AP US History Tips and Test Taking Strategies

By April 4, 2019 April 7th, 2019 High School Study Tips
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Throughout this post, we’re going to help you understand AP US History tips and test-taking strategies so you can get a high score on your test. We’ll talk about the different sections that include the multiple choice section, document-based questions, and long and short essay questions. For those who really want to know how to get a 5 on AP US History, this is a guide you’ll want to look at closely.

If you’ve been taking AP courses then you definitely want to get credit for all those things that you’ve done and learned, right? And that’s where this guide is going to help you focus a little more and figure out how to get a 5 on AP US History.

The College Board hosts AP tests, and they, in general, look at how well you understand the material that you’ve learned throughout the class. Whether you’ve mastered the material or not is then used by colleges to determine if you should be able to avoid taking specific courses once you get there.

Of course, there are different qualifications and rules when it comes to what each college thinks of as a good score or a score adequate enough to get you out of retaking the course. For most, you’ll need at least a 4 or a 5. So, let’s see what some of the best tips and tricks are.

You’ll find that how to get a 5 on APUSH is actually not as difficult as you might have thought if you know how to get the right advice from students, teachers and other resources. We’ll take a closer look with this AP US History review.

If you’re looking for the best AP US History review books, check out our comprehensive guide here.

AP US History General Study TipsGeneral How to Study for AP US History Tips

When it comes to your general studying for how to get a 5 on the APUSH exam, you want to make sure you look at things like note taking and reviewing the material. Some of this may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean you should skip over it. Sometimes, it’s the obvious things that we forget about. The overall test is 3 hours and 15 minutes and covers 3 sections total. This includes the multiple choice and essay section, with short essay, long essay, and document-based questions with different APUSH themes.

  1. Slow down and take it one chapter and one period at a time. When you’re figuring out how to study for AP US History, you want to make sure you take things slowly. That means not getting too caught up in just reading the text but slowly evaluating each chapter and each time period, one at a time. That way, you can make sure you’re not missing out on any of the critical information of what happened in each portion of history that might be covered on the exam.
  2. Take active, structured notes. Taking notes is essential, but you want to be very careful about how you take the notes so you can make sure that you’re paying attention while you write. It can be straightforward to just copy information without paying attention to what you’re doing at the time. Your notes should also be highly structured so you can quickly locate the information and know when and how it all took place.
  3. Have physical copies of your notes. Physical copies of your notes are great because you can evaluate them as a whole. Digital copies are starting to be more popular, but you can’t have them with you in some places, which can make it challenging to study whenever and wherever you have the time. Physical copies also make it easier to analyze your notes and highlight, like in the next point.
  4. Highlight key terms in your notes. Key words, key events, and key people are extremely important, so make sure you’re highlighting these sections so you can make sure that you know where to go back to at a later time. These will generally be the most critical points and the ones that questions will focus on. Highlighting makes sure that when you do study, you can skim through and quickly pick out what you need to know.
  5. Check note sites to make sure you have the most critical information. You should use note sites to double check your own notes and make sure you’ve captured the full information, not as a replacement for taking your own notes. This tip is brought to us by a YouTube video from Luke Sauls, so make sure you check it out for even more great tips for this exam.
  6. A combination of notes, online studying and videos will prepare you best. If you’re really looking to nail down a little of everything your best bet is to cover three different areas, your notes, online study prep, and videos. These three things together are going to give you the all-around knowledge that you need in order to understand what’s going to be on the test.
  7. Grammar, sentence structure, and dictation do not matter. This is a US history test, so mostly the people grading it are concerned with whether or not you know the information, not whether or not you know where to put a comma. So, if you’re rushing along and forget a little of your sentence structure information, that’s not going to be a problem, and it’s not going to cost you any points. For this and other tips, you can also check out Josh Beasley for more information.
  8. Take an APUSH practice test. Practice tests are going to help you out a lot because they’re going to prepare you for what the actual questions look like. If you follow the time limitations, also they’re going to help you anticipate how to manage your time better as well. All of this together is going to make sure you know what to expect, and you’re not totally blindsided when you get into the room.
  9. Review questions and answers from College Board. This is a tip that comes straight from Stella, and it’s definitely something to keep in mind. College Board is the company that puts out the official test so studying their sample questions and answers is going to give you a better idea of what they’re actually looking for when you take your own test.
  10. Focus mainly on the thematic elements and how things are connected. You will find that most of the information you actually need to know for how to study for APUSH, is based around how different events, people, situations and more are connected to each other and the overall theme of those things. This means you don’t need to read as much for the specific little details. You can get a whole lot further by taking more time with more critical points.
  11. Make sure you understand the information rather than just memorizing it. You aren’t going to be able just to regurgitate information on this test. You’re going to have to exhibit how well you actually understand it, and that means you need to do more than just memorize a whole bunch of facts. You need to review those facts, but understanding how they relate to the greater whole is going to be more critical when it comes down to it.

AP US History Multiple Choice TipsAP US History Multiple Choice Tips

When it comes to the multiple choice, if you want to know how to pass AP US History it starts with understanding this section. It’s a total of 55 questions, and you get 55 minutes to answer them, which means you have only 1 minute per question. It’s also worth 40% of your score, which is the highest single percentage of all of these sections. You’ll get a stimulus that you’ll have to answer questions about.

  1. Read the questions before you read the passage. If you read the questions before you read the passage, you’re going to have a much better understanding of what you’re looking for. This could actually help you take up less time with the multiple choice section because as you read, you can easily pull out the essential points that you need, rather than reading and having to go back again.
  2. Read the question thoroughly. It’s easy to miss words or miss the meaning of the question if you don’t read carefully. Missing a ‘not’ or ‘always’ in the question could entirely change the meaning of it, as could plenty of other words. That means you need to make sure you’re looking at each individual word and not getting too carried away with being quick about your answers. The right answer to the question read incorrectly may be one of the options.
  3. Don’t leave any questions blank. You should never leave a question blank on the multiple choice test. There is absolutely no penalty for getting an answer wrong, so even if you make a complete guess and you have no way of narrowing down the possible answers (we’ll get to that in a minute) you still have a 25% chance of getting it right. If you don’t answer it, you have a 0% chance of getting it right. Sounds pretty simple, right?
  4. Read the passage thoroughly. Make sure you read the passage all the way through and that you’re thorough about what you find. Just like with the questions, you don’t want to miss an important point or something that changes the entire meaning of the passage or a line. You want to make sure you carefully analyze the information you’re given.
  5. Start with the questions you know. Take a few minutes to scan through the questions to see if there are any that you already know the answer to. Make sure you trust your gut but don’t guess at this stage of the game. Answering questions you already know will save you time as you move forward; however, it’s not going to help you figure out how to ace APUSH.
  6. Just because an answer is factual does not mean it’s the correct one for the question at hand. Keep in mind that more than one answer may actually be factual, but that doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with the question. Read through the question carefully and then read through the answers. If you’re tempted by an answer make sure that it answers the question and not that it’s just a true statement.
  7. Eliminate incorrect answers first. If you’re not sure about the answer to a question the first thing you should do is eliminate all of the answers you know for sure are wrong. Usually, you’ll be able to eliminate at least one answer from the running and often you can eliminate at least two. That means you’ve already improved your chances from 25% to 50%, and that’s definitely worth it.
  8. Choose the best answer, not just the right answer. Multiple answers may be correct for the question. You want to choose the one that fits best. Keep this in mind when you’re reading through your questions and answers. Just because one answer is correct doesn’t mean it’s the only one. Read all of the answers and see which one gives the best result.

AP US History Short Answer TipsAP US History Short Answer Tips

The short answer section is a total of 4 questions that you get 50 minutes to answer. This comes down to about 12 minutes per question and the section counts for 20% of your total score toward how to get a 5 on APUSH. There are generally multiple parts to answer, and they may refer to pictures, graphs or passages. Figuring out how to prepare for AP US History exam starts with understanding the essays.

  1. If you’re not confident on each part to the question answer in a paragraph. You have to answer every part of the question, so if you’re not positive about one or more just start writing a paragraph, beginning with the part you do know. From there, you may find that the rest of the answer comes to you and you can add in the rest of the information as you go.
  2. If you’re confident on each part to the question answer sections separately. If you know all of the answers to each part of the question you can answer each section individually. This may allow you to write less than with a paragraph and also makes it easier for whoever is grading the test to see that you have a complete understanding of the information you gave.
  3. One piece of information is usually enough to answer each section of the question. Often, all you’re going to need is one short piece of information to answer each of the parts. Don’t fill in a bunch of unnecessary information when you can explain it with something short and simple. This only takes up more of the time that you have available.
  4. You don’t need an essay, so be brief. This is a short answer section, which means you do not need to write an essay. You can and should be brief because this will give you more time for the next question.
  5. Manage your time effectively. Remember that you have 4 questions to answer total. This means that you need to hold enough time in reserve for you to get through all of them. Managing your time effectively is the best way to make sure you can at least have a little time to answer each of the questions and may mean you have to skip around between the questions.
  6. Answer every piece of the multi-part question. Read the question carefully, and then make sure that you answer every part of the question. It will generally have several parts, so don’t miss even one section or you’ll get marked down when it comes to the final grading process.

AP US History DBQ Essay TipsAP US History DBQ Essay Tips

A DBQ essay is a document based question, and for those figuring out how to study for APUSH exam, it’s one of the hardest ones. You’ll have only 1 of these, and you’ll get a total of 55 minutes to answer it, but this includes a 15 minute reading period. During the reading period, you are not allowed to write your essay during this time, so it’s a good time to read carefully and make a plan. It also counts for 25% of your total score.

  1. Use outside knowledge. You are required to use information from the documents that are provided, but you are also required to use some outside knowledge. That means information that you already knew and brought into the test with you from your APUSH notes and other AP US History resources. This is where your studying is going to come in and the information that you’ve been reviewing.
  2. Points are taken off only if the errors detract from the argument. If you have errors in your response, you will only lose points for those if they detract from the case that you are trying to make. If you use incorrect statistics or facts to back up your argument, these will take away from your point, but tangential comments will not. Make sure you pay attention to what you’re writing but don’t get too concerned otherwise.
  3. You don’t need to use every document you’re given. There will be a set number of documents that you are required to use in your essay. Generally, this is 6 out of 7 total. This means you do not need to find points in every piece of information that you are given and you can choose which ones fit your argument the best and use only those.
  4. Use only the number of documents you need to. It may seem like a good idea to use all of the documents, but actually, this can take up too much time and may require you to make a stretch where you don’t need to. Using only the number of documents that you need will make sure that you’re moving on through your essay and that you get it completed within the amount of time you are given.
  5. Practice DBQs ahead of time. Practicing these types of questions beforehand is going to be extremely important, as they will usually be the hardest part of the entire exam. By practicing early on, you’ll be able to get a better understanding of the time constraints as well as what it actually takes to use the documents effectively to make an argument.
  6. Focus on the areas that count. There are specific areas that are counted when it comes to your DBQ, so make sure that you’re paying attention to these. They include thesis and argument development, document analysis, using outside evidence and contextualization, and synthesis. Once you’ve covered these areas, you’ll be able to get the points you need for your DBQ. Don’t spend too much time on expanding and adding outside of these aspects. They’re not necessary.

AP US History Long Essay TipsAP US History Long Essay Tips

The final section of the APUSH redesign is the long essay. This is another single question section that gives you 35 minutes to answer. It also counts for the least amount of your score at only 15%. This is still an essential part of the test, however, and a low score here can make it difficult to get a 5 overall on the full test, so make sure you know how to prepare for AP US History.

  1. Brush up on your basic knowledge. There’s no background information provided here, which means you’re going to need to have a foundation on your own. This is another area where you’re going to use the information that you studied about specific events, individuals and a whole lot more. You’ll need to be fully prepared with background information to make sure you can support your point.
  2. Have a thesis. You aren’t required to write a standard 5 paragraph essay, but your essay should have some type of point or thesis. You want to make sure that your thesis is explicitly stated and that it’s clear to whoever is reading it. That’s how you’re going to get the points you need and how you’re going to back yourself up with arguments accurately.
  3. Focus on how things are connected. It’s not enough just to state specific things as facts. You also have to explain and show how each of them is connected so you can push your viewpoint forward. If you don’t know how to connect them you’re going to lose points in this area.
  4. Use PERSIA to support your position. When it comes to defending the points, you’re trying to make, and especially your thesis, there are six specific areas that you should focus on. These include political, economic, religious, social, intellectual and artistic aspects. Each one can help you with connecting different points and facts.
  5. Break it down. Read through the question carefully and break down what it’s asking. This is going to help you answer each part of the question, and it’s going to make sure that you don’t miss out on something because you’re trying to answer one part of the question and completely missed reading the other portion.
  6. Read the question to know what’s being asked specifically. If you misread a question, it could mean that your entire essay is miswritten and that means you’re going to lose a lot of points. By reading the question carefully, you’re going to know exactly what’s being asked. If you read through the question and aren’t sure what you’re being asked then reread it until you do.
  7. Study previous responses to long essay questions. Looking at previous answers that scored well on this type of question is going to make it easier for you to do the same. Look at the way that the question was worded and the way that the writer answered that question. There may even be pointers and further information included with sample answers so you can see why it was scored a certain way.

AP US History Test Day TipsAP US History Test Day Tips

There are always things you should be doing the day of a test to make sure you set yourself up for success. Each of these tips may seem obvious (while some might seem counterintuitive), but they’re going to be important. Make sure you prepare for test day the right way, just like you would prepare for any other important day in your life.

  1. Eat a good meal. Having a good meal before you go to take a test is always going to be important. You’re not going to be focused if you’re hungry, which is what’s going to happen if you skip a meal or if you don’t eat something at least reasonably healthy. For those who feel nervous or even ill before a test, it’s still crucial that you eat something, even if it’s small because you’ll start to feel hungry in the middle of the test, distracting you from what you’re doing.
  2. Don’t study. It may seem counterintuitive to say not to study on the day of the test, but even the day before the test you shouldn’t study. You’ve already spent a whole lot of time (possibly months or more) studying for this test, so everything you are possibly going to know you already do. If you spend even more time studying it’s only going to stress you out, and it could actually cause you to forget more than it helps you learn. You shouldn’t be looking up how to study for the APUSH exam the night before, because you should be resting.
  3. Get a good night’s sleep. Getting plenty of rest is like getting a good meal. You aren’t going to be focused if you’re tired. And if you find yourself dozing in the middle of the test or if you find yourself struggling to have enough energy to keep going it’s definitely going to mean getting things wrong or making mistakes that you wouldn’t otherwise have made. That’s not worth it for anything.
  4. Bring everything you need. Make sure you review the information about what you can and can’t bring with you. Also, make sure you know what you’re required to have, like pens and pencils, an eraser, pencil sharpener and anything else. If you bring in materials that aren’t allowed you could be disqualified from the test. If you don’t bring materials that are required, you may be unable to take the test anyway. Review these lists and notes the day before and again the morning off to make sure you’re prepared.
  5. Know when and where to be. You should know precisely where your test is taking place, including the address of the building and the room number. You should also know precisely when the test starts and when the doors open for you to arrive. If you can, try to arrive as close to the time the doors open as possible. If you are late, you won’t be allowed into the exam room, and you’ll be unable to take the test. Being early means you’ll have time to find a seat, settle in and relax before it’s time to start the exam, that’s how to succeed in APUSH.

AP US History Review Videos and ResourcesRecommended AP US History Review Videos and Resources

There are some great resources out there that can definitely help you along your journey to getting that elusive 5 on your test. While all of the tips and tactics we’ve talked about are going to push you forward, these are great resources for you to get a little bit more information and continue expanding your test-taking skills and even your specific understanding of this AP test.

  1. Gilder Lehrman site. If you’re looking for an in-depth version of the different periods throughout US history, each of which is covered in your AP US History class, then you can check out this site. It actually provides a video for each period and talks about the important things that happened during that period as well as providing you with study guides for each. Overall, it gives you the information you need to get started on studying or possibly brush up on areas that you’re not as familiar with.
  2. Barron’s AP US History. This book is a complete guide to the subject and will provide you with a whole lot of information that’s also covered in your textbook. It’s designed to be a supplement and to make sure that you’ve fully grasped any and all of the crucial points. On top of that, it comes with a couple of practice tests so you can try them out and see how well you do. Some even come with online access and additional test prep.
  3. Check out Adam Norris Videos. These are10-15 minute videos that concisely explain specific events and periods covered in AP US History and serve as an excellent AP US History study guide. They’re super simple, but they still give you a whole lot of information. In fact, they’re some of the most popular guides you’re going to find about US history.
  4. Get the right review books. You need to make sure you have the best AP US History review books to look at and study. These are going to give you plenty of information about the specific topics that show up on the test or that at least could show up.

That’s a grand total of 47 different APUSH study tips that should help you learn how to get a 5 on the AP US History exam. Whether you’ve been studying for several months or you’re trying to learn how to study for APUSH in one day, you need to remember to check out practice tests and questions, use your time wisely, and read each question carefully Hopefully, these AP US History tips and test-taking strategies will help you along the way.

If you found this helpful, you may find our guide to the best AP US History review books useful as well.


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