The long essay question on the AP U.S. History exam is designed to test your ability to apply knowledge of history in a complex, analytic manner. In other words, you are expected to treat history and historical questions as a historian would. This process is called historiography— the skills and strategies historians use to analyze and interpret historical evidence to reach a conclusion. Thus, when writing an effective essay, you must be able to write a strong and clearly developed thesis and supply a substantial amount of relevant evidence to support your thesis.
Success on the long essay section of the exam starts with breaking down the task of essay writing into specific steps. As part of your yearlong preparation for taking the AP U.S. History exam, you should be writing at least two essays (one Document Based Question and one Long Essay Question) each month.
Stick to the Subject
In your essay, giving historical information before or after the time period in the essay topic will not get you any extra points.
Step 1: Dissect the Question
Always keep in mind that the AP U.S. History exam is written to be challenging and rigorous. Thus, the questions will require you to identify specific and important information prior to constructing a response. When given an essay prompt, first take some of your time to slow down and understand exactly what the question is asking you to do. The key here is to understand how to answer all parts of the question. Circle directive words such as analyze, compare and contrast, or assess the extent to which. Commonly, prompts will ask you to validate or refute a statement or to explain the impact of one event on another or the degree of impact. List these directives as pieces of the puzzle that you will attempt to put together with your history knowledge.
THERE’S NO U IN HISTORY
Don’t include personal opinions in the essay. The reader is looking for your grasp of the history itself and your ability to write about it.
Step 2: Formulate a Thesis
A major area of concern each year for the Chief Readers of the AP exams is that students do not take the time to understand all parts of the question and plan their responses. We have already dissected the question; now it is time to plan a thesis. The thesis is your way of telling the reader why he or she should care about reading your essay. If you have a weak thesis, the reader will not be convinced that you understand the question. He or she will not trust that you have the depth of knowledge necessary to answer the question! Therefore, you must have a thesis that takes a stand, answers the entire question, and shows the reader the path you will take in your essay answer. It is not enough to merely restate the question as your thesis. One of the most important things to do is to take a position. Don’t be afraid of taking a strong stand for or against a prompt as long as you can provide proper and relevant evidence to support your assertions.
Think of your thesis as the “road map” to your essay. It will provide the reader with the stops along the way to the final destination—the conclusion. Only through a thorough study of U.S. history can you construct a strong thesis.
During the planning time, make a short outline of all the outside information you’re planning to use in your essay; you will have the info handy while you’re writing.
Step 3: Plan Your Evidence
Now that you have a “road map,” you need to brainstorm all of the relevant evidence you can recall that relates to the question. There are several ways to do this. Some students prefer to use a cluster strategy; that is, they place the main thoughts in bubbles and then scatter supporting evidence around the main bubbles. Other students prefer to list facts and evidence in a bulleted list. Some like to create an outline of relevant information. Whatever you prefer, this is a step you cannot skip! Students who do not take the time to plan their evidence often find themselves scratching out irrelevant information during the exam, thus wasting valuable time. Also, you must learn to brainstorm efficiently—you should use only about five minutes to complete the first three steps of essay writing. Use abbreviations, pictures, or other cues that are efficient for you.
Once you have a list, you can move to the next (and most important) step—writing!
As you practice writing essays using these strategies, you will have the luxury of taking time to write topic sentences, list evidence, and construct “mini conclusions” for each prompt. However, on the AP exam, time is of the essence! You have 35 minutes to construct a coherent essay response for the LEQ and about 55 minutes for the DBQ. If you practice the prewriting strategies from the previously outlined steps 1 through 3, you will find it easy to write a developed paper in a short time.
When composing your essay, start with your most important information; if you run out of time when you’re writing, your key points are already in the essay.
There is no “standard” number of paragraphs you must have. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is one body paragraph for each portion of the essay prompt. Some AP U.S. History exam questions will be structured to fit a five-paragraph essay, while others may need more and others less. You will not be penalized for writing a strong four-paragraph response. Likewise, you will not be rewarded for constructing a weak six-paragraph response. AP readers look for quality, not quantity.
Your first paragraph should always introduce your essay. Your thesis from step 2 is only part of your introduction. The first paragraph of your essay should include your thesis and any other organizational cues you can give your reader. Ask yourself, “Could a complete stranger understand where my essay is going from just my first paragraph?” If your answer is no, then you must rework the introduction. Do not spend time creating a “hook” or flashy statement for your first sentence. Do not use rhetorical questions. AP Faculty Consultants are reading for the items that are listed on the scoring guide. You will notice that creativity in language and structure is not a listed item. However, a well-written and developed argument is a desired item.
Your body paragraphs should follow the “road map” you set in your introduction and thesis. Don’t stray from your plan, or you will find yourself straying from the question. You have taken the time to plan, so follow it! Do not merely list facts and events in a “laundry list” fashion. You must have some element of analysis between each set of evidence you provide. Using transition words such as however, therefore, and thus to show a shift in thought can make creating analytic sentences quick and easy. You should practice stringing facts and thoughts together using these “qualifying transitions” in your sentences.
KNOW THE LINGO
Whenever possible, use historical terms or phrases instead of general ones. For example, instead of saying that the South established laws against an owner freeing slaves, say that the South established laws against manumission. This shows the reader that you really know your stuff.
Beware of telling a story rather than answering the question. Readers are looking for analysis, not a revised version of your textbook. Do not attempt to shower the reader with extra factoids and showy language. Say what you need to say cleanly and simply. Readers will be impressed with your ability to write clearly and concisely in a way that showcases your historical knowledge, rather than your ability to write creatively. Because this is a formal essay, you should avoid using personal pronouns such as you, I, or we. Avoid the use of terms that could be “loaded” unless you intend on explaining them to the reader. For instance, you would not want to use the term liberal to describe Thomas Jefferson unless you were prepared to explain your use of the word liberal in the historical context. Do not use slang in any part of your essay. Also, because your essay is about history and thus is about the past, write your essay in the past tense. Do not write about Franklin D. Roosevelt as if he were still alive today.
You should end each body paragraph with a “mini conclusion” that ties the paragraph back to the thesis. It can serve as a transition sentence into the next paragraph or stand alone. In either case, the reader should be able to tell easily that you are shifting gears into another part of the essay.
Lastly, write your conclusion. Many students have learned that they should simply restate their thesis in the conclusion; these students may recopy what they wrote in the introduction word for word. This is incorrect. Yes, you should restate your thesis, but in a new way. Instead of rewriting it word for word, explain why your thesis is significant to the question. Do not introduce new evidence in your conclusion. The conclusion should tie all the “mini conclusion” sentences together and leave the reader with a sense of completion. If for some reason you are running out of time when you reach the conclusion, you may leave it off without incurring a specific penalty on the scoring guide. However, if you practice writing timed essays, you will learn the proper timing it takes to write a complete essay, conclusion included.
If you want to do well on the AP US History test, you have to practice! Practice tests can help you organize your prep logically around areas of the curriculum that are most challenging for you. This article provides a complete list of all official and unofficial AP US History practice test materials available online, as well as detailed instructions and tips on how to use them in your studying.
Official AP US History Practice Exams
This section lists all the free official practice tests available online for AP US History. All of these practice tests and free-response questions come directly from the College Board. You can use the free-response questions to practice writing essays at any point during the year, but I’d save the full exams for the final stages of your study process.
The closer you get to the exam, the more important it is to understand exactly where your weaknesses lie and which aspects of the test present the most significant challenges. Official materials provide the best practice because the questions are a consistently accurate representation of the content and format of the real test.
Full-Length AP US History Practice Exam
This is a practice exam released by the College Board that aligns with the format and content of the latest version of the test. This test is the best free practice exam available online, so try to save it for when you’re closer to the real exam and want to get an accurate estimate of your score level.
One caveat:there's no answer key for the free-response questions, so you might have a tough time scoring them. Refer to the College Board's general scoring guidelines to get an idea of how you did or ask your teacher if he or she would be willing to grade your essays.
AP US History Free Response Questions, 2015-2017
The free-response questions for the three AP history exams have undergone some minor changes, but these sample questions will still closely resemble the format of the free-response section of the test that you're taking. Again, I would encourage you to save the most up-to-date questions for later in the study process so that you can get a better idea of what your scores will look like on the real test.
AP US History Document Based Questions 1973-1999
This document includes a bunch of DBQs from past versions of the AP test. This question has remained relatively consistent throughout the years, so I'd say these are totally fine to use as practice materials.
You never know exactly what the documents will look like on the test, so you should practice analyzing them until you feel comfortable with all different types of sources.
Unofficial AP US History Practice Tests
These tests are not directly from the College Board, but they will still help you become familiar with the material. This section includes links to both full unofficial practice tests and small-scale topic-specific practice quizzes. The short quizzes may be useful in the early stages of your studying when you want to target certain eras or avoid questions on material your class hasn't covered yet.
Even though I'm emphasizing online practice materials in this article, it's also worth mentioning that some prep books include high-quality practice tests that are modeled directly after the current version of the exam. If you're willing to part with some of that sweet cash money, check out our list of the best review books for AP US History.
Barron’s AP US History Practice Exam
This practice exam is in the most up to date format, so it’s one of the highest quality free unofficial practice resources you’ll find online. It includes multiple-choice and free-response sections with answer keys for both types of questions.
Full Old Format Practice Exam #1 and Answer Key
Full Old Format Practice Exam #2 and Answer Key
These are unofficial practice exams originally created by the W.H. Freeman publishing company. They each have 80 multiple-choice questions, a document-based question, and two free-response questions. There is some critical reading of historical texts required in the multiple-choice sections of these tests, so they're decent prep materials for your skills in both factual recall and deeper analysis.
Full Old Format Practice Exam #3
This is a different old-format practice test created by an AP teacher. It has the same number of questions and includes similar content to that of the two tests in the previous section.
Mini Practice Quizzes on Every Topic in AP US History
Here, you’ll find practice quizzes for every topic covered in the course.There are multiple-choice questions and, for some topics, “short answer” questions (there's a drop-down menu of 12 answer choices). These won’t help much with the more analytical elements of the test, but if you want to test your factual recall, they'll serve you well.
Multiple-Choice Questions Formatted for 2015 Exam
This is a short quiz, but the questions are all similar to the ones you’ll see on the real test (you're asked to reference source materials to come up with your answers). It’s worthwhile to go through it and see how you do!
Albert io AP US History Practice Quizzes
This is a series of quizzes on every topic covered in the curriculum. As you take them, the site will display stats detailing how you fare on questions of each difficulty level. This should help you figure out the areas where your memory is shakier.
GetaFive AP US History Course
You can sign up for free for this service and enroll in the AP US History course. There are lots of practice questions and video lessons that may be helpful in your studying!
Practice Quizzes for The American Pageant 12th Edition
This site has chapter-by-chapter practice quizzes organized around an old edition of The American Pageant textbook. Questions are multiple choice and true/false. Again, this is more helpful for factual recall than for analysis questions.
AP US History Notes Multiple Choice Practice Test
This test has just 40 questions, but the site also includes a list of frequently-asked AP US History multiple-choice questions that will prepare you better for the exam.
McGraw-Hill AP US History Chapter Quizzes
This website contains 32 multiple-choice quizzes, one for each chapter of the McGraw-Hill US History textbook. The quizzes follow the organization of the textbook, but they can still be useful even if your class uses a different textbook. Each quiz is titled so you know what part of US History it's testing you on.
More Resources for Short Practice Quizzes on All Topics
These are a few additional sites that have a bunch of short practice quizzes on every topic in the curriculum. If you're looking for additional questions that will test your basic knowledge of events in US History (or are looking for more questions dealing with a specific time period), you can refer to these resources.
Look at you! You're practically drowning in a sea of free practice questions!
How to Use AP US History Practice Exams
Now you have all sorts of AP US History practice resources, but what's the best way to use them? In this section we go over exactly how you should be studying with practice exams during each semester of the class.
At this point, you can mostly rely on unofficial tests and quizzes that only deal with the topics that your class has already covered. Many of the sites listed above have large collections of questions for each unit of the course. Work on building a strong foundation of knowledge so that you’re prepared to answer more advanced analytical questions in the future.
You can also look through the official free-response questions to find some that you feel confident answering based on what you’ve learned so far. It’s never too early to start practicing for the free-response section, especially when it comes to document-based questions. Writing a coherent and argumentative essay that incorporates six or seven different sources in just 50 minutes is a tough skill to master! Try to come up with an essay-writing process that works well for you so that you’re a pro by the time the test rolls around.
You can start taking full AP US History practice tests and assessing your AP score level midway through the second semester (March is a good time to get the ball rolling on this). By then, you’ve learned enough of the material for your scores on practice tests to be fairly accurate predictions of your final AP test scores.
Since the US History test changed in 2015, you won’t have many full official practice tests that reflect the current format. Use your limited resources wisely by carefully assessing your performance on each practice test and studying your weak areas before taking additional tests.
Take and score an initial practice test (with accurate time constraints!) before you do any studying. As you take the test, mark any questions you're unsure about; you’ll want to study that material later even if you end up guessing correctly. After you score the test, categorize your mistakes by historical period and theme to see if you can find any patterns.
Then, start studying the areas that need work. You can turn to unofficial practice questions during the study process to test your knowledge. You should also practice writing essay outlines, so you're more prepared for the free-response section. Once you feel that you’ve mastered the subjects that stumped you on the first test, you can take another full practice test to see whether you’ve improved.
Decide whether or not you want to repeat this process based on your score on the second test. If you haven’t improved much, you should reconsider your prep methods. Spend a longer time checking in with yourself to make sure you've retained information. You can also plan on doing more practice questions between full tests so that you’re prepared for the format as well as the content.
Fill in any little holes in your memory. You never know if they'll come back to haunt you on the AP test. *spooky musical interlude*
Essential AP US History Practice Testing Tips
Tip #1: Read Excerpts Carefully, and Look for Direct Evidence
The multiple-choice section is based on excerpts from historical source materials, so it tests both analytical skills and factual recall. You have to read the source materially carefully to find the correct answer. In many cases, several answer choices are historically accurate, but only one is directly supported by the evidence in the excerpt or illustration. Look for direct connections, and don't make too many assumptions based on your prior knowledge.
Tip #2: Plan Out Your Essays
When you have to write an essay on a timed test, it can sometimes end up an unfocused, disorganized mess. This is exactly what you don’t want on the AP US History exam. Hold yourself back from starting the writing process immediately, even if you’re anxious about not finishing in time. Writing a preliminary outline is critical. Without an outline, you risk rambling, going on irrelevant tangents, or getting stuck when you can’t figure out a good piece of supporting evidence! It will be much easier to write the essay if you already have a structure in place that makes sense.
Tip #3: Get Comfy With the Document-Based Question
The document-based question is different from other essay questions that you’ll encounter on AP tests. In fact, it’s probably the only question of its kind that you’ve ever seen on any test. DBQs can seem intimidating and weird, so make sure you practice them as much as possible before the real exam. Write notes next to each piece of source material to give yourself a basic idea of what it is and how it could be used to support the points you plan on making in your essay. You should come up with a strategy for approaching these questions that works for you before you’re face-to-face with the DBQ on the real AP test.
Tip #4: Incorporate Background Information (Wisely)
Include outside historical references that support your arguments in the DBQ or long essay questions. Even though you’re given seven sources to use as evidence in the DBQ, making additional outside connections will show that you’ve really mastered the material. Just remember to be careful with using outside information. Don’t fact-vomit all over the essay with everything you've ever learned about a topic. Structure your thoughts so that any outside information relates directly to the main argument of your essay.
Always build sturdy conceptual bridges between tidbits of outside knowledge and the main argument of your essay.
The practice tests in this article should serve as helpful resources for you in preparation for the AP exam and any in-class assessments. Remember, official College Board questions are the highest quality practice materials, so use them wisely. Try to save most of the official practice resources for when you're closer to the AP test. You can use unofficial materials throughout the year to brush up on your memory of specific topics in the course.
To recap, the overall study tips I recommend for AP US History are:
- Tip #1: Read Excerpts Carefully, and Look for Direct Evidence
- Tip #2: Practice Planning Out Your Essays
- Tip #3: Get Comfortable with the Document-Based Question
- Tip #4: Use Background Information, but Don't Overuse It
With these tips in mind, you can take full advantage of the practice materials, become a master of US History, and show the AP test who's boss!
Are you missing some of your notes from class? This article has links to great notes for AP US History that will give you tons of information on every topic in the course.
How do you know whether your practice test results are equivalent to a high or low AP score? Learn more about how AP tests are scored.
Think you might take the SAT Subject Test for US History in addition to the AP test? Check out our complete study guide for the US History SAT II.
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