It’s no secret that AP US History (also known as APUSH) is a challenging class for tons of students. If you’re one of the many high school students wondering how to get a 5 on APUSH, exam prep time can be stressful. But even though the test is notoriously difficult, it’s 100% possible to get a perfect score!
To take some of the stress out of your studying, and to show you how to get a 5 on the APUSH exam, we’ve put together a list of tips and strategies that can help you succeed.
If you want to ace the APUSH exam, you need to know a few basic things about the test first.
How to Get A 5 on APUSH: The Basics
You need to know a little about the exam before you can figure out how to get a 5 on APUSH. 2020 was the first year the current version of the exam was rolled out, and so far the data suggests that this is one of the harder tests to get a perfect score on. According to the College Board, the 5 rate in 2021 was just 10.1%. For context, only 9 other AP exams had lower 5 rates, while 28 had higher rates.
Clearly, getting a 5 on APUSH takes a lot of work.
Part of what makes the APUSH test so hard is that you’re tested on a lot of material in a short amount of time. The whole test lasts 3 hours and 15 minutes, and it’s divided into two sections. Here’s the breakdown:
# of Questions
% of Exam Score
Section I, Part A (Multiple Choice)
Questions usually come in sets of 3-4 based on included primary and secondary sources, maps, or graphs that you’ll be asked to analyze.
Section I, Part B (Short Answer)
Question 1 is required, includes 1-2 secondary sources and focuses on historical developments between 1754-1980
Question 2 is required, includes 1 primary source, and focuses on developments between 1754 and 1980
Answer either Question 3 or 4. Question 3 is about the period between 1491 and 1877 and Question 4 covers 1865-2001
Section II, Part A: DBQs
Analyze 7 sources (provided) and develop an argument using them as evidence to support your ideas
Sources cover developments between 1754-1887
Section II, Part B: Long Essay
1 (out of 3 options)
Use historical reasoning processes (causation, comparison, continuity and change) to make an argument
Option 1 will focus on the period between 1491 and 1800, Option 2 between 1800-1898, and Option 3 between 1980-2001
So what does all this tell us about how to get a 5 on the APUSH exam? First of all, it tells us that perfect scorers are able to do three basic things: remember major historical developments and processes, analyze and interpret sources, and make a solid argument based on both historical evidence and reasoning.
It also tells us that getting a 5 on APUSH is mostly going to come down to how well you do on your short and long written responses. 60% of the total test score is based on the DBQ and long essay. Most of these will provide sources for you to draw from. This means that while memorization is going to be important, your reading skills and ability to make a good argument are even more crucial.
So, with that in mind, we’ve put together a list of our favorite study tips and strategies to help you get that perfect score. We’ll give you expert tips for what to do during your class, what to do in your review and prep time, and what to do on the day of the exam!
You're already going to class, so make the most of your APUSH classroom time with these tips.
How to Get a 5 on the APUSH Exam: Make the Most of Your Class
One of the best things you can do to set yourself up for a 5 is to take the class itself seriously and work hard all year long. Your class sessions, your homework and readings, and the tests you take will all help get you ready for the final exam.
The following tips are geared towards helping you make the most of your time in the course–both in and out of the classroom.
Tip 1: Be an Active Note-Taker
If you’re planning to take AP US History, you probably already know that it’s important to take notes in class. But active note-taking is about more than just listening and writing down facts that you hear. It also requires you to think critically about the information you’re learning as you learn it. And since the APUSH exam requires you to think critically about historical sources, as well as historical developments and processes, it’s important to start exercising your thinking muscles right from the beginning.
To do this, try to interpret the information as you go. That means writing notes in your own words whenever possible. Also be sure to include your own thoughts and ideas about what you learn. If it helps, you can color-code what you write to help keep things straight; one color can be used for what the teacher is saying, and another one for your own thoughts!
On that note, you should also avoid only writing down dates and names. You don’t just need to know when the US Constitution was ratified, or who signed their name in big bold letters on the Declaration of Independence. You need to know the context that those things happened in—like what led up to the events and what happened as a direct result.
And of course, practice makes perfect! Active note-taking can feel hard at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get. If you miss some information as you get started, that’s okay. You can always meet with your teacher after class or during their tutoring hours to ask about the information you missed.
Tip 2: Look for Patterns and Connections When Reading
The DBQ on the APUSH exam counts for a full 25% of your total exam score. You’ll be asked to read and analyze seven sources, then use six of them to make an argument. That means that you’ll need to be able to find patterns and connections between each of the exam sources quickly.
Start practicing this early with your reading assignments. Compare what you read in your textbook to your class notes and any additional primary or secondary sources you’re assigned to get a full picture. Then take a few minutes and brainstorm by asking yourself a few questions:
- How is the historical event or development you just read about connected to the other things you’ve learned?
- What are your thoughts about how people acted or reacted at the time?
- If you had to write an essay about it right now, what would you say?
You can jot the answers to these questions down in your notes. (Remember? You’re practicing active note-taking now!) Doing this can help you read more critically, which is an important skill to have if you want to get a 5 on APUSH. It’ll also help you retain information better!
These guys definitely asked a million questions before signing the Declaration of Independence.
Tip 3: Ask Questions as You Study
In journalism, there are five major questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Applying these questions to APUSH topics can help you develop the deep-level thinking skills you need to get a perfect score.
So whenever you learn about a historical development or process, make sure you identify:
- Who was involved?
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- How did it happen?
- (and most importantly) Why did it happen?
Because the APUSH course and exam place a lot of emphasis on making sure students think critically about history, the “why” question is something you should focus on. Ask yourself why you think something happened, but also ask why the people involved thought it happened. This will help you contextualize information, and it’ll also help you learn to develop an argument.
And of course, if you’re not sure from your reading and your notes how to answer any of these questions, ask your teacher. Just be sure to write down their answer in your notes!
Tip 4: Organize Your Notes by Theme
Before each of your tests, take some time to go through your notes and organize the information based on the eight course themes. Here they are for handy reference:
- American and National Identity
- Work, Exchange, and Technology
- Geography and the Environment
- Migration and Settlement
- Politics and Power
- America in the World
- American and Regional Culture
- Social Structures
The goal of organizing your notes by topic is to help you see how historical developments and processes fit together, which is especially crucial for the APUSH essay questions. You’ll also get a chance to flex your critical thinking abilities while you study. After all, you’ll have to decide if a topic like industrialization fits under “work, exchange, and technology” or “America in the world.”
And best of all, reorganizing your notes gives you new ideas for how to answer essay questions and create strong arguments when the time comes.
Tip 5: Save Your Test Prompts
If you’re able to, save your test prompts and questions throughout the year to use as study materials. Chances are, your teachers are testing you in a way that’s similar to the official APUSH exam. You can use the questions to quiz yourself and practice writing essays.
Although there are lots of study materials online, studying with official materials and your in-class documents is usually better and more accurate. And if you want to get a 5 on APUSH, you’ll need to use the best study materials you can!
Your study time is a precious resource. Use it wisely!
How to Get a 5 on the APUSH Exam: Maximize Your Review and Prep Time
Because the APUSH course and exam cover so much information, it’s important for you to pace yourself and start studying sooner rather than later. You won’t be able to get a 5 by cramming at the last minute!
That’s why we recommend reviewing everything you’ve learned so far after each of the tests you take in class. This will help you keep things fresh in your mind so you don’t forget what happened in 1666 by the time you get to 1966!
These tips will help you get the most out of your review sessions during the semester so you can rock the APUSH AP exam.
Tip 1: Use All of Your Resources
As your May test day approaches and your studying starts to pick up steam, don’t forget to use all of the resources you have at your disposal. This means you should talk to your teacher, read your notes, review your textbook, and look online for supplemental sources (we’ll show you where to find some good ones at the end of the article).
Each of these resources can offer you different insights, and using all of them can help you identify and fill in any gaps in your APUSH knowledge.
One resource that students often overlook is the AP Classroom section of the College Board website. It features daily videos for each of the nine APUSH units, and it provides practice questions and other study resources. You’ll even find DBQ and free-response questions from previous years that you can practice with!
Tip 2: Make Flashcards
Making flashcards may seem like old-school advice, but it works. In this case though, don’t just make any old flashcards, make historical reasoning flashcards!
There are three major historical reasoning processes that the APUSH exam will test you over:
- Comparison (similarities and differences between developments and processes)
- Causation (causes and effects of developments and processes)
- Continuity and Change (how things change and how they stay the same over time)
So while it’s a good idea to make flashcards that cover specific dates and events, be sure to throw some historical reasoning cards in your deck, too. These cards can cover any of the three reasoning processes we mentioned above!
Here are a few sample historical reasoning flashcard topics to get you started:
- What is one major similarity between labor, slavery and caste in the Spanish colonial system and the British colonial system? What is one difference? (Comparison)
- Name three factors that contributed to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. Then, name three significant things that happened as a result of the adoption of the Articles. (Causation)
- How did public opinion about American involvement in foreign wars change (or stay the same) between WWll and the Vietnam War? Why? (Continuity and Change)
Making flashcards provides several benefits. First, you’re re-reading your notes and texts and writing down the information again, both of which help you remember the material better. Second, you’re practicing the historical reasoning skills that are tested on each section of the APUSH exam. And finally, you’re making your own study materials that you can use in each of your later study sessions as a refresher!
Sometimes practice really does make perfect.
Tip 3: Take APUSH Practice Tests
Reading and re-reading your notes is often a pretty inevitable part of studying, but if you’re interested in getting a 5 on APUSH, you’ll also need to take practice tests. Full-length, official practice tests released by the College Board are the best since they’re made by the same company that administers the exam.
You should aim to take a full-length APUSH practice test at least twice if you’re shooting for a 5. This is a pretty big time commitment, but will pay off if you do a few things:
- Leave plenty of study time between each practice test so you can practice your mistakes.
- After completing your first practice test, create a study plan. Be sure to study your weakest areas the most.
- Make note of anything during the test-taking process that seems to be tripping you up–like making mistakes based on misreading the question–and come up with a plan of action to address the issue. For example, if you’re struggling to get through the DBQ in an hour, you may need to practice reading fast and underlining keywords as you go for quick reference later.
- After each additional practice test you take, reevaluate your study plan as needed.
That said, if you’re still in the early units of the course, full-length practice tests may not be quite as helpful as shorter APUSH practice tests and quizzes (like those we’ve collected in this article). These shorter quizzes are useful for in-class test preparation, but they can also help you fill in any gaps in your knowledge base as you begin the countdown to the final exam.
Tip 4: Mix It Up
To make the most of your study sessions, you should mix things up in two ways: where you study and how you study.
If you’ve ever heard the advice that you should create a nice quiet study space, you may be surprised to learn that people tend to remember the information they’re studying more if they switch up where they do it. So instead of sticking with just one, try to find two or three study spaces you can alternate between.
For example, your bedroom, the kitchen table, and the library are all good choices for study locations. If you’ve been working for a while and realize you’re having a hard time staying focused, you can try moving to a new spot and see if the change of scenery helps.
The same holds true for how you study. Doing just one thing over and over–like watching videos or taking practice quizzes–will limit what you’re able to learn and remember. Try to incorporate a few different methods into each of your study sessions instead. You could start by reading through some of your notes or texts, then take a few short practice quizzes online to see how well you remember what you just read.
The number of study methods you use at one time will depend on how long each of your study sessions last. Just remember: when it comes to studying, change can be your friend!
Tip 5: Study Outside the Box
Even though it’s obviously extremely important to study the specific historical developments and processes you’ll be tested over, since the APUSH exam asks you to analyze and think critically, it’s also a good idea to spend some of your study time honing those thinking skills. One way to do that is to think outside the box for ways you can get some additional practice in.
For example, the APUSH exam often asks students to analyze and explain the context and historical significance of images (like pictures of women building machinery during WWll). Look online for pictures from the past and practice writing brief essays explaining what the image is of, the likely perspective of the photographer or artist, and why the image is historically important. Focus on making an argument that relates the image to one (or more) of the themes of the course, like American and Regional Culture.
You may also see a political cartoon or two, potentially as one of your sources for the DBQ. You can practice analyzing these in the same way as other images. But you can also make your own political cartoon, and do a write-up that explains the choices you made, including your perspective on the issue, and how/why you chose to convey that perspective. Putting yourself in the shoes of the artist like this can help you see how and why the creators of the political cartoons you might see on test day did what they did.
Teaching someone else may help you learn, too. If you can find someone to tutor, that would be ideal. If not, try making your own APUSH quizzes online! You’ll have to think about the information in a new way, and you’ll be helping yourself remember in the process.
You can even organize a trivia night for friends and classmates that are also in APUSH classes. Team up and compete to see who knows the most about US History! You’ll be going over information you need to know…and you’ll have fun in the process.
It's test day! Here are tips to help you make the most of it.
How to Get a 5 on the APUSH Exam: Make Smart Choices on Test Day
Once the big day arrives, there are still things you can do to boost your score. The following test-day tips can help you survive and thrive when the time comes to actually take your APUSH exam.
Tip 1: Don’t Skimp on the Self-Care
To maximize your chances of getting a 5 on APUSH you’ll need to take care of your mind and body. Try to get plenty of rest the night before the exam, and eat a good meal the morning of the test if you can.
You can also avoid extra stress right before the test by making sure you have any supplies you’re going to need ready to go the day before. You’ll also be sitting in one place for several hours, so try to wear something comfortable so you can focus on your DBQs, not an itchy sweater.
And don’t forget to give yourself a pep-talk! When you feel confident in your abilities and the time you spent studying, you perform better. So take the time to pat yourself on the back for your hard work and remind yourself that you’re prepared to do well. It might just give you the boost you need.
Tip 2: Read the Questions Before Reading the Passage
To help you with your speed and focus, read the questions on the multiple-choice and short answer sections of the test before you read the provided passages. The questions themselves provide key information that can let you know in advance what you should be paying particular attention to.
By reading those first, you can then underline the parts of the passage that are most necessary to answering the questions correctly. This can save you precious seconds that you can use to review your answers later.
Tip 3: Don’t Leave Multiple Choice Questions Blank
The APUSH exam doesn’t penalize students for guessing. Instead, your multiple choice section score is based on how many questions you get correct. That means that if you guess on a question you’re not sure about, you stand at least a 25% chance of guessing correctly. If you leave it blank, you forfeit your chances of getting any points.
If you’re shooting for a 5, answer every question. And if you need to guess, guess wisely by using the process of elimination. Once you’ve eliminated the questions you know are wrong, you’ll give yourself a better chance of guessing correctly. When in doubt, go with the question that seems most correct given the historical period or context!
If you want to make a 5, you'll need to answer questions thoroughly in your written responses. Searching for helpful verbs is a good way to make sure you're staying on prompt!
Tip 4: Pay Attention to Question Verbs
Short answer, DBQ, and free-response questions on the APUSH exam all center around a task verb that tells you what you need to do. The verbs listed in the APUSH Course and Exam Description are:
- Support an Argument
When you’re taking a timed essay test it’s really easy to accidentally overlook or mistake the task verb. But that can negatively impact your score! For instance, if the question asks you to compare two historical processes, and all you do is Identify each process, then you haven’t really answered the question. And that means you’ll lose points.
To keep yourself from making this mistake, take a moment and circle or underline the task verb, and refer back to it if you need to in order to keep yourself on track.
Tip 5: Take the Time to Plan Your Essays
Because of the time constraints, you might feel the need to start writing your DBQ and free-response essays as soon as you possibly can. But slowing down for a few minutes can work in your favor. So before you get started, take two to five minutes to brainstorm and create an outline.
The goal is to give yourself some structure while keeping things brief. Your outline should include a thesis statement, a few points you want to make, and the examples and/or sources that you intend to use to support each of those points. This time spent thinking about what you want to say in advance can help you stay focused while writing, and it can make it easier for you to write quickly.
Also keep in mind that the high school history teachers and college professors grading your essays are reading hundreds of them per day, so a well-organized essay with clear points can maximize your chances of a great score.
If you need a little extra help finding APUSH study material, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a list of the best APUSH supplemental notes for you to study with.
Study guides can be a useful tool for APUSH cram sessions, too. Check out our top APUSH review books (complete examples of actual questions and how to answer them).
You may feel like you need a little more structure to get your study sessions off on the right foot. Our ultimate AP US History study guide can help you make the most of your study time.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.