Apush Essay Study Guide

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The AP US History exam can seem pretty overwhelming! There’s a lot of material to go through and master, and it can be hard to make a plan to study the APUSH exam. Fortunately, there’s help available, and you can make a smart, flexible, and successful study plan to review what you need to know, fill in any gaps in your knowledge, and be ready to succeed and get a good score on test day.

The Format of the Test

Before you start studying, it’s helpful to know what you’ll have to do on the APUSH test. The test follows a structured format.

Section 1: Part A. This part is made up of 55 multiple choice questions. You have 55 minutes for this part of the APUSH exam, so one minute per question. Questions are in sets of two to five and refer to texts, maps, images, graphs or other materials. Part A counts for 40 percent of your test grade.

Section 1: Part B. This part contains only four questions, in a short-answer format. Questions may use maps, texts or images. You will have 50 minutes for this section of the test, so around 12 minutes per question. Section 1: Part B is worth 20 percent of your total score.

Section 2: Part A. Section 2: Part A is a document-based question that asks you to analyze, synthesize and assess historical data and evidence. You have 55 minutes for this question, but that includes a 15-minute reading period. The document-based question is worth 25 percent of your total score.

Section 2: Part B. This part contains a long essay. You’ll choose one of the two questions to answer. Questions will ask you to explain and analyze a key point in US history. You will have 35 minutes for this section of the test. The long essay is worth 15 percent of your grade.

What’s on the APUSH Exam?

First, keep in mind, the point of the exam is to test how well you’ve understood the content taught in your AP US History course. You should already have a good grasp of this content as you’re planning your APUSH study. The College Board identifies several key parts to the study of US History. Think of these as the goals the College Board has for students in APUSH.

Historical Thinking Skills

There are nine historical thinking skills, grouped into four categories. Historical thinking skills are how you think and learn about history. These skills apply to all types of history, not just US history. The College Board wants you to learn HOW to think about history. You’ll be asked to apply these skills throughout the APUSH exam.

1.Analyzing Historical Sources and Evidence.

a. Content and sourcing help you to describe, select and evaluate primary sources created during the period you’re studying, including documents, works of art, letters, maps, or financial records.

b. Interpretation lets you describe, analyze and evaluate the ways historians discuss, talk about and study history. Interpretation involves secondary, rather than primary sources.

2. Making Historical Connections

a. Comparison is the ability to identify, evaluate and compare various viewpoints on a historical event.

b. Contextualization enables students to connect historical events and processes to the time and place, as well as to a broader geographical region or historical period.

c. Synthesis is developing increased understanding by making meaningful connections between events, periods, or even other disciplines.

3. Chronological Reasoning

a. Causation is the skill associated with identifying historical cause and effect and distinguishing between causality and correlation.

b. Patterns of Continuity and Change over Time let the student recognize historical patterns of continuity and change and relate these to a broader context.

c. Periodization is essential to understanding how and why historians break history down into individual historical periods.

4. Creating and Supporting a Historical Argument

a. Argumentation lets the student create and support a historical document using primary and secondary sources to craft a well-thought out argument regarding a historical process or event.

The College Board identifies specific, set guidelines to show proficiency in each of these historical thinking skills. You can access these from the College Board’s APUSH Course and Exam Description.

Image Source: Princeton University

Thematic Learning Objectives

There are several thematic learning objectives that guide the development of curriculum for AP US History. These are mostly related to the development of American national identity and include ideas about citizenship, constitutionalism, assimilation, foreign policy and exceptionalism. According to the College Board’s Course Description for APUSH, these are:

American and National Identity

1. Explain:

a. How the fundamental ideas about freedom, democracy, and individualism present during the American Revolution and in the Constitution found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity

b. How the Constitution has been interpreted over time, and how a variety of debates over inalienable and granted rights, freedoms and liberties, and definitions of citizenship have impacted the development of American values, politics, and society.

2. Analyze:

a. How thoughts and feelings about national identity changed in response to America’s role in international conflicts and engagement with the global community.

b. Relationships among different groups, including religious, racial and regional identities, and explain how individual and collective experiences have impacted and changed U.S. national identity

Politics and Power

1. Explain:

a. The development of and change in different political ideas, beliefs, institutions, party systems, and alignments over time, from the early days of the United States through today.

b. How changes in American society and institutions have come about, including popular movements and political actions.

c. The effect of various beliefs about the federal government’s role in American social and economic life on political actions, debates and policies.

Work, Exchange and Technology

1. Explain:

a. The various types of labor systems developed in North America and particularly the United States, and their effects on the lives of workers and U.S. society as a whole.

b. The importance of exchange, markets, and private enterprise, how each of these has developed, and analyze different ways that governments have responded to economic issues, both positive and negative.

2. Analyze:

a. How changes in technology have affected the economic development and social development of the United States.

Culture and Society

1. Explain:

a. The role religious groups have played in American society and political life.

b. The ways in which artistic, philosophical, and scientific ideas have shaped both private and government institutions and society as a whole.

c. The importance of how women’s rights and gender roles have affected both society and politics.

d. How various group identities, including ethnic, racial, class, and regional identities, have developed initially and changed over time.

Migration and Settlement

1. Explain:

a. The reasons for migration to colonial North America, and later, the United States. Analyze the effect of immigration on the development of society in the U.S.

2. Analyze:

a. The causes of internal migration, or movement within the United States, and patterns of settlement in the future United States and explain how this movement and settlement has impacted the development of the U.S.

Geography and the Environment

1. Explain:

a. The ways that environmental and geographic factors led to and shaped the development of communities. Analyze how the need for natural resources and competition for those resources have altered both interactions among groups of people and the development of local, state and federal government policies.

b. How modes of cooperation, competition, cultural interaction, and conflict between nations, empires, and peoples have shaped different political, economic, and social developments in North America.

America in the World

1. Analyze:

a. The ideas behind and the results of various types of U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives in both North America and overseas.

How can you use these thematic learning objectives? It’s quite simple—as you study, review and learn about U.S. History, think about these questions. Not all of the questions will apply to every historical event or process, but you can bet that the questions asked on the exam will relate to these learning objectives. The College Board writers are guided by these ideas when they set the questions you have to answer.

Concept Outline

The APUSH exam breaks down the history of the United States into nine different periods. While instructors may choose to teach thematically, most opt to show the themes through a chronological framework created by the College Board. This historical framework is combined with distinct concepts for each period. Concepts are not historical facts or figures, but general ideas about what happened or changed in the period and what drove those changes.

These are shown below. Period one and period nine will each account for five percent of the APUSH Exam. The period from 1607-1877 will count for 45 percent of the exam and the period from 1865 to 1980 for another 45 percent of the exam. Yes, periods five and six do overlap, thanks to the Civil War.  Period five includes the Civil War and Reconstruction, while period six moves into the Gilded Age of industry in America. Also, you’ll see the key concepts taught for each period.

1. 1491–1607 (Native Americans)

a. As native populations migrated across North America over time, they developed distinct varied, and highly complex societies. They adapted to and transformed their environment in different ways.

b. Contact among Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans resulted into the Columbian Exchange of goods and ideas. This exchange led to social, cultural, and political changes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

2. 1607–1754 (Colonialism)

a. Europeans developed a different colonization and migration behaviors. National goals, cultures, and the various North American geographical environments where they settled influenced these choices. Early colonists competed with each other and Native Americans for resources.

b. The 13 British colonies participated in a variety of political, social, cultural, and economic exchanges with Great Britain. These encouraged and established both stronger bonds with Britain and eventual resistance to Britain’s control.

3. 1754–1800 (The Revolutionary War)

a. The British attempts to assert increased control over the colonies in North America and the colonial support for self-government, rather than British colonial government, led to a colonial independence movement and then the Revolutionary War.

b. The American Revolution’s democratic and republican ideals, which grew out of the Enlightenment, inspired new experiments with different forms of government.

c. Migration and settlement in North America and competition over resources, boundaries, and trade led to intensified conflicts among both groups of people and individual nations, particularly various colonial powers and Native Americans.

4. 1800–1848 (Expansion)

a. The United States began to develop a modern democracy, based on its Constitution and celebrated a new national culture. Americans wanted to define the nation’s democratic ideals and then to change their society and institutions to match those ideals.

b. Innovations in technology, agriculture, and commerce, associated with the industrial revolution, powerfully accelerated the American economy. These innovations precipitated significant changes to U.S. society and both national and regional identities.

c. The U.S. interest in increasing foreign trade and economic power and expanding its national borders to grow the nation shaped the nation’s foreign policy. Expansionist ideals led to some government and private initiatives.

5. 1844–1877 (The Civil War)

a. The United States became increasingly connected with the world. The U.S. actively pursued an expansionist foreign policy throughout the Western Hemisphere. Over time, the United States emerged as the destination for migrants from many other countries.

b. Intensified by expansion and growing regional divisions, debates over slavery and other economic, cultural, and political issues led the nation into civil war.

c. The Union victory in the Civil War and the controversial reconstruction of the South settled the issues of slavery and ended the secession. The victory left many unanswered questions about rights of citizens and the federal government.

6. 1865–1898 (The Gilded Age)

a. Technological advances, new large-scale production methods, and access to new markets encouraged the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States.

b. Migrations accompanied industrialization and transformed both urban and rural areas of the United States. These migrations caused dramatic social and cultural change.

c. The Gilded Age created many new cultural and intellectual movements, public reform efforts, and significant political debates over economic and social policies.

7. 1890–1945 (The Great Depression and World Wars)

a. Growth led to expanded opportunity, while economic instability resulted in some new efforts to reform U.S. society and its economic system.

b. Innovations in communications and technology contributed to a newly accessible mass culture, while significant changes occurred in internal and international migration patterns.

c. Participation in a series of global conflicts, like World War I and II, propelled the United States into a position of substantial international power while renewing domestic debates over the nation’s proper role in the world.

8. 1945–1980 (The Cold War)

a. The United States responded to the changing postwar world by actively maintaining a position of global leadership. This had far-reaching domestic and international consequences.

b. New movements for civil rights for African Americans and liberal efforts to expand the role of government with new social welfare programs generated a range of political and cultural responses.

c. Postwar economic and demographic changes throughout the United States had substantial consequences for American society, politics, and culture.

9. 1980–Present

a. A newly dominant conservative movement achieved many political and policy goals during the 1980s and continued to strongly influence public discourse in the decades that followed.

b. As the 21st century began, the nation experienced significant technological, economic, and demographic changes.

c.The end of the Cold War and other challenges to U.S. leadership forced the nation to redefine both its foreign policy and role in the world.

Making a Study Plan

You’ve got the format of the test, as well as the themes and concepts that you should think about. Now, how do you start to study for the test? There are a few different approaches, but a smart, individualized and comprehensive one is the best. First, you’ll identify your strengths and weaknesses, then, you’ll create a plan that’s just right for your needs.

First, take a pre-test or review your scores on tests you’ve taken in your AP US History course. Do you see any apparent strengths and weaknesses?

Are there periods of time you know better than others?

Are there key themes or concepts you struggle with?

Do you find one type of question harder than another?

Then, think about how you learn best.

Do you remember what you read easily? Strong reading skills may mean you’re a visual learner. You probably remember what you read, but also what you see. You might not remember what you hear as well, and you may not find writing or drawing as helpful as some other types of learners.

Are you more likely to remember what you hear than what you read? Auditory learners learn best by hearing. Reading your textbook may not be all that helpful for you, but you like audiobooks or listening to lectures.

Do you need physical movement or action to retain information? Kinesthetic learners need to do or move to learn effectively. You can draw maps, make timelines, write out flashcards and take notes to help with retention.

If you’ve answered yes to any of the first series of questions above, you should direct at least a significant portion of your study time into those weak areas. How you do that may depend on what you need to work on most urgently. Here, you’ll find some ideas that let you work on each of these areas in different ways depending on how you learn best.

1. If you struggle with a particular period, factor in additional time to review your textbook and primary source documents on that period. Depending on your learning style, you might also find it helpful to watch high-quality documentaries, listen to audiobooks or online lectures, or, if possible visit museums or talk to people who lived through the events. You can also make timelines to help master the key events of a period or draw maps to help learn key geographical factors.

Remember that the AP US History class doesn’t emphasize names and dates, as much as it does a broad understanding of themes and concepts. While you do need a good general understanding of this information, it’s wise to remember not to spend too much time memorizing birth and death dates, or dates of specific battles. Focus more attention on the big picture and less on the little details.

2. Larger themes and concepts can be harder than facts and people. For many people, it’s not so hard to remember dates or to connect people to events, but these bigger picture issues can be difficult. These are also harder to study! Some historical books or documentaries may help to provide a better understanding of themes and concepts, but you’ll also need to think about them and spend some time thinking.

Depending on how you learn, consider mind-mapping exercises, talking through your questions with classmates, or looking at artwork and artifacts to make some of these connections. Some key questions can help to guide your study—and you can always refer directly to the College Board’s Concept Outlines and Theoretical Objectives. Imagine you’re telling someone who doesn’t know about American history about it and think about what you’d tell them.

What defines this period in history? What is most important about it?

Why does a particular period or event matter? How did this shape the history, culture, and experiences of the United States?

What factors contributed to the events of a particular period in American history?

3. If you’ve got the course content down, but certain types of questions are a problem for you, there are also ways to work through that.

For most students, there’s no real challenge to a multiple-choice question. If you do want extra practice on multiple-choice questions, there are plenty of online options or even apps for your smartphone to let you practice quick answers for those questions.

Short answer questions are also not too much of a problem for most students. You can quickly think through how you would answer a question in a quick paragraph or two.

Realistically, the real problems for most students are the document-based questions and free response questions. If you need to work on your writing skills, you should recruit a reader. Your reader can be a teacher, a classmate or even a parent, but they need to be willing, to be honest and should be a good writer themselves. Some high schools may even have a writing lab available to help you work on your essay-writing skills. Successful essay writers on tests like the APUSH exam typically follow a series of steps.

○ Think about your time. Allow a small amount of the allotted time to outline and to review your work. You have 55 minutes for the document-based question, with 40 minutes of that for writing, and 35 minutes for the free response question. Think about allotting around 15 percent of your time for prep and review. That means you have about six minutes for your outline and review for the document-based question, and around five for the free response question.

○ Take the documents slowly and make notes as you go. Those notes can make a world of difference when you’re working on your outline and your essay.

○ Read the question thoroughly, and read it more than once! You may even want to plan to spend three to four minutes reading and thinking about the question, or in the case of the free-response question, choosing the question you want to answer.

○ Make a quick (and we mean quick!) and minimal outline that includes the key points of your essay, broken down into individual paragraphs. Your outline shouldn’t take more than two to three minutes of your time.

○ Start writing! If you’re prone to feeling stalled out by the introduction, leave room and time to write it at the end.

○ Read through your essay. You don’t have a lot of time, but you can quickly change things, correct things, or squeeze in another sentence or two.

When you’re prepping and practicing, one of the most important things you can do is work under the same timelines as you’ll have on test day. Don’t spend two hours on a practice essay—this won’t help you get ready for the test!

Test Day Approaches

Often, as test day approaches, you’ll get more nervous. It’s tempting to start working harder, studying harder and cramming for that test. Unfortunately, all that’s likely to do is make you tired and run-down on test day.

When the last week before the test begins, plan a reasonable amount of time for daily review. It should fit into your schedule without tapping into valuable sleep! Take this time to review your facts, know your dates, and get those names down. Use a smartphone app or online quiz site to review multiple choice questions, and if you have time, take an additional practice test.

The night before the test, get to bed early. If you’re prone to nerves, try a guided meditation, or read an actual book (no electronic screens). Allow plenty of time to get ready in the morning. Remember you won’t have a phone in the test, so wear a watch if you have one, and don’t forget the coffee if you’re a regular coffee drinker (but skip it if you’re not!)


When you’re getting ready for the AP US History exam, you need to think the way you’ve been taught-like a historian. Remember to focus on themes and concepts while you study, and know your way around primary source documents. Review sample questions by the College Board as you study, especially to practice the document and free-response essay questions. If you’re looking for a day-by-day study plan for the month before the exam, take a look at this One Month Study Plan for the AP US History Exam.

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Chapter Outlines

Chapter outlines from "American Pageant (13th edition)" to help you review what you've read, chapter-by-chapter. Use this information to ace your AP U.S. History quizzes and tests!


Every important vocabulary word from American Pageant (13th edition), broken down chapter-by-chapter for quick review. These vocabulary flashcards cover nearly all AP U.S. History concepts you will see on the AP exam.

Practice Tests

Test your U.S. History knowledge with one of our sample tests. Use these sample questions to focus your studying on the areas that you need improvement.

Topic Outlines

In-depth topic outlines on specific U.S. History related topics. Very helpful if you need to review a specific topic or study for essay prompts.


Do you know your AP U.S. History chronology? Use these handy timelines to help you memorize important dates in U.S. History.

Court Cases

Important Supreme Court cases to study and memorize for the AP U.S. history.

Sample Essays

Use these sample AP U.S. History essays to get ideas for your own AP essays. These essays are examples of good AP-level writing.


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