What Is AP U.S. History? A Comprehensive Guide

June 27, 2023
By AdmissionSight

What Is AP U.S. History? A Comprehensive Guide

If you’re a high school student in the United States who has an interest in history, then you may have heard about AP U.S. History. AP stands for Advanced Placement, and this course offers an in-depth study of the history, government, and culture of the United States of America. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about AP U.S. History – from what it is and its evolution to how to prepare for it, the key themes and topics covered, and tips and tricks on how to ace the exam.


The AP U.S History course has a rich and fascinating history that dates back to the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it became a staple in American high school curriculum. The College Board, an organization that creates and administers standardized tests, created the AP program as a way to provide high school students with college-level coursework and the opportunity to earn college credits. Today, over 500,000 students participate in the AP program each year, with AP U.S. History being one of the most popular choices.


AP United States History

Since its inception, the AP U.S. History course has undergone several changes to its curriculum and exam format. In 2014, the course underwent a major overhaul, with a focus on developing students’ analytical skills and ability to think critically about historical events and themes. The new exam format also placed a greater emphasis on primary source analysis and document-based questions. These changes were met with some controversy and criticism, but ultimately aimed to better prepare students for college-level history courses and careers in fields such as law, politics, and journalism.

The History and Evolution of AP U.S. History

The AP U.S. History course has undergone many changes over the years, particularly in recent times. In 2015, the College Board introduced a new curriculum framework that aimed to provide a clearer and more detailed understanding of the history of the United States. The new framework placed a greater emphasis on primary sources, historical thinking skills, and contextualization. Furthermore, the exam format was changed to include more short-answer and document-based questions, reflecting the greater importance of reading and interpreting historical documents in the course.

Another significant change to the AP U.S. History course occurred in 2020, when the College Board announced that it would be shortening the exam due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The exam was reduced from three hours and 15 minutes to two hours and 45 minutes, and the number of multiple-choice questions was reduced from 55 to 45. Additionally, the College Board provided a modified exam format for students who were unable to take the exam in person due to the pandemic.

Despite these changes, the AP U.S. History course remains a rigorous and challenging course that requires students to think critically about the history of the United States. Students who take the course are expected to develop a deep understanding of the major themes and events in American history, as well as the ability to analyze and interpret historical documents and sources. The course is designed to prepare students for college-level work in history and other social sciences, and to help them develop the skills and knowledge necessary to be informed and engaged citizens.

How to Prepare for the Course

Preparing for AP U.S. History requires dedication and a lot of hard work. It’s a challenging course that requires you to acquire a deep understanding of the complexities of American history and government. Some tips to help you prepare include getting comfortable with reading and analyzing primary sources, finding a study group or partner to discuss the material with, and investing in quality study guides and review books. Additionally, make sure you stay on top of coursework and regularly review class notes and readings.

Teenage student distance learning on laptop doing homework

Another important aspect of preparing for AP U.S. History is to practice writing essays. The exam includes both multiple-choice questions and essay questions, so it’s crucial to develop strong writing skills. You can practice by writing timed essays on past exam questions or by working with a tutor or teacher to receive feedback on your writing.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. AP U.S. History is a challenging course, and it’s okay to struggle at times. Reach out to your teacher or classmates for clarification on difficult concepts or to form study groups. Remember, the more effort you put into preparing for the exam, the more confident and prepared you will feel on test day.

Tips and Tricks to Ace the AP U.S. History Exam

The AP U.S. History Exam is notorious for being difficult, but with the right preparation, you can increase your chances of success. One important tip is to practice writing essays that cover a range of topics. The exam requires you to write two essays, one document-based question essay and one long essay, so it’s essential to be skilled at crafting a compelling argument and supporting it with evidence. Furthermore, make sure you have a solid understanding of the key themes and topics covered in the course, as you are likely to encounter questions on these areas on the exam.

Another helpful tip is to use flashcards to memorize important dates, events, and people. The exam covers a vast amount of material, and it can be challenging to remember everything. Flashcards are an effective way to review and retain information quickly. Additionally, take advantage of online resources, such as practice exams and study guides, to supplement your studying. Finally, make sure to manage your time effectively during the exam. You have a limited amount of time to answer each question, so it’s crucial to pace yourself and not spend too much time on any one question. By following these tips, you can increase your chances of acing the AP U.S. History Exam.

Understanding the AP U.S. History Curriculum

The AP U.S. History curriculum covers a wide range of topics, from pre-Columbian societies to modern-day America. The course is divided into nine periods, each with its own set of historical events and themes. Key themes that the course covers include identity, work, exchange, migration, technology, and the environment.

One of the unique aspects of the AP U.S. History curriculum is its focus on historical thinking skills. Throughout the course, students are encouraged to analyze primary and secondary sources, evaluate historical arguments, and develop their own interpretations of historical events. These skills not only prepare students for the AP exam, but also for college-level coursework and beyond. Additionally, the course emphasizes the importance of understanding historical context and how it shapes our understanding of the present. By studying the past, students can gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities of the world we live in today.

Key Themes and Topics Covered in AP U.S. History

As mentioned, the course covers a broad range of topics. Some of the most significant events and periods covered in the course include the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, and the World Wars. Special attention is also given to the political, economic, and social development of the United States. Additionally, the course covers critical social issues such as race, gender, and class.

Another important theme covered in AP U.S. History is the evolution of American democracy. The course explores the development of democratic institutions and practices in the United States, including the role of political parties, the electoral process, and the evolution of civil rights. Students also learn about the challenges to democracy, such as the rise of authoritarianism and the erosion of civil liberties.

High school or college students studying and reading together in library education concepts

Finally, the course covers the impact of the United States on the world stage. Students learn about the country’s foreign policy, including its involvement in international conflicts and its role in shaping global institutions such as the United Nations. The course also explores the cultural and economic influence of the United States on other countries, as well as the impact of globalization on American society.

The Role of Primary Sources in AP U.S. History

A significant aspect of the AP U.S. History course is the use of primary sources. Primary sources are firsthand accounts, documents, and artifacts that provide insight into a historical event or period. These sources are a critical tool for understanding history and developing essential historical thinking skills such as sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration. In the AP U.S. History course, you will encounter many primary sources, including letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and photographs.

One of the benefits of using primary sources in AP U.S. History is that they allow you to analyze historical events from multiple perspectives. For example, reading a letter written by a soldier during the Civil War can provide insight into the experiences of soldiers on the front lines, while a newspaper article from the same time period can offer a broader view of the political and social climate of the era. By examining primary sources from different angles, you can gain a more comprehensive understanding of historical events and the people who lived through them.

How to Write a Strong DBQ Essay for AP U.S. History

The Document-Based Question (DBQ) essay is an essential part of the AP U.S. History Exam. The DBQ requires you to analyze a set of historical documents and use them to support an argument in response to a prompt. To write a strong DBQ essay, it’s essential to understand how to break down the documents and identify relevant information. You’ll also need to use the historical thinking skills mentioned earlier to analyze the documents’ context and relevance to the prompt.

One important tip for writing a strong DBQ essay is to create a clear and concise thesis statement that directly responds to the prompt. Your thesis should be supported by evidence from the documents and should be the foundation for your entire essay. Additionally, it’s crucial to use specific examples from the documents to support your argument and to analyze the documents’ biases and perspectives.

Another key aspect of writing a successful DBQ essay is to effectively organize your essay. You should have a clear introduction that sets up your thesis and provides context for the prompt. Your body paragraphs should each focus on a specific document or set of documents and should include analysis and evidence to support your thesis. Finally, your conclusion should summarize your argument and restate your thesis in a new way.

Top Resources for Studying AP U.S. History

Studying for AP U.S. History can be challenging, but there are many excellent resources available to help you prepare. Some popular options include review books such as the Princeton Review’s “Cracking the AP U.S. History Exam,” online courses and videos, and flashcards. Additionally, make use of your textbook, class notes, and primary sources to deepen your understanding of the course material.

Female student studying in a room.

In conclusion, AP U.S. History is a challenging but rewarding course that provides students with in-depth knowledge of American history and government. By following the tips and strategies outlined in this comprehensive guide, you can be well-prepared to succeed in the AP U.S. History course and exam.

Another helpful resource for studying AP U.S. History is joining a study group or forming one with classmates. Collaborating with others can provide a different perspective on the material and help you identify areas where you may need more practice. Additionally, consider attending review sessions or seeking help from your teacher or tutor if you are struggling with specific topics. Remember, consistent practice and dedication are key to success in this challenging course.

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