Follow 3 Study Tips to Prepare for the AP History Exam

Developing an understanding of the test format and scoring are the keys to success on AP exams.


There are no shortcuts to success on the AP History exam, so devote study time to connecting ideas and events across historical eras.

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The AP U.S. History examination is one of the College Board's most commonly taken AP exams. Students are required to know a large number of historical facts, names and places and must also be able to synthesize and apply this wealth of information to overarching historical concepts. The required breadth and depth of knowledge of the exam can leave some high school students intimidated. 

Although there are no true shortcuts to scoring a maximum 5 on the test, working diligently and remembering several basic tenets of preparation can achieve a passing score. There are three central steps to preparing for the AP U.S. History exam.

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1. Understand the structure of the test and plan strategically: Structure is the most important thing to know about any examination you take. It is difficult to tailor your review properly without understanding the test's format.  

The AP U.S. History test is weighted between essay and multiple-choice questions, but the time allotted is not proportional. You are allowed 55 minutes to answer 80 multiple-choice problems and an hour and 55 minutes and a mandatory 15-minute reading period to construct your essays.  

Ensure you thoroughly understand the course content for the multiple-choice questions. You will have roughly 40 seconds to answer each problem. Test-takers are no longer penalized for incorrect responses, so answer every question if at all possible.

To maximize your time, do not dwell on difficult questions. Instead, move on and answer the ones you are certain of before returning to the others if time permits.

The essays are divided into two free response questions and one document-based question. This is where your ability to synthesize and apply your knowledge is paramount. Use the mandatory reading period for the document-based questions effectively and monitor your time. As with the multiple-choice problems, do not allow yourself to linger unnecessarily. Always keep working.

[Follow these five tips to create a test prep timeline.]

2. Know events and details: This may seem an obvious point, but unlike other standardized tests such as the SAT,  the AP U.S. History examination is less about knowing pitfalls and strategies and more about understanding the source material. There is a finite bank of content that can be tested, and this material should be covered in your textbook and in your AP U.S. History class.  

While it is impossible to remember every date and fact in the textbook, you must still devote time to learning as much as you can, as this will be your greatest advantage on the multiple-choice questions. Moreover, recognizing the "big picture" and developing an ability to connect events across historical eras is extremely difficult without knowing about specific events first.

3. Practice the essays: Whether or not you consider yourself a strong writer, it is important to practice both types of essay questions – the document-based question and the free responses – as frequently as possible. You only have three essays, so performing poorly on even one of them will have a serious effect on your score.

[Take time to master needed college writing skills.]

Besides perfecting the timing, the most important thing to remember is not to use an essay as an excuse to explain to the reader how much information you know. Not only will using essays in this manner mean that you won’t have time to properly synthesize the information you present, but there is a good chance you may even answer incorrectly. 

For the free response questions, choose three or four important historical events or facts that relate to the topic you’ve chosen. Demonstrate how each is connected to your thesis as well as to each other.

For the document-based questions, do not feel the need to refer to every document. Again, select three or four that you deem most important and useful to your thesis and discuss them in more detail. Practice structuring your essays in this way, using previous test prompts provided by the College Board, until you are confident that you grasp how to write them. As with everything on the AP U.S. History exam, preparation is the key.