Chapter 2

Wringing the Highest Score out of What You Know

Planning out your timing

The AP U.S. History exam isn’t like a surprise pop quiz; you should have a good idea of what the big test looks like and how it’s run. You’ll be invited to devote a chilling three hours and five minutes of your life to searching frantically but calmly through the history hard drive of your mind. You’ll be under the control of the test proctor, who will give you the usual warnings about food, time, copying, and reading answers off your history tattoos. And you’ll have to shift gears at least once in order to complete the two sections of the test.

Slicing up Section 1

First, you’ll have 55 minutes to answer 80 multiple-choice questions. You’ll receive a Scantron form with tons of little ovals to fill in (with pencil, of course). With the form comes a booklet that contains the 80 multiple-choice questions — each of which has five possible answers, helpfully labeled from A to E. The questions are cleverly arranged from easy to hard, with chronological years and themes sprinkled in all levels of difficulty. The changes in difficulty come gradually; don’t expect to find yourself lost in genius palace all of a sudden. Don’t forget, what’s hard for somebody else may be easy for you, especially if you’ve studied.

In the bad old days, the AP had a repeating time sequence of questions. You could sometimes use this mini-chronological order of the questions like a screwdriver to pry open answers. Recently, the Test Mavens got wise to this strategy and begin to sprinkle time periods randomly throughout the different degrees of difficulty within multiple-choice. Drat, foiled again.

Even though the multiple-choice questions in Section I take less than a third of your test time, they’re worth half your test score.

Sailing through Section 2

Exhausted (or should I say, well-exercised) by your spiral through multiple-choice levels, now you must begin to write history in Section II. You’ll get a question book containing one DBQ, or Document-Based Question (Section A), and four regular essay questions arranged in two groups of two questions each (Sections B and C). You answer one question from Section B and one from Section C. You’ll get 15 minutes during which you can only review the questions. During this time, you can’t start an essay, but you can read and take notes in the question booklet. Trust me, you won’t get bored.

The DBQ would be entertaining if it weren’t so stressful. You’ll see anywhere from seven to ten documents; they could be diaries, letters, speeches, charts, graphs, political cartoons — almost anything you can read. Maybe someday the test will be electronic and have videos and ring tones! For now, use the first 15 minutes to read those documents and think about how you can bring them together with some relevant outside knowledge to write a stunning DBQ essay.

If you have time in your 15 minutes of calm before the writing storm, you’re allowed to begin choosing the one question from the latter two sections that you least hate facing. Don’t bother; just concentrate on the DBQ during the reading period. The other essay questions will take care of themselves when you get to them. Don’t cloud your brain — you have plenty of documents and outside facts to marshal for the DBQ. Starting with the DBQ, you have a total of 1 hour and 55 minutes to write the three essays.

The suggested time for the DBQ essay is 45 minutes. The suggested time for the two regular essays is 35 minutes a piece. You can discover everything you ever wanted to know about the DBQ in Chapter 5. You get the inside scoop on the regular essay questions in Chapter 6.

“Wait, I have something else to say!” Don’t get caught out of time on the big exam. Nothing is worse than having important, grade-winning points to make in an essay and no time left to write them. Before the exam, practice writing five paragraph essays in 30 minutes. Get used to timing yourself as you write. Better to write short and smart than long and pointless.

Getting buff on test exercise

It helps to take practice tests to get ready for the Big AP. Part V of this book contains two tough exams. But better than any printed test are the exam questions you make up yourself while you study. Creating Challenge Questions means turning the history that you read into questions that challenge you to find the answers as you study.

Asking yourself questions as you study is the key to the Challenge Question study secret. Make every major heading you see into a question; that's what the big exam is going to do to you. For example, if the heading in the history text says Jacksonian Democracy transforms the United States, you say to yourself, "Name the ways Jacksonian Democracy transformed the United States." Find the answers about Jacksonian Democracy as you're reading the section and write them down. Close your eyes and repeat the question and the answers. Study the practice tests in Part V until you have the form down cold.

To get good at making your own Challenge Questions while you study, though, you need to actually take a sample AP U.S. History Test. Study the 2001 and 2006 AP U.S. History Released Exams to find out what actual past tests looked like. These exams may be available at your school; ask your AP teacher or order them from the College Board Web site.

Also, sit down and take one of the tests in Part V. Time yourself and stick to the schedule you'll have to follow on test day. How many multiple-choice questions did you get right? Was there a certain time period you were a little foggy on? How did the essays come out? Ask somebody you trust who's wise in the ways of history to score them using the criteria in Chapters 5 and 6. Need more experience writing these short but loaded factual stories? Practice until writing them becomes easier.

Don't get too stressed if you didn't do well the first time through a practice test. That's why you call them practice. Use the knowledge you just gained to put the Challenge Questions studying method to work where it will do the most good for you. Visit U.S. History a little each day!

Bracing for test-induced panic

As the big day approaches, no matter how hard you study, you’ll feel a bit scared. So much history to cover, so little time. What was that XYZ Affair? (Diplomatic tension with France, 1797.) How many Great Awakenings were there? (Two — one before the Revolution and one after.) The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

Pre-show jitters are normal; just ask any singer. Chill out, Chillsky! The AP exam isn’t like the tests you took in school, where you were supposed to know everything. It’s impossible to know everything about U.S. History. If you don’t believe that, just ask your teacher. The AP exam is more like an endurance race; even if you limp over the finish line, you deserve applause. Nobody is supposed to get all the questions right. The test has a theoretical perfect score of 180, but you can get the highest grade of 5 with a raw score as low as 117. It’s as if the grade of A on AP U.S. History starts at 65 percent.

For more on relaxing yourself before the exam, I present the Chillax approach to psyching the test in Chapter 3.

The AP U.S. History test is curved to ensure a certain proportion of high grades every year. You just have to finish ahead of enough other people taking the exam to get ahead of the curve. It’s like the story of two guys running away from a grizzly bear. The first guy stops, takes out a pair of running shoes, and starts to put them on. The second guy says “Don’t be stupid, you can’t outrun a bear.” Replies the first guy: “I don’t have to outrun a bear; I just have to outrun you.” Feel better?

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