Exam preparation materials

General Test-Taking Strategies for the AP U.S. History Examination

Doing well on the AP U.S. History Examination requires a year of intensive study. You have to be highly motivated and willing to commit the time and energy it takes to prepare properly. While there are no easy shortcuts, the following are helpful hints for scoring high on the multiple-choice section and writing effective DBQ and standard essays. Part II provides tips on handling the specific types of multiple-choice questions and essays that come up on the exam. In addition, basic writing strategies that take into account what AP readers are looking for and suggestions for projects that AP students have found helpful are included.

Hints for the Multiple-Choice Questions

The multiple-choice questions on the exam consist of a question or a sentence stem and five possible answers. The cardinal rule is always read the question or stem and all the five choices before you mark your answer. If the first few phrases convince you that the answer is obvious, read the entire question anyway. You may run into an EXCEPT, NOT, or LEAST at the end that turns the right answer upside down. EXCEPT. NOT. and LEAST are markers for what has been called the “reverse multiple-choice.” For example: “All of the following happened to Lincoln EXCEPT,” followed by four things that did happen to Lincoln and one that didn’t — the right answer is the one that didn’t. You also need to remember that while each question has a correct answer, the other choices may not be wrong. They may be good answers, just not as good as the correct one. If answer B sounds right, hold on; answer C may be better.

The multiple-choice section tests your analytical skills as well as factual knowledge about U.S. history. There may be questions based on tables, graphs, or charts that ask you to find an answer that correctly interprets the data. You may have to interpret the meaning of a political cartoon, figure out the point of view of the author of a quoted passage, or recognize important facts from a map. How to handle these types of questions is discussed in Part II.

But regardless of the format, it all comes down to one thing: You must read the entire question and all the answer choices before putting down an answer. You’re allowed to mark up the question booklet. Take advantage of this privilege by underlining dates, names, or concepts in the question that might help you determine the right answer.

After reading the question and the choices, the correct answer may be crystal clear. Not all of the questions have the same difficulty; some are easier than others. If you’re stumped, the trick is to weed out as many of the answers as possible. One or more of the answers may be obviously wrong. When two of the five choices indicate opposite extremes, for example, one or both of them may be incorrect. Put a line through any answers you eliminate in the question booklet:






The right answer should become easier to identify; if it doesn’t, you can make an “educated” guess from the remaining choices. Avoid wild guessing. When you can’t narrow down the answers, go on to the next question and be sure to clearly mark the one you skip so that you can look at it again, time permitting. Make all such marks only in the test booklet, never on the answer sheet. Stray pencil marks may be interpreted by the computer as an answer. Remember that leaving too many questions blank won’t give you enough points for a good score. When you skip a question, make sure that you fill in the correct space on the answer sheet for the next question.

Another strategy in reading the choices is to look for “extreme” words such as “always,” “never,” “completely,” “entirely,” and “definitely.” Since few things in history are ever absolute, these words may signal an incorrect answer. If four of the choices have words such as “demanded.” “forced,” “required,” and “insisted” and the fifth choice is “recommended,” there’s a strong possibility that the moderate word provides the key to a correct answer.

Time is a factor in the multiple-choice section. You have fifty-five minutes to answer eighty questions, which breaks down to just over forty seconds per question. That’s an average; you'll probably spend considerably less time on some questions and somewhat more on others. Questions that require you to analyze statistical data or evaluate an excerpt from a historical source obviously take longer than those that ask you to recall factual information. Still, you can't spend two or three minutes agonizing over the right answer. Use the practice multiple- choice questions in this book in a scientific way. Time how long it takes you to read a sentence stem and all five choices. Then allot the time you need to think about the answer, and toss in a couple of seconds for filling in the answer sheet. How much time did it take? If your personal number exceeds forty seconds, you’re not working fast enough; if you have time to spare, you can think a bit more about the correct answer.

Doing the DBQ

Every student taking the AP U.S. History Examination answers the same DBQ. This question asks you to write an essay based on a group of documents and “outside” information that the documents themselves don't provide. The DBQ instructions are very clear on what is expected; make sure you thoroughly understand them.

The straightforward directions are often misunderstood or completely ignored by students. Ignore the requirement for outside information at your peril. No matter how well your essay is written or how brilliantly you handle the documents, heavy penalties will result if you don’t draw on your own knowledge of United States history.

AP exam rules require students to spend fifteen minutes reading over the questions in Section II. Use this time effectively. Read the question before reading the documents. Underline key concepts and dates, and jot down facts and ideas that will provide the content and details for your essay. Let’s say the DBQ deals with Jacksonian democracy. You might write down “pet banks,” Panic of 1837, nullification crisis. Kitchen Cabinet, Maysville Road veto. Again, note-taking is permitted in the green booklet that contains the DBQ and the standard essays.

After reading the question, go on to the documents. Underline important facts or ideas and note the identification of the sources. In the case of the Jacksonian democracy question, some of the points you made about the question appear in the documents. Other details you jotted down about the period may not be expressed in the documents at all. This is precisely the kind of “outside” information that the AP readers want to see incorporated into the essay.

In answering the DBQ. it’s important to stay in control of the documents. Use them to support your arguments and integrate as many as logically apply to the question, but don't shape the essay around them. The documents aren’t arranged in the booklet in any particular order; they are simply listed as Document A, Document B ... Students often make the mistake, however, of writing about them as they appear in the booklet. This order prevents you from creating your own outline in which your thesis argument is logically followed by the supporting evidence.

A very common error on the DBQ is to write an essay as a “laundry list,” an essay in which each paragraph begins with the phrase “Document A shows” or “Document D tells us.” The “laundry list” approach often results in a poor answer that simply provides a description of the documents. A good answer incorporates the source information into the essay. For example, “Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in the Charles River Bridge case supports the idea ... (Document H).” Understanding what an individual document is about is certainly important, but the key to a high score on the DBQ is your analysis of its relevance to the question.

Answering the Standard Essay Questions

Parts B and C of Section II each contain two standard essays (numbered 2 through 5), and you write on ONE question from each part. The suggested time for an essay is thirty-five minutes, which includes five minutes for planning your answer. Part B has questions that cover topics through the Civil War, while Part C focuses on the period from Reconstruction to the late twentieth century. The questions may treat political and economic developments as well as social and cultural trends.

Thirty-five minutes is not a great deal of time for developing and writing a coherent answer. Even if you have a clear understanding of the question, knowledge of what to put down for a strong answer, and the ability to express yourself clearly, your essay will probably be no longer than two pages. It becomes all important to write an essay that stresses the quality of what you say rather than the quantity. The format of the standard essays also emphasizes skill in organizing your ideas well and getting to the point quickly. You’ll have very little time to go off on tangents or include facts that are not directly relevant to your answer.

The essay questions in Parts B and C do take into account the limited time. The questions may include four terms, events, or developments and ask you to analyze or assess the significance of three of these in the context of American history. For example:

Identify THREE of the following and evaluate the impact of each of the THREE on the coming of the American Revolution.

The Stamp Act Congress

The Boston Massacre

The First Continental Congress

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

Here, the question itself limits the scope of your answer. Although you may believe that factors other than those listed were important — for example, the Boston Tea Party or the Coercive Acts — incorporating these additional facts into your essay is a waste of time and, more important, doesn’t answer the question. By the same token, the question clearly asks you to write on THREE events. Don’t try to impress the reader and write on all four. This will just take precious time and will likely detract from your score.

Again, the cardinal rule is to read all the questions before deciding which you can write on most effectively. For questions that do not provide you with a list of terms, it is important to underline key points in each question, including dates, personalities and events, and significant concepts, which helps you focus on the parameters of the questions, their natural limits of time and subject. One of the standard essay questions from a previous exam asked how Americans perceived Manifest Destiny, either as a positive movement or as an example of imperialism. Students were asked to discuss this problem within the time frame of American expansion in the 1840s.

Many students ignored the 1840s and wrote about the Spanish-American War, the annexation of Hawaii, the Open Door policy, and even Vietnam. Another question dealt with the failure of the Socialist movement in America to become a viable political force between 1900 and 1940. Again, many essays followed such false trails as the French Revolution, McCarthyism, which was confused with the 1919 Palmer Raids and the Red Scare of the 1920s, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In both cases, a little effort spent on understanding what the question asked, particularly with respect to the time frame, was important. While an essay that ingeniously works out a connection between Columbus and American socialism in the early twentieth century might be interesting, it will receive a very low score because it ultimately fails to answer the question.

After selecting the essay, take a few minutes to think about what you will write. Organization is critical. Readers look for a clear thesis statement, a logical progression of evidence supporting the thesis, and a clear conclusion. Jot down a brief outline in the back of the green question booklet. It keeps you in control of what you’re writing, and you’ll be much less likely to go off the track. Then list key concepts, names, dates, and events next to each major topic you plan to cover. These will add detail and persuasiveness to your essay.

It’s not unusual to feel a moment of panic as you read the essay questions. Suddenly all the questions seem equally difficult, equally impossible to answer. Take a deep breath; the panic will pass. Underlining key points in the questions, jotting down ideas, and making an outline all will remind you of the strengths you’ve developed in preparing for the test.

Hints on Writing Technique

In writing both the DBQ and standard essays, it’s imperative that you follow the basic organization principles your English teachers have insisted on for years. Your first paragraph is an introduction and includes your thesis statement; the body of the essay presents evidence to support the thesis; the conclusion restates the thesis and provides a closing comment.

Beyond structuring your essay properly, there are other helpful techniques that you can use. One approach is the “give a little, take a lot” method of stating a thesis. In answering a question that asks you to “assess the validity” of a statement, you might concede that other points of view carry some weight. The answer to a question that asks about the causes of an event — the Civil War or the decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan in 1945, for example — should point out that historians disagree on the causes. Acknowledging these opposing interpretations and going on to state why the thesis you’ve chosen best fits the question enhances your essay. If you’re familiar with the names of historians who have written on the subject, so much the better. Readers are impressed if you can show accurate and appropriate bibliographical knowledge.

One style of writing to avoid at all costs is “overwriting,” making impossibly general statements that incorporate flowery verbs and adjectives. “The Jacksonians surged onto the scene”; “In the Progressive Era protest ran rampant”; “The Socialist movement roared into the twentieth century.” Similarly, avoid sentences that are self-evident and add nothing to your essay. “Many things happened during 1952.” Anders Henrikson collected all the bad writing and factual errors from his students’ term papers in “When Life Reeked with Joy” (Wilson Library Bulletin, Spring 1983). It’s a good article for AP classes to review.

Be wary of using the language of your sources instead of your own vocabulary and writing to impress rather than to inform — a style called the “false voice.” One solution is to practice writing essays with an audience in mind, perhaps a friend. You want to inform your friend about what you’ve found out in your research; you don’t need to impress this person with long words you really don’t understand because he or she is your friend, but you do want to clearly explain your thesis. Such writing need not be informal. It does avoid, however, the stiffness that occurs when you depend too much on DBQ documents or how you recall information presented by historians in the articles and books you’ve studied. Perhaps the best person to write for is yourself. Look inside your own thought processes and say to yourself, “I’m writing down what I understand is the story of my topic.” Using this approach prevents you from “overwriting,” and you won’t be writing to impress anyone.

Writing skills are important for success on the AP U.S. History Exam. Although a reader may spend only ninety seconds on an essay, poor organization, “overwriting,” and the “false voice” are immediately recognizable. Each written assignment you tackle, whether as part of your AP class or using the practice essays in this book, is an opportunity to improve your writing. Improvement comes from revising. You must learn that the first draft is not the only draft. Question what you write and how you write it:

• Do I begin with a clear thesis statement?

• Is the body of the essay organized well and does the evidence support my thesis?

• Am I keeping to the topic or putting in irrelevant information?

• Is my conclusion clearly presented?

• Are there any examples of overwriting in the way I've phrased my answer?

• Is my style designed to inform and not impress?

• Are there any errors in grammar, punctuation, or spelling?

Revising the writing you do before the exam will prepare you for the time that your draft will be only what an AP reader scores.

Suggestions on Preparing for the Exam

You shouldn't wait until the end of the spring semester to begin preparing for the AP test. During the year, you'll read a college-level American history text and perhaps a supplemental history monograph, take multiple-choice exams, and write practice DBQs and standard essays as part of your AP class work. There are useful ways to get ready for the exam that you can do on your own or in a small group outside of class.

Test Simulations

Simulations are practice sessions in which you answer multiple-choice, DBQ. and standard essay questions as if you were taking the actual AP test. There are three complete exams in this book with annotated answers to the multiple-choice questions, which explain why the correct answer is better than the others, and sample scored essays.

The simulation must be done in a controlled environment. If you’re working at home, turn off the TV and radio, and don’t answer the phone — let someone else in your family take the call. Allot yourself the same amount of time for each section as you’ll have on the exam: fifty-five minutes for the multiple-choice section, followed by the fifteen-minute mandatory reading period before you begin the free-response section. Make sure you spend only forty-five minutes on the DBQ and thirty-five minutes on each of the standard essays.

The Limited Research Paper

In addition to using simulations, you can gain writing experience by doing modest research projects. These projects should not be major term papers but rather should respond to questions that resemble those on the AP exam essay section. The goal is to present an informed point of view clearly and concisely and to draw on some sources of information as your evidence. Here are suggested guidelines for the limited research paper:

1. The paper should be no more than two to four typewritten pages.

2. Avoid using encyclopedias or your textbook for factual information. Use the text’s list of suggested readings at the end of each chapter or the short bibliographies beginning on page 98 in this book. The internet is useful for locating sources on American history.

3. Use the public library, a nearby college or university library, or your high school library to find materials.

4. Use from four to six different sources in the paper; cite these sources using correct bibliographical form as endnotes.

5. Try to view all sides of the question, including the perspectives of different historians. A good place to find varying interpretations of the same topic is in anthologies which feature historians who disagree on the causes or consequences of a subject. Examples of anthologies are given on page 84.

6. Be specific, explain your position thoroughly, and support it from the sources you use, including the works of historians on the topic.

7. Prepare a rough draft first, and make the necessary revisions based on the points made in the discussion of writing strategies. Type the final paper.

You can use the sample essay questions in Chapter 3 for a limited research paper for each major topic in U.S. history. Here are a few possibilities to get you thinking:

• Was the American Revolution more of a political, economic, or social movement?

• “Slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War.” Assess the validity of this statement.

• To what extent was the American farmer in the period 1865-1900 a victim of the economic power of business and the banks?

• Compare and contrast Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism with Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom.

• “The New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt brought the country out of the Depression.” Assess the validity of this statement.

• Examining American foreign policy from 1945 to 1970, did the Containment Policy work?

Two Historical Figures

An excellent way to begin thinking interpretatively about history is to discuss the similarities and differences of two historical figures, deciding for yourself which one had the greater impact on U.S. history. The individuals may come from different eras or from the same but should offer greatly contrasting approaches to a particular problem.

In this form of essay, don't write on one individual and then the other; mesh and contrast both throughout your essay. Keep biographical information to a minimum, no more than a half page for each personality in a thousand-word essay (four pages). Your research should be based on several biographies and articles. If you quote from a source, use the appropriate footnote citation form.

Here are examples of historical figures that may be compared and contrasted:

• Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

• Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison

• Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln

• Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Betty Friedan

• Eugene V. Debs and John D. Rockefeller

• John Marshall and Earl Warren

• Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy

• Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.

• Theodore Roosevelt and Hairy Truman

The list of possible comparisons is endless. Try to come up with historical pairs of your own.

Study Groups and Peer Review

The limited research paper and the historical pairs essay work well as class assignments. Both can also be used as part of a study group, which is usually made up of three or four students. The typical group reviews multiple-choice questions and holds question-response sessions, quizzing one another. Integrating peer review into the study group allows you to have your essays evaluated and critiqued outside the classroom. Everyone in the group writes on the same question, shares their essays, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each answer. Study groups find that they can write on the same question several times, challenging themselves to take a different interpretation. An “assess the validity” question particularly lends itself to this approach.

Your teacher may also use the peer-review method. The class is divided into two groups, each taking a different position on an essay question. It doesn't matter at this point whether you personally believe in the position you’re taking. The idea is to develop the ability to take a strong stand in the essay, to acknowledge that other people may have differing views, and to convince the reader that your argument is the best one.

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