5 Ways to Get the Most Out of AP U.S. History

Girl writing on notebook

5 Ways to Get the Most Out of AP U.S. History

5 Ways to Get the Most Out of AP U.S. History

For students taking Advanced Placement U.S. History, you may be wondering what it takes to succeed in such a challenging class. Advanced Placement courses are designed to be as rigorous as a freshman level college class. But with AP, there is a high stakes test at the end, usually in May, that you can receive college credit for if you score a 4 or 5. Certain schools also give college credit for students that score a 3. 

While much of AP U.S. History is about content knowledge and test-taking skills, succeeding in the class and preparing for the test are also about organization, communication, and practice.

So, how can you ace your class and the test at the end of the school year?

Here are 5 tips and tricks for succeeding in your AP U.S. History class and crushing the exam in May!

1. Create a Study Plan

Whether you are enrolled in a one or two year AP U.S. History class, every student should create a study plan.

AP U.S. History courses are offered as either one or two year programs. In terms of being prepared for the exam in May, both one and two year courses have their pros and cons. For a one year AP U.S. History course, there won’t be any down time between when the class ends and when you take the test. However, you run the risk of not getting to more recent history. Whereas with a two year course, you have longer to go over the material and are more likely to get to more recent history. The downside is you might have learned content that will be on the test more than a year ago.

That’s why you need a study plan!

A study plan starts with a study schedule. Pick the days and times during each week that you’ll set aside for reviewing your notes. Remember, while it is important to study the material currently being covered in your course, it is equally as important to go over your old notes. 

Reviewing both your old and new notes throughout the course will keep the content fresh in your mind for class and for exam day!

2. Create an Organization System

Along with a study plan, an organization system for your AP U.S. History notes and course materials is crucial. 

AP teachers rely on a variety of methods to prepare you for the test in May. From lecture notes to documents to practice tests, you might find that you have a lot of material to keep track of. You want to make sure that you know where all of those materials are.

Set time aside each week to organize your materials. Whether you have a physical binder or a notebook with folders, make sure you are identifying which lecture notes, supplementary materials, and documents are most important. 

Pro Tip: Looking for a way to organize your notebook or binder? Try separating your materials by time period, such as The American Revolution or The Vietnam War. Or, you can separate materials by years, for example, 1700-1750, 1750-1800, and so on. This way all of the materials for that specific time period are always together.

Of course, if your teacher has a specific way that they prefer for you to organize your binder or notebook, then use their suggestion.

3.Utilize Your Teacher as a Resource

Teacher talking with student

As stated earlier, AP courses are essentially freshman level college courses. Keep in mind, college professors don’t usually reach out to students unless their students reach out to them first. Therefore, you must treat the class the way you would a college class. That means being proactive about communicating with your teacher. 

In an AP class, your teacher is the ultimate resource. Not only do they know the content and course material, but they have access to the curriculum! Why wouldn’t you want to pick their brains for knowledge?

How can you cultivate a relationship with your teacher?

One way is to attend office hours if your teacher offers them. Or, if they don’t, set up a time with your teacher to meet after school or during a break in the school day. 

If your teacher is more lecture based, stay after class and ask any questions you have about the notes. And always feel free to email your teachers if you have any questions after school hours about the course work. 

Your teacher is one of the best resources you have on your path to AP success. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. They are more than happy to help you. 

4. Practice Writing from the Very Beginning

Along with a section of multiple choice questions, there are three types of essay style questions on the AP U.S. History exam. Let’s break them down briefly.

  • DBQs, or document based questions, are a type of multi-paragraph essay. Students are asked to come up with an analysis of a trend or issue based on a series of historical documents they are given.
  • LEQs, or long essay questions, are another type of multi-paragraph essay. Students have to construct an argument based on a prompt.
  • Short answers are a series of questions that test your skills of argumentation, causation, and comparison through your written responses.

Click here to check out the CollegeBoard website for more information about each of the AP U.S. History exam essay question types.

Some teachers will have you writing each essay type from day one, while other teachers prefer to wait to practice writing until closer to exam day. No matter which type of teacher you have, it is your responsibility to practice writing DBQs, LEQs, and short answers every day from the beginning of the course.

CollegeBoard has a great article on the writing skills you need to ace the essay portion of the AP U.S. History exam. 

Pro Tip: Want to improve your writing? Get feedback from your teacher!

If a teacher gave you feedback on an essay they assigned in class, use the feedback to fix your first draft and ask if you can resubmit your revised essay. Or, if you worked on an essay independently, ask your teacher if they’d be willing to give you feedback on your writing. Teacher feedback is an under utilized resource in improving writing skills. Use feedback to your advantage in order to get closer to a perfect score on the essay section!

5. Read Primary Sources

Three books on a table, one laid open

Reading primary sources can be extremely difficult. But it is important to get comfortable reading primary sources and historical documents in AP U.S. History. 

How can you simplify your experience reading primary sources?

Step one is to find annotated copies of primary sources. Annotated copies of documents are easy to find with a quick google search and usually include information beyond the text that will help you best understand the work.

For example, click here to find an annotated copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. If you click through the document, you’ll find sentences highlighted in gray that if clicked on lead you to information about text analysis, historical context, and even rhetorical appeals. Finding an annotated copy of a text is a great way to help you become comfortable reading primary sources when you’re first starting out.

As you become more comfortable reading primary sources, annotate your documents with your own interpretations. This way you practice analysis skills that will benefit your writing on in class essays and on the exam.

And, if the teacher assigns an excerpt from a longer document or work, always research, read, and annotate the full text. Reading and annotating the full document will give you a better understanding of the excerpt overall and give you background that will further strengthen your analysis.

Pro Tip: As you read primary sources, take notes on historical context!

Dedicate some of your notes to the time period during which the primary source you’re reading was written. For example, you’ll have a better understanding of  “The Declaration of Independence” if you know the events leading up to its creation. Historical context makes for a richer reading experience and can help you make sense of more difficult documents. 

Getting Started

AP US History is definitely a challenging course, but with the right support you can set yourself up to get an A in the class and a 5 on the test! Click here to check out our AP Programs. Let us help you on your path to academic success.

You can also contact us here for a more individualized consultation!

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Robyn Neilsen

Robyn Neilsen is a Content Writer for MEK Review. She was a dedicated English teacher in the New Jersey public school system for 13 years and is passionate about sharing resources, content, and tips for students and parents.


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