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The Complete Guide to the AP World History Exam

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Nov 4, 2018 10:32:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Before you start studying for the AP World History exam, you should get the inside scoop on its format and content. The types of questions you'll see might differ from your expectations. It's especially smart to practice writing essay outlines based on past questions before you're faced with fresh prompts on the test. In this article, I'll go through the structure, content, and question types on the exam and provide some helpful tips for acing it!


How Is the AP World History Exam Structured?

The exam is 3 hours and 15 minutes long in total, with two sections.


Section 1 Format:

  • Total time: 105 minutes
  • 55 minutes to complete 55 multiple-choice questions (worth 40 percent of your score)
  • 50 minutes to complete four short-answer questions (worth 20 percent of your score)


Question Breakdown:


Percentage of MC Questions

Technological and Environmental Transformations: Up to 600 BCE


Organization and Reorganization of Human Societies: 600 BCE - 600 CE


Regional and Transregional Interactions: 600 CE - 1450


Global Interactions: 1450 - 1750


Industrialization and Global Integration: 1750 - 1900


Accelerating Global Change and Realignments: 1900 - Present


Section 2 Format:

  • 90 minutes 
  • Two essay questions:
    • Document based question (50 minutes, which includes a 10 minute reading period)
      • You’ll integrate an analysis of ten historical documents with your discussion of a topic in world history.
      • This question is worth 25 percent of your score,
    • Long essay (35 minutes)
      • You'll choose between two different prompts for the long essay question. 
      • This question is worth 15 percent of your score.
This section, as a whole, makes up the other 50 percent of your final exam score. 

Content Background for AP World History

The content is divided into five themes that can be traced through six historical eras. Knowing the themes can help you get a better sense of which historical trends the test will ask you to examine (this is especially helpful when writing free-response essays).

The six eras are also important to know for the test because they provide an easier way of organizing information and events. As you'll see in the multiple-choice question example in the next section, your ability to make the right answer choice often depends on your memory of how these eras differ from one another on a large scale.  

The five themes are:

Theme 1: Interaction Between Humans and the Environment

  • Demography and disease
  • Migration
  • Patterns of settlement
  • Technology


Theme 2: Development and Interaction of Cultures

  • Religions
  • Belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies
  • Science and technology
  • The arts and architecture


Theme 3: State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict

  • Political structures and forms of governance
  • Empires
  • Nations and nationalism
  • Revolts and revolutions
  • Regional, transregional, and global structures and organizations


Theme 4: Creation, Expansion, and Interaction of Economic Systems

  • Agricultural and pastoral production
  • Trade and commerce
  • Labor systems
  • Industrialization
  • Capitalism and socialism


Theme 5: Development and Transformation of Social Structures

  • Gender roles and relations
  • Family and kinship
  • Racial and ethnic constructions
  • Social and economic classes


The six time periods, which I also listed briefly in the first section of this guide, are:

Period 1: Technological and Environmental Transformations (Before 600 BC)

  • Key Concepts:
    • Paleolithic era hunter-gatherer societies
    • Neolithic Revolution and early agricultural societies
    • Foundational civilizations (ex. Mesopotamia, Egypt, Olmecs)
    • The first states
    • Development of urban planning and culture
    • Systems of record keeping and legal codes
    • New religious beliefs
    • Trade expansion


Period 2: Organization and Reorganization of Human Societies (600 BC - 600 CE)

  • Key Concepts:
    • Codification of religious and cultural traditions
    • New artistic expressions in literature, drama, architecture
    • Further development and consolidation of states and empires (ex. Persian Empires, Qin and Han Empire, Roman Empire)
    • Decline and collapse of large empires
    • New networks and means of communication and exchange  


Period 3: Regional and Transregional Interactions (600 CE - 1450)

  • Key Concepts:
    • Further expansion and intensification of networks of communication and exchange
    • Migration of peoples leads to linguistic and environmental effects
    • Diffusion of new crops and new diseases along trade routes
    • Emergence of new types of states after empire collapses
    • Contact and conflict between states and empires leads to technological and cultural transfers
    • Increased productive capacity in agriculture and other industries
    • Urban decline and revival


Period 4: Global Interactions (1450 - 1750)

  • Key Concepts:
    • Global networks of communication and exchange
    • Technological advances make long sea voyages possible
    • Age of exploration
    • Columbian Exchange
    • Religious spread and reform
    • Increased labor demands (peasant labor, slavery, growth of plantations)
    • Restructuring of gender, racial, and ethnic hierarchies
    • State consolidation and imperial expansion (both land and maritime empires develop)  


Period 5: Industrialization and Global Integration (1750 - 1900)

  • Key Concepts:
    • Industrial Revolution; fundamental changes to the way goods are produced
    • Transoceanic empires established, decline of Spanish and Portuguese influence
    • Influence of imperialism on state formation around the world
    • Social Darwinism, other racist ideologies facilitate/justify imperialism
    • Enlightenment
    • Revolutionary movements
    • Global migration


Period 6: Accelerating Global Change and Realignments (1900 - Present)

  • Key Concepts:
    • Rapid advances in science and technology
    • Impact of population expansion on the environment
    • Dissolution of empires and restructuring of states
    • Military conflicts on a global scale
    • Different responses to new economic challenges
    • States, communities, and individuals grow more interdependent
    • Challenges to old assumptions about society and culture, human rights movements
    • Consumer/pop culture goes global


body_snowball.jpgAlthough we still have a ways to go in accepting the devastating impact we've have had on the environment. Remember when a congressperson threw a snowball in the House of Representatives in an attempt to prove that global warming doesn't exist? We're doomed.


Sample AP World History Test Questions

Let's go through examples of each of the four types of questions you'll see on the exam. 


Multiple-Choice Question Example

Multiple-choice questions on the AP World History exam are organized into sets around the analysis of a piece of historical source material in the form of a text, map, or chartFor this question, you’re asked to examine a map that will inform your answer:



There’s a lot going on in this diagram, but you can pretty much use your intuition to figure out the correct answer.

Choice A is too specific and too early. We see a much wider variety of trade routes on the map than this choice indicates - China is clearly in on the trading action. The dates mentioned are also before technology had developed to the point where the long sea voyages indicated on the map could take place.

Choice B seems more likely. This was the period when trading amongst Europe, Africa, and Asia really started to take off. This choice also mentions the growth of new cities, and many cities are labeled on the map.  

Choice C, like choice A, is too specific. There’s a lot of other trading going on here that doesn’t involve China at all, and the map doesn’t seem to indicate Chinese dominance of the networks.

Choice D is a little harder to rule out, but it’s also incorrect. It mentions an era when these trading networks were already well-established, and the Columbian Exchange with the Americas became a significant factor. Also, it’s hard to see how the map is demonstrating any changes in trading networks. This choice points to evidence that just isn’t there. 

The answer is B!

The key to answering multiple-choice questions correctly is a careful reading of the source material and the question itself. Your answer should be informed by your background knowledge in world history, but it should be finalized through your understanding of the given context. 


Short Answer Question Example

Short answer questions (new for the test in 2017) ask you to consult source materials and your knowledge of world history to provide concise responses. In a multi-part short response question, each part should only require a 1-2 sentence answer. If the question doesn't have multiple parts, your response should still be confined to no more than a paragraph. Here's an example from the latest course description: 


A good answer to part (a) would briefly describe how the Meiji restoration and industrialization contributed to Japan's increased military capacity during the late 19th century. For part (b), you would need to point out a specific example of how the painting shows a shift in Japanese cultural identity - for example, the Western-style military uniforms. For part (c), you would need to give an example of how increased militarism in Japan affected relationships with other countries at the beginning of the 20th century. You could talk about the impact of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 on the Russian Revolution or the increase in Japanese imperialism and militarism in the 1930s contributing to the start of World War II. 


Free-Response Question Examples

There are two free-response questions on the exam, one document based question and one long essay question. I'll give you an example of each type of prompt.   

Document Based Question

Here’s a sample document based question:


And here are two of the accompanying documents so you can see the types of materials you’ll be asked to integrate into your answer: 




A great answer for this document-based question would analyze the documents by making multiple groupings around patterns of mechanization in Japan and India, examining similarities and differences. Groupings might include the growth of mechanization in both areas, the dominance of female labor in Japan and male labor in India, and testimony about peasant labor in both areas. 

You could use a single document as evidence for a variety of characteristics of mechanization and weave it into the essay at appropriate points. You should also create subgroupings within overarching themes. Don’t just say working conditions were “bad.” Make a distinction between different types of badness, for example, dangerous conditions versus low wages. Your essay should also analyze perspectives in at least two documents, explaining the contextual reasons that an author might have the opinion or point of view presented. 

You'll need to identify the additional document asked for in the question, and explain how it would contribute to your analysis. For example, there’s no document that provides the perspective of an Indian worker, so that would be good additional evidence. 

You could earn extra points for mentioning more than one additional document, explaining why the additional document is necessary, or weaving the potential addition(s) into your broader analysis. Incorporating outside knowledge of the historical context beyond what is presented in the documents is also a plus. For example, you might compare India’s status as a colony with Japan’s status as an independent imperial power, which would help explain why only one of the Indian sources comes directly from an Indian author.

For document based questions, the central goal is to use all the documents in ways that relate to your thesis and bolster your supporting points. If you can do that in a cohesive essay that flows well, you'll earn most of the points available for this question. 


Long Essay Question

Here's a sample long essay question (remember, you'll be able to choose between two of these types of questions on the test):

Question 2: Evaluate the extent to which the emergence of Buddhism in the fifth century B.C.E. can be considered a turning point in world history.

In the development of your argument, explain what changed and what stayed the same from the period before the emergence of Buddhism in the fifth century B.C.E. to the period after the emergence of Buddhism in the fifth century B.C.E.  

A strong answer for this question would include a thesis that makes a claim about the extent to which the emergence Buddhism was a turning point at this time in history. The thesis should go beyond just saying that Buddhism was or was not a turning point - state the reason for your claim in your thesis.

Your argument should be supported throughout the essay by specific examples that show changes and continuities that occurred between the period before the emergence of Buddhism and the period afterwards. The similarities and differences between the two periods should be woven together to make a larger statement about the impact of Buddhism on world history. 

Examples supporting Buddhism as a major turning point include:

  • The challenge it presented to existing caste and gender hierarchies in Southeast Asia
  • Promotion of Buddhism by the Mauryan Empire was associated with the first large centrally administered state in South Asia

If you're arguing in the opposite direction, that Buddhism wasn't a major turning point, you might describe the continued significance of religions like Daoism and Shintoism in East Asia both before and after the fifth century B.C.E. 

Make sure your argument is supported and qualified by other developments during this time period that had a scope beyond Buddhism. This might include:

  • Overall formation and expansion of empires
  • Origins of Confucianism
  • Impact of Upanishads in development of what would eventually become Hinduism

You might say that these other developments played a greater role in establishing the fifth century B.C.E. as a turning point in world history than Buddhism did. Or, if you're arguing that Buddhism was a signficant turning point on its own, you might say that these developments were all secondary indicators of the change that would come about with the spread of Buddhism. 

To take your essay to the next level, you also need to synthesize your points and expand the argument you're making. A smart way to do this would be to compare the emergence of Buddhism to other turning points in world history. In making these comparisons, you could bolster your argument for Buddhism as either a major turning point or a less significant development in world history depending on how it compares to these other major cultural shifts. 


How Is the AP World History Exam Scored?

Raw scoring for multiple choice is simple. You will earn one point for each multiple-choice question you answer correctly for a maximum of 55 points. No points are taken off for incorrect answers, so you should fill in an answer bubble for every question. Each short answer question is worth three points (one for each task you're asked to complete in the question). That means you can earn a total of 12 raw points for your responses to short answer questions.

The document based question and long essay question vary in point values. It's more significant to remember that the document based question is worth 25 percent of your score and the long essay question is worth just 15 percent. 

After the graders determine the number of points you've earned in each section, they'll calculate your two scaled scores based on the exam curve (which changes year to year). Each section gets a separate scaled score (one scaled score for multiple choice/short answer and one for the two free response questions). Then, the two separate scaled scores are added together for a total scaled score, which is converted to a score of 1-5 on the AP scale. 

The scoring methodology is a little less clear right now because of the significant changes that have been made to the exam for 2017. More information will become available after students take the revised test for the first time. 


What’s the Best Way to Prep for the AP World History Exam?

Here are a few of the most important prep tips for AP World History. If you want even more advice, take a look at this article that delves into more detail on the best study strategies for this exam. 


Tip #1: Make Connections to Themes (and Memorize Examples!)

This is a course that covers so much information that it can be hard to think of specific examples that relate to your arguments in essay questions. You should be able to elaborate on one or two concrete events from each period that relate to each theme of the course. If you can preserve this bank of information in your mind, you’ll be able to support your answers to any essay questions the test throws at you.


Tip #2: Use Outside Information Selectively

Providing specific historical examples in your essay is a way of showing your mastery of the material, but you need to be cautious. This test is less about how much you know and more about how well you understand the connections and underlying themes that connect historical facts. For example, in the last essay question example, even if you knew a million things about Buddhism and listed out a bunch of very specific facts in your essay, you wouldn’t necessarily get a good score. Each fact that you mention should have a purpose. It needs to tie directly into what the question is asking and what you’ve stated in your argument. 


Tip #3: Learn to Read Multiple-Choice Questions Carefully

You can get into some trouble if you don’t understand exactly what the multiple-choice questions are asking on this exam. You’ll only find the correct answer if you stick to the specifics of the question. Otherwise, you could get tripped up by choices that are accurate statements about history but inaccurate answers to the question being asked. In the multiple-choice question we answered above, all of the choices represent valid historical events and trends, but only one provides a correct description of the map. Practice your skills in selecting answers that directly pertain to the evidence presented in the question.


body_sticktothepoint.jpgSTICK to the specifics of the question! Also, I admire the sacrifices this woman made for the sake of a stock photo both in terms of her dignity and in terms of the pain she must have experienced when ripping that tape out of her hair.



The AP World History exam contains 55 multiple-choice questions, four short-answer questions, and two free-response questions. The two free-response questions include a document based question, which asks you to incorporate ten real historical documents into your response, and a long essay question.

The exam questions address five major historical themes over six eras that stretch back to the beginning of human history. While this is undoubtedly a lot of information to study, it's important to realize that long-term trends are more important than small details. You can do extremely well on this test if you just master the major events of each era and understand their essential causes and effects.


What’s Next?

Looking for some practice materials? Check out our article listing all the AP World History practice tests available online. 

It's a smart idea to practice your writing skills on document based questions before the exam. Learn about the best places to find DBQ examples and how you can write an excellent response to these tricky questions.

Which AP classes should you take in high school besides AP World History? This guide will help you decide based on your goals, academic interests, and schedule.


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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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