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By Steve R., AP US History and SAT Subject Test Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
The AP United States History exam is a challenging one, and it can be intimidating to study for. Here are five tips to help you figure out where to start, and to help you put things in perspective as you try to tackle this test.
The exam consists of 80 multiple choice questions (for which you have 55 minutes to complete) and a free-response section. This section consists of two essays (about 70 minutes to complete both) and a Document-Based Question, or DBQ (about 60 minutes to complete).
1. Focus on the 19th and 20th centuries
Over 80% of the multiple choice questions are likely to be on the period of 1790-1980. Only a few questions will deal with American history post-1980, and a chunk will deal with 1789 and before. If you’re prioritizing your study time, don’t expend too much energy on the colonial period.
2. Practice DBQs
The Document-Based Question will ask you to interpret 10-15 documents and answer a question based on your prior knowledge and those documents. Be sure to practice interpreting documents before you take the AP exam. Be sure that you’re an expert at determining the APPARTS of an historical document (APPARTS stands for Author, Place and time, Prior knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance). Doing well on the DBQ will really bump up your score.
3. Don’t stress out about getting every multiple choice question right
Although doing very well on the multiple choice section will really benefit your score, having outstanding free response and DBQ essays will ensure an excellent score. The essays are graded on a scale from 1-9. These essays, especially the DBQ, are weighted heavily in your score. For instance, consider this: if you average a 7 on your essay questions, you can still receive a 5 on the AP exam if you answer only half of the multiple choice questions correctly (averaging a 7 is tough but doable). Do plenty of practice essays in preparing for the AP exam, and always think about how you would put what you’re studying into an essay.
4. Best prep books: Kaplan and Barron’s
As I mentioned in my post called Five SAT US History Insider Tips, the best test prep books for AP United States History are Kaplan and Barron’s. Just like for the SAT Subject Test in U.S. History, Kaplan’s study guide is comprehensive, and Barron’s is very readable. Both will be great for making PERSIA charts, which I explained in the previous post as well.
5. Answer every multiple choice question, even if you have no idea
Unlike on the SAT Subject Test in U.S. History, there is no penalty for wrong answers on the AP U.S. History exam. Even if you have absolutely no idea, mark an answer to each and every multiple choice question. There’s no down side to doing so, and who knows, you might guess right!
Steve R. holds a B.A. from Brandeis University, where he majored in History, African and Afro-American Studies, and Politics. He earned departmental honors in History, and his senior thesis, Black Jesus in the Twentieth Century, was published in 2011. He currently works at Brandeis University in Development and Alumni Relations, where he helps to run many of the University’s Annual Giving programs. Steve has experience tutoring AP, SAT, ACT, United States history, and writing, and he has helped students with their college admissions essays. –
Are you taking the AP US History Subject Test? Any questions or additional tips you’d like to share?
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