So you’re thinking about taking the American Government CLEP exam? Awesome! Here’s what you need to know.
The 100 question exam is designed to be the equivalent of a freshman single semester course. You’ll cover the basics, like US governmental structure and civil liberties, before diving into a few trickier topics, like theories of democracy and the electoral process.
If you’ve previously studied American Government during high school or through extracurriculars, you’ll likely find this test pleasantly fast. If not, you can study through it in no time and be up and running. It’s probably one of the slightly easier CLEP exams, but be careful not to underestimate it!
The exam will be divided into five major chunks:
Presidency, Bureaucracy and Congress: This section sounds incredibly dry and boring, but it’s actually pretty simple once you get into it. You’ll want to understand things like how the three branches of the US government work together (that’s the Executive branch, the Judicial branch, and the Legislative branch). Fun fact: Most people think of the Executive branch as just the Presidency, but it also includes about 5 million people employed by the various government administrations: Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, etc.
This section will probably be a faster and more fun study – this is where we get to learn about our rights as US citizens! You’ll want to start with the Bill of Rights: the 10 amendments to the US Constitution that were passed as a bundle to define the minimum rights we hold as humans. You’ll also want to study a bit of the civil rights history and how our civil liberties have evolved. Why for instance was slavery still allowed for nearly a century after the Bill of Rights?
Another easy section – even if you’re not voting quite yet, you probably were involved in recent elections. But don’t be fooled – this section goes far beyond the Donkey and the Elephant. Before you walk in for your test, you should understand how interest groups work (aka, lobbyists) and how the electoral process works (it’s complicated, but once you dig in it becomes clear).
As a democratic republic, United States citizens have a very critical and important role. Particularly when first founded 2 centuries ago, a United States citizen has a unique opportunity to influence politics. This section digs into exactly how that works: how people learn about political issues, how they take action (voting, protests), the various political sub-cultures formed, and how public opinion does (or doesn’t) affect our elected leaders.
Ok, so this is getting into the boring realm again, but, trust me, it’s actually really fun when you engage. Basically, the US Constitution is the single foundation for our entire governmental structure. Sure, it’s been supplemented with dozens of amendments and millions of federal and state laws, but it’s kind of amazing that the entire government still boils down to a four page document. In this section you’ll learn about Federalism, separation of powers, and the other (sometimes conflicting) theories of democracy that contributed to this singular document.
Correct Answer: A proposal requires more than 50% of votes to win
Explanation: Surprisingly enough, majority rule doesn't actually mean that majority wins. Rather, it means that absolute majority is required for victory. If you have three options and the most popular wins 40% of the vote, alternate means of decision will be triggered (which specifically vary between the branches of government).
Correct Answer: A stronger central government
Explanation: We often think of the US governmental system as one with an initially weak central government surrounded by strong state governments. This is true, but only because the Anti-Federalist movement held significant sway in the writing of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists wanted almost no central government (as per the Articles of Confederacy), and the Federalists had to fight hard to get even the small central government put forth in the Constitution. Over the last 200 years, the central government has grow dramatically stronger by adding programs like Social Security, IRS, and many more.
Correct Answer: Because competing interest groups make sure no single majority can completely take over
Explanation: This is the basic principle of pluralism: the idea that various forces in a democracy balance each other out and drive the system toward a happy medium. Critics have pointed out that many issues don't have a balanced middle. In a zero sum game what's good for one group is bad for another. Additionally, critics argue that interest groups tend work more often for the middle- and upper-class Americans, while ignoring those without money to lobby.
Correct Answer: Hiring of professional advocates to push for specific legislation in US Congress and other governing bodies
Explanation: Lobbying as a term potentially dates back to President Ulysses who used the term to describe the political advocates who waited to find him in his hotel's lobby. Today it's a massive industry with foreign governments alone spending half a billion dollars each year endeavoring to influence US governmental decisions. While it certainly has negative connotations for many, the vast majority of lobbying is completely legal, and bribery or backroom dealings would result in significant legal charges for anyone involved.
Correct Answer: Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
Explanation: Remember Rosa Parks? A seamstress by trade, she was also her city's secretary for the NAACP. After years of racial segregation on public transit, she was riding on December day in the front-most row that black people were allowed to sit in (a middle row). When a white man boarded the bus, the bus driver demanded that everyone in Rosa Parks' row move back to make room. In a bold act of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks refused and was arrested on Dec 1. After her trial on Dec 5 resulted in a “guilty” verdict, the Montgomery bus boycott began. It ended just over a year later following a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transit was against the law.
Correct Answer: Opinion polls are frequently not representative samples of actual voters
Explanation: While opinion polls are facing many challenges today in accurately predicting the results of elections, the single biggest issue is finding a truly representative sample of potential voters. This is due to both sample size (the number of people surveyed) and selection bias (people willing to engage in a poll are less likely to be busy professions for instance). Other factors like the evolution of media online definitely change the way people engage with politics but do not directly impact the accuracy of polls.
Correct Answer: Speaker of the House
Explanation: Particularly in any catastrophe that removed the President and Vice President, the government needs an immediate replacement with no delays for special election. As a result, the full succession list covers more than a dozen people including Speaker of the House, President pro tempore of the Senate, Secretary of State, and a number of other cabinet members. Interestingly, succession past Vice President has not yet been tested, and experts have some disagreement as to whether Senate approval is required for succession to the Presidency if Senate approval has already been given for a previous position.
Correct Answer: The House of Representatives must vote for one of the top three candidates from the electoral vote
Explanation: Fascinatingly, this has actually occurred on two separate occasions: once in 1800 when the electoral college resulted in a tie, and once again in 1824 when neither candidate received a 50% majority. Faithless electors – those who vote contrary to their pledge – have been targeted by some state laws, but no one has ever been formally charged and Constitution experts argue the state laws probably would crumble if ever challenged in court. No election result has ever been changed by faithless electors, but in 2016 seven electors did vote contrary to their pledge (and the popular vote in their state).
Correct Answer: The President, Cabinet, and Federal Agencies
Explanation: This was an easy one. ;) The Executive branch contains the Presidency and administrative agencies (including the State Department). The Judicial branch includes the Supreme Court and other federal courts. The Legislative branch includes the Senate and House of Representatives.
Correct Answer: The right to a speedy and public trial.
Explanation: All answers are actual amendments in the Bill of Rights, but the sixth specifically reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
While quite short on the study side of things, the official CLEP book is the go-to final practice test. Since this is the only official practice test available, I normally use it as my final spot check before taking the test.
REA offers a great combination of CLEP study tips, exam study materials, and detailed practice tests. This book functions well as the central pillar of a strong CLEP prep strategy, with resources like the Official CLEP Study Guide (above) providing a great final practice test at the end.
The website looks like it was made before the internet, but it’s legitimately the single most useful study guide I’ve found yet. Basically it’s a series of flashcards that help you study in a fast paced and fun way.