What are the best AP US History textbooks you can buy? Which books should you use in your course and AP exam prep? In this article, we'll go over the most popular APUSH textbooks as well as some books to consider if you're self-studying or on a budget. Read on if you're looking to get your own AP US History textbook!
2021 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests will now be held over three different sessions between May and June. Your test dates, and whether or not your tests will be online or on paper, will depend on your school. To learn more about how all of this is going to work and get the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what these changes means for you, be sure to check out our 2021 AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
A Quick Note: Don't Rush to Buy Your Own APUSH Textbook
The College Board does not recommend any specific US history textbooks for the AP class but does maintain a list of sample books APUSH teachers could use. Even if your AP teacher is using a less popular textbook, as long as it mostly follows the updated APUSH curriculum, it will still have the information you need to know.
I also highly recommend getting an AP US History prep book in the early spring to help you study. This book will review everything on the test but with less detail than a textbook, which will help you remember the most crucial facts, dates, people, and movements. Your review book will also help you prepare for the time periods and themes that appear on the US History test.
That said, if you're self-studying for the APUSH test, your class doesn't use a textbook and you want one, or you're an instructor, here are some great AP US History textbooks to consider.
Most Popular AP US History Textbook: The American Pageant, 17th Edition
When I got to Stanford, whenever AP US History came up in conversation (an occurrence that happened more than once, since we were nerds!) everyone around me would start reminiscing about this textbook. It seemed as though everyone but me had read this textbook in high school! My high school didn't use it, so I didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
Turns out, The American Pageant is known as one of the most well written, readable textbooks on any subject, and it's a favorite among high school teachers for AP US History, with by far the most buzz online.
One of its main criticisms is also one of its biggest benefits: it's written more like a novel than it is a textbook, so people who prefer something more straightforward don't always love it.
To take an example, this is what The American Pageant section introducing Christopher Columbus reads like:
"Onto this stage stepped Christopher Columbus. This skilled Italian seafarer persuaded the Spanish monarchs to outfit him with three tiny but seaworthy ships, manned by a motley crew. Daringly, he unfurled the sailors of his cockleshell craft and headed westward. His superstitious sailors, fearful of venturing in the oceanic unknown, grew increasingly mutinous. After six weeks at sea, failure loomed when, on October 12, 1492, the crew sighted an island in the Bahamas. A new world thus swam within the vision of Europeans."
It reads exactly like a novel!
By contrast, a more straightforward textbook introduction of Columbus (from Making America) reads like this:
"Eager to capitalize on the new technology and knowledge, Christopher Columbus, an ambitious sailor from the Italian port city of Genoa, approached John II of Portugal in 1484 and asked him to support a voyage westward from Portugal, to the East Indies. The king refused when his geographers warned that Columbus had underestimated the distance. Undeterred, Columbus peddled his idea to various European governments over the next several years but found no one willing to take the risk. Finally, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella's defeat of the Moors provided Columbus with an opportunity."
Even though The American Pageant certainly comes off a bit flowery, it reads more smoothly and memorably than does the more straightforward textbook version. But beyond the language, Pageant has all the facts and helps you make connections between different periods in US history.
The connection-making is really useful for the APUSH test. The essay prompts will ask you to make connections between time periods and trends, so just knowing the basic facts of what happened and when won't help you. The American Pageant will prepare you by explaining and analyzing those connections and trends throughout the book. (If you want a quick, straightforward overview of the events, by the way, you can get it from an APUSH prep book later in the year.)
In short, this is a solid pick for any student or if you're a teacher trying to decide which textbook to use for your class.
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Best Bet for Self-Studying: Making America, 7th Edition
This was the same textbook I used for my own AP US History class back in high school, and I got a 5 on the AP exam (read more about AP scoring here). It's not as novel-esque as The American Pageant is, so it's less fun to read, but I still found it very readable, detailed, and clear. Plus, it's sometimes used for college courses on US history, which speaks to its quality.
If you're self-studying, this is a great choice because of how clear the chronology is in it. Since you won't have a teacher to explain the different periods in US history and why the chronology is divided up as it is, a textbook that lays all this out clearly will be crucial to helping you understand American history.
If you can get a solid understanding of what happened when (for example, "the Constitution was ratified in 1788"), it will be much easier to start connecting events to a larger discussion of historical themes in an essay ("the ratification of the Constitution ended a period of uncertainty following the Revolutionary War").
Finally, I really like the summaries at the end of each chapter as well as the discussion questions; both tools help the info sink in. Again, if you're self-studying, this built-in review is a great feature.
Best Budget Choice: The Unfinished Nation, 9th Edition
Amazon Price: About $33 for eTextbook
The Unfinished Nation is a solid, readable textbook for which you can buy the eTextbook version at a very reasonable price of $30-$35. (The hardcover version of this particular edition is far harder to find and therefore can get quite expensive.)
While the textbook is chronological, it also clearly emphasizes social and political movements; this is really helpful for APUSH essay questions, which require you to make connections across major time periods.
The Unfinished Nation has a clear narrative voice, and while it isn't as novel-like as The American Pageant is, it's still a pretty interesting read. If you need to buy an AP textbook for yourself and are OK using an eTextbook instead of a hard copy, this is a great (and cheap) option to consider.
Best for APUSH Exam Prep: America's History, 8th Edition
This textbook matches up the best with the recently redesigned APUSH objectives from the College Board and uses most of the same chronological divisions, which is really helpful for when you're studying for the final AP exam.
As mentioned, although the College Board lists several examples of APUSH textbooks that could be used in class, this one was written specifically for the AP US History course in 2015. Many of the other textbooks on the list are also used for general US history courses, both at the high school and college levels, but other authors tend to use time period divisions that make the most sense to them instead of ones that match the AP US History course guidelines; consequently, teachers often have to bridge the small gaps between their textbooks and the official APUSH guidelines.
This edition (there is a 9th edition, but the 8th edition is still the most popular) features many historical documents, such as the founding documents and Supreme Court decisions, to give you more practice at using primary sources, which plays a big role on the AP US History exam.
Furthermore, America's History comes with an online quiz feature that can help you prepare for the AP exam's multiple-choice section, which counts for 40% of your overall score.
To sum up, this textbook is a really great choice if you're worried about being ready for the AP test in May (or getting students ready!).
Did you know that many colleges require you to take SAT Subject Tests? Learn which colleges require or strongly recommend Subject Tests—after all, if you are taking APUSH, you might as well take the US History Subject Test, too!
These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.