How to Study for the AP U.S. History Exam

April 8, 2024
How to Study for the AP U.S. History Exam

The AP U.S. History exam, also called the APUSH exam, is a college-level exam administered annually by the College Board. It is taken upon completion of the AP U.S. History course during high school. The APUSH exam tests your understanding of the historical concepts covered in the course and your ability to analyze primary and secondary sources, identify patterns, and make connections that can support a historical interpretation.

The best way to study for the APUSH exam is to begin early, so you aren’t overwhelmed by the material and strategies you need to know for test day. Ideally, you’ll have been studying for the APUSH exam throughout the year and begin your final review a month or two before you sit for the exam in May. This guide offers a high-level overview of what you need to know before taking the APUSH exam.

What is Tested on the AP U.S. History Exam?

A thorough understanding of what is tested on the AP U.S. History exam will help you study efficiently and effectively. The College Board has identified specific historical thinking skills, reasoning processes, and themes that students must demonstrate proficiency with to earn high scores on the exam. These skills and processes are the foundation for the study of history and will aid you as you study for other AP history exams and beyond. At least one of these skills or processes is built into every question on the APUSH exam. Below, we describe and discuss each of these skills, processes, and themes.

Historical Thinking Skills

There are six historical thinking skills you’ll need to use on the AP U.S. History exam. These skills reflect the skills used by historians in their day-to-day work. 

  1. Developments and Processes: Identify and explain historical processes. Develop this skill by participating in classroom activities, engaging in public history (such as visiting local museums), reading textbooks, and analyzing primary and secondary sources. This is a key historical thinking skill to master before tackling the more sophisticated skills discussed below.

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 2: "Developments and Processes" on Apple and Spotify ]

  2. Sourcing and Situation: Analyze the sourcing and situation of primary and secondary sources. You should be proficient in reading a variety of sources, such as written documents or journal articles. This practice calls on you to understand the content of sources, how to use the documents in a meaningful and effective way, and to take into consideration elements like point of view, purpose, and audience. 

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 3: "Sourcing and Situation" on Apple and Spotify ]

  3. Claims and Evidence in Sources: Analyze arguments in primary and secondary sources. During the APUSH exam, you are required to identify a source’s argument and then cite specific evidence an author uses to support his or her argument. You should be able to compare the main ideas of two sources and explain how additional evidence can support, modify, or refute a source’s argument.

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 4: "Claims and Evidence" on Apple and Spotify ]

  4. Contextualization: Look at historical events and processes and be able to evaluate how they connect with a broader historical setting. Contextualization requires you to situate a particular development or process within a broader historical context. This skill will be assessed on all essay questions, so it’s an important one to practice.

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 5: "Contextualization" on Apple and Spotify ]

  5. Making Connections: Use historical reasoning processes – comparison, causation, and continuity and change – to identify and explain patterns and connections between and among historical developments and processes. In order to make connections, you need to use previously discussed skills to find patterns among historical developments, processes, claims, and evidence. In addition to noting these connections, you must also be able to explain how developments are connected.

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 6: "Making Connections" on Apple and Spotify ]

  6. Argumentation: Develop an evaluative thesis and use evidence in making an argument. You’ll need to make a historically defensible claim, support your argument with specific and relevant evidence, use historical reasoning to explain the relationships between your evidence, and qualify or modify an argument. 

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 7: "Argumentation" on Apple and Spotify ]

Historical Reasoning Processes

In addition to the historical thinking skills, there are also three historical reasoning processes you’ll want to review as you study for the APUSH exam.

  1. Comparison: You’ll be asked to look at two or more historical developments or processes and note their similarities or differences. Questions on the APUSH exam may ask you to compare developments and processes across time and place.

  2. Causation: Historical events are affected and influenced by previous events in history. You’ll have to tease out the relationships of events in history and explore their cause and effect.

  3. Continuity and Change: You’ll need to understand and describe patterns of continuity and/or change over time. You’ll be asked to explain these patterns and the relative significance of specific historical developments in relation to a larger pattern of continuity and/or change.

    [ LISTEN: Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast Episode 8: "Comparison, Causation, and Continuity and Change Over Time" on Apple and Spotify ]

Themes in AP U.S. History

There are eight themes in the AP U.S. History course. In order to succeed on the APUSH exam, familiarize yourself with each of the themes and be able to make meaningful connections across time periods. The eight themes you need to know for the APUSH exam are listed and briefly described below.

  1. American and National Identity: The development of and debates about democracy, freedom, citizenship, diversity, and individualism shape American national identity, cultural values, and beliefs about American exceptionalism, and in turn, these ideas shape political institutions and society. Throughout American history, notions of national identity and culture have coexisted with varying degrees of regional and group identities.
  2. Work, Exchange, and Technology: The interplay between markets, private enterprise, labor, technology, and government policy shape the American economy. In turn, economic activity shapes society and government policy and drives technological innovation.
  3. Geography and the Environment: Geographic and environmental factors, including competition over and debates about natural resources, shape the development of America and foster regional diversity. The development of America impacts the environment and reshapes geography, which leads to debates about environmental and geographic issues.
  4. Migration and Settlement: Push and pull factors shape immigration into and migration within America, and the demographic change as a result of these moves shapes the migrants, society, and the environment.
  5. Politics and Power: Debates fostered by social and political groups about the role of government in American social, political, and economic life shape government policy, institutions, political parties, and the rights of citizens.
  6. America and the World: Diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military interactions between empires, nations, and peoples shape the development of America and America’s increasingly important role in the world.
  7. American and Regional Culture: Creative expression, demographic change, philosophy, religious beliefs, scientific ideas, social mores, and technology shape national, regional, and group cultures in America, and these varying cultures often play a role in shaping government policy and developing economic systems.
  8. Social Structures: Social categories, roles, and practices are created, maintained, challenged, and transformed throughout American history, shaping government policy, economic systems, culture, and the lives of citizens.

Time Periods on the AP U.S. History Exam 

Questions on the APUSH exam can address topics in any of the nine time periods listed below. Periods 3 through 8 are especially important to review and cover material from the beginning of the French and Indian War through the election of President Reagan and are considered the core periods. These core periods represent approximately 80% of the material covered on the APUSH exam. Periods 1, 2, and 9 should not be ignored, but they are given less weight than the core periods. The table below shows an approximate breakdown of time periods covered in the APUSH exam questions and course curriculum. 

What Is the Format of the AP U.S. History Exam?

Reviewing the APUSH exam format will help you feel confident on test day. The exam takes 3 hours and 15 minutes to complete and is split into two sections. There are multiple question types on the AP U.S. History exam to practice before the test. Section I consists of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Section II consists of the document-based question and long essay question. There is a short break between Section I and II. 

Section 1, Part A: Multiple-Choice Questions

In the first part of the exam, you’ll be asked 55 multiple-choice questions. You have 55 minutes to complete this part, which gives you about one minute to answer each question. Work at a steady pace, and if the answer does not immediately come to you, skip it and circle back. The multiple-choice section on the APUSH exam accounts for 40% of your total exam grade.

Section 1, Part B: Short-Answer Questions

After the multiple-choice section, you’ll move on to the short-answer questions. You will be asked to answer three questions. You are required to answer Questions 1 and 2, but you can choose between Questions 3 and 4, so be sure to select the one you feel you can answer the best. You will have 40 minutes to complete this section, and it accounts for 20% of your total exam grade. 

Section II, Part A: The Document-Based Question

After you return from your 10-minute break, you’ll begin the second section of the exam. Part A of Section II consists of a document-based question, or DBQ. Your response to the DBQ is judged on your ability to formulate a thesis and support it with relevant evidence. You will be provided with historical documents to review and analyze, which can include written materials, charts, graphs, cartoons, and pictures. You will have 60 minutes to complete this part of the exam, and it accounts for 25% of your total exam grade. 

Section II, Part B: The Long Essay Question

The last section of the exam asks you to answer one of three long-essay questions, also called LEQs. All three LEQs will have the same theme and be based on the same history reasoning skill (causation, comparison, or continuity and change). Each of the three question choices will deal with material from a different time period. You have 40 minutes to complete the LEQ, and it accounts for 15% of your total exam grade. 

AP U.S. History Exam Study Resources

Listed below are some AP U.S. History study resources we recommend as you prepare for the exam. 

Barron's AP U.S. History Exam Resources

  • AP U.S. History Premium: Enhance your AP studies with Barron’s expert guide to the AP U.S. History exam. This newly updated edition includes five practice tests and in-depth content review tailored to the most recent version of the APUSH exam. Set yourself up for success with tips, strategies, and study advice for exam day – it’s like having a trusted tutor by your side! 
  • Barron’s Online Learning Hub: Every Barron’s AP test prep book comes with access to Barron’s Online Learning Hub. Create an account to access the online materials that complement your book, including three full-length practice tests and the ability to simulate the exam experience with a timed test option. 
  • Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast: Take advantage of free test prep from the experts at Barron’s. Use Barron’s AP U.S. History Podcast to supplement your study plan. Listen to experts discuss historical thinking skills and themes, explore each time period covered on the exam, walk you through answering all the question types, and offer tips and strategies to help you succeed. Barron’s podcasts are available on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. 
  • Barron's on Kahoot! Challenge yourself and your friends with APUSH Kahoot! quizzes created by our expert authors. Quizzes are designed to follow the course curriculum and can be used year round as part of your weekly review plan.

College Board AP U.S. History Exam Resources

AP U.S. History Exam Scores

All AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score you can achieve. These scores prove how capable you are of doing the work of an introductory-level college course. Scores are based on the number of questions answered correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers on an AP exam, so you should answer every question.

How to Get a 5 on the AP U.S. History Exam

The AP U.S. History exam is one of the most popular – but most challenging – AP exams you can take, and mere memorization will not earn you a competitive score. According to data from the College Board, only 10.1% of students who took the APUSH exam earned a top score of 5 in 2021. To succeed on the APUSH exam, you’ll need to think through problems, take thoughtful stands on important issues, and engage with the past in complex and sophisticated ways. Learn more about how to get a 5 on the AP U.S. History exam with exclusive tips from the Barron’s experts.

How Do I Earn College Credit From the AP U.S. History Exam?

Scoring high on the APUSH exam will likely earn you college credit or advanced placement (meaning you can skip certain courses in college). While most colleges are looking for scores of 4 (“very well qualified”) or above, it depends on the college and the course. For example, some colleges will take a score of 3 (“qualified”) for an AP exam, while some colleges don’t accept AP scores at all. Check the College Board’s AP Credit Policy to see which colleges will offer credit or advanced placement for AP scores.