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The Ultimate AP US History Study Guide

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Mar 25, 2016 4:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Studying for AP US History is an exercise in memorization and critical thinking. Multiple-choice questions in this course will ask you to read and analyze documents based on your historical knowledge. Essay questions require similar skills, but with the added challenge of synthesizing your ideas into a coherent argument that incorporates outside knowledge and evidence presented by the test.

In this AP US History study guide, I'll give you all the resources and strategies you need to prepare for not only the AP exam, but any test that comes your way in this course! 


What’s the Purpose of This AP US History Study Guide?

This guide will help you prepare for the AP test and other assessments you encounter throughout the school year. It includes instructions for creating an effective study plan, some useful study tips, an overview of the content covered in the course, and a list of resources for practice questions. This is a one-stop-shop for all the information you need to master the material covered in AP US History. 


Creating a Study Plan for AP US History

You should start studying sooner rather than later for this test because there’s so much information to remember. Ideally, you’ll build on knowledge throughout the year and regularly review to avoid forgetting earlier parts of the course. I’d recommend doing a holistic review after each in-class exam that covers everything you’ve learned up to that point. Begin your final review for the AP test in March or April so you have a month or two to spread out your studying.

Here's an essential step-by-step prep process that I recommend for the test:


Step 1: Take a Full Practice Test (3 Hours 15 Minutes)

The first step is to take a practice test under realistic conditions. Time yourself in accordance with the real AP test, and write out both essays completely. Put a mark next to any multiple-choice questions that required you to guess - it's important to go over this information later even if you happen to guess correctly. When you’re done, score the test to see how well you would do on the real AP exam if you took it right now.

Depending on how much you're hoping to improve your score, you may have to budget in more or less study time. If you’re already scoring close to a 5 (or a low 5), you might complete these steps once and find that you’re satisfied with your results (about a 10-12 hour commitment). If you’re scoring two or more AP points lower than you would like, however; you should probably plan to go through this process several times.  


Step 2: Catalog Your Mistakes and Guesses (1 Hour)

After you score the test, go through your mistakes and lucky guesses. Try to categorize the mistakes by content area so you can see patterns and determine which parts of the course you need to study most. Once you’ve identified what you need to study, you can move on to reviewing the actual content. Make a list in descending order of the topics that correspond to the highest number of missed multiple-choice questions and missed points on essay/short answer questions.


Step 3: Study Relevant Content Areas and Practice Multiple Choice Questions (2 Hours)

Use the list you made in the previous step to guide your review of the content. Start with the areas where you just need a little refresher, and work your way up to the big issues you had on the diagnostic test. When you’re satisfied that you’ve fixed the gaps in knowledge that led to your errors, you should do some practice multiple-choice questions to make sure you really know your stuff (find them in review books or on one of the sites listed later in this article!).


Step 4: Practice Planning and Writing Essays (2 Hours)

You need to practice writing essays before you take the test so that you feel comfortable with the time constraints and requirements. This is especially true when it comes to the document-based question, which has a unique format. After examining the problems with your essays from the original diagnostic test, practice your skills on additional free-response questions. For the sake of saving time, you don’t necessarily need to write out entire essays, but you should at least make rough outlines that include all the components of a successful essay. That being said, if you struggled a lot with time on the initial test, I would recommend going through another timed free-response section in full so that you can practice moving more quickly.


Step 5: Take a Second Full Practice Test (3 Hours 15 Minutes)

After you’ve gotten more familiar with the material, take a second full practice test to assess your progress. If you find that you’ve improved to a satisfactory level, you might stop there and just do light review until the exam. If you’re still not happy with your results, repeat this process, and make sure you’re really absorbing the material as you study. The next section will give you some more tips for studying effectively!  


body_alarmclock-2.jpgAlways time practice tests to the specifications of the AP exam! You have to get used to thinking and writing quickly.


AP US History Study Tips

These tips will help you get the most out of your time as you go through the process outlined in the previous section. This exam assesses your historical knowledge in a different way than other tests you may have taken in the past. Make sure your study methods lend themselves to the format! 


Tip #1: Make Thematic Connections

The ultimate goal of AP US History is for you to be able to connect individual events to the main themes of the course and draw conclusions about historical trends based on your analysis. As you study, don’t just look at events in isolation. Examine how they relate to other events of the time and how they might have resulted from different cultural and political attitudes. What were the outcomes of particular events and how and why did they feed into different, larger trends? Ask yourself to dig deeper. This will help you on in-class assessments and the AP test.


Tip #2: Read and Repeat

When you read content notes for AP US History, you may think you have a fact committed to memory but forget it when it comes up on a test. Pause every couple of minutes, and try to remember the facts that you just reviewed without looking back at your notes. You’ll know immediately if you’re not absorbing the information. If you’re having trouble remembering a particular fact, try to make a distinctive connection with something else that's easier to remember. 

For example, let’s say you were trying to remember which items were taxed by the Townshend Acts. It was glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. You could think of the mnemonic GuLPP iT to remember them. It also makes sense because all of the taxes were repealed except for the one on tea, which you can gulp! I know this sounds super weird, but I find the weirder the method of remembering something, the more likely it is to stick in your mind.


Tip #3: Practice Writing Essay Questions

The free-response section is the biggest challenge on the AP exam because you have to plan and write two coherent essays over the course of less than two hours. It’s imperative that you do lots of practice before the test to prevent your essays from being disorganized or lacking in focusYou can consult the College Board site for links to past AP US History free-response questions.

Make sure you always have a strong thesis statement and all the points in your essay relate directly back to it. Plan out your essay before you start writing to keep yourself on track. Try to include relevant outside knowledge, but ONLY if it pertains directly to your argument and the subject of the question. Don’t just spew out everything you know about the topic!

body_fountainpen.jpgWrite your practice essays in illegible cursive with a fountain pen. It's what the founding fathers would have wanted.


Themes in AP US History

AP US History covers history in what is now the United States from 1491 to the present. There are seven main themes (covering 19 different learning objectives) in the course that connect events throughout this 500+ year period. For each of these themes, I’ll briefly go over the skills you're expected to master so you can study strategically:


Theme 1: American and National Identity

  • Explain how ideas of democracy, freedom, and individualism factored into the development of American political institutions, cultural values, and identity.
  • Explain how various interpretations of the Constitution and debates over which rights are granted to which groups have affected American society and politics.
  • Analyze how American national identity changed with US involvement in international conflicts and the expansion of the country.
  • Analyze relationships between different regional, social, and ethnic groups in the US, and explain how their various experiences relate to the country’s national identity.


Theme 2: Politics and Power

  • Explain how and why political ideas and institutions have developed and changed over time.
  • Explain how reform groups and other activists have sought to change American society and institutions.
  • Explain how differing views on the role of the federal government in the social and economic lives of Americans have impacted political debates and policies.


Theme 3: Work, Exchange, and Technology

  • Explain the development of labor systems and how they have impacted the lives of US workers and society as a whole.
  • Explain how patterns of exchange, markets, and private businesses have developed, and analyze governmental responses to economic issues.
  • Analyze how technology has impacted economic development and society as a whole.


Theme 4: Culture and Society

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


Theme 5: Migration and Settlement

  • Explain the causes of migration to colonial America and, later, the US, and analyze the effects of immigration on US History.
  • Analyze patterns of internal migration and settlement in what would become the US and how this has impacted American life.


Theme 6: Geography and the Environment

  • Explain how geographic and environmental factors have shaped the development of communities in the US and analyze how debates about natural resources have impacted group interactions and government policy.


Theme 7: America in the World

  • Explain how different types of interactions between empires, nations, and peoples have influenced political, social, and economic developments in North America.
  • Analyze the reasons for and results of US diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives elsewhere in the world.

body_themepark.jpgLook at all these themes! It's like being at a theme park minus the scents of fried food and despair! Also, I HIGHLY doubt this roller coaster could pass a safety inspection.


AP US History Content: Notes and Outlines

Now, I’ll give you notes on the course content so that you can study the facts and connect them to the themes and learning objectives! The content is divided into nine different historical periods. Under each, I will list important topics with links to notes. Every period also includes a link to at least one timeline of significant events. I think it's helpful to have these handy so you get a better grasp of the chronology (which will be very helpful on free-response questions).

The timelines are from, and the rest of the notes are from a different site called I choose to source the notes from the second site because it gives a more succinct overview of the content, with key dates and major events bolded. It's good for a quick review. I'd recommend looking at the chapter outlines on if you want to see a longer, more detailed description of historical trends and events. 


Period 1: 1491-1607


Period 2: 1607-1754


Period 3: 1754-1800


Period 4: 1800-1848


Period 5: 1844-1877


Period 6: 1865-1898


Period 7: 1890-1945


Period 8: 1945-1980


Period 9: 1980-Present


Quick Reference Sheets:

APUSH Teacher Creations:




body_amberwavesofgrain.jpgSpacious skies, amber waves of grain, etc.


Resources to Test Your Knowledge

Here some print and online resources that you can use to review for the AP test and smaller portions of the curriculum throughout the year:


Review Books

A few books we recommend are:
  • Cracking the AP US History Exam
  • Kaplan AP US History 2016
  • AP US History Crash Course

Read the full article on the best review books for APUSH for more details! 


Official College Board Materials

These practice questions come directly from the College Board, so they're the most accurate representations of what you can expect on the real test. Try to save these resources for later in your studying so you can get an accurate reading on your strengths and weaknesses when you're close to the exam. 


Unofficial Practice Materials 

Quizlet Flashcards and Quizzes

These are student-created sets of flashcards that cover every aspect of AP US History. You can study different sets depending on where you are in the course or which areas need the most improvement. After you study the terms, you can play games to review them and test your factual recall!


Mini Practice Quizzes for AP US History

You’ll find practice quizzes for every topic covered in the course here. There are multiple choice questions and, for some topics, “short answer” questions (you’re given a drop-down menu of 12 answer choices). These won’t help much with the more analytical elements of the test, but if you want to test your knowledge of facts, they'll serve you well. 


Learnerator AP US History Practice Quizzes

This is a series of quizzes on every topic in the curriculum. As you go through them, the site will display stats detailing how you fared on questions of varying difficulty levels. This should help you figure out whether you’ve mastered the material.


GetaFive AP US History Course

You can sign up for free for this service and enroll in the AP US History course. There are lots of practice questions and video lessons that may be helpful in your studying. 


Practice Quizzes for The American Pageant 12th Edition

This site has chapter-by-chapter practice quizzes organized around an old edition of The American Pageant textbook. Questions are multiple choice and true-false. Again, this is more helpful for factual recall than for analysis questions.


CourseNotes Practice Quizzes for AP US History

This site has six pages of multiple-choice quizzes on all the topics you need to know for the exam! 


Varsity Tutors AP US History Practice Quizzes

Varsity Tutors has short multiple-choice practice quizzes on every topic as well. 


Matching and Multiple Choice Short Practice Quizzes

This site has sets of matching and multiple choice questions for every period in US History.


They've got questions; YOU'VE got answers!



AP US History covers seven major themes across nine periods. It's hard to study this much material, which is why it's good to have a game plan! To recap, the steps I'd recommend you take in your studying are:

  • Step 1: Take a Full Practice Test
  • Step 2: Catalog Your Mistakes
  • Step 3: Study Relevant Content Areas and Practice Multiple-Choice Questions
  • Step 4: Practice Planning and Writing Essays
  • Step 5: Take a Second Full Practice Test

You can repeat these steps as necessary depending on how much you need to improve! As you review, also keep a few key tips in mind:

  • Tip #1: Make Thematic Connections
  • Tip #2: Read and Repeat
  • Tip #3: Practice Writing Essays Frequently   

Use the notes provided in the content overview and the resources in the last section to get yourself up to speed. Start studying for the final exam at least one or two months beforehand, so you aren't forced to cram!


What's Next?

Want more practice for document-based questions? We wrote a whole article on the best resources for document-based questions that you can use in your studying.

Are you applying to colleges that recommend or require submission of Subject Test scores? Read this article to learn more about the differences between AP tests and SAT Subject Tests

You can also check out our complete study guide to the SAT US History Subject Test. If you take it right after the AP US History exam, you might not need to study much at all!


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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