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The Ultimate Guide to the AP US History Exam

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Apr 10, 2016 8:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



The AP US History exam involves reading, writing, and in-depth analysis. It's not just about memorizing names and dates; you'll be asked to interpret historical evidence quickly and accurately, recall outside information about the topic, and, on the essay questions, synthesize your ideas into a coherent argument. In this guide, I'll give you a rundown of the format and structure of the exam along with a brief content outline, sample questions, and some tips for a great score!


How Is the AP US History Exam Structured?

The AP US History test in 2016 will be administered on Friday, May 6th at 8 AM. It has multiple-choice, short answer, and free-response sections, and the total length is 3 hours and 15 minutes. 


The Multiple-Choice Section Is:

  • 55 minutes long
  • 55 questions
  • 40 percent of your score
  • Formatted in sets of two to five questions that are based on the provided pieces of historical evidence


The Short-Answer Section Is:

  • 50 minutes long
  • Four questions
  • 20 percent of your score
  • Questions have multiple parts and will usually reference pieces of historical evidence 


The Free-Response Section Is:

  • Comprised of two questions:
  • Document-based question
    • An essay based on a prompt that's accompanied by a series of relevant historical documents
    • 55 minutes
    • 25 percent of your score
  • Long essay question
    • Regular essay question where you get to choose between two different prompts
    • 35 minutes for the long essay question
    • 15 percent of your score


On the free-response section, you will be told when 55 minutes are up and advised to move on to the second question, but you aren’t forced to do so. Time management is one of the major challenges of this test!


Content Background for the AP US History Exam

There are seven themes addressed in the AP US History course, and all of them will show up in one form or another on the exam. Each represents a subset of learning objectives that students are expected to master. You can read more about the learning objectives in the course descriptionhere I’ll just give a broad overview of the major themes: 


Theme 1: American and National Identity

  • How and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed.
  • Related topics such as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.


Theme 2: Politics and Power

  • How different social and political groups have influenced society and government in the United States.
  • How political beliefs and institutions have changed over time.


Theme 3: Work, Exchange, and Technology

  • Factors behind systems of economic exchange and development, including the role of technology, economic markets, and government.


Theme 4: Culture and Society

  • The roles that ideas, beliefs, social mores, and creative expression have played in shaping the United States.
  • How various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed at different stages in U.S. History.


Theme 5: Migration and Settlement

  • Why and how the various people who moved to and within the United States both adapted to and transformed their new environments.


Theme 6: Geography and the Environment

  • The role of geography and environments (natural and man-made) on social and political developments in the United States.


Theme 7: America in the World

  • Interactions between nations that affected North American history in the colonial period.
  • The influence of the United States on world affairs.


These themes are discussed across nine different historical periods, each of which corresponds to a certain percentage of questions on the AP exam:



Sample AP US History Questions

Now that you have a sense of the test content, I'll present you with sample questions to give you a better idea of what it actually looks like!


Multiple-Choice Question

For multiple choice, you’re given one or two pieces of historical evidence followed by a set of questions that ask you to do some analysis. The US History exam is less about knowing specific dates and names and more about being able to draw conclusions and connect themes based on materials provided by the test. 




First, let’s read the (disturbing) statement we’re considering for this question:

Hammond refers to slaves as “fellow creatures whom God has entrusted to my charge” and goes on to say that it is “in the interest of treat our slaves with proper kindness.” This is a statement typical of many southern slaveowners at the time. In his view, he has been entrusted by God to take care of his slaves because they are lower in the natural hierarchy. He talks about treating them with kindness to make it seem like slavery helps everyone. Southerners believed they were doing their slaves a favor by treating them well within the slave system because slaves weren’t capable of handling freedom.


Now, we'll examine our choices:

Choice (A) can be ruled out because there is nothing in the statement that indicates a reaction to the development of gradual emancipation laws. Hammond is defending slavery in a broader moral sense. 

Choice (B) is incorrect because there is no relationship between the statement and development of stronger slave codes. Hammond talks about treating his slaves well and is clearly trying to ignore the increased unrest within the slave system. 

Choice (C) should be eliminated as well. Although Hammond is making a moral argument for slavery that could be considered a counter to activists’ moral arguments against it, there isn’t a direct enough connection between the quote and the trend described in this answer choice. 

Finally, let’s look at choice (D), which is the correct answer. This is the only choice that makes a DIRECT connection between the point of view expressed in the excerpt and the social/political trends of the time. Hammond’s statement is an individual piece of evidence that serves to demonstrate the larger movement of southerners touting slavery as a “positive good” benefitting both slaves and masters. 



Short-Answer Question

Short answer questions are technically considered part of the multiple-choice section because they are so much less involved than the essay questions. Although they do have multiple parts, you don’t have to come up with a thesis (one sentence answers are ok). They're about succinctly connecting themes and reference materials to specific events or trends. 

Here’s an example:



For part (A), you would need to provide a brief explanation of the aspects of the cartoon that express the artist’s point of view on a particular economic topic.

For example: The artist expresses the view that industrial capitalism is an exploitative and unfair system in which underpaid laborers work hard to build the basis on which wealthy capitalists lounge around and enjoy lives of luxury.


For part (B), you would need to describe a specific development between 1865 and 1910 that supports the artist’s viewpoint.

For example: Newly rich businessmen such as Gould or Vanderbilt quickly rose to prominence and lived lavish lifestyles funded by huge corporate monopolies.


For part (C), you would need to describe another specific development within the same time period that challenges the artist’s viewpoint.

For example: A more industrialized economy brought benefits to many people in society through access to cheaper commodities, new technologies, and improvements in the standard of living.


Document-Based Question

These are the instructions you’ll see for the document-based question:


The question itself is a short prompt that gives you a lens through which to view the sample documents. You’re given seven different documents to examine, and, to earn full credit, you have to use at least six of them as evidence for your thesis in your answer. Documents range from transcripts of folk songs to excerpts from letters and newspapers to demographic maps. I won’t list all the documents that were presented for this specific question, but here are a couple so you can get a sense of the variety you’ll see on the exam:



There are several components of a solid response to this question:



The thesis must clearly address patterns of continuity and change over time with regards to the social and economic experiences of African Americans who migrated North in the early 1900s. Don’t make it hard for the graders to find your thesis; the best place to put it is right at the end of your first paragraph.

Here's an example: As many African Americans migrated North in the period from 1910 to 1930, they encountered both new and familiar challenges, including the hostility of white northerners, barriers to employment, and housing segregation.



At least six out of seven documents (and preferably all seven!) should be used as evidence in your essay. Also, at least one of the following should be examined in the essay for four or more of the documents: the author’s point of view, the author’s purpose, the intended audience, and the historical context.


Analysis and Connections

The essay must draw connections between documents or parts of documents to build an argument. You should also observe in your essay that documents reflect differences in point of view, audiences, formats, etc. Paying attention to the context is critical for an appropriate historical reading (for example, document 4 is written for a white audience by a white author, so that should inform the way its statements are viewed).


Outside Knowledge

Your essay should also include knowledge that extends beyond the documents themselves and strengthens your argument. Caution: DON’T start fact-vomiting all over this essay. Make sure what you’re saying is directly relevant to your argument. One historical trend you might mention specifically is the rise of legalized social segregation in the South (impact of Plessy v. Ferguson)You could also note that the evidence in the documents provided does not reference the Harlem Renaissance, which was an important development in the experience of many African Americans in the urban North during the 1920s.



Your essay should also connect the issues raised by the documents to broader discussions of racism in U.S. history. You could talk about things like:

  • The transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy
  • Different motivations that have influenced migration within the U.S.
  • Development of housing patterns in urban environments


Long Essay Question

For your long essay, you will be able to choose between two prompts. Here’s an example of a potential prompt:


Your answer should include many of the same elements as your answer to the document-based question, but there are no documents to analyze and reference, so you have less time to write. This question also asks you to take a more solid argumentative stance for or against a certain claim. 

The first thing you should do is decide whether you support, partially support, or totally disagree with the argument presented in the question. Then, write a thesis that makes your point of view clear and briefly references examples you will use to support it in the body of your essay.

If you chose to support the statement, your essay might include the following points:

  • The New Deal was a conservative measure taken to preserve a capitalist economy in the US by lessening the negative effects of capitalism and mitigating weaknesses within the system.
  • It represented a desire to change things as little as possible while maintaining the economic status quo.
  • No programs in the New Deal led to fundamental redistribution of land and wealth, so most elements of the capitalist system were unchanged.


If you instead decided to argue against the statement, your essay might include the following points:

  • The New Deal was a dramatic departure from the role government had played in the US economy up to that point.
  • Programs were revolutionary in that they provided relief to people who were struggling, curbed corporate abuses, and sought to protect the environment.
  • Alternatively, you could say that the New Deal was revolutionary in a negative way; the government veered too far into socialism and worsened the effects of the depression for people like business owners.
  • You could mention the more far-reaching benefits and drawbacks of the New Deal to provide additional evidence for your point (greater financial security for people in the long run as a result of New Deal programs).


You could also modify the original statement by saying that the New Deal was a moderate measure that fell between conservatism and revolution (the partial agreement option). More extreme factions of conservative and progressive groups were either alarmed at the dramatic changes or dissatisfied with a policy that fell short of complete economic restructuring.

Whatever your argument, you must include specific references to historical events or trends of the period for context (for example, you might mention conservative fiscal policies of presidents before Roosevelt and the causes of the Great Depression). 


body_fdr.jpgOne of FDR's quirks was that he always had to be painted completely green from head to toe before being seen in public. Using this strategy, he successfully prevented people from noticing his wheelchair for years.


How Is the AP US History Exam Scored?

On the multiple-choice section (55 raw points possible), you get a point added to your raw score for each question that you answer correctly. No points are taken off for incorrect answers! Each short-answer question is worth three points, so there are 12 raw points possible in the short-answer section. 

The document-based question is scored based on the following criteria (seven raw points possible):

  • Thesis and argument: 2 points
  • Document analysis: 2 points
  • Using evidence beyond the documents: 2 points
  • Synthesis: 1 point


The long essay question is scored based on the following criteria (six raw points possible):

  • Thesis: 1 point
  • Argument development: using the targeted historical thinking skills: 2 points
  • Argument development: using evidence: 2 points
  • Synthesis: 1 point


On essay questions, points are taken off for errors only if they detract from the quality of the argument being made (basically, don’t make up historical facts to support an argument). Grammatical errors are not a big deal as long as they don't inhibit the grader's ability to understand what your essay is saying. 

The total number of raw points you can earn on the test is 80: 55 on the multiple choice, 12 on the short answer, seven on the DBQ, and six on the long essay. Raw scores can be converted to scaled scores out of 150. 

Multiply your raw score (out of 55) on the multiple-choice section by 1.1 to get your scaled multiple choice score. Then, multiply your raw score (out of 12) on the short answer-section by 2.5 to get your scaled short answer score. Multiply your raw score (out of seven) on the document-based question by 5.4 to get your scaled DBQ score. Multiply your raw score (out of six) on the long essay question by 3.75 to get your scaled long essay question score. 

Then, add all of the scores together to get your final scaled score! Here’s a chart to show you approximately how the scaled scores translate to final AP scores: 

Scaled Score

AP Score

Percentage of Students in 2015

115 - 150



90 - 114



65 - 89



44 - 64



0 - 43




I made my best estimates based on other AP score conversion charts because there was no official scaled to AP score conversion chart online for the latest version of the exam. Your teacher or review book may have a more accurate score conversion system that you can use for official practice tests. 


Tips for the AP US History Exam

AP US History is a grueling test that requires intense critical thinking and analytical skills. Here are some tips you should remember if you hope to do well:


Tip #1: Accurate Facts Aren’t Always Correct Answers

Many multiple-choice questions will list answers that are accurate representations of historical events or trends but don’t directly respond to the question being asked. Be wary of these answers on the test so that you don’t accidentally choose them over more relevant responses. In the multiple choice question I gave as an example, one incorrect choice was “The expanding use of moral arguments by Northern antislavery activists.” At the time referenced in the question, this was a real trend that occurred, but it doesn’t relate directly to the excerpt that was referenced. That means it’s still the wrong answer. Don’t let these types of choices confuse you; adhere to the particulars of the question and the evidence presented! 


Tip #2: Details Are Important: Read Excerpts Carefully!

Most of this exam is based on historical reference materials. You won’t be able to answer questions correctly without reading carefully. Even if you know everything there is to know about US History, that knowledge will mostly just serve to contextualize the evidence presented on the test. The specific details found in the writings and images will ultimately reveal the best answer choice. 


Tip #3: Plan Before You Write

It’s critical to write well-organized, focused essays on the AP US History test. A clear thesis is the first thing on the agenda. Then, you need to make sure the rest of your essay ties back into your thesis and provides relevant evidence throughout. If you jump into writing an essay without taking the time to organize your thoughts, you’re more likely to ramble or get off-topic from the main focus of the question.

For the document-based question, you’re encouraged to spend 15 of the 55 minutes planning how to organize your thoughts and use the different documents as evidence. You have less time for the long essay question, but you should still spend five minutes or so writing a brief outline before you start your final draft.


Tip #4: Use Outside Evidence Wisely

It’s a smart idea to incorporate additional background knowledge into your responses on the test. It shows that you’ve mastered the material and can connect themes to what you learned in class and not just what was presented to you in the question. However, don’t include outside knowledge unless it bolsters your argument. If you’re just sticking it in there to prove how much you know, your essay will lack focus, and you may lose points. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead; in the planning stage, you can think of examples that tie into your thesis and strategically place them throughout your essay in ways that contribute to your point.

body_wiseowl.jpgBe wise, like an owl. Not necessarily this looks like it lost its grip on reality a long time ago



The AP US History exam is one of the longer AP tests, and it has four different types of questions! You'll see multiple-choice, short answer, document-based, and long essay questions on this test. The main thread running through the entire exam is an emphasis on analyzing historical evidence and applying outside knowledge in context. In your studying, you will need to learn to connect the five themes of the course to events spanning 500 years of North American history. To recap, some study tips that I recommend include:

  • Don't mistake accurate facts for correct answers
  • Always read excerpts carefully
  • Plan before writing your essays
  • Use outside evidence strategically


Make sure you practice all the different types of questions with official materials before you sit down to take the real test. If you get used to thinking about history in an analytical, evidence-based context, you should have no problem earning a high AP score!


What's Next?

Looking for more practice materials? Check out our article on the best online quizzes you can take to prepare for the AP US History test! 

Review books can be extremely helpful tools in preparing for AP tests. If you can't decide which one to get, take a look at this list of the best review books for the AP US History exam in 2016.

Did you lose some of your notes? Head on over to this article for links to AP US History notes on every section of the course.


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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

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.

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