Advanced Placement (AP) classes give high school students a taste of college-level coursework. They prepare you for challenging college courses and allow you to earn college credit. As a bonus, succeeding in AP classes gives you an edge in college admissions. There are 38 AP courses, and one of them is AP U.S. History.
If you’re thinking about taking AP U.S. History, you’re probably wondering: Is AP U.S. History hard? In this post, we’ll give you all the information you need to decide if AP U.S. History is right for you.
About AP U.S. History
In AP U.S. History, students learn about how the United States has been shaped by cultural, social, economic, and political developments from 1491 to now. You’ll learn how to make connections and analyze historical evidence, visual sources, and texts, then present your historical arguments in writing.
The College Board identifies eight broad themes that run throughout the course, including:
- American and national identity
- Work, exchange, and technology
- Geography and the environment
- Migration and settlement
- Politics and power
- America in the world
- American and regional culture
- Social structures
AP U.S. History is typically divided into nine units in chronological order. The units are listed below, along with their weight on the multiple-choice section of the AP U.S. History exam:
- Period 1: 1491-1607 (4-6%)
- Period 2: 1607-1754 (6-8%)
- Period 3: 1754-1800 (10-17%)
- Period 4: 1800-1848 (10-17%)
- Period 5: 1844-1877 (10-17%)
- Period 6: 1865-1898 (10-17%)
- Period 7: 1890-1945 (10-17%)
- Period 8: 1945-1980 (10-17%)
- Period 9: 1980-Present (4-6%)
So, Is AP U.S. History Hard?
The question “Is AP U.S. History hard?” is subjective. The class is designed to be a challenge, like all AP courses. But some students will excel more than others, while others may struggle more than their peers.
AP U.S. History covers many years and requires a lot of memorization. It also involves a lot of reading, writing, and critical thinking. In addition to memorizing historical facts and events, you’ll need to synthesize and analyze information to present arguments persuasively. For these reasons, AP U.S. History is generally considered a rigorous course with a difficult exam.
Now, let’s look at some other factors that will help you decide whether AP U.S. History is hard.
AP U.S. History Exam Pass Rate
Every AP course culminates in an end-of-year AP exam. Your score on the exam determines whether you’ll receive college credit, and how many credits you’ll earn. Your AP exam score will range from 1 (the lowest) to 5 (the highest). You need at least a 3 to pass, but some colleges only give credit for scores of 4 or 5.
To objectively analyze the difficulty of AP U.S. History, let’s look at the exam pass rate. In 2021, 47.1% of students who took the AP U.S. History exam passed it. The average exam score is 2.84, which is not a passing score.
Here’s a full score breakdown:
- 1: 31.2%
- 2: 21.6%
- 3: 21.2%
- 4: 15.9%
- 5: 10.1%
Compared to other AP exams, the AP U.S. History exam pass rate is far below average. Only two AP exams have a lower pass rate than AP U.S. History: English Literature and Composition (44%) and Physics 1 (42%).
Of course, a low exam pass rate doesn’t necessarily mean that the course itself is hard. AP U.S. History is the second most popular AP course (behind only AP English Language and Composition). With so many students, varying levels of preparation and ability could skew the exam results. However, most students who take AP classes are motivated and hard-working. This suggests that the exam—and likely the class—are quite hard.
The AP U.S. History pass rate may not tell you a lot about the course itself. But it does tell you that many students find the exam challenging. It’s important to work hard and study diligently to succeed.
What Students Say About AP U.S. History
Another way to evaluate the difficulty of AP U.S. History is to see what other students are saying. You can browse message boards like Reddit and College Confidential to check out student opinions on the course.
Many students say that AP U.S. History is interesting, but it’s a lot of work. Not all the work is especially tough, but most students agree it’s a hard class in comparison to other AP courses. As we mentioned, heavy reading and writing are required. Students who prefer mathematics and science find AP U.S. History especially difficult.
In-class tests usually mirror the official exam, with multiple-choice questions and an essay under tight time constraints. This adds to the difficulty level of the course. Still, it provides excellent preparation for the end-of-year exam.
Ultimately, most students say that AP U.S. History has an above-average difficulty level for an AP course. You’ll have to put in the work to succeed. Focus on the class, take thorough notes, and review your notes each week. In addition to studying throughout the course, it’s important to increase your studying leading up to the exam. The class is hard, but with hard work and diligence, it’s possible to excel in the course and on the exam.
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Will AP U.S. History Be Hard for You?
It’s helpful to consider exam pass rates and what other students are saying on message boards. But every student is different, and so is every school. So, how can you decide whether AP U.S. History will be hard for you?
Consider Your Strengths & Weaknesses
Start by thinking about your academic strengths and weaknesses. Are you good at memorizing facts and dates? Can you read and understand lengthy historical texts? Can you construct arguments and support them with evidence? How have you performed in history classes in the past?
If history, reading, and writing are areas of strength, you may be highly successful in AP U.S. History. But if you’ve struggled in previous history classes and don’t enjoy reading or writing, AP U.S. History may not be the best fit for you.
Ask Students at Your School
Message boards give you a peek into what students all over the country think about AP U.S. History. But if you want to know what AP U.S. History is like at your school, talk to students who have taken the same course you’re considering.
Talk to several students to get a range of opinions. Ask what they thought about the classwork, in-class tests, the teacher, and the end-of-year exam. Was the workload manageable? How much reading and writing was required? Was the class itself challenging? What about the exam? Would they recommend AP U.S. History to others?
It’s also helpful to talk to adults at your school. If you’re currently in a history class, ask your history teacher if he or she thinks AP U.S. History is right for you. If not, you can ask your English teacher for his or her opinion.
If possible, talk to the AP U.S. History teacher about the workload and how well students perform in the course and on the exam. Your guidance counselor can likely answer some of these questions if you can’t talk to the teacher or want a second opinion.
Consider Your Schedule and Workload
Lastly, think about the rest of your schedule and workload. AP U.S. History is an extremely time-consuming course. Do you have enough time to successfully manage it? How many other AP courses are you planning to take? Do any of the other courses involve extensive reading and writing? If so, you may feel burnt out and out of time.
Do you participate in a lot of extracurricular activities? Do you have a job? If it’s hard to fit hours of studying, reading, and writing into your schedule, AP U.S. History will be much more difficult. But if you have enough time to devote to the course, your chances of success are a lot higher.
Even if you do have a busy schedule, it doesn’t mean you absolutely shouldn’t take AP U.S. History. Think about how you’ll balance your schedule and manage your time so you can keep up with the course enough to excel.
What Is the AP U.S. History Exam Like?
The AP U.S. History exam is a three-hour and 15-minute exam that measures your mastery of the content and skills covered in the course. It includes three sections: Section IA, Section IB, and Section II.
Section IA consists of 55 multiple-choice questions. You have 55 minutes to complete the section, and it accounts for 40% of your exam score. The questions cover content from all nine AP U.S History units. Most of the questions come in sets of 3-4 questions based on a shared prompt. The prompts include sources to analyze, such as charts, maps, primary and secondary texts, and images.
Section IB includes three short-answer answer questions, and you have 40 minutes to answer them. This section is worth 20% of your final score. Question 1 involves 1-2 secondary sources and focuses on historical developments and processes between the years 1754-1980. Question 2 focuses on the same topic and period, but with one primary source instead.
You get to choose between Questions 3 and 4, which contain no sources. Both ask about historical developments and processes, but Question 3 asks about the years 1491-1877, and Question 4 asks about 1865-2001.
Finally, Section II requires you to answer two free-response questions in an hour and 40 minutes. It’s worth 40% of your exam score. The first question is a document-based question (DBQ). The recommended time for this section is 60 minutes, including a 15-minute reading period. You’ll read seven historical documents (from 1754-1980), then develop and support an argument based on the documents and your personal knowledge.
The second question is a long essay, with a recommended time frame of 40 minutes. You’ll be presented with three questions and choose one to answer. Each question tests the same skills, such as comparison, causation, continuity, and change. However, they focus on different periods: 1491-1800, 1800-1898, and 1890-2001, respectively.
The multiple-choice section is scored by a computer, and college professors and experienced AP teachers evaluate your written responses. Your section scores are combined to form a composite score, which is converted into a 5-point scale. You’ll receive your final score, along with any colleges that you designated as score recipients the day of the exam.
Final Thoughts: Is AP U.S. History Hard?
AP U.S. History examines social, cultural, political, and economic aspects of history from 1491 to now. It teaches you to make connections, analyze historical evidence, and present evidence-based arguments. You’ll memorize, read, and write frequently throughout the course.
But is AP U.S. History hard? The consensus is that AP U.S. History has an above-average difficulty level. You’ll have to study frequently, work hard, and keep up with your reading and writing. If you start to fall behind, talk to your teacher, students who are doing well in the class, or a tutor to catch up.
In addition to the difficulty of the course itself, the AP U.S. History exam is also tough. It has the third-lowest average pass rate among all AP exams. It consists of 55 multiple-choice questions, three short-answer questions, and two free-response questions, all under a tight time limit.
Talk to students who have taken AP U.S. History at your school, consider your academic strengths and weaknesses, and take your current schedule and workload into account. Then, decide if you’re up to the challenge of AP U.S. History. AP U.S. History is hard, but if you’re willing to put in the work, you can do it!