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Last Updated On: March 9th, 2022

The AP history exams can be tricky to prepare for, especially if it is your first time taking one of them or even your first AP class. Fortunately, with a little background info and some smart preparation, you can be set up to excel on whichever history AP you take! Preparing for the AP history exams is similar to preparing for other AP exams, but with some strategies and approaches that are particular to the history exams and might not be familiar to you. To help you with that process, we’ve got some helpful context and study tips that should help you take your AP preparation to the next level!

Familiarizing Yourself With The Course Material

Each AP history exam breaks its material into discrete units —either blocks of time or themes. Take a look at the breakdowns for each course below:

AP European History:

  • Unit 1: Renaissance and Exploration
  • Unit 2: Age of Reformation
  • Unit 3: Absolutism and Constitutionalism
  • Unit 4: Scientific, Philosophical, and Political Developments
  • Unit 5: Conflict, Crisis, and Reaction in the Late 18th Century
  • Unit 6: Industrialization and Its Effects
  • Unit 7: 19th-Century Perspectives and Political Developments
  • Unit 8: 20th-Century Global Conflicts
  • Unit 9: Cold War and Contemporary Europe

AP World History: Modern:

  • Unit 1: The Global Tapestry
  • Unit 2: Networks of Exchange
  • Unit 3: Land-Based Empires
  • Unit 4: Transoceanic Interconnections
  • Unit 5: Revolutions
  • Unit 6: Consequences of Industrialization
  • Unit 7: Global Conflict
  • Unit 8: Cold War and Decolonization
  • Unit 9: Globalization

AP US History:

  • Unit 1: Period 1: 1491–1607
  • Unit 2: Period 2: 1607–1754
  • Unit 3: Period 3: 1754–1800
  • Unit 4: Period 4: 1800–1848
  • Unit 5: Period 5: 1844–1877
  • Unit 6: Period 6: 1865–1898
  • Unit 7: Period 7: 1890–1945
  • Unit 8: Period 8: 1945–1980
  • Unit 9: Period 9: 1980–Present

If, like most AP test takers, you are currently in an AP course, your teacher will hopefully have covered most of these units in class, but have a look over the content overview for your chosen exam and make sure you are familiar with everything on it. In our time working with students on the AP history exams, we’ve found that students are most often in need of reviewing the material from the beginning of the course (which they may not remember well, since they covered it in September and the exam is in May) and the most recent time periods covered in the course, since many AP classes do not finish covering the material in time for the exam in May. If your class curriculum doesn’t get to the most recent material covered on the test before the exam date, you will want to review on your own to make sure you are ready for the test. If you are looking for more detail about what you need to review, you may want to check out the official course overview for your AP class, which can be found on the College Board website and will have more detail about what is contained within each unit of the course.

Familiarizing Yourself With The Exam Format:

Once you have a good grasp of the material covered on the exam (from classwork and from studying on your own), then you will need to familiarize yourself with the format of the exam so that you can be ready on test day. Each AP history exam has the same general format and scoring breakdown:

Section 1A: Multiple Choice 55 questions in 55 minutes 40% of your score
Section 1B: Short Answer 3 questions in 40 minutes 20% of your score
Section II: Free Response 2 essays in 1hr 40 minutes 40% of your score

Let’s break each section down in more detail:

Section 1A: Multiple Choice:

The multiple choice questions should be a format you’ve seen before between exams in class, standardized testing, and any other AP exams you may have taken. In general, preparing for these questions requires simply knowing the course material well. However, in addition to questions that simply require you to retain specific information from the course, the AP history exams also require you to answer multiple choice questions about passages or even visual sources such as paintings or maps. For these questions you not only need to know course material, you also need to be comfortable analyzing primary and secondary sources. If your AP class hasn’t spent much time tackling these sorts of questions, it is a good idea to have a look at some practice exams (either from the AP website or out of a prep book) to get more comfortable breaking down sources and answering questions about them. This section is 40% of your score, so it’s extremely difficult to get a good score on the exam without doing well in this section.

Section 1B: Short Answer

The short answer questions consist of four short questions of which you are required to answer questions 1 and 2, and can answer either question 3 or question 4. Questions 1 and 2 require you to read a primary or secondary source and respond to three questions for each one. Questions 3 and 4 do not contain source documents and instead require you to deal with a specific time period or comparison. Each short answer question contains three sub questions, so although this section ostensibly has three questions, you will really be writing nine responses. Prep for this section is similar to the multiple choice section in that to do well on this section you need an excellent grasp of the course material, and you also may want to consider looking at some official practice questions to learn the specifics of the test formatting.

Section II: Free Response

The free response section contains two essays: a document-based essay and an essay responding to a question without any attached documents. In our experience, this section is the one most dissimilar from work students may have done before and where AP test takers should devote most of their prep time, particularly if they have been doing well in the course and have a good grip of the general course content. While, as mentioned before, the multiple choice and short answer sections have some particularities that are worth reviewing in detail, in general, if you know the course material you can do well in those sections. The document-based essay (usually referred to as a DBQ) requires course knowledge but also a familiarity and fluency with the particulars of this type of question. On a DBQ, students are given an essay question and a range of documents and have to craft an essay that incorporates most of the documents (at least six of the seven for full credit), outside material, and a coherent, argumentative thesis into a full essay. Success in this section requires knowledge of the specific scoring criteria for grading, ability to handle primary sources, and historical essay writing ability.

How to prepare for an essay like this? The college board provides a great resource for every AP history class by releasing past exam questions, and sample student responses and the scores they received. We recommend trying these questions on your own, and comparing your responses to the scoring rubric and other student responses in order to see what you did well on and what areas still need improvement. It can be difficult to fully assess your own work, so if you can it is a good idea to go over your practice essays with a trusted friend, teacher, or tutor.

Preparation for the other essay question in this section (generally referred to as the Long Essay Question, or LEQ) is similar to that of the DBQ. Have a look at previous essay questions and try to answer them before taking a look at other student responses. For each student’s response, try to determine what the student did well on the essay and what you might change, and then have a look at the scoring report to see how the student did on the actual exam. This is another section where getting an outside pair of eyes to look over your work is a great idea.

How the AP History Exams are Graded

The AP graders (typically teachers with experience teaching the AP history course in question) evaluate each writing section according to a grading rubric provided by the College Board. You should familiarize yourself with the specific grading rubrics for each section of the test, particularly the two essays so that you can be sure to provide every part of the essay the AP test needs to maximize your chance of receiving full credit. The DBQ is scored out of seven points, the LEQ out of six points. Each short answer question is worth three points, with one point given for each sub-question. The multiple choice works just like other multiple choice sections. Your scores on each section are then combined into a total score according to the percentage breakdown we outlined above.

Because the essay questions vary in topic each year, there are significant differences in question difficulty, so the test is also curved a fair amount each year so that a similar proportion of students achieve 4s and 5s on the exam as did in previous years. This means that, depending on the difficulty of the essay questions on the exam, the scores needed in each section to get a 4 or 5 will vary and we unfortunately can’t give you an exact cutoff point for what you need to get on the test to get each score. However, if you work hard in your AP course, follow these tips, and study hard, you can do well on the test regardless of what the essay questions are this year.

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