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AP United States History

AP United States History Exam: Your Questions Answered

The AP United States History Exam is a popular choice among the AP exams for both enrollees and self-studiers. In fact, nearly half a million students opted to take the AP United States History Exam in 2019 alone – giving it the illustrious title of the second most popular AP exam, just behind the English Language exam. Whether you’re planning to take the exam because you took an AP course or because you’re a self-studying history buff, IvyCollegeAdmit has the best advice to help you successfully prepare.

When is the AP United States History Exam?

The exact dates and times of the AP United States History Exam tend to fluctuate a little bit each year, although the exam takes place on one day. In 2021, the test will take place on May 6th at 8:00 am. Click here for a full and accurate list of the dates and times for other AP exams.

What does the AP United States History Exam contain?

In general, the APUSH Exam tests a student’s ability to assess historical data, analyze historical evidence, assess significant events and issues in US history, and understand maps, images, graphs, and other sources of historical value. Throughout the entire exam, students will explore a total of 8 different themes and will have to draw connections between varying historical events in various places and time periods. These themes are:

  • Social structures
  • Regional and American culture
  • America in the world
  • Power and politics
  • Settlement and migration
  • Environment and geography
  • Technology, exchange, and work
  • National and American identity

The AP United States History Exam was overhauled to reflect a much less partisan recounting of history and to offer information presented in a factual manner that provided fewer interpretations to students. Now, students are expected to make sense of the sequence of historical events as they are presented while interpreting the significance of each event as well.

Also, the new AP United States History Exam is focused on reading comprehension and analytical skills instead of simply fact-based knowledge. This is important to keep in mind when preparing for the most recent versions of the exam since many study materials made before 2015 might not accurately reflect what you’ll find on the real exam.

How is the AP United States History Exam broken down?

There are nine different units that comprise the APUSH Exam. US history, in this case, is broken down from 1491 up until the present day. Here’s a clear look at how the units are separated and the percentage of the test that each makes up:

Time Period UnitCovered Topics and SubtopicsPercentage of the Exam
Period 1: 1491-1607Societies of Native Americans; why and how Europeans explored and started colonizing the Americas.4%-6%
Period 2: 1607–1754The various colonies set up by the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish in the New World.6%-8%
Period 3: 1754–1800Events leading up to the American Revolution; the forming of the United States; looking at the early days of the republic.10%-17%
Period 4: 1800–1848The development of the United States economically, culturally, and politically during this time.10%-17%
Period 5: 1844–1877The expansion of the United States; events that contributed to the secession of the Confederacy and the Civil War10%-17%
Period 6: 1865–1898Shifting economics and demographics in the United States and the direct links to political and cultural changes.10%-17%
Period 7: 1890–1945The changing culture and society in the United States; the impacts of global wars and resulting economic meltdown during this time.10%-17%
Period 8: 1945–1980The Cold War and rivalry between the US and USSR; the achievements of the civil rights movements; the political, cultural, and economic transformations during this time period.10%-17%
Period 9: 1980–PresentThe political and cultural consequences of demographic shifts, technological and scientific developments, and the development of political conservatism.4%-6%

 What is the format of the AP United States History Exam?

The AP United States History Exam is relatively long when compared to other AP exams. Students have 3 hours and 15 minutes to complete the test. The first section consists of 55 multiple-choice questions, should take around 55 minutes, and makes up 40% of your overall score. There are 3 short answers in the second section that fill up 20% of the score and should take your around 40 minutes. A singular DBQ, or document-based question, constitutes one hour and 25% of the score. A long essay eats up the remaining 40 minutes of the exam and 15% of the score.

Section 1(a): This is the largest portion of the test in terms of the number of questions. It also comprises the largest percentage of your overall score.

  • The questions in this section offer one or a few historical texts in order to assess your ability to analyze them along with the processes and developments described within.

Section 1(b): Although this section only contains 3 different questions, their length requires 40 minutes to answer and accounts for a fifth of your overall score.

  • You’re provided one or two secondary sources in the first question that focus on historical processes or developments from 1754 to 1980. You’re asked to analyze the material that’s offered by putting it within a certain context and making necessary connections.
  • For the second question, you’re given a primary source from within the same time period. You’re asked to analyze the provided material, put it in the right context, and make certain connections.
  • The last question of the section offers students a choice between two different questions. You can either choose to answer one regarding the years of 1491 to 1877 or the more modern time period from 1865 to 2001.

Section 2: In the final section, you’re required to answer two questions in a free-response format. Although there are only two questions, this portion takes up one hour and 40 minutes of the test. One of the questions is document-based (DBQ) and the other is a longer essay. Overall, this portion makes up for 40% of your overall score – 15% from the longer essay and 25% from the DBQ.

  • DBQ: This question relates to historical processes and developments in the time period ranging from 1754 t o1980. Students are provided with seven documents that offer various points of view on a historical event. You’ll have to make an argument and provide support based on the documents provided along with your knowledge about the event.
  • Long Essay: You can choose from three different questions, each of which covers a specific time period. Students can choose from one of these time periods: 1491–1800, 1800–1898, or 1890–2001. Each question assesses the same skills: change, continuity, causation, and comparison.

What are the passing rates of the AP United States History Exam?

Exam12345
United States History24.3%22%23.4%18.4%11.8%

Over half of the students who participated in the AP United States History Exam achieved a 3 or higher in 2019. Just 11.8% of the participants got the highest score of 5, and just under a quarter received the lowest possible score of a 1.

Don’t forget that advanced standing and credit based on these AP test scores can vary greatly between colleges. You should always check to see if the colleges where you’re applying accept AP credit for these exams and which scores they require.

What are the best ways to prepare for the AP United States History Exam?

Test your skills: The first step to preparing for the AP United States History Exam is getting an accurate understanding of your current knowledge. While the College Board site has some helpful sample test questions, there’s not an entire sample test offered. You can find extra sample questions on the College Board’s description of this exam too if you’re looking for more info. There are several official and unofficial study guides that offer more comprehensive, full-length sample tests that can give you an accurate overview of what you know already.

Know what to study: As you can tell, the AP United States History Exam covers a wide range of subject material. In order to prepare effectively, you’ll have to start early and be sure to touch on each subject area and time period. Since you’re being asked to talk about historical developments within the frame of different places and time periods, you’ll have to possess a significant understanding of the main processes, developments, people, and events in US history while being able to employ methods and skills historians use to make sense of the past. These can include argumentation, chronological reasoning, making historical comparisons, and using secondary and primary sources.

Use helpful resources: One of the most important components of studying for the AP United States History Exam will be finding helpful resources online. With videos explaining the course in-depth, a detailed list of textbooks, and even an official study guide, the College Board will be a great resource for you. For a more accurate idea of how the exam will look, consider investing in a formal study guide. The esteemed Princeton Review has its own study guide that includes helpful summaries of prevalent historical events along with revealing scoring explanations. Barron has another helpful study guide that is written in a similar format to the AP exam and even comes with optional flashcards as an additional studying tool.

The Princeton Review's APUSH practice/study book

Practice multiple-choice questions: When you’ve got the theory down-pat, it’s a good idea to start preparing for the types of questions you’ll find on the test. Since multiple-choice questions make up a good portion of the AP United States History Exam, prepping for this format should be one of your primary goals. Many of the aforementioned study guides will have multiple-choice examples to help you prepare.

Don’t forget that the current versions of the APUSH Exam focus on your ability to analyze a certain piece of media and comprehend its meaning. This could be a wall of text, a graph, a map, or a table of information. The multiple-choice questions will always regard one of these sources rather than requiring you to recall a specific bit of historical knowledge. With that in mind, studying how to answer multiple-choice questions effectively overall is just as important as getting a grasp on the subject material.

Practice open-ended questions: In contrast to other AP exams, the AP United States History Exam includes five questions in a free-response format. In order to successfully answer these questions, you need to know what you can expect from each prompt. For the first three short answer questions, you’re given a total of 40-minutes to answer. Each question tends to include multiple parts, each of which requires limited and specific responses. You might be asked to interpret a figure or graph, contrast and compare the impact of various cultural approaches, or list significant factors of major historical events. You must be able to tackle each part of these short-answer questions in succinct paragraphs. This Khan Academy video has some helpful examples of APUSH questions.

The second part of the free-response section of the exam is a document-based question that you’ll have an entire hour to answer. Alone, this one question is worth one-quarter of your overall score. In order to master this DBQ, you’ll need to read the question carefully, make a detailed outline before writing, and leverage active reading skills when you’re reviewing the provided documents. The AP United States History Exam will provide students with an outline of the primary considerations taken when scoring your work. Overviewing these requirements before you write your response can ensure you include everything that the test reviewers are looking for. Check out this helpful YouTube video for practical tips for writing the APUSH DBQ.

The final portion of the exam and the free-response section is the long-essay response. You’re only given 40 minutes to write it, and the section is worth 15% of the overall score. Students can choose from three different prompts, making it easier to find something you’re comfortable with answering. Again, you should take the time to review the outline of key criteria to ensure you’re including everything that’s expected of you in the response. Some of the most important features include a clearly-stated thesis, the application of historical analysis, support for your arguments through examples, and the synthesis with an overall historical context.

Time yourself – Once you’ve gotten a better understanding of what will be covered on the test, and you’ve thoroughly tested your knowledge of those topics, it’s time to see how long it takes you to complete the exam. While you clearly can’t get a copy of the AP United States History Exam before the test date, you’ll have to mimic the test conditions as accurately as possible. Find yourself a previously administered test, if possible, or sample test and time how long it takes you to complete each section. Find a room where you can take this sample test with limited to no distractions. Set a timer so you know when the time is up and see how you fared. This is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for the conditions of the real exam.

Student practices a timed APUSH essay

IvyCollegeAdmit can help you prepare

The IvyCollegeAdmit team has a passion for helping students achieve their academic goals. Whether you need help editing your admission essays, want assistance preparing for the AP exams, or require one-on-one academic guidance, we’re here to help. We have the tools, expertise, and resources to guide students in their pursuit of academic excellence. Our proven methods have helped a great number of students find their way into some of the most prestigious universities in the country – including Ivy League Schools. Feel free to reach out for a free consultation to see how we can help.

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