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AP United States History: A Complete Guide

AP United States History: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|January 30 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


Why study AP United States History, known as APUSH? This guide is here to show you. How does the past influence today's America? APUSH is more than just a history class; it's a journey through the events and figures that have shaped the nation. Why is this important for students? Understanding America's past gives context to its present and prepares you for the future. This guide will not only take you through the essential elements of College Board's APUSH but also provide strategies for success. How can you excel in APUSH and use this knowledge in real life? We'll explore all this and more, connecting historical insights to modern-day applications.

Why Study AP United States History?

Is it fine to choose AP US History? Studying AP United States History is not just about memorizing dates and events. It offers a deeper understanding of the factors that have shaped modern America. Here are some key reasons to study APUSH:

  • In-depth Understanding: Learn about significant periods in American history, from early Native American societies and European colonization to recent events in modern America.
  • Critical Thinking and Analysis: APUSH emphasizes analyzing historical events and their impacts, enhancing critical thinking skills.
  • Preparation for College: The course prepares students for college-level studies by developing analytical and writing skills.
  • Cultural and Political Awareness: Gain insights into the cultural, political, and social developments that have defined the United States.
Number of students who gave AP United States History Exams

Graph showing number of students who gave AP United States History exams in past 10 years

Here is what an expert AP US History tutor says:

"AP US History remains as one of the most popular AP Subjects with approximately 500,000 students taking it every year. It's low passing rate of around 53-55% may seem scary but it is not. United States history is quite informative and interesting. It shouldn't be difficult for you if you use the right study methods and manage your time and resources."

By studying APUSH, students not only learn about history but also develop a comprehensive understanding of the forces that have shaped the nation's identity and policies. This knowledge is invaluable in today's interconnected world, providing a context for current events and future challenges.

Is AP US History Difficult?

Determining the difficulty of AP US History (APUSH) requires a look at both the nature of the course and exam statistics. Here's an overview:

  • Content and Skills Required: APUSH covers several hundred years of American history. The challenge lies not just in memorizing events but in analyzing historical documents, demographic charts, and political illustrations. Students need to synthesize knowledge and draw conclusions across different historical periods, a skill typically required in college-level courses.
  • Exam Difficulty: The APUSH exam is known for its demanding free-response section, where students write argumentative essays and analyze documents. This requires not only a strong grasp of factual information but also the ability to apply it in a coherent and analytical manner.
  • Student Experience and Workload: Many students find APUSH challenging due to its heavy workload, which includes extensive reading assignments, essays, and class debates. Success in this course often demands a significant time investment, especially for students who are less inclined towards humanities subjects.
  • Pass Rates and Scoring: In recent years, the pass rate for APUSH (scores of 3 or above) has been averaged around 53.88%, with 10.6% of students achieving the top score of 5 in 2023. It is no.3 in the list of hardest AP subjects. This suggests that while the course is challenging, a substantial number of students do succeed in it.
  • Personal Factors: The difficulty level can vary depending on a student's interest in history, commitment to the coursework, and the quality of teaching. For history enthusiasts, the course can be engaging and rewarding. The way the course is structured and taught at your school can also influence how challenging you find the exam.
Mean scores of AP US History in past 5 years (2019-2023)

Table showing mean scores of AP US History in past 5 years

While AP US History is generally considered to be challenging, it's also seen as an engaging and informative course. Students who are prepared to invest time and effort, and who engage with the course material, can succeed and find the experience rewarding. Remember, the difficulty of APUSH, like any AP course, will vary based on individual strengths, interests, and the educational environment.

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AP US History Syllabus

The AP US History (APUSH) syllabus is an extensive overview of American history, designed as an introductory college-level course. It spans from c. 1491 CE to the present, and it's organized into nine units.

AP United States History Syllabus

Table showing subject syllabus and what time period is AP US history

In addition to these content areas, the course emphasizes developing skills in historical thinking and analysis. Students learn to identify and explain historical developments, analyze sources, contextualize events, and make connections between historical processes. The course is designed to cultivate a deep understanding of U.S. history and to develop students' ability to think critically and argue historically.

AP United States History Exam Format

The 2024 AP US History Exam format is structured to assess a broad range of skills and knowledge. Here are the key components:

1. Multiple Choice Section: Constitutes 40% of the total score, featuring 55 questions to be answered in 55 minutes.

2. Short Answer Section: Accounts for 20% of the score with 3 questions, to be completed in 40 minutes.

3. Free-Response Section: Makes up 40% of the score, divided into two parts:

  • Document-Based Question (DBQ): One hour to respond, contributing 25% to the overall score.
  • Long Essay: 40 minutes long, contributing 15% to the total score.
AP United States History Unit Weightages

Table showing AP United States History Unit Weightages

The exam is designed to test students' abilities to analyze and interpret historical information, make connections between different historical periods, and formulate coherent arguments. The exam format and scoring rubric have been structured to evaluate these skills effectively.

What is a Good Score in AP US History?

In AP United States History, what's considered a good score? The AP exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with a score of 3 or higher generally regarded as good. Specifically:

  • Score of 3: Seen as 'qualified.' Many colleges may offer credit for this score.
  • Score of 4: Considered 'very good.' More likely to be accepted for college credit.
  • Score of 5: The highest score, viewed as 'extremely well qualified.'

It's important to note that college credit policies vary. Some institutions may only offer credit for scores of 4 or 5. To determine the AP credit policy of a specific college, it's recommended to check with the institution directly.

AP United States History Grades Distribution

Bar graph showing AP United States History Grades Distribution 2021-2023

The distribution of scores can offer insight into the exam's difficulty, with the percentage of students achieving each score giving an idea of the overall performance levels. However, the choice of AP classes should align with your personal academic strengths and interests, rather than just based on average scores or pass rates.

Best AP US History Resources To Score a 5

For effective preparation in AP US History, it's essential to have access to the right resources. Here are some of the best tools and materials you can use:

1. Textbooks and Prep Books:

2. Online Quizzes and Practice Tests:

  • Utilizing online quizzes can be a great way to review specific eras or topics. Although these might not always mirror AP-style questions, they are valuable for mastering particular subjects.
  • The College Board provides the only official practice test, which is a previously released exam. This is the most accurate representation of the actual test.

3. Other important resources:

  • High Quality Study Notes: Tutor Chase's study notes can help you achieve a perfect 5. They are designed to be easy to understand, quick to revise and well-structured for quick grasp of historical events.
  • Barron's AP US History Flash Cards: A set of 500 cards covering a range of topics from exploration period to present day. These cards are categorized and can be a quick way to review key facts, dates, and figures.

5. Online Learning:

  • AP Tutoring: It is a great idea to consider AP tutoring. Expert tutors can make the subject seem easier, give you tips for quickly covering the topics and how to efficiently manage the units to achieve a good grade.
  • Advanced Placement's YouTube Playlist: It has a lot of important videos uploaded by the official AP channel which include practice sessions, historical periods discussions and much more prep material.

These resources, combined with consistent study and practice, can greatly enhance your preparation for the AP US History exam. Remember, the best study approach is one that aligns with your learning style and allows you to engage deeply with the material.

Opportunities with AP US History

AP US History (APUSH) opens doors to a variety of academic and career opportunities. The skills and knowledge gained from this course can lead to diverse fields. Here are some pathways often pursued by students who excel in APUSH:

Majors in Higher Education:

  • History: Naturally, a major in history is a direct extension of APUSH. It offers a deeper dive into historical events and critical analysis.
  • Political Science and Government: This field allows students to explore political systems and engage actively in political discussions and analyses.
  • Economics: The understanding of historical economic trends and policies can be a solid foundation for studying economics.
  • International Relations: APUSH provides an understanding of the US's role in global history, which is crucial for international relations studies.
  • Sociology: The course's focus on societal changes and cultural dynamics throughout US history aligns well with a sociology major.

Career Paths:

  • Law and Public Policy: The analytical skills and comprehension of historical legal precedents developed in APUSH are beneficial for careers in law and policy-making.
  • Education: A background in APUSH is valuable for those interested in teaching history or social studies.
  • Journalism and Mass Communications: The course's emphasis on critical analysis and understanding historical contexts is advantageous for careers in journalism and media.
  • Historian or Research Analyst: For those inclined towards research, APUSH serves as a foundational step towards becoming a historian or research analyst, delving into various historical topics and periods.

Skills Development:

  • Critical Thinking and Analysis: APUSH enhances skills in critical thinking and historical analysis, which are applicable in numerous fields.
  • Writing and Communication: The course improves writing skills, especially in constructing arguments and narratives, which are valuable in many professions.

AP US History not only enriches students' understanding of America's past but also equips them with skills and knowledge applicable to a range of academic fields and career paths. It's an investment that goes beyond the classroom, preparing students for diverse opportunities in the future.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in AP US History

Succeeding in AP US History (APUSH) requires not just hard work but also a strategic approach. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Overlooking the Exam's Format: Understand the structure and types of questions in the APUSH exam. Knowing the format helps in effective preparation and time management during the exam.
  • Neglecting Essay Writing Skills: The free-response section, including the DBQ and long essays, is crucial. Practice writing clear, concise, and well-supported essays.
  • Ignoring the Importance of Practice Tests: Regularly take full-length practice tests. They are key to understanding the exam's pace and for identifying areas that need more focus.
  • Superficial Studying: Avoid memorizing facts without understanding the broader context. APUSH exams test your ability to connect facts to major historical themes.
  • Not Reviewing Mistakes: After each practice test, review your mistakes thoroughly. This will help you understand where you need to focus your study efforts.

Remember, avoiding these common pitfalls can greatly improve your performance in APUSH and find it quite an easy AP subject. Consistent practice, understanding the exam format, and developing strong analytical skills are essential for success in this challenging course.

Conclusion on AP United States History

In conclusion, AP United States History is an enriching course that offers much more than a historical overview. It prepares students for college-level thinking, enhances analytical skills, and provides a deep understanding of the events that shaped America. With a pass rate of around 53.88%, it's challenging yet achievable. The key to success lies in understanding the exam format, utilizing the best study resources, and avoiding common mistakes. For students interested in a multitude of fields, from law to education, APUSH offers foundational knowledge that opens doors to various academic and career paths. Embrace this course as an opportunity to gain a comprehensive understanding of American history and its impact on today’s world.


Can APUSH help in SAT/ACT preparation?

AP US History (APUSH) can indirectly help in SAT/ACT preparation. While APUSH focuses on historical content, the skills developed in this course are beneficial for standardized tests. APUSH enhances critical reading and analytical skills, which are crucial for the evidence-based reading and writing sections of the SAT. It also improves essay writing abilities, helping with the essay sections of both the SAT and ACT. Additionally, the discipline and study habits required for APUSH can be valuable for overall test preparation strategies. However, it's important to note that APUSH does not cover the math and science sections of these exams. For a more targeted SAT/ACT preparation, you should complement APUSH studies with specific test prep resources.

Are there group projects in APUSH?

Group projects in AP United States History (APUSH) depend on the specific approach of the teacher and the school's curriculum. While APUSH has no standardized requirement for group projects, many teachers incorporate them to enhance collaborative learning and deepen students' understanding of historical events and themes. These projects might involve group research, presentations, or debates. They can help students develop teamwork skills and a more nuanced understanding of U.S. history by analyzing different perspectives. However, the use and frequency of group projects will vary from class to class.

Is prior history knowledge required for APUSH?

Prior history knowledge is not a prerequisite for AP US History. The course is designed as an introductory college-level history course and covers U.S. history from c. 1491 CE to the present. It's structured to help students understand U.S. history through analyzing historical sources and learning to make connections and craft historical arguments. The course encompasses various concepts like American and national identity, politics, culture, and social structures, providing a comprehensive view of American history.

Is AP US history the same as American history?

AP US History (APUSH) and American History are related but not identical. APUSH is an Advanced Placement course offering a college-level curriculum in high school. It covers US history from pre-Columbian times to the present, requiring analysis of primary and secondary sources and writing analytical essays. In contrast, American History refers to a broader study, encompassing not just the history of the United States but also the histories of Native American tribes, European colonies in America, and other territories that have become part of America over time. APUSH, therefore, is a more focused and in-depth study specifically of United States history, with a greater emphasis on analytical skills and historical understanding​​.

Do colleges accept AP U.S. History?

Most U.S. colleges and universities award credit and/or advanced placement for qualifying AP scores, including those from the AP U.S. History exam. The exact credit or placement a student receives can vary based on the institution's policies. AP scores may enable students to skip certain college courses or even graduate early, depending on the college's policy. It's important for students to check with specific colleges to understand their AP credit and placement policies.

How many essays do you write in AP US history?

In the AP US History exam, you are required to write two types of essays:

  • Document-Based Question (DBQ): This essay involves analyzing a set of historical documents to formulate an argument. The time allocated for this section is 60 minutes, which includes a 15-minute reading period.
  • Long Essay: You choose one of three essay prompts and write a response. This section lasts 40 minutes and tests your ability to formulate a clear, logical argument supported by relevant historical evidence.

These essays are critical components of the exam, designed to assess your ability to apply historical knowledge in an analytical context.

Do you have to memorize dates for APUSH?

In AP US History (APUSH), it's not necessary to memorize specific dates for the exam. However, having a good understanding of the timeline of events is important for placing historical cause and effect. Knowing key dates can also help you earn evidence points in your essays. So, while specific date memorization isn't required, being familiar with the general timeline and significant dates can be beneficial for the exam and essay writing.

What happens if you fail AP US history class?

If a student fails an AP US History class, the consequences depend on the specific policies of their high school and potential colleges. Failing the class can affect the student's GPA and may require retaking the course. However, failing the class does not impact the student's ability to take the AP exam. If a student fails the AP exam but passes the class, they will not receive college credit for the course but will still earn high school credit for passing the class grade. It's important for students to understand that failing an AP course or exam is not the end of their academic journey and there are ways to recover and improve in future classes and exams.

What is the college equivalent of AP U.S. History?

The college equivalent of AP U.S. History (APUSH) is typically an introductory-level U.S. history course. In many colleges, APUSH can earn you credit for a first-year history course that covers U.S. history from pre-Columbian times to the present. The content in APUSH is designed to be similar in depth and complexity to these college courses.

Should I take notes in APUSH?

Yes, taking notes in AP U.S. History is highly beneficial. Effective note-taking can help you better understand and retain the extensive material covered in the course. Notes can also be invaluable for reviewing key concepts, dates, events, and figures for the AP exam.

Is U.S. history hard in college?

The difficulty of U.S. history in college can vary depending on the institution and the specific course. Generally, college-level U.S. history courses are challenging due to the breadth and depth of content covered, similar to AP U.S. History. They often require critical thinking, essay writing, and a good understanding of historical contexts.

How do you write AP U.S. History notes?

Writing AP U.S. History notes effectively involves the following methods:

  • Focusing on key themes, events, and figures.
  • Summarizing information in your own words.
  • Organizing notes chronologically or thematically.
  • Including analysis and significance of events, not just descriptions.
  • Utilizing visual aids like timelines and mind maps for complex topics.
  • Regularly reviewing and revising notes to reinforce understanding.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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