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The Best AP US History Review Guide

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Nov 4, 2018 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. In this guide, I'll give you a basic outline of what's on the 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 exam is three hours and 15 minutes, so it’s on the longer side compared to other AP tests. Here's a layout of the timing and significance of each section:


Section 1 - Multiple Choice (Also Includes Short Answer)

  • 55 multiple-choice questions
    • 55 minutes
    • 40 percent of your score
  • Four short-answer questions
    • 50 minutes
    • 20 percent of your score
  • One hour 45 minutes total


Section 2 - Free Response

  • One document-based question
    • 55 minutes
    • 25 percent of your score
  • One long essay question
    • 35 minutes
    • 15 percent of your score
  • One hour 30 minutes total 


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 see on the exam. It's important to understand the different formats and point distributions before diving into your review of the course content. This way, you can tailor your review to the actual requirements of the test!  


Multiple Choice

Multiple choice questions always ask you to apply your knowledge of US History in the context of a historical document. These documents might include images or pieces of writing, and several questions are asked about each one. Here’s an example:




The passage 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 test! 


Short Answer

There are also four short-answer questions on the first part of the 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 like multiple-choice questions. Here’s an example:


Part (a):

In this part, you got one point for understanding the two viewpoints well enough to identify a major difference between them. You might answer with the following statement:

Adams felt that the revolutionary spirit that led to fighting was the real revolution; as resistance to British regulation grew, a revolutionary American identity emerged. Rush, on the other hand, felt that the real revolution consisted of experimentation with new political systems after the fighting.

Essentially, Adams thought of the American Revolution as more of a prewar ideological revolution, rather than a postwar political one, and Rush thought the opposite.  


Part (b):

Some examples of historical evidence that would support Adams’ interpretation are:
  • End of “salutary neglect” and growing separate American identity
  • The Stamp Act, the Stamp Act Congress, and public demonstrations (Sons of Liberty)
  • Movement to boycott British goods
  • Boston Tea Party and Intolerable Acts
  • Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  • List of grievances from the Declaration of Independence  


Part (c):

Examples of historical evidence supporting Rush’s viewpoint include:
  • Statement of “principles, morals” being basis of government in Declaration of Independence
  • Articles of Confederation
  • Issues of slavery still unresolved (Northwest Ordinance)
  • Constitutional Convention and US Constitution
  • Bill of Rights
  • Election of 1800 and development of first party system


Short-answer questions won’t ask you to do much writing, but 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. 


Document-Based Question

The Document-Based question might be the most intimidating part of this exam. It’s worth 25 percent of your score, and it 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:


In the interest of saving space, I won’t include all the documents here (check out my complete guide to the AP US History exam for a more detailed example). Here’s how the points are doled out:

  • You'll get one point for a coherent thesis that answers all parts of the question.
  • Then, you can earn up to four points for analysis of the documents. To earn all four points you need to give:
    • Plausible analysis of the content of all or all but one of the documents, which is used effectively to support the thesis
    • Analysis of all or all but one of the documents in one or more of the following areas:
      • Intended audience
      • Purpose
      • Historical context
      • Author’s point of view
    • Analysis of outside historical examples to bolster your argument
  • A sixth point is earned for contextualization or connecting historical phenomena relevant to your argument to broader trends in history.
  • The final point is earned for synthesis, which means that your essay ties together the evidence from different documents to support your argument or connects the argument to other periods in history or other contexts in general.
This means you can earn a total of seven points on the DBQ, most of them related to analyzing the documents in a way that supports your thesis. Here are some helpful resources for more DBQ examples to use as part of your review! 


Long Essay


Depending on whether you were more confident with recent history or colonial history, you could choose either one of these questions. The test will give you two very different options so that you have a meaningful choice to make. Points are awarded as follows for the long essay question:
  • A thesis that addresses all parts of the question gets you one point.
  • Support of the thesis with specific evidence gets you up to two additional points. You’ll get both points if you also establish clearly and consistently how the evidence ties back to your thesis statement.
  • You can earn two more points for a valid assessment of the historical thinking skill targeted in the question. You’ll only get both points if you address both continuity and change in your answer and give specific supporting examples!
  • A final point is awarded for the synthesis of your ideas into a coherent essay. You might connect the topic to other historical periods or contexts, include an additional category of analysis, or extend/modify your thesis to draw a larger conclusion.

There is a total of six points possible on the long essay question.


What Does the AP US History Exam Cover?

AP US History is divided into nine time periods, each of which makes up a designated percentage of the course material and instructional time:


These time periods are connected by seven overarching historical themes. I’ll list these themes followed by the learning objectives associated with them. 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.


AP US History Themes


Theme 1: American and National Identity

  • Explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.
  • Explain how interpretations of the Constitution and debates over rights, liberties, and definitions of citizenship have affected American values, politics, and society.
  • Analyze how ideas about national identity changed in response to U.S. involvement in international conflicts and the growth of the United States.
  • Analyze relationships among different regional, social, ethnic, and racial groups, and explain how these groups’ experiences have related to U.S. national identity.


Theme 2: Politics and Power

  • Explain how and why political ideas, beliefs, institutions, party systems, and alignments have developed and changed.
  • Explain how popular movements, reform efforts, and activist groups have sought to change American society and institutions.
  • Explain how different beliefs about the federal government’s role in U.S. social and economic life have affected political debates and policies.


Theme 3: Work, Exchange, and Technology

  • Explain how patterns of exchange, markets, and private enterprise have developed, and analyze ways that governments have responded to economic issues.
  • Analyze how technological innovation has affected economic development and society.
  • Explain how different labor systems developed in North America and explain their effects on workers’ lives and society.


Theme 4: Culture and Society

  • Explain how religious groups and ideas have affected American society and political life.
  • Explain how ideas about women’s rights and gender roles have affected society and politics.
  • Explain how different group identities, including racial, ethnic, class, and regional identities, have emerged and changed over time.
  • Explain how artistic, philosophical, and scientific ideas have developed and shaped society and institutions.


Theme 5: Migration and Settlement

  • Explain the causes of migration to colonial North America and, later, the United States, and analyze immigration’s effects on U.S. society.
  • Analyze causes of internal migration and patterns of settlement in what would become the United States, and explain how migration has affected American life.


Theme 6: Geography and the Environment

  • Explain how geographic and environmental factors shaped the development of various communities.
  • Analyze how conflict over natural resources has affected both group interactions and development of political policy.


Theme 7: America in the World

  • Explain how cultural interaction, cooperation, competition, and conflict between empires, nations, and peoples have influenced political, economic, and social developments in North America.
  • Analyze the reasons for, and results of, U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives in North America and overseas.


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


AP US History Review Tips

Before I lay out the template for your study plan, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you go along. If you adopt the right strategies, you'll see your scores improve much more quickly!   


#1: Connect Facts to Major Themes

Studying for 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 quickly and accurately. Look in your textbook or online for examples of historical writings, and practice analyzing the authors' claims. 

Which of the themes of the course are relevant? What else was happening at the time that may have influenced the writing or illustration? Is the individual addressing a certain audience, and is his or her point of view biased? These types of questions will prepare you for the way you’re asked to think about historical documents on the final exam. 


#3: Write Essay Outlines

You should be a pro at writing essay outlines before you take the 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 has a bunch of old free-response questions available online that students can use for review purposes. Practice writing a thesis-driven outline in five to ten 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

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


Step 1: Take a Full Practice Test (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 preparation. Make sure you adhere to the time constraints of the real exam so that you can figure out whether you need to work on your pacing (especially in the free-response section). Circle any questions where you aren't 100 percent sure of the answer so that you can revisit them even if you happen to guess correctly. 


Step 2: Score the Test, and Set an Ultimate Goal (1 Hour)

After you finish the practice test, calculate your score to see how much you need to improve before the AP test. This can be a little tough for US History because the scoring for free-response questions is less clear-cut. However, you should be able to pin down a solid estimate of how many points you would earn on each free-response question by referring to the grading rubrics. You can use this online calculator to find your AP score after you tally up all the raw points you've earned. Remember, 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 everyone who takes an AP class is capable of getting a 5 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 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 less. Of course, that all depends on how many hours of studying you can afford to put into this one test. Ideally, each time you go through the steps of this 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 may only need to go through the rest of this study process once to get yourself totally up to speed. If, on the other hand, 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 (1 Hour)

What information did you forget? Which eras/aspects of US History confused you the most on the test? Figure out which topics were most challenging for you by cataloging your mistakes and making a list of all the areas where 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 theme, you should use some of your prep time to work on gaining a deeper understanding of that concept.   


Step 4: Fix Gaps in Content Knowledge (2 Hours)

When you finish analyzing your mistakes, you can go into your 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 have a strong basis for your arguments and opinions. 

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


Step 5: Practice Relevant Questions (2 Hours)

After gaining the necessary background knowledge, 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 my AP US History study guide, I include a list of online resources that 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 to practice. This is also when you can practice writing the essay outlines I mentioned in the tips section. 


Step 6: Take and Score a Second Practice Test (3.5 Hours)

Finally, once you’re satisfied that you have a better understanding of everything you missed on the first 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 were and what your score was like on the 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 skimming over information without really understanding or absorbing it. You should also only study in an environment where you can focus without interruptions or distractions. Sometimes this means abandoning group study sessions for independent work!


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



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 documents and record your insights. It's less about knowing every single little thing that's happened in this country's history and more about understanding the seven themes of the course and how they're intertwined with the progression of events.


These are the tips you should keep in mind as you study:

  • Tip #1: Connect Facts to Major Themes
  • Tip #2: Practice Analyzing Historical Documents
  • Tip #3: Write Essay Outlines


Your study plan should (roughly) follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Take a Full Timed Practice Test
  • Step 2: Score the Practice Test and Set a Goal
  • Step 3: Analyze Your Mistakes
  • Step 4: Fix Gaps in Content Knowledge
  • Step 5: Practice Relevant Questions
  • Step 6: Take and Score a Second Practice Test


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


What’s Next?

Are you considering taking the SAT Subject Test for US History? Find out more about what's on that test and how it differs from the AP exam. 

Still trying to plan out the rest of your schedule? This article 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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