AP U.S. History: The Complete Guide

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AP U.S. History: The Complete Guide


Advanced Placement (AP) courses can make your transcript stand out to college admissions, earn you college credit, and boost your GPA. AP courses are a great opportunity for high school students to experience a college-level curriculum. If you’re interested in signing up for an AP course next fall, now is the time to start thinking about whether or not it’s the right choice for you.

AP U.S. History, better known as APUSH, focuses on nine historical periods in American History covering the time between 1491 to the present. The course is equivalent to two semesters of U.S. History college credits. It’s considered one of the more difficult AP exams, so students usually take APUSH in their junior or senior year.

This guide will cover what to expect in the class curriculum, a breakdown of the exam, and what you should consider when deciding whether or not to take APUSH.

An Overview of AP U.S. History

Throughout your AP U.S. History class, you will cover nine historical periods from 1491 to the present day. There are eight themes used throughout the course to contextualize the nine units. The course aims for students to gain the skills and methods of historians, such as analyzing primary and secondary sources, developing historical arguments, making historical connections, and utilizing reasoning processes of comparison, causation, and continuity of change.

Let’s break down each of these aspects of the course and how you will apply these skills and themes.

Units and Exam Weight

AP U.S. History has nine units or historical periods. The percentage after each unit indicates approximately how frequently it will be covered on the final exam.

  •   Unit 1: Period 1: 1491–1607 (4–6%)
  •   Unit 2: Period 2: 1607–1754( 6–8%)
  •   Unit 3: Period 3: 1754–1800 (10–17%)
  •   Unit 4: Period 4: 1800–1848 (10–17%)
  •   Unit 5: Period 5: 1844–1877 (10–17%)
  •   Unit 6: Period 6: 1865–1898 (10–17%)
  •   Unit 7: Period 7: 1890–1945 (10–17%)
  •   Unit 8: Period 8: 1945–1980 (10–17%)
  •   Unit 9: Period 9: 1980–Present (4–6%)

These units are contextualized and studied through the eight themes of the course. Let’s take a look at what those themes are.

Themes of AP U.S. History

The eight themes of the course create connections across units. Throughout the exam, you must apply these themes and their relationships to each historical period.

Theme 1: American and National Identity (NAT)

The subject of Theme 1 is how and why the American identity was constructed. Theme 1 centers on citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.

Theme 2: Work, Exchange, and Technology (TXT)

Theme 2 concentrates on technology, economic markets, and government and their role in establishing the United States monetary exchange systems.

Theme 3: Geography and the Environment (GEO)

The focus of Theme 3 is geography, the environment, and human-made environments. Theme 3 asks what role these three components had in determining the development of U.S. society and politics.

Theme 4: Migration and Settlement (SIG)

The subject of Theme 4 is how and why people who moved to the U.S. changed and adapted to the existing social and physical environments.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE)

Theme 5 zooms in on how political beliefs and institutions in the U.S. have transformed over time. It also broaches the different social and political groups that have impacted society and government.

Theme 6: America in the World (WOR)

The focus of Theme 6 is on interactions between the United States and other nations. Theme six concentrates on countries that affected the United States during the colonial period and America’s influence on international affairs.

Theme 7: American and Regional Culture (ARC)

Theme 7 revolves around national, regional, and group cultures in the U.S. Theme 7 ask how and why these cultures developed throughout U.S. history and how these cultures have influenced government policy and the economy.

Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC)

The topic of Theme 8 is the social systems of the United States. Theme 8 centers on how and why social systems and organizations developed and changed throughout history and how these systems affected the broader society.

These eight themes will be used critically throughout the course and help create a framework for better understanding each unit’s historical importance. Along with these eight themes, you will develop historical thinking skills. These six historical thinking skills will be essential in acing your AP exam.

AP U.S. Historical Thinking Skills

There are six historical thinking skills that you will develop throughout your APUSH course. Combining these skills with the themes of the curriculum and applying them to each historical unit will ensure success in your APUSH class.

Let’s dive into these six skills.

Skill 1: Development and Processes

Skill 1 is about identifying a historical concept, development, or process and explaining it.

Skill 2: Sourcing and Situation

Skill 2 focuses on identifying a source’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and audience and explaining it. You will also develop the ability to explain the significance of all those attributes of a source, as well as note how these might contribute to the limitation of the text.

Skill 3: Claims and Evidence in Sources

With Skill 3, you will develop the ability to identify and describe a claim or argument in a text-based source. You must specify the evidence used in the source to support your idea and explain, using evidence, how claims modify or refute a source’s argument.

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Skill 4: Contextualization

Contextualization is a skill in which you identify and describe the historical context (i.e., background) for a historical development or process.

Skill 5: Making Connections

Skill 5 uses comparison, causation, continuity, and change (also referred to as historical reasoning processes) to analyze patterns and connections between historical developments.

Skill 6: Argumentation

Skill 6 is all about learning to develop an argument. Skill 6 will build your ability to make a historically defensible claim and support that claim using evidence and historical reasoning.

Now that we’ve broken down the nine historical units, the eight themes, and the six historical thinking skills you will come across in your AP U.S. History course, let’s see if APUSH is the right course for you.

Should I Take AP U.S. History?

AP U.S. History is a more challenging AP course for high school students, due to the amount of time covered throughout the course. Your teacher will be covering centuries of history and, due to the time constraint, will most likely have to go through these swaths of time relatively quickly. The amount of history you cover in the course requires a lot of reading and memorization.

Due to the difficulty of the class, students typically take the course in their junior or senior year. The course will teach critical thinking skills and prepare you for college-level courses. Suppose you have a passion for history, want to earn college credit, and are up to the heavy workload. In that case, you might consider taking APUSH. If you’re interested in pursuing a history, political science, or law degree, APUSH could benefit your studies.

The curriculum may vary from teacher to teacher depending on how much they assign for homework. Students who struggle with time management or assignments with a lot of reading might want to reconsider taking this course.

Before taking any AP course, it’s always a good idea to speak with the course teacher and your counselor to better understand the class’s expectations and whether or not it’s a good fit for you.

What to Expect on The Exam

The AP U.S. History exam takes place over 3 hours and 15 minutes. It consists of two sections. Section 1 comprises 55 multiple-choice questions and three short answer questions. Section 2 has one document-based question and one long essay question.

Section I

Section 1 has two subsections, Part A and Part B.

Part A of Section 1 is the multiple-choice aspect of the exam. Part A is 55 minutes long and makes up 40% of your score. Questions will appear in three to four sets, with each set of questions paired with a component (i.e., a primary or secondary text, image, chart, map, etc.) The multiple-choice questions will ask you to analyze the provided component and describe the source’s historical development and processes.

Part B of Section 1 is the short answer questions. Part B is 20% of your score and is 40 minutes long. There are three short answer questions you must answer. Question 1 will ask you to analyze a secondary source from units 1 through 8 (1754 to 1980). Question 2 will ask you to investigate a primary source, again focusing on units 1 through 8. In the final question, you can choose between question 3 and 4. Question 3 will focus on units 1 through 5 (1491 to 1877), and question 4 will focus on units 6 through 9 (1865 to 2001).

Section II

Section 2 of the exam includes a document-based portion, also known as a DBQ, and one long essay question.

The document-based question is 25% of your score and is 60 minutes long, including a 15-minute reading period. There will be seven documents in this section, and you will have to respond to the prompt using the following criteria:

  •   Create a historically defensible claim
  •   Contextualize the document within a broader history
  •   Support your argument by using the documents provided
  •   Use historical evidence other than the documents provided to make an argument
  •   Demonstrate an understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt
  •   Explain how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and audience are relevant to your argument

The document-based question focuses on 1754 through 1980, which is units 3 – 8.

The last part of the exam is the long essay question. The long essay question is 40 minutes and is worth 15% of your total score. Students must select one question from three options, each focusing on a different period.

  •   Question 1: Units 1 – 3 (1491-1800)
  •   Question 2: Units 4 – 6 (1800-1898)
  •   Question 3: Units 7 – 9 (1890-2001)

The questions will ask you to create a thesis argument, describe a broad historical context, support your idea, and demonstrate an understanding of the historical development using evidence.

AP U.S. History Exam Pass Rates

AP U.S. History exam takes place in May and is one of the more difficult AP tests. 48.2% of students scored a 3.0 or higher on the exam, with the mean score being 2.57.

Here is a score breakdown for the exam:

  •   5: 10.8%
  •   4: 15.6%
  •   3: 21.9%
  •   2: 23.0%
  •   1: 28.8%

These numbers might look intimidating, but there are plenty of resources available to help you get your desired score on your APUSH exam. For example, many students fear the DBQ. But one of the best ways to conquer it is for you to practice. There are study books dedicated to teaching you how to think through the DBQ grading rubrics or help practice all the varieties of short answer questions.

Due to the amount of information you will cover in your APUSH class, you should also  review your coursework throughout the year rather than cramming right before the exam. Take a practice exam and go through all the mistakes you’ve made. For your written answers, make connections using the eight themes to whichever historical period you are writing about and your six historical thinking skills to make a strong argument.

You can find a sample syllabus and textbook list here.


AP U.S. History is an excellent course to take if you are interested in history, looking to gain critical thinking skills, and want to earn college credit. You’ll receive a thorough understanding of American History from 1491 to the present and methods of analysis used by actual historians.

It is considered one of the more challenging AP exams to pass, with a pass rate of 42.8%, so before committing to the course, meet with your teacher and counselor to make sure that APUSH is the right choice. You can also talk to other students who have already taken the course to get a better understanding of what the class will be like.

Despite the difficulty of the course, if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll walk away with a complex understanding of U.S. history and skills that you can apply to your future college courses.

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