AP US History Study Tips: How to Ace Your APUSH Exam


AP US History Study Tips: How to Ace Your APUSH Exam

Worried about your workload in AP US History? While there are no magic shortcuts, I can offer some advice. For starters, you should know that not all work is created equal. A New York Times article about how hard APUSH students have to work described students memorizing minute historical dates.

That is a huge waste of time and energy. The article’s author seems surprised that students who memorize such details don’t receive great scores I’d be surprised if they did! How would they have time left over to learn the skills they actually need?

That kind of nonsense is how to work hard and get bad results. So how can you get one of the coveted fives? Here are my top six AP US History study tips!

1. Get ready to work hard.

Many students work hard and don’t get good scores on this test, but very few students get good scores without working hard. You have a huge amount of material to learn, and you have to build your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills at the same time. It’s going to be a lot of work. So, make room in your schedule, pick up some good habits, and toughen up your mind for a fight!

2. Understand causes and consequences.

When it comes to AP US History study tips, I encourage students to remember the first two big C’s.

Consider the Pequot War. It’s actually an excellent thing to study. Its exact dates are totally irrelevant, but you should understand its causes and consequences. This means you need to understand the cultures of the New England colonies and the neighboring native peoples, including how they viewed each other and what they wanted from each other. You should understand how the colonies affected the Native Americans’ economies and societies. Those are the causes.

Next, you should also understand the consequences: how the war changed life for the Native Americans, the colonists of New England, how it led to other “boldface terms” like praying towns and King Philip’s War. I know that sounds crazy at first. All that? Just for the Pequot War? Which is probably not even on the test? Yup! It’s not quite as bad as it sounds.

First of all, 1630s New England will definitely be on the test. The stuff that you need to understand for the Pequot War is the same material that you need to know for every other aspect of 1630s New England. It’s an important decade in an important region of the country.

But still, that’s just one decade in one region…. And you’ve got to do this for all of US history! Is there any way to make all those things more memorable?

3. Get into the primary sources.

When you study the Pequot War, you should encounter some unforgettable primary sources: John Underhill’s account of the Mystic Massacre, his drawing of the battle, and above all William Bradford’s description of it as a “sweet sacrifice.”

These documents will shock you. You will not forget them. You will remember the Mystic Massacre and the Pequot War. But this is not just a memory aid: the APUSH test strongly emphasizes the ability to interpret primary and secondary sources. Working through them sharpens the reading and critical thinking skills you need to succeed on the test. 

4. Compare and contrast.

Then there are the other two big C’s.

For example, the Pequot War, sadly, was not even nearly the last genocidal conflict between Native Americans and colonists, so you should compare and contrast it to other events, such as the Anglo-Powhatan Wars, King Philip’s War, and so on all the way up to today.

This is a memory aid because every time you learn something new, you review previous material! But once again, it’s not only a memory aid it’s one of the most essential AP US History study tips.

5. Emphasize social history.

You cannot ignore political history. But above all far above all pay attention to race, class, and gender issues. These are the central themes of American history and you have to think about every political, intellectual, or cultural issue, and read every document in light of them.

For example, look again at what you need to understand about the Pequot War (in #2 up there). Every single item on that list is social history!

Memorize dates wisely

I’ve got good news for you when it comes to AP US History study tips. You only need to remember a few key dates for APUSH. You can memorize them later! But first, let’s think about why you should memorize these dates, and how to use this information. The APUSH and SAT subject tests will never ask you a question like, “When did the Seven Years’ War end?” But these dates are likely to appear in essay prompts because they’re convenient markers or “turning points” between different eras.

Now here they are, the most important dates:

  • 1492: Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.
  • 1607: The founding of Jamestown.
  • The 1630s: The Puritan “great migration” to New England.
  • 1676: Bacon’s Rebellion, and King Philip’s War was also happening.
  • The 1730s: The height of the Great Awakening.
  • 1756-1763: The Seven Years’ War.
  • 1776: The Declaration of Independence.
  • 1789: George Washington became the first POTUS.
  • The 1830s: The height of the Second Great Awakening.
  • 1861-1865: The Civil War.
  • 1877: The end of Reconstruction.
  • 1930s: The Great Depression.
  • 1945: The end of World War II.
  • 1991: The end of the Cold War.

Second Tier Dates

  • 1588: The destruction of the Spanish Armada.
  • 1620: “The Pilgrims” founded Plymouth.
  • 1688: The “Glorious Revolution.”
  • 1754: The Battle of Jumonville Glen, or the beginning of the French and Indian War.
  • 1781: The Articles of Confederation / the Siege of Yorktown.
  • 1815: The end of the War of 1812.
  • 1820: The Missouri Compromise.
  • 1914-1918: World War I.

Next, you should memorize the presidents. It’s not exactly on the test, but it’s easier than it sounds, and it will definitely help you sort out American history.

In fact, you should make a chart like this:

President Year Event
Washington 1789: 1789-1793 The French Revolution began, The Judiciary Act, Hamilton’s reports, Vermont, The Haitian Revolution began, St. Clair’s Defeat, The Bill of Rights, Kentucky
Washington 1792: 1793-1797 The Neutrality Proclamation, The Whiskey Rebellion, The Battle of Fallen Timbers, The Jay Treaty, The Treaty of Greenville, The Pinckney Treaty, The Farewell Address, Republican motherhood
Adams 1796: 1797- 1801 The Quasi-War with France, The XYZ Affair, The Alien and Sedition Acts, The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, The Revolution of 1800, The Midnight Judges

Of course, I have made a chart like that for myself, and I could just give it to you. But making it yourself will help you so much more. Within each box, put the events in order. Sometimes that’s impossible because events overlap but when there’s a cause and consequence relationship, always put the cause before the consequence.

And that’s it! No more dates in APUSH ever! Seriously, that’s all. I forbid you to memorize any more dates for the rest of your APUSH life.

Your AP US History exam is a challenge that may seem overwhelming at first. But once you’ve got the right strategies, you can conquer it. If you follow the AP US History study tips I’ve outlined above, you should be on your way. So work hard, remember the 4 C’s, consider primary sources and social history, and memorize a page-full of the important stuff. And get ready for your five on that day in May!

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