Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
Master the AP U.S. History Exam
United States history is one of the most popular Advanced Placement exams. It's a three plus hour exam with two main parts. Half of your points come from several essay-type questions; the other half of your points come in the form of 80 multiple-choice items. But, just because you're familiar with the question format doesn't mean you can waltz in without any preparation! Let's look at some strategies to help you master the multiple-choice section of your AP U.S. history exam.
Of course, there is no substitute for knowing the information. Nearly half of all questions cover the time frame between the Constitution and WWI, so you can focus the majority of your preparation on that period. And typically, there have been very few questions covering 1972 through the present. It's also good to know that three-quarters of the multiple-choice questions cover the themes of 'social and cultural developments' and 'political institutions, behavior and public policy.'
The exam places less emphasis on specific facts and more on the application of historical thinking skills or the connection of individual events to broader historical themes. For example, instead of asking you, 'What was decided in Plessy v. Ferguson?' (which is just factual recall), the exam might ask you, 'How was Plessy v. Ferguson similar to Korematsu v. United States?' (which requires factual knowledge and the ability to analyze the similarities between two separate events).
Characteristics of the AP Exam
Multiple-choice items have a prompt and five answer choices. You will have 80 items to complete in 55 minutes; that gives you roughly 40 seconds for each question. However, the multiple-choice section becomes increasingly more difficult, so you're going to need more time for questions at the end of the section than you will at the beginning. Keep an eye on your time; pace yourself, and make sure you have completed at least half the items after 25 minutes have passed. Also, questions on the AP exam are not necessarily chronological, so you can't depend on that progression to help you eliminate incorrect answers.
As for the answer sheet itself, it's a generic form with more than the 80 ovals you need for the U.S. history exam. So, double-check your numbers often to make sure you're in the right spot!
Finally, your score depends on how many items you answer correctly; as of 2011, you are not penalized for incorrect answers. Never leave a multiple-choice item blank on an AP exam. If you don't know, guess! Later on, we'll talk about some tips to help you make a better guess.
The First Read-Through
You should plan on going through the exam at least twice. On your first pass, read through each question carefully. If you have absolutely no idea what the question is about, skip it. You don't have time to waste thinking about a topic you know you haven't studied. It's perfectly fine to write in your test booklet, so mark it clearly and move on.
If you're familiar with the content of a question but aren't certain of the answer, cross out answer choices you know are wrong before you mark the item in the test book and move on; that will save you time when you come back to it. You also might want to skip time-consuming questions on the first read-through, such as those with charts or graphs.
Every question is worth the same amount of points, so it isn't worth using up several minutes to figure out one question if it means you'll run out of time to answer four or five others. Just mark it and move on.
As you read the prompts, mark-up key words to help you focus your attention on the correct answer choice and avoid careless mistakes. Many of the answer choices on an AP exam may be true statements, but only one is the best response to the question being asked. For example:
This prompt has three key points: turn of the 20th century, female and started. Women worked in all these movements, but the only one started around the turn of the century was the settlement house movement.
Be especially careful with prompts that are worded negatively. For example, 'All of the following were contributing factors to the Great Depression except…' If you just skim the prompt, you might choose the first option that matches your knowledge and get the question wrong.
Even if you know the answer immediately after reading a question the first time, it's a good idea to read through all of your answer choices since there are sometimes only subtle differences between options.
The Second Read-Through
Once you reach the end of the exam, go back and look at items you skipped. Students can often answer questions on the second try - maybe you're more relaxed or maybe you got a hint from a different item that you answered.
But if you still aren't sure of the correct answer, consider some of these strategies to help you eliminate some of your answer choices:
- If two answer choices mean basically the same thing, both are probably wrong.
- If two of your answer choices are opposites, one of them is probably correct.
- Answer choices with absolutes, such as always, all, never, none and only are usually wrong.
- Non-answers, like 'none of the above,' are usually wrong.
- Remember that the AP exam focuses on several key themes of American history, so eliminate answer choices that don't fit within them, and then choose the option that best illustrates one of those themes.
If you have the time, read back through as many items as you can, but don't change your answer unless you are certain that you made an error; your first educated choice is usually the correct one.
Before You Go
When there are only a few minutes left, check your page. Make sure your numbers align correctly and look for items you skipped. It's time to fill in those blanks! While random guessing is a bad test strategy, you should never leave items blank on the multiple-choice section. So, statistically speaking, the following tips are good guesses:
- Choose an option with qualifiers, like 'some' or 'usually.'
- When dealing with numbers, choose one that's next to least or next to greatest.
- Choose the longest answer option.
- If you have only a few seconds left, fill in B, C or D for all remaining blanks.
As you prepare for the AP U.S. history exam, concentrate your studying on the period between the Constitution and WWI. As you begin the exam, pace yourself to answer at least one question every 40 seconds. On your first read-through, carefully read each prompt, marking key words. Read each answer option, crossing out incorrect answer choices.
If you don't know the answer, mark the question in the margin and move on. When you reach the end, go back through the test again. On items you skipped, narrow down your answer choices using the tips provided. Fill in any remaining blanks with a calculated guess. Never leave any multiple-choice items blank!
You should have the ability to do the following after this lesson:
- Describe the format of the AP U.S. history exam and identify the historical time period that is primarily tested
- Explain how you should pace yourself when completing this exam
- Recall tips that will assist you on the exam during your first read-through
- Identify tips and strategies to answer questions for which you don't know the answer
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