The New Advanced Placement U.S. History Test

Why It Changed and How You Should Prepare

“Radically revisionist”

“A positive step” towards “independent thinking, cooperative inquiry, evidence, and open discussion.”

“A distorted and incomplete understanding of our American story.”

“Designed to teach students to think like historians….”

It’s hard to imagine that an Advanced Placement test could inspire such passion and discord, but as these comments reveal, the new AP U.S. History exam has done just that! No matter whom you may agree with, we’ve provided you with the background to understand the changes, a rundown of the new test format, and our study tips, including step-by-step instructions for acing the new Document Based Question (DBQ) format.

Background—Why change the test?

The College Board released a new framework for teaching AP U.S. History last year, and on May 8, 2015, half a million students will take the revised AP U.S. History exam hoping to earn college credit and burnish their applications to selective colleges.

The changes to the test came in response to concerns by college professors and high school teachers that high school U.S. history courses consisted of a race through time with a superficial emphasis on memorizing facts, rather than conducting deeper historical analysis. The College Board states that the new course expects students to “engage in a deep study of primary and secondary source evidence, analyze a wide array of historical facts and perspectives, and express historical arguments in writing.”

Structure of the New Test

The new AP U.S. History exam is 3 hours and 15 minutes. It includes both a 100-minute multiple-choice and short-answer section, and a 95-minute free response section.

The multiple-choice section of the new AP exam has changed dramatically. Rather than asking students to recall historical individuals, topics, dates, and events, the multiple choice section of the new exam is now organized into sets of four to six questions, each of which deals with a primary or secondary source, chart or map. Every multiple-choice question therefore requires interpretation of a document.

The purpose of this change is to get away from the “names and dates” version of history in favor of learning “historical thinking skills”, such as chronological reasoning, crafting historical arguments from historical evidence, contextualization, and historical interpretation.

The second part of the exam is a series of short answer questions, again based on primary or secondary source materials. This is a new section of the test. Each question is supposed to target a different thematic learning objective laid out in the revised framework, such as “identity” or “politics and power.”

The free response section of the exam consists of a document-based essay similar to that of previous exams and a long essay. The new DBQ asks students to consider the backgrounds of the authors of the documents provided and how their social class, gender, race, or other factors might affect their point of view. The final essay is similar to those on the previous test; it requires students to supply an historical argument and remember the events, people, and trends associated with a major historical change. Students choose which prompt to answer, giving them an opportunity to highlight their strengths.

Study Tips

Given the amount of material covered in the AP course as well as the skills required, what should you do to prepare?

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  • 1. Create a study schedule. There are nine historical periods covering the dates 1491 to present. Divide those periods into the remaining weeks before the test on May 8. Cover the first two periods (1491-1607 and 1607-1750) in your first week, for example, and the third period (1750-1800) in the second week, etc.

  • 2. Review your class notes and reading notes. If you’ve highlighted your textbook, review only this information, rather than re-reading your entire book. Consider buying a test prep book if you feel your reading notes are too skimpy.

  • 3. Make sure you are familiar with the DBQ and long essay rubrics. Here are our step-by-step instructions for maximizing your scores on these essays. 

  • 4. If you are not confident with the essays, practice writing a few, using the rubrics to guide you. Go over any essays you have written in class.

  • 5. Look at previous essay topics on the College Board’s web site, here. You don’t need to write every essay, but consider making some bullet points for different essay topics.

  • 6. Create a study group with classmates or study with a buddy. Smaller groups help many students remain focused. Create a schedule with your group or buddy and quiz each other on terms and concepts.


Some students may benefit from setting up a study schedule and reviewing both history material and test strategies with a tutor. Our tutors meet students in person and also Skype with students all around the world. You can contact at Alex Evans to find out more.

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