AP exams allow you to earn college credit, test out of intro-level classes, or both, in addition to allowing you to show off your skills to college admission officers. Most colleges and universities in the US recognize AP credit if you do well on the exam and let you start off in a higher-level class or skip some altogether.
The AP U.S. History (APUSH) exam covers two semesters worth of material from an intro-level college U.S. history course. While the exam technically covers everything from 1491 to the present (which sounds super-intimidating), relax—you are not expected to know each and every period in the same detail.
The APUSH exam tests whether you can think like an historian, so you don’t need to worry about memorizing tons of dates or random useless facts. The 3 hour and 15 minute exam is made up of 55 multiple-choice questions, 3 short answer questions, 1 document-based essay question (the DBQ), and 1 long essay question. To successfully answer the questions, you need to think like an historian. You’ll need to show that you can read and interpret primary sources (documents, speeches, paintings…any first-hand account from the past) and secondary sources (historians’ interpretations of the past) and show that you can make your own historical arguments in writing. Here’s one more reason not to freak out about the exam: the multiple-choice questions are grouped in sets of 2 to 5, all based around primary or secondary sources. So, while you’ll need to recall information, they’ll give you hints to help answer at least some of the questions.
To prepare for the exam, you’ll need to be familiar with key trends and major events from 9 different time periods, which are broken down below. The document-based question (DBQ) will only be based on topics from periods 3 through 8. Questions span 7 themes throughout each time period: American and national identity; migration and settlement; politics and power; work, exchange, and technology; America in the world; geography and the environment; and culture and society.
Note: You’ll notice that there’s overlap in the time periods. This isn’t a typo: it reflects the fact that historians have different opinions about when different historical eras end and begin.
U.S. History involves a lot more than just what happened after the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607. You’ll need to know the basics about native populations in the Americas before Europeans showed up as well as what the consequences of early European colonization (mostly Spanish and Portuguese) were. This period covers native American societies; European exploration and “discovery” (because, let’s face it, the people who were already here knew about the places they lived), and settlement. A key theme of this period is the Columbian exchange, the exchange of crops, animals, people, cultures, and diseases between the Old World (Europe and Asia) and the New World (the Americas) set in motion by Colombus’s 1492 voyage. Fun fact: without the Columbian exchange, Italian favorites like pizza and lasagna wouldn’t be the same--tomatoes are a New World crop.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t—while Period 1 lays important groundwork for understanding U.S. history, proportionally, it makes up one of the smallest portions of the exam (along with Period 9).
Why did the Thirteen Colonies look so different? This period explores the different goals and cultures of the European groups that settled what would eventually become Britain’s thirteen North American colonies and looks at how factors like the environment and interactions with American Indians shaped what went down. You’ll want to review the relative importance of different cash crops (think tobacco and sugar) in the colonies and the different labor systems that took root in some colonies, like African slavery and indentured servitude. A key theme to explore in Period 2 is how colonists were already supporting or challenging British rule and how they developed “American” identities.
Things were going well for the Thirteen Colonies, until…they weren’t. This period explores why Britain’s efforts to control its North American colonies led to the American Revolution and, ultimately, the founding of a new nation. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the colonial legislation that made colonists so upset (think Stamp Act) and key moments of rebellion, like the Boston Tea Party. Of course, you’ll want to review the Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, Franklin, Jay, Hamilton, etc.) and the documents they authored, as well as the debates and compromises that went into the creation of the Constitution. As the first two presidencies that fall under this period suggest, the republican government they formed was very much an experiment, and Americans questioned everything from the president’s power to the expansion of slavery and relations with American Indian groups.
After the excitement of the American Revolution, this period may seem kind of dry. Far from it: Period 3 opens with the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States and led to debates about the expansion of slavery that would define the next half century (or more). Other questions raised by the Founding Generation, like about the role of the federal vs. the state government, continued to be raised during Period 3. American culture and society were changing, too—the steam engine, the construction of railroads and canals, and the emergence of factories began to move the U.S. away from an agrarian society to an industrial society. You’ll also want to review how the U.S. developed its own foreign policy during Period 3 and how relations with American Indians deteriorated as the U.S. frontier s wapushed west.
What caused the Civil War? Slavery, obviously, but the period between 1844 and 1860 was full of potential and possibility that scholars have wrangled with for a long time. This period opens with westward expansion and the debates over slavery that culminated in the Civil War, and then examines its aftermath: Reconstruction, which ended with the Compromise of 1877. This period explores the causes and effects of the Civil War. You’ll want to review key attempts that political leaders and the Supreme Court put forward to resolve the slavery question (the Missouri Compromise; the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision) and why they failed to keep the South from seceding. As we all know, slavery ended, the North won the war, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were added to the Constitution. But these achievements stopped short of granting African Americans full rights and equality in practice—a key theme of Period 5. You’ll want to study key programs of Reconstruction—the efforts to rebuild and reform the South after the Civil War—and how they were challenged.
This period is one of big changes: the transformation of the United States from an agrarian society to an industrial, capitalist one, spearheaded by the rise of big businessmen whose names are plastered all over buildings, universities, and cultural institutions in the United States (think Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller) and massive immigration from eastern and southern Europe. To master this period, you’ll want to review key technological innovations and how they affected the economy; how immigration changed the face of America and led to debates about assimilation and Americanization; key conflicts between labor and big business, the growth of the middle class; and major political, intellectual, and cultural movements of what was known as the Gilded Age.
This period is proportionally the largest chunk of the exam, It explores the United States’ rise to a global power, beginning with war in the Philippines and Cuba and ending with World War II. This period also covers the Progressive Era; World War I and the first Red Scare; labor conflicts; immigration reform and the Great Migration at home; the culture and society of the Roaring Twenties (including debates about gender roles, science, and religion); the rise of mass culture (think radio and movies); the Great Depression (and Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt’s strategies for ending it); and the legacies of the New Deal. You’ll want to focus on debates about the role of government at home and about the role of the United States in the world.
Period 8 is all about how the United States handled its postwar prosperity and struggled to live up to its reputation as a global leader. The Cold War spans this entire period, so you’ll want to focus on how the US hoped to stop the spread of communism in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. At home, Americans debated the role of the federal government (touch off by major social policy initiatives like the Great Society) and questioned their confidence in the government itself (thanks to the Watergate Scandal). Key themes to review from period 8 include: the origins of the Cold War; Cold War policy in Asia; the Korean War; the Red Scare; the Civil Rights movement; the Vietnam War; the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter; and major domestic and foreign policy initiatives.
As with Period 1, questions concerning Period 9 make up the smallest proportion of the exam. Period 9 covers your lifetime and that of your parents. Key themes to review include the rise of modern conservatism that began with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan; the end of the Cold War; the rise of digital technology and the birth of the Internet; major U.S. demographic shifts, like the growth of the Hispanic population; and conflict in the Middle East and the War on Terror.
As to the firm land, we are certainly satisfied, and assured, that the Spaniards by their barbarous and execrable Actions have absolutely depopulated Ten Kingdoms, of greater extent than all Spain, together with the Kingdoms of Aragon and Portugal, that is to say, above One Thousand Miles, which now lye waste and desolate, and are absolutely ruined, when as formerly no other Country whatsoever was more populous. Nay we dare boldly affirm, that during the Forty Years space, wherein they exercised their sanguinary and detestable Tyranny in these Regions, above Twelve Millions (computing Men, Women, and Children) have undeservedly perished; nor do I conceive that I should deviate from the Truth by saying that above Fifty Millions in all paid their last Debt to Nature.
Finally, in one word, their Ambition and Avarice, than which the heart of Man never entertained greater, and the vast Wealth of those Regions; the Humility and Patience of the Inhabitants (which made their approach to these Lands more easy) did much promote the business: Whom they so despicably contemned, that they treated them (I speak of things which I was an Eye Witness of, without the least fallacy) not as Beasts, which I cordially wished they would, but as the most abject dung and filth of the Earth; and so solicitous they were of their Life and Soul, that the above-mentioned number of People died without understanding the true Faith or Sacraments. And this also is as really true that the _Spaniards_ never received any injury from the Indians, but that they rather reverenced them as Persons descended from Heaven, until that they were compelled to take up Arms, provoked thereunto by repeated Injuries, violent Torments, and unjust Butcheries.
--Bartolomé de las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies..., 1552
Correct Answer: C. Spaniards’ search for riches trumped concerns about converting native peoples to Christianity
Explanation: You have to read the text carefully and only the text to find the answer. A favorite strategy of AP test designers is to present factual statements as possible answer choices. While choices b through d are technically true, they aren’t supported by the passage they’ve given you to read. So, while we know diseases had a devastating effect on native populations in the Americas, Las Casas doesn’t mention them here. He says that the Spaniards were so greedy and viewed Indians as inferior that many of them died without receiving the Sacraments—e.g. without being converted to Catholicism.
A Brief collection of certain reasons to induce her Majesty and the state to take in hand the western voyage and planting there…
22. The fry [children] of the wandering beggars of England that grow up idly and hurtful and burdenous to this Realm, may there be unladen, better bred up, and may people empty countries to the home and foreign benefit, and to their own more happy state.
--Richard Hakluyt, Discourse on Western Planting (1584)
Correct Answer: B. indentured servitude
Explanation: Sixteenth-century England was a pretty terrible place to be if you weren’t in the upper strata of society. Unemployment was super high and hunger abounded. Out of desperation, many people (mostly young and mostly male) signed on to be indentured servants. Under indentured servitude, masters or landowners paid the passage of young British people, who were sent to the colonies to work for a period of 4-7 years for nothing more than room and board. After their contracts were up, they were freed and either got their own plot of land to farm or worked for wages.
Correct Answer: B. Boston Massacre
Explanation: Aimed at punishing residents of Massachusetts and Boston in particular for dumping East India Company tea in Boston harbor, two of the Coercive Acts were specific to Massachusetts: the Port Act closed the port of Boston, while the Massachusetts Government Act reduced the Massachusetts legislature’s power. Two additional acts were aimed at all of the colonies: the Administration of Justice Act, which allowed royal officials to be tried in England rather than in the colonies, and an extension of the Quartering Act, which enabled British troops to shack up in private homes.
Correct Answer: B. the principle of judicial review
Explanation: Marbury v. Madison was one of the most important Supreme Court decisions ever made. It arose when Thomas Jefferson attempted to block the appointments of Federalist judges made at the last minute by his predecessor in office, John Adams. William Marbury, one of the so-called “midnight appointments,” sued for his commission. According to Chief Justice John Marshall, who delivered the Court’s opinion, Marbury was entitled to his commission, but the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave Marbury his commission was not constitutional. As a result, Marbury was not given his commission. Marbury v. Madison thus established judicial review—the right of the Supreme Court to overrule decisions made by the executive and legislative branches of the government.
Correct Answer: B. Uphold the right of Congress to decide whether slavery was allowed in new territories
Explanation: People of African descent got the short end of the stick from the very beginning of the United States (example: the 3/5 clause in the Constitution). Dred Scott was an enslaved man who resided in Missouri and moved with his master to the free territory of Wisconsin for two years before they both moved back to Missouri. Upon returning to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom, arguing that his time on free soil made him a free citizen. The Court, led by southern Democrat Roger Taney, ruled against Scott, establishing that the U.S. Constitution did not apply to people of African descent (thus, they were not citizens) and that Congress could not make any laws that deprived people of their property. Since slaves were property, Congress could not exclude slavery from federal territories, thus making the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in Wisconsin and other northern territories, unconstitutional. The Dred Scott decision divided the Democratic Party between North and South.
We can take from the better and give to the worse. We can deflect the penalties of those who have done ill and throw them on those who have done better. We can take the rewards from those who have done better and give them to those who have done worse. We shall thus lessen the inequalities. We shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty. Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative; liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.
--William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts, 1895
Correct Answer: B. nonregulation of industry
Explanation: The above excerpt from Sumner is a classic example of Social Darwinism. Don’t let the first half of the paragraph trip you up: Sumner is being sarcastic. He thinks that taking from the rich and giving to the poor is a terrible idea because it destroys individual liberty and ensures the survival of the unfit. Because all of the above choices except d sought to break up the power of big business and make life easier for the vulnerable, nonregulation of industry (which the government did plenty of during the late nineteenth century) is the correct choice.
Correct Answer: A. pensions for retired people
Explanation: The Progressive Era saw the passage of tons of social legislation, including laws to protect consumers and workers, as well as a host of political reforms, like giving women the right to vote and ending the practice of senators being chosen by state legislatures. But it stopped short of truly radical reforms, like pensions for the elderly (cough Social Security) or universal healthcare.
Correct Answer: D. Support from northern labor unions
Explanation: Until World War I put the brakes on European immigration and ramped up demands for manufactured goods, African Americans had few opportunities in industrial jobs. Even if their charters claimed they were open to members of all races, religions, and nationalities, many labor unions refused to admit African Americans, who were often used as strikebreakers. It wasn’t until the 1940s that labor unions began to open the doors (slightly) for African Americans.
Correct Answer: B. Providing money, weapons, and training to South Vietnamese forces
Explanation: “Vietnamization” was one of President Nixon’s first initiatives and aimed to give South Vietnamese the training and supplies they needed to take the reins in the by-then unpopular Vietnam War. As a result of “Vietnamization,” the number of U.S. troops deployed in South Vietnam was drastically reduced by 1972. The Nixon Doctrine pledged that in the future, Asian allies would get U.S. support but not necessarily ground troops.
Correct Answer: C. all answer choices are correct
Explanation: Supply-side economic policies dubbed “Reaganomics” (in contrast to the Keynesian policies that prevailed throughout much of the 20th century) were the cornerstone of the Reagan Revolution. Cuts to social services like food stamps and welfare were also key. In spite of Reagan’s promises to curb government spending, billions went towards the military in the name of “winning” the Cold War.
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