed notes on every era of US history, taken from The American Pageant – and it’s completely free! This is a great resource if you’re trying to brush up in detail on a particular era of US History before the AP test in May. The website can also help you prepare for any of your in-class AP US History tests. Get a detailed breakdown of each era at our AP US Study Notes post.


Bottom Line

There are lots of potential resources you can use to study for the AP US History exam – textbooks, prep books, flashcards, websites, and more. Don’t feel like you have to use them all to get a high score. On the contrary, you should find a resource or two you find particularly helpful and use it consistently. As long as you pace yourself, and give yourself plenty of time to study and practice, you will be more than prepared when you sit down for the exam in May!


What’s Next?

Get more information about the AP program – what the hardest and easiest classes are, when the exams are this year, and whether taking AP classes is worth it.

Taking AP US History this year? We also suggest you take the SAT Subject Test in US History if you’re applying to colleges that require SAT Subject Tests. You can read more about SAT Subject tests, and why you should take them, right here.

Also studying for the SAT/ACT? Learn the best time in your high school career to take the SAT/ACT for the first time, and how long you should study for the SAT/ACT.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.

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