Prepping for the AP Government Test
Studying for the Advanced Placement Government Exam? Last year, the College Board redesigned the AP U.S. Government exam to reward a more nuanced understanding of the course material over rote memorization of facts. The College Board also incorporated more primary source material. To study for the exam in its current format, you should prioritize the following five areas:
1. Know the format of the exam and what to expect
The AP US Government and Politics exam is the first AP exam of the 2020 season. It will be given at 8am on Monday May 4th. The exam will be broken into two parts:
Section 1: Multiple Choice.
This section will have 55 questions in 80 minutes and will count for 50% of the overall exam score. The section will contain a mix of individual questions (about 30) and grouped questions (about 25) with a shared stimulus that can be
- a quantitative source like a graph, chart, or table;
- a qualitative source, like a founding document, quote, or secondary source; or
- a visual analysis, like a map or political cartoon.
Section 2: Free Response.
This section will have 4 free response questions in 100 minutes and will count for the other 50% of the exam score. The section will contain one of each of the following types of questions:
- Concept Application: This question will provide the test-taker with a political scenario or institution and ask for a description and analysis of the issues surrounding, effects, behaviors, and processes of that scenario or institution.
- Quantitative Analysis: This question will provide one or more sources of numeric data and ask the test-taker to draw a conclusion or identify a trend or pattern.
- SCOTUS Comparison: This question will present the student with the name of one of the required Supreme Court cases as well as a nonrequired case. The nonrequired case will be described in detail. The task will be to describe how the required case is related to the nonrequired case.
- Argument Essay: This question will list a subset of the required foundational documents in the course and ask the student to write an essay providing an argument in which some of the listed Foundational Documents are used as sources of evidence.
Based on the material covered in the multiple-choice questions and especially the Free Response Questions 3 and 4, students are expected to command at least a decent understanding of the required foundational documents and Supreme Court cases. For more detailed information on the content covered on the exam, visit the College Board website here.
2. Know the Foundational Documents well
Students are expected to know nine foundational US documents and be able to describe each one in least a paragraph worth of detail. They must be able to distinguish among the documents, meaning that it isn’t enough to know that “one of the Federalist Papers says…” The student must know what specific documents state. A list and brief summary of these documents follows:
Federalist 10: Argues that factions are bad but inevitable; A large, representative republic with a decentralized system of government can prevent majority factions assuming too much power.
Brutus 1: Fears of overly strong federal government that will “possess absolute and uncontrollable power” including authority to commission a standing national army.
The US Declaration of Independence: Enlightenment document that espouses “natural rights” and lists colonies’ grievances against England.
The Articles of Confederation: Weak founding document that provides for a loose confederation of states with a weak legislative branch and no executive branch.
The United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and later amendments: Strong founding document; provides large, strong federal government. Article I Congress; Article II the Executive, Article III the Judiciary. Lots of relevant specific portions including the amendments.
Federalist 51: Claims that separation of powers and checks and balances will curb tyranny.
MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: Exposes deep injustice; argues for nonviolent resistance.
Federalist 70: Argues for a powerful solitary executive.
Federalist 78: Cites importance of independent judiciary; judges need life terms.
These short summaries are meant to jog your memory, not provide comprehensive overviews of the documents. As expected, the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and later amendments are by far the most important documents to know for the exam. Many questions on both the multiple choice and free response sections will likely involve constitutional topics, so knowledge of the constitution in depth is needed to do well on the AP exam.
3. Know the required Supreme Court cases well
Similar to the required foundational documents, the AP Exam will also ask questions involving a list of 15 required Supreme Court cases. Just like the foundational documents, students will be expected to know the differences between the cases and describe each one in at least a paragraph of detail. Plan to make flash cards or a Quizlet for keeping the cases and the different Federalist Papers straight. The cases include the following (with some description to jog your memory but not sufficient detail to ace the test)
Marbury v Madison (1803): Establishes the power of Judicial Review by the Supreme Court and the ability of the Court to nullify Congressional laws and executive actions as unconstitutional.
McCulloch v Maryland (1819): US (federal government) is allowed to establish a National Bank; US law is supreme over state law (federalism).
US v Lopez (1995): Commerce Clause is not all expansive and does not give federal government power to prohibit guns in schools.
Engel v Vitale (1962): Public schools may not sponsor religious activities without violating the Establishment Clause of First Amendment.
Wisconsin v Yoder (1972): Free Exercise Clause of First Amendment prohibits requiring Amish students to attend school past 8th grade.
Tinker v Des Moines (1969): First Amendment Free Speech prohibits public schools from banning students from wearing black armbands in protest of Vietnam War.
New York Times v US (1971): Heavy presumption against prior restraint of the press even in cases of national security.
Schenck v US (1919): First Amendment does not protect speech that creates a “clear and present danger” (i.e. yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).
Gideon v Wainwright (1963): Guaranteed the right to an attorney in felony criminal cases.
Roe v Wade (1973): Right to privacy protects a woman’s right to have an abortion.
McDonald v Chicago (2010): Second amendment right to keep and bear arms (guns) provides an individual right that applies to states.
Brown v Board of Education (1954): Overturns “separate but equal;” prohibits racial segregation in public schools.
Citizens United v FEC (2010): Unlimited spending on political campaigns by private corporations constitutes free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Baker v Carr (1962): Develops “one person, one vote” argument and allows challenges to congressional redistricting.
Shaw v Reno (1993): Prohibits the use of race as the sole factor in redistricting.
As with the summaries for the foundational documents, these short summaries are meant to help jog your memory and are not a substitute for knowing each case in more detail.
4. Know well the three branches of government and how they operate
Questions on “Interactions Among the Branches of Government” account for up to a third of the questions on the exam, so make sure you know this unit. You should know:
- The structures, powers, and functions of each house of Congress
- The roles and powers of the president
- The roles and powers of the Supreme Court and other federal courts
- The roles of the federal bureaucracy (departments, agencies, commissions, and government corporations)
5. Do practice questions: Multiple Choice and Free Response
Complete practice multiple choice and free response questions, ideally under timed conditions, to help prepare for the specifics of the exam, find topics that you need to work on, and get more familiar with the format.
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