AP US Government can be a fascinating class for those interested in how the American political system works and what factors led to its formation. While the exam is less difficult than many other APs, it's still important to understand the types of questions you can expect and the most efficient ways to study based on the content. In this article, I'll go through sample questions from each part of the exam, list a step-by-step AP Government review process, and provide some tips for making the most of your studying.
What’s the Format of the AP US Government Exam?
The exam is two hours and twenty-five minutes long, and, like other AP tests, it includes multiple-choice and free-response sections. The multiple-choice section is 45 minutes long and contains 60 questions. You’ll earn one point for each question you answer correctly; there are no points deducted for incorrect answers or questions you leave blank. The free-response section is 100 minutes long and contains four questions. Each question in the free-response section is worth the same percentage of your score, although they typically have different numbers of raw points possible.
What Do Questions Look Like on the AP US Government Exam?
In this section, I’ll provide official examples of questions from each section of the test. The multiple-choice example is from the course guidelines, and the free-response example is a released question from the 2015 AP test.
Multiple Choice Question Example
EXCEPT questions are common on the AP US Government exam. It’s critical to read these questions carefully so that you don’t end up getting confused and looking for the wrong answer. In this case, we are looking for the one response that doesn’t represent a concern about the flaws of the Articles of Confederation. We need to eliminate the responses that were legitimate reasons for modifying the Articles of Confederation.
The main issue with the Articles of Confederation was that they created a wimpy central government that didn’t have enough power to regulate conflicts between the states. We can eliminate any answers that talk about problems with weaknesses of the central government. That means B, D, and E should all be crossed out, leaving us with A and C as potential answers.
Choice C, the desire to promote trade among the states, is connected to the problems with a lack of centralized power. Since the states were so autonomous, trade barriers were being set up that stifled the economy and divided the country too drastically. The federal government needed to be strengthened so that it could prevent these sorts of barriers from being thrown up and creating divisions and rivalries that damaged the country’s economy as a whole. This means that choice C can also be eliminated.
Choice A, the only answer left, is the one we want. Although there was ultimately dissatisfaction over safeguards of individual rights and liberties which led to the creation of the Bill of Rights, this did not come to fruition until a couple of years later; it wasn’t a direct impetus for the convention.
Free-Response Question Example
This question requires an understanding of presidential election policies and procedures. You could earn one point in part A for describing a reason why the electoral college was instituted by the framers of the constitution. Potential answers include:
- It provides for a compromise between small and large states in the election process.
- It protects against direct election by poorly informed citizens (caters to elites).
- The framers did not trust the people, Congress, or state legislatures to elect the president on their own.
- The electoral college reinforces federalism and gives states a role in presidential selection.
For part B (also worth one point), you have to explain the message the cartoon sends regarding presidential elections. You might say that it points out that candidates mainly focus on battleground or swing states while placing much less emphasis on most other states. Alternatively, you could simply say that the cartoon indicates that most states are ignored by presidential candidates in the election process.
For part C (again, worth one point), you would need to explain why California, Texas, and New York are not emphasized in the cartoon despite being assigned tons of electoral votes. You could say that all those states are very heavily controlled by one party or the other, so campaigning there will only help a candidate so much. Their voting patterns are essentially predetermined. The fate of the election is typically decided in smaller but more evenly divided states.
For part D, worth two points, you just need to describe two campaign tactics used in swing states during presidential elections.Possible answers include:
- Concentrating campaign funds in those states
- Putting out more TV ads and media coverage in those states
- Having larger campaign organizations stationed in those states
- Making more campaign appearances in those states
- Focusing on issues that swing voters in those states care about
- Selecting a running mate who hails from one of the swing states
You could earn a potential total of five raw points for this question, which is a typical number of points for most AP US Government free-response questions. On the 2015 exam, the first three free-response questions were worth five points each, and the last question was worth seven points. Keep in mind that each question has the same influence on your final score regardless of its raw point value. That means there’s no reason to prioritize one question over another; just start with whichever question seems easiest to you.
Which Topics Does the AP US Government Exam Cover?
There are six major topics covered by the exam. Here’s a chart detailing how often you’ll see each of them in the multiple-choice section:
Percentage of Questions
Constitutional Underpinnings of US Government
Political Beliefs and Behaviors
Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Mass Media
Institutions of National Government: The Congress, the Presidency, the Bureaucracy, and the Federal Courts
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
How to Review for AP US Government
It can be hard to know where to start with your AP Gov review — I'll walk you through five steps to get you ready for the exam.
Step 1: Take a Practice Test
The first step in your review should be to take a real practice exam. You need to do this before you dive into studying so you can focus on the areas that need the most work rather than reading over the material indiscriminately. As I mentioned in the previous section, you should also be sure to time yourself accurately on this practice test.
When you’re done, score the test (one point for each multiple-choice question, consult specific scoring guidelines for free-response questions), and use this calculator to convert your raw score into an approximate AP score. This should give you some insight into how much time you’ll need to spend studying if you want to reach your goals. The AP US Government exam is known as one of the easier AP tests, so I'd suggest that you aim for a 5 unless you're really struggling with the material.
Step 2: Look Back at Your Mistakes
When you’ve finished scoring the test, review your mistakes to see which topics need to be addressed in your studying. Categorize incorrect answers by topic area and/or skill set. If you find that you had a lot of trouble with questions that asked about the judiciary, you would want to focus on that content in your review sessions.
You can also consider the types of question formats that tripped you up most frequently. For example, if you noticed that you did especially poorly on EXCEPT questions, you might conclude that you need to practice slowing down and paying more attention to the wording of questions on the test.
Step 3: Study Whatever You Forgot
Now, you can dive back into your notes and study any content that was problematic for you on the practice test. If you don’t have many issues with content and are struggling more with the test format or careless mistakes, you can just do a short review of any small tidbits you missed and then move onto the next step.
Step 4: Do Selective Practice Questions
This step is important if you struggled with “EXCEPT” questions or most of your mistakes came from careless misunderstandings of the questions. Practice similar questions so that you’re more used to the types of wording and formats you’ll see on the exam. You can find tons of practice questions available on different websites and in review books (I’ll eventually be writing another article that lists all of these resources for you).
Step 5: Take a Second Practice Test to Measure Your Progress
When you’re satisfied that you have a better handle on all the issues that plagued you on the first practice test, you should take another test to see if you’ve made real progress. Again, time the test accurately, and take it in a quiet, distraction-free environment. If you find that your scores have improved, you can either decide that you’re satisfied or shoot for even more improvement by going through this process again. If you don’t see much improvement, you should backtrack and reexamine your study process. It may be that you were reading over your notes without really absorbing them or you didn’t do enough practice questions to get the hang of the test.
Here’s an approximate timeline for the completion of all five of these steps:
Step 1: 3 hours
Step 2: 1 hour
Step 3: 2 hours
Step 4: 2 hours
Step 5: 3 hours
Total Time: 11 hours
When you finish studying for the AP test, the unofficial step 6 is convincing your teacher to let you watch House of Cards in class for the remainder of the year.
3 Study Tips for AP US Government
Finally, here are a few essential study tips to keep you on track during your AP Government review.
Tip #1: Prioritize Institutions of National Government
As you can see from the chart in the previous section, "Institutions of National Government" is the most prominent single content area on the test. Congress and the Presidency, in particular, are hot topics that make up around 30 percent of questions.
You should be familiar with the powers of these institutions, their compositions, the election processes associated with them, their origins, and how they’ve changed over time. It’s critical to have this knowledge as a foundation so that all the other information you’ve learned makes sense and can be tied back to the central structure of the US political system.
Tip #2: Know Your Key Terms
AP US Government is heavy on understanding terminology in context and identifying correct definitions on both sections of the test. It’s a great idea to make some flashcards to get yourself up to speed with all the fancy words that are used to describe stuff related to the government.
Most review books and textbooks will have lists of key vocabulary that you can reference when creating flashcards. Be able to identify each term by its corresponding definition and state the definition when you're presented with a key term.
Tip #3: Authentic Practice Resources Are Important
There’s no foolproof substitute for official AP practice questions when reviewing for this test. Although it’s fine to use some unofficial sources (and, in fact, you probably have to if you hope to get in enough practice), you need to mix in at least some official AP questions to make sure you’re ready for the exam. Take at least one or two full official practice tests in your studying so you can get an accurate prediction of how you would perform on the real test.
You should also time yourself to the specifications of the real AP test when taking official practice tests. This will help you to detect any issues with time management and develop skills in pacing that are necessary on the AP test. Note that you have less than a minute for each multiple choice question on this test (60 questions in 45 minutes), so you’ll have to keep yourself moving forward constantly to ensure that you make it to the end of the section.
Don't get stuck in traffic when you come across hard questions. Either take your best guess or skip it on the first run through and come back to it later. Make sure you glare at the question as you zoom past. It knows what it did.
Key Points for AP Government Review
The AP US Government exam is one of the shorter AP tests, but it still covers a wide range of topics and includes some confusing question types that you should become familiar with before test day. Here's a recap of the steps you should take to get the most out of your review process:
- Step 1: Take a Practice Test
- Step 2: Look Back at Your Mistakes
- Step 3: Study What You Missed
- Step 4: Do Selective Practice Questions
- Step 5: Take Another Practice Test
You can repeat these steps as necessary until you're satisfied with your scores. In your studying, focus on learning the ins and outs of institutions of national government and memorizing the definitions of key terms. You should also be sure to practice your skills using real AP questions from the College Board. Above all, don't be intimidated by this test. You're almost certainly capable of earning a 5 if you start studying well in advance!
To get your studying started, here's an article detailing how to find the best AP practice exams.
Want even more advice on how to do well on your AP exams? Check out these six critical tips for success on any AP test.
If your school doesn't offer an AP class that interests you, you might consider going rogue and taking the test anyways. Learn how you can self-study for an AP exam and end up with a great score.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.