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How to Master the Short-Answer Questions on the AP U.S. History Exam

How to Master the Short-Answer Questions on the AP U.S. History Exam
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  • 0:01 The New AP U.S History Exam
  • 1:20 Short-Answer Prompt
  • 3:26 Sample One
  • 6:48 Sample Two
  • 9:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

The AP U.S. history course and exam was revised for the 2014-2015 school year. Learn about the brand new short-answer questions and how to answer them.

The New AP U.S. History Exam

U.S. history has been one of the most popular Advanced Placement tests, but as you probably know, the College Board rolled out some big changes for the 2014-15 school year. One of the most significant changes is the addition of a short-answer section, designed specifically to test your ability to connect individual events to seven, or one of seven, broad historical themes.

There are four questions worth 20% of your score, and you'll have 45 minutes to complete all of them. It's always a good idea to pace yourself, building in a little time for proofreading at the end. In this case, give yourself about 10 minutes per question. The College Board also states that Section I of the exam, which includes multiple choice and short answer, now will cover all major time periods equally. So, unlike older exams, you will need to study the oldest and most recent eras.

Unfortunately, we don't have the benefit of examining old tests, since the short-answer questions have never appeared on an AP U.S. History exam. But we do have some general guidelines for answering this type of question and a few College Board sample questions for reference.

The Short-Answer Prompt

You will be provided with some sort of prompt, like a quote or image or a general statement about history, that will be followed by a multi-part question. Most of the available samples require students to answer parts A, B, and C. Many of these questions will challenge you to think about opposing viewpoints.

Although you don't need to write a thesis statement, technically, you don't even need a complete paragraph. A bulleted list of ideas might seem unstructured and immature. Also, putting your ideas down on paper as they come to you will often produce an unfocused short answer. Depending on the structure of the question - and unless you're instructed otherwise - consider writing a coherent paragraph or two, combining all parts of the question.

It's impossible to have a 'formula' for answering a short-answer question. Every prompt is different, but there are a few basic guidelines:

  1. Jot down a quick answer for every part of the question (A, B, and C) directly in your test booklet.

  2. Gather more support than you think you need. Based on the samples released by College Board, you need to know general details and major highlights of the topics presented as well as basic cause and effect. You do NOT need to know obscure facts.

  3. Think about how each part of the question and your examples fit together. This will help you formulate a brief topic sentence to make sure that your answer is structured and succinctly communicates your ideas.

  4. Put it all together into a direct, well-supported short answer. Resist the urge to list all of the examples you recall. Make sure your support proves your point, that it all relates clearly, and that you have directly answered all parts of the question.

Sample One

All right, now let's look at a sample question.

United States historians have noted several events that have expanded the power of the federal government.
A. Briefly explain how ONE of the following options most clearly expanded the power of the federal government: the Civil War, the New Deal, or the Great Society.
B. Provide an example or development to support your answer.
C. Contrast your choice against one of the other options, briefly explaining why it is not as good an example of the expansion of federal power.

First, answer each part of the question briefly. For part A, I would underline two choices for which you can quickly imagine points of similarity. Since you're going to have to contrast them later, it's a lot easier to do that if you're dealing with the same issue, like executive power or economic issues. Next, jot down at least three very specific examples for both of them, again keeping in mind that you will need to compare the two later. To quickly identify an answer to part C, look for a flaw in one of the examples or the event with weaker support.

Now, consider your examples and look for ideas that go together. If necessary, eliminate one or two points in order to keep your response focused. You're ready to write a topic sentence! Be specific. A position such as, 'All of these expanded the power of the federal government in different ways,' sounds like you don't know enough details to compare them, so instead, consider something like, 'The Great Society most expanded federal power because of its permanent expansion of the government's economic role in social welfare.' You have a clear focus, which you can explain, defend, and contrast. And even better, you've fully answered part A of the question.

Now, you need to fill out the paragraph, explaining how the Great Society expanded federal power. Make sure you do more than just present a list of programs; it would be better to have fewer examples with greater detail. For instance, you might say, 'In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act guaranteed federal funding to local schools, a responsibility previously relegated to states, hand in hand with federal regulations previously unheard of. Since then, Congress has continually reauthorized and expanded the provisions of this law.' Another related example or two could help you nail this question!

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