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About the AP U.S. History Exam

An Introduction to the Exam and General Study Strategies

Of course, you want to pass the AP U.S. History exam. To do that, you need to know how the test is structured and what kind of information you're expected to know. After you understand how the test makers think, you can begin to prepare for success on test day. To set yourself up for success, you also have to get a clear understanding of what a good grade on the AP U.S. History exam looks like.


The AP U.S. History exam is a comprehensive ordeal composed of 80 multiple-choice questions and 3 essay questions. You have to face one big Document-Based Question (DBQ), where the College Board (CB) shows you a bunch of original documents and you formulate a thesis and support it, using these sources plus the knowledge you (hopefully) possess about the events behind the sources. The other two essay questions come in two groups of two questions each; you get to choose one question from each group to answer. Fifty percent of the exam score comes from the multiple-choice portion of the test; the other 50 percent comes from the essays.

If I knew exactly what questions would be on your AP U.S. History test, I would have to be one of the six teachers on the AP U.S. History Development Committee — and even those teachers don't know until the last minute. But it is possible to look at past tests to see what subjects tend to come up again and again. It is possible to judge the trends by seeing the direction the big test is moving. You can also look at the announced subject material and time-period proportions to help choose which baskets to put most of your studying eggs in. In the following sections, you get a look at AP U.S. History teaching priorities as outlined by the very folks who make up the test. In Chapter 3, you learn how to study the way the Test Masters recommend. You even discover how to find previous tests to help you prepare for this year's AP challenge.


Don't mess with AP test security. Forbidden actions include discussing multiple-choice questions from the exam with anybody — even your AP teacher. You can talk about essay questions a day after the test (to make sure that test takers in all the time zones around the world are done writing). The CB doesn't let you talk about multiple-choice questions, ever, because it may use the questions again.

Advanced placement in the year 0

Standardized testing for advancement in China started with the Han Dynasty, around the year 0. And, like an ancient College Board, Chinese placement exams kept cranking out the grades for almost 2,000 years. Over the years, the tests included military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and plenty of confusing Confucian religious classics. If you think the AP U.S. History test is hard, try taking it in Chinese characters!

Students studied for a year in tiny cells that contained boards that they moved around to make either a bed or a desk. The actual tests took two days, but the 5 percent who passed got great government jobs. Later, the Chinese standardized tests inspired Western nations, including the United States, to have civil service exams. One day in the 1900s, an education guy said, "Hey, we could invent the College Board and head whip students with Advance Placement tests!" Just be glad you don't have to fold up your desk to make a bed.

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