Top 5 Study Tips for the AP U.S. History Exam 

April 8, 2024
Top 5 Study Tips for the AP U.S. History Exam 

The AP U.S. History exam, also called the APUSH exam, tests your historical knowledge and asks you to apply that knowledge. Earning a top score on this AP exam is difficult but not impossible. Learn how to study smarter, so you can not only pass this college-level exam, but ace it. Our experts have identified five things you must know above everything else to earn a coveted score of 5 on the APUSH exam. Here are five study tips and strategies specific to the APUSH exam you’ll want to know before test day to set yourself up for success.

Discover more of our AP U.S. History test prep resources.

AP U.S. History Study Tip #1: Think like a historian.

Memorizing dates and facts is not enough to earn a top score on the AP U.S. History exam. To truly excel on this exam, you must learn to think like a historian. The College Board has identified six historical thinking skills and three reasoning processes that are central to the APUSH exam and the broader field of history. 

The six skills—developments and processes, sourcing and situation, claims and evidence in sources, contextualization, making connections, and argumentation—encourage you to develop the habits of mind required to critically examine the past. The three reasoning processes—comparison, causation, and continuity and change—focus on constructing and evaluating historical arguments about the past. As you study for the AP U.S. History exam, you’ll want to practice using these skills and processes to learn how to think like a historian and use them effectively on test day.

AP U.S. History Study Tip #2: Learn how to read documents.

Learning to read a historical document is a skill that should not be overlooked when studying for the AP U.S. History exam. All of the multiple-choice questions and the first two short-answer questions are built around documents from primary or secondary sources. The document-based essay question, or DBQ, in Section II of the exam will require you to analyze a series of documents and construct a response to the question. This 60-minute section is worth 25% of your total exam grade. 

As you read documents on the APUSH exam, focus on how they relate to the question and how they relate to one another. Historical documents contain a point of view, so identifying and understanding that point of view is critical. To master this skill, practice reading different types of historical documents, such as newspaper articles and speeches, and try to ascertain the author’s point of view and intent.

AP U.S. History Study Tip #3: Review themes of growth and conflict in American history.

The United States has a rich history that can seem overwhelming to study. Focus your studies by identifying themes of growth and conflict in American history and spend some time reviewing these important historical events. Familiarize yourself with the causes of American expansion as well as the profound impact it had. The rapid growth of the U.S. is unprecedented in world history. On the one hand, this growth decimated Native American cultures, on the other, the nation provided a haven for immigrants. These themes of growth and conflict continue throughout the centuries and are defining events in U.S. history that you’ll want to review ahead of your APUSH exam.

AP U.S. History Study Tip #4: Study the changing nature of the American experiment in democracy.

Democracy did not emerge fully formed with the birth of the nation. Americans have struggled over the meaning of democracy throughout U.S. history, and it continues to evolve to this day. Conflicts over the meaning of democracy are crucial to understanding the evolution of the United States. As you study for the APUSH exam, pay extra attention to these significant historical events, such as the Civil Rights Movement, and their effect on Americans’ perceptions of democracy. 

AP U.S. History Study Tip #5: Understand the dynamic nature of history.

Historical events do not occur in a vacuum. Therefore, memorizing discrete events in American history is not sufficient for success on the AP U.S. History exam. As you study, look for connections and interactions in history. For example, while it is important to remember that President Lyndon Johnson endorsed and pushed for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you should be able to connect that with the growth of the grassroots civil rights movement, with the violent backlash against the movement, with shifts within the major political parties, and with the dynamics of the Cold War. Historical events are part of a dynamic process, and once you can make these important connections, you will be “extremely well qualified” to earn a 5 on the AP U.S. History exam.

KEEP READING: Get more study tips in our guide on how to study for the AP U.S. History exam.