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The Best AP US History Review Guide

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Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Feb 21, 2021 10:30:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



It's hard to know where to start with your AP US History review. It's one of the tougher APs based on the thinking skills it requires and the amount of content it covers. You can't just read over your notes and expect to get a high score on the final exam in May.

In this guide, we give you a basic outline of what's on the AP US History exam, provide study tips, and lay out a step-by-step prep plan that you can customize to your needs.


What's the Format of the AP US History Exam?

First off, you should know the basics of what you're dealing with on this test. The total length of the AP US History exam is three hours and 15 minutes, so it's on the longer side compared to other AP tests. Format-wise, it has two sections, which are each further divided into two parts (A and B).

Here's a brief layout of the timing and significance of each major part of the AP US History exam:

Section Question Type # of Questions Time % of Score
1A Multiple Choice 55 55 mins 40%
1B Short Answer 3 (for third, choose 1 of 2 prompts) 40 mins 20%
2A Document-Based Question (DBQ) 1 60 mins (including a 15-min reading period) 25%
2B Long Essay 1 (choose 1 of 3 prompts) 40 mins 15%



Section 1: Multiple Choice and Short Answer

Section 1 of the AP US History test consists of a multiple-choice portion (Part A) and a short-answer portion (Part B). The section is one hour and 35 minutes long and counts for 60% of your final AP score.

On Part A, you'll have 55 minutes to answer 55 multiple-choice questions; this gives you a pace of about a minute per question. This part counts for 40% of your score, making it one of the most important portions of the APUSH exam.

Each question comes with four possible answer choices (labeled A-D). Questions typically come in sets of three to four and are accompanied by a source, such as a historical text, a graph, or a map.

On Part B, you'll have 40 minutes to answer three short-answer questions, giving you around 13 minutes per question. The portion is worth 20% of your overall score.

Although you'll see four questions on this part, you only need to respond to three in total (you will have to choose between prompts 3 and 4). Here's what to expect with each question:

  • Prompt 1: Focuses on the years 1754-1980 and comes with one to two secondary sources
  • Prompt 2: Focuses on the years 1754-1980 and comes with one primary source
  • Prompt 3 (choose one): Focuses on the years 1491-1877 and comes with no source
  • Prompt 4 (choose one): Focuses on the years 1865-2001 and comes with no source


Section 2: Free Response (Document-Based Question and Long Essay)

Section 2 of the AP US History exam is the free-response section, meaning you will have to write out your answers in an essay format. Part A is the Document-Based Question, or DBQ, and Part B is the Long Essay. Altogether, this section is one hour and 40 minutes long and counts for 40% of your AP score.

On Part A, you must answer one DBQ by writing an essay that synthesizes at least six of the seven historical documents you've been given. You'll have a total of 60 minutes for this part: 15 minutes to read through the documents and 45 minutes to write your response. It counts for 25% of your AP score.

On Part B, you'll have 40 minutes to write a Long Essay in response to one of three prompts (you choose which prompt you want to answer). This section counts for 15% of your final score. Each essay prompt focuses on a different time period in American history:

  • Essay Prompt 1: 1491-1800
  • Essay Prompt 2: 1800-1898
  • Essay Prompt 3: 1890-2001




What Do Questions Look Like on the AP US History Exam?

In this section, I'll give a brief overview of each type of question you can expect to see on the AP US History exam. It's important to understand the different formats and point distributions before diving into your review of the course content. Doing this allows you to tailor your AP US History review to the actual requirements of the test!


Multiple-Choice Sample Question

Multiple choice questions always ask you to apply your knowledge of US History in the context of a historical document. These documents could include images or pieces of writing, and three to four questions are asked about each one.

Here's an example of a multiple-choice question from the 2017-18 APUSH Exam Description:



The passage here mentions that Whitefield came over to the British colonies from Ireland and became an immensely popular itinerant preacher. This suggests that religious culture was shaped by choice C ("trans-Atlantic exchanges").

Although some of the other choices aren't completely invalid if you just looked at the question without the excerpt, the evidence provided therein leads us directly to choice C. This question shows how important it is to read very carefully on the AP US History test!


Short-Answer Sample Question

In addition to 55 multiple-choice questions, you'll get three short-answer questions on the first part of the AP US History test. These are multi-part questions that can be answered in just a few sentences. They usually rely on written excerpts or other types of historical documents, just as the multiple-choice questions do.

While APUSH short-answer questions won't ask you to do much writing, they do test your ability to understand what's going on in the source material and how it ties into your knowledge of US history.

Here's an example of a short-answer question from the 2019-20 AP Course and Exam Description:


As you can see, this short-answer question comes with two secondary sources. You must answer all three parts (A, B, and C) correctly to earn full credit for this question.

Below are sample responses that would get full points (taken from the official scoring guidelines).


(A) Sample Answers

  • Peiss argues that pursuits of entertainment in dance halls by working class women created new, legitimate social spaces for women, however Enstand argues that working women's participation in labor politics gave them a new voice and place in the public sphere.
  • Peiss links the growth of women in public social life to a commercial culture that provided opportunities for women to enter the public sphere while Enstand argues that women became political actors who demanded a public voice.


(B) Sample Answers

  • Like the dance halls, department stores and amusement parks became aspects of the commercial culture that represented new opportunities for women to enjoy public places as legitimate participants.
  • The concept of the New Woman became a cultural phenomenon, as the older idea of separate spheres diminished. The idea of the New Woman supported a more public role for women in the early 1900s.
  • The growth of cities and urban America gave young women more opportunities to leave rural America and participate in the developments described by Peiss.
  • New technologies such as electric lighting made possible new public spaces for personal freedom for women.


(C) Sample Answers

  • Women's participation in the suffrage movement, settlement house work, temperance organizing, and the Progressive movement all contributed to modern attitudes about women and increased their roles in the public sphere.
  • The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the vote and a voice in politics.
  • Women were the main participants in the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909. During this strike women made public demands like those described by Enstad.
  • Women organized or participated in labor unions such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) which is an example of their growing voice in the public sphere.
  • Working-class women had key public roles in the successful Lawrence (Massachusetts) textile strike of 1912, this demonstrates that women became active political voices through labor movements.


body_old_historical_documentFortunately, you don't have to deal with actual historical documents.


Sample Document-Based Question

The Document-Based Question might be the most intimidating part of the AP US History exam. It's worth 25% of your score and requires the synthesis of a bunch of information presented in different formats to create a coherent argument. These are the directions you'll see on the test, along with a sample prompt and document (from the 2019-20 Course and Exam Description):


You can earn up to 7 raw points on your DBQ response. Here's how those points are doled out, according to the scoring guidelines:


Category How to Earn Credit
(0-1 points)

1 point: Responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning

(0-1 points)

1 point: Describes a broader historical context relevant to the prompt

(0-3 points)

2 points (evidence from the documents): Supports an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents

1 point (evidence beyond the documents): Uses at least one additional piece of the specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt

Analysis and Reasoning
(0-2 points)

1 point (sourcing): For at least three documents, explains how or why the document's point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument

1 point (complexity): Demonstrates a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt, using evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the question


If you want more help with this tricky question, check out these resources for more DBQ examples to use in your AP US History review.


Long Essay Sample Question

You'll get to choose from among three prompts for the Long Essay. Here's a sample question (with instructions) from the 2019-20 Course Description:


You can earn up to 6 points, which are awarded as follows, per the official scoring guidelines:


Category How to Earn Credit
(0-1 points)

1 point: Responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning

(0-1 points)

1 point: Describes a broader historical context relevant to the prompt

(0-2 points)

2 points: Supports an argument in response to the prompt using specific and relevant examples of evidence

Analysis and Reasoning
(0-2 points)

2 points: Demonstrates a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt, using evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the question





What Does the AP US History Exam Cover?

AP US History is divided into nine units, or time periods, each of which makes up a designated percentage of the course material and instructional time. Here's how much of the exam each unit takes up:

AP US History Unit/Period % of Exam
Unit 1: 1491-1607 4-6%
Unit 2: 1607-1754 6-8%
Unit 3: 1754-1800 10-17%
Unit 4: 1800-1848 10-17%
Unit 5: 1844-1877 10-17%
Unit 6: 1865-1898 10-17%
Unit 7: 1890-1945 10-17%
Unit 8: 1945-1980 10-17%
Unit 9: 1980-Present 4-6%

Source: 2019-20 AP US History Course and Exam Description

These time periods are connected by eight overarching themes. I'll list these themes followed by their descriptions as written in the 2019-20 Course Description. After you learn the who, what, and where of historical events, you should be able to connect them to one (or more likely several) of these broader concepts.


Theme 1: American and National Identity

Focuses on how and why definitions of American and national identity and values have developed among the diverse and changing population of North America as well as on related topics, such as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.


Theme 2: Work, Exchange, and Technology

Focuses on the factors behind the development of systems of economic exchange, particularly the role of technology, economic markets, and government.


Theme 3: Geography and the Environment

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


Theme 4: Migration and Settlement

Focuses on 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.


Theme 5: Politics and Power

Focuses on 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.


Theme 6: America in the World

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


Theme 7: American and Regional Culture

Focuses on the how and why national, regional, and group cultures developed and changed as well as how culture has shaped government policy and the economy.


Theme 8: Social Structures

Focuses on how and why systems of social organization develop and change as well as the impact that these systems have on the broader society.


body_americaandtheworld.jpgAmericans have fought many other groups of people for control over pieces of this crazy space marble.


AP US History Review: 3 Essential Study Tips

Before I lay out the template for your AP US History study plan, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you go along. By adopting the right strategies, your AP scores will improve much more quickly!


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#1: Connect Facts to Major Themes

Studying history just means committing a bunch of names and dates to memory, right? Wrong!

Questions on the AP US History exam (and if you have a good teacher, most of your smaller tests in class), will ask you to combine general historical knowledge with an understanding of larger trends. The facts and approximate dates are relevant, but only to the extent that they can provide insight into your analysis of historical patterns and themes.

If you study the facts in isolation, you'll be lost on the test, especially when you get to the free-response questions. As you prepare for the exam, take note of the major themes and think about how you might weave them into a discussion of the era as a whole.


#2: Practice Analyzing Historical Writings and Documents

Almost every question on the AP US History exam will ask you to read a historical document or analyze a politically charged image. It's important that you're able to interpret these sources both quickly and accurately. Look in your textbook or online for examples of historical texts and practice analyzing the authors' claims.

Which of the themes of the course are relevant? What else was happening at the time that might have influenced the writing or illustration? Is the individual addressing a certain audience, and is their point of view biased? Asking yourself these types of questions will help prepare you for the way you're required to think about historical documents on the final exam.


#3: Write Essay Outlines

You should be a pro at writing essay outlines well before you take the AP US History test. If you can write a strong outline that uses evidence correctly and relates the supporting points back to the thesis, that's more than half the battle.

The College Board website offers a bunch of old free-response questions that students can use for free for review purposes.

Practice writing a thesis-driven outline in five to 10 minutes for each essay question. If you have time, you should also practice writing out the final draft while staying within the time constraints of the real AP test.


body_writingessayoutlines.jpgI suspect that this person doesn't actually have a plan.


How to Study for AP US History: 6-Step Guide

In this section, I'll lay out the standard structure of an effective AP US History review plan. The most important takeaway from this study plan is that you need to understand all your mistakes on practice tests so that you can avoid these same issues on the real APUSH exam.


Step 1: Take a Full-Length Practice Test

Time: 3.5 hours

The first step in the study process is to take a full practice test for AP US History so you can see how well you perform before doing any prep. Make sure that you adhere to the time constraints on the real exam so you can figure out whether you need to work on your pacing (especially on the free-response section).

You should also circle any questions for which you aren't 100% sure of the answer so that you can revisit them later, even if you happen to guess them correctly.


Step 2: Score Your Practice Test Test and Set a Goal

Time: 1 hour

After you finish your US History practice test, calculate your score to see how much you need to improve before test day. This can be a little tough for AP US History because the scoring for free-response questions is less clear-cut; however, you should be able to determine a rough estimate of how many points you would get on each free-response question by referring to the official scoring guidelines.

You can use this online calculator to find your AP score (on the 1-5 scale) after you tally up all your raw points. Don't forget that points are not subtracted for incorrect multiple-choice answers.

Once you figure out where you currently fall in the AP score range, you can work on creating a study plan based on how much you hope to improve. Set realistic goals for yourself considering how much time you have before the test and how many hours of studying you can fit into your schedule.

I think that everyone who takes an AP class is capable of earning a 5—a perfect AP score—with enough studying. But if you're in the 2 range and you only have a couple of weeks before the test, a reasonable goal could be to earn a passing score (3+). If you have a couple of months, you might aim even higher.

If you start off in the 4 range, you should be able to boost your score up to a 5 within a month or so. Of course, this all depends on how many hours of studying you can afford to put into this one exam. Ideally, each time you go through the steps of this AP US History study process, your score will improve by anywhere from a half to a whole AP point.

If you're already on the lower end of the 5 range, you might only need to go through the rest of this study process once to get yourself up to speed. On the other hand, if you're in the 3 range and aiming for a 5, you should plan to repeat these steps multiple times to reach your goals.


Step 3: Analyze Your Mistakes

Time: 1 hour

The third step is to analyze your mistakes on your practice test. What information did you forget? Which eras or aspects of US History confused you the most? Figure out which topics were most challenging for you by cataloging your mistakes and making a list of all the areas with which you struggled. Once you have this list of problem areas, you can execute a more focused, efficient review of the concepts that need the most work.

Don't ignore the free-response section during this process. If you had trouble formulating a coherent argument related to a particular course theme, you should use some of your prep time to work on gaining a deeper understanding of that concept.


Step 4: Fix Gaps in Your Content Knowledge

Time: 2 hours

When you finish analyzing your mistakes, you can go into your APUSH notes or review book and revisit any content that was an issue for you on the practice test. It's important to solidify your background knowledge before practicing analysis skills so that you can have a strong basis for your arguments and opinions.

This stage is also when a review book might come in handy. All the content is organized much more clearly than it might be in your worn-out notebook. You can check out this list of the best review books for AP US History if you want more advice on which one to get.


Step 5: Practice Relevant Questions

Time: 2 hours

After gaining the necessary background knowledge in US history, you can start answering some questions to prepare for your next full practice test. This step should alert you to any skill areas that you still need to practice or content that you didn't fully memorize in your first content review. Try to find questions that require some analysis in addition to factual recall so you can test both your background knowledge and your mastery of higher-level thought processes.

In our expert AP US History study guide, I include a list of online resources you can use for practice questions. These will be helpful for this stage of the process because you're addressing specific time periods or themes that gave you trouble on the first test.

Most online resources have mini quizzes that pertain to different units in the course, so you can pick and choose which types of questions you want to practice. This is also when you can practice writing the essay outlines mentioned in the tips section above.


Step 6: Take and Score a Second Practice Test

Time: 3.5 hours

Once you're satisfied that you have a better understanding of everything you missed on the first AP US History practice test, take another practice test to see how far you've come.

If you see significant improvement, you might be able to stop here. Of course, that depends on what your goals are and what your score was like on your first practice test. You can always repeat these steps to improve even more!

If your scores haven't improved, look back at how you conducted the process and make sure that you weren't "studying" by simply skimming over information without really understanding or absorbing it.

You should also only study in an environment where you can focus without any interruptions or distractions. Sometimes this might mean abandoning group study sessions for independent work!


body_independent-1.jpgDeclare your independence, and illuminate ... the past!


Recap: Getting the Most Out of Your AP US History Review

Although AP US History is a notoriously challenging class, reviewing the material before the big test doesn't have to be traumatic. Most questions will ask you to analyze historical documents and record your insights. This AP test is less about knowing every single little thing that's happened in American history and more about understanding the eight course themes and how they're intertwined with the progression of events.

Here are three tips to keep in mind as you study for AP US History:

  • Connect facts to major themes
  • Practice analyzing historical documents
  • Write essay outlines

Your AP US History review plan should (roughly) follow these six steps:

#1: Take a full-length (and timed!) practice test
#2: Score your practice test and set a goal
#3: Analyze your mistakes
#4: Fix gaps in your content knowledge
#5: Practice relevant questions
#6: Take and score a second practice test

You can repeat the steps as many times as necessary to achieve your score goal. Use official and high-quality APUSH practice tests to keep checking in with yourself as you review to ensure that you're making steady improvements!


What's Next?

Looking for more APUSH prep guides? We go over how to write a DBQ, where to find AP US History practice tests, and which AP US History notes are the best to use.

Still trying to plan out the rest of your class schedule for next year? Our guide will help you decide which AP classes to take based on your goals.

What will you get out of a high AP score? Take a look at this guide to learn how AP credit works in college.


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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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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