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The Best AP US History Notes to Study With

Posted by Halle Edwards | Sep 4, 2015 5:37:42 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)


Want some notes to help break down your AP US History class? Or are you looking to brush up on a historical period you’re having a hard time remembering?

We have detailed notes organized by US History units, which fit under the most recent 2015-16 AP US History guidelines. Read on to get help with AP US History and be prepared for the test.


Wait, What? New AP US History Guidelines?

Yes, the AP US History course has undergone some revision. For the 2015-16 school year, the APUSH course will be using revised guidelines. These guidelines build on revisions in recent years to make the class more skills-based, though the most recent changes were affected by a political controversy.

These new guidelines are in response to a controversy regarding the curriculum raised by political conservatives. In short, conservatives thought the curriculum was an overly negative look at US History that didn’t emphasize ideas like American exceptionalism. You can read a summary of the controversy here if you’re interested.

Regardless of how the new guidelines came about or how you feel about them, the reality is that APUSH now has new guidelines we have to work with. We will briefly break down these new guidelines before getting into the chronology of US History and notes.

AP US History has three broad learning objectives: historical thinking skills (basically how you analyze what you learn), thematic learning objectives (themes to look for in each period of US History), and finally the concept outline (the traditional division of US History by time periods).

We will go over the first two areas (historical thinking skills and thematic learning objectives) so you know what to look for as you dig into the notes, which are chronological and thus fall under the third objective.

You can read the complete description of the new guidelines here if you’re curious about the changes.


Historical Thinking Skills

The AP program wants to help US History students develop historical thinking skills, rather than just memorize a string of facts about a certain place or time period.



Especially since AP US History is notorious for requiring students to memorize tons of dates, facts, and names, the new curriculum aims to develop history skills so the course isn’t mostly memorization-based.

Each APUSH exam question will test one or more of these skill-based objectives as well as one or more of the thematic objectives. So keep these skills in mind as you go through the chronological notes.

Your AP US History teacher should be working on these skills with your class. If they’re not, we recommend getting a prep book, which will review the skills in detail and show you how to demonstrate them in the essays. The skills are as follows:

Analyzing historical primary and secondary sources and evidence: this skill teaches you to compare the content of a source with the authorship, point of view, purpose, audience, and format or medium of a source. You also have to decide how useful or flawed the source is as historical evidence.

Making historical connections: can you compare, contextualize, and synthesize various historical developments?

Chronological reasoning: you'll learn to identify causation and patterns of continuity and change over time. You'll also learn about periodization (how historians create different chronological periods and why that matters).

Creating and supporting an argument: you'll learn how to define and frame a question about the past and then make a claim or argument about that question. A strong historical argument requires a specific thesis or claim, supported by detailed analysis of different types of historical evidence. The argument and evidence used should be framed around the application of a specific historical thinking skill (comparison, causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, or periodization).


Thematic Learning Objectives

Beyond just the basic facts of US History and broad historical thinking skills, the AP program wants you to get a bigger-picture understanding of major themes and developments across America’s history, like you would in a college course.


Have you ever heard the phrase "missing the forest for the trees"? The same goes here - the AP program doesn't want you to memorize a bunch of years and names without understanding the larger relevance of them.


The goal is to be able to connect these themes between different periods in US History and be able to discuss them in an essay. As we get into the concept outline, which breaks down APUSH by time periods and where we are linking to notes, think about these themes and see if you can connect them to the outline notes. These are important themes to trace throughout all of your AP US History studying!

American and National Identity: how and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed, including citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.

Politics and Power: how different social and political groups have influenced society and government in the United States, as well as how political beliefs and institutions have changed over time.

Work, Exchange, and Technology: the factors behind the development of systems of economic exchange, particularly the role of technology, economic markets, and government.

Culture and Society: the roles that ideas, beliefs, social mores, and creative expression have played in shaping the United States, as well as how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history.

Migration and Settlement: why and how the various people who moved to and within the United States both adapted to and transformed their new social and physical environments.

Geography and the Environment: the role of geography and both the natural and human-made environments on social and political developments in what would become the United States.

America in the World: the interactions between nations that affected North American history in the colonial period, and on the influence of the United States on world affairs.


The Concept Outline by Time Period

Finally, the AP US History course is organized by chronological periods as well as the historical skills and themes discussed above. In other words, this is your basic "first A happened, then B, then C" structure you're probably used to from past history classes, the specific dates, names, and events of history. After all, a great essay about the development of democracy in America would be weakened if you didn't know the year the Constitution was ratified.


That was in 1788, by the way.


So yes, chronology is the easiest way to think about history. But remember to think about the seven themes and try to connect them to the basic facts you're learning.

For example, when thinking about secession, you should know when the Southern states seceded (in 1860 and 1861), but you could also connect the "Culture and Society" theme to explain why: "the belief in a distinctively Southern way of life and a refusal to abandon it drove the Southern states to secede." In short, understanding those themes will help you gain a broader understanding of the names and dates you're learning. Plus, being able to write about them will take your essays from good to great.

These chapter outlines come from The source is The American Pageant, one of the best AP US History textbooks. The time periods don’t always exactly match up with AP’s guidelines, which is going to be true of most textbooks (there are only a few out there written exclusively for APUSH). But we have organized the outlines so they mostly match up with the AP US History's division of the timeline.

Whether you’re using The American Pageant or not, these outlines well provide helpful overviews which can help you study either over the course of the year or in the run-up to the AP exam.


1491 - 1607 (5% of exam)

 The Planting of English America: 1500-1733


1607-1754 (10% of exam)

Settling the Northern Colonies: 1619-1700

American Life in the Seventeenth Century: 1607-1692


1754-1800 (12% of exam)

Colonial Society on the Eve of Revolution: 1700-1775

The Road to Revolution: 1763-1775

Launching the New Ship of State: 1789-1800


1800-1848 (10% of exam)

The Second War for Independence and the Upsurge of Nationalism: 1812-1824

The Rise of a Mass Democracy: 1824-1840

The Ferment of Reform and Culture: 1790-1860

The South and the Slavery Controversy: 1793-1860

Manifest Destiny and Its Legacy: 1841-1848


1844-1877 (13%  of exam)

Renewing the Sectional Struggle: 1848-1854

Drifting Toward Disunion: 1854-1861

Girding for War, The North and the South: 1861-1865

The Furnace of Civil War: 1861-1865



1865 - 1898 (13% of exam)

Paralysis of Politics in the Gilded Age: 1869-1896

Industry Comes of Age: 1865-1900

America Moves to the City: 1865-1900

The Great West and the Agricultural Revolution: 1865-1896


1890 - 1945 (17% of exam)

The Path of Empire: 1890-1899

America on the World Stage: 1899-1909

Progressivism and the Republican Roosevelt: 1901-1912

Wilsonian Progressivism at Home and Abroad: 1912-1916

The War to End War: 1917-1918

American Life in the Roaring Twenties: 1919-1929

The Politics of Boom and Bust: 1920-1932

The Great Depression and the New Deal: 1933-1939

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Shadow of War: 1933-1941

America in World War II: 1941-1945


1945 - 1980 (15% of exam)

The Cold War Begins: 1945-1952

The Eisenhower Era: 1952-1960

The Stormy Sixties: 1960-1968

The Stalemated Seventies: 1968-1980


1980 - present (5% of exam)

The Resurgence of Conservatism: 1980-2000


Notice that the textbook’s chapters fall roughly within the APUSH guidelines for chronology in terms of the amount of time spent on each period.

All US History textbooks approved by College Board will have good coverage of all chronological topics, so if you have chapter guides or notes from your own class's US History Textbook, you can (and should!) use those as well.


What’s Next?

Did you know many colleges require SAT Subject Tests to apply? Luckily you can put your AP subjects to use on these – for example you could take the US History SAT Subject Test after you study for AP US History. Find out which colleges require SAT subject tests and the best time in your high school career to take them.

Also studying for the SAT/ACT? Find out when you should take the SAT/ACT and learn about the best prep books you can buy for the SAT/ACT.


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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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