AP® U.S. History and Composition Free-Response Questions (FRQs)

The AP® U.S. History exam consists of two major sections: multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and free-response questions (FRQs). In this guide, we will focus on the FRQ section of the exam.

We will start by examining the format of the AP U.S. History exam’s writing section, followed by strategies for scoring well on the FRQs. In the following sections, you will also find examples of AP U.S. History exam FRQ writing prompts that have appeared on previous exams. By the end of this article, you will understand how to prepare for the essay portion of the APUSH exam.

Format of AP U.S. History FRQ section

A frequently asked question is, "How many FRQs are on the AP U.S. History exam?" The AP U.S. History exam has two FRQs: one document-based question (DBQ) and one long essay question (LEQ). You have one hour and forty minutes to answer the two questions: 60 minutes for the DBQ, and 40 minutes for the LEQ, although you can use more or less time on each.

Each essay is scored on a scale from 0 to 6.

Weights and Time Allotments
Sections Parts Question Types Time Allocated Weight
Section II Part A 1 DBQ 60 minutes 25%
Part B 1 LEQ 40 minutes 15%
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How to Answer AP U.S. History Free-Response Questions

Here are some general tips for approaching the FRQ section of the AP U.S. History exam:

  1. Before you get started, review each prompt and start with the one that appears to be the simplest.

    Starting with the most straightforward question can boost your confidence and instill a belief that you can pass this exam. Some students find the LEQ the easiest because they are not required to read any documents to answer the question. For other students, the DBQ is less challenging because, even if they are unfamiliar with the question’s topic, the provided documents can help them answer a question that would otherwise be difficult to answer. Many students answer the DBQ last because they prefer to quickly write the easier essay in order to allow more time for the difficult one.

  2. State your thesis in the introduction.

    Your thesis must contain a defensible interpretation, not a summary or restatement of the prompt. A defensible interpretation is the main idea taken from the passage or poem that is relevant to the prompt's focus. Don’t spend too much time on the introduction–two or three sentences are enough. If time is running out, write at least a thesis statement for each essay because, with that, you can still receive at least one point.

  3. Use evidence from the text to support your interpretation.

    To score well on the FRQs, ensure that all your ideas are supported by paraphrased evidence in your essay. Focus on words and specifics that support your argument. Be sure to explain how the evidence supports your claim. Two pieces of evidence are sufficient for each of your points; do not include a list of quotes without explaining how they support your interpretation.

  4. You do not need a conclusion to earn a high score.

    You should do so only if you have time to write a concluding sentence that ties your ideas together and makes your essay sound complete.

  5. Don’t worry about making spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes.

    The graders understand that you are under time constraints and your essay will resemble a rough draft. If you make a mistake or change your mind, cross it out and continue.

AP U.S. History FRQ Examples

Here are some examples of FRQs from previous AP U.S. History exams to illustrate the types of questions you will see on the exam. These questions are taken directly from the College Board®’s Course Description Guide and are an excellent practice resource.

The writing component is divided into two parts:

Document-Based Question (Free-Response Question 3 on the AP Exam)

A document-based question (DBQ) is a type of essay question where you are given seven documents and asked to write an argument based on the information in six of them. In this type of essay, you will be required to draw connections between two or more documents in addition to referencing outside historical knowledge. This is by far the most difficult of the three types of essays you will write, but with a little practice and these pointers, you can write a DBQ response that demonstrates strong writing abilities and critical thinking.

You have 60 minutes to complete the DBQ, which accounts for 25 percent of the overall AP exam score. You are expected to read the provided documents for 15 minutes before spending the following 45 minutes writing.

The documents will be related to the time period of your prompt and will include primary texts, secondary texts, and images. There is no set number of each item, but there is always one of each. Spending no more than fifteen minutes reading through the documents thoroughly. This essay aims to argue a point (your thesis) and provide evidence from the documents to support that argument. You must use three of the required documents to receive credit. You must use all six to support your thesis to receive full credit.

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Diagram depicting the Social Contract Theory

Start your essay by writing an introduction, establishing your thesis, and dividing your argument into several steps. In the first body paragraph, describe the historical situation and then incorporate any outside historical knowledge you have that is not in the document. In the second and third body paragraphs, restate the thesis argument and use supporting documents to explain and prove it. Consider using two or three documents. If you make more than two points (sometimes necessary), you will write a fourth body paragraph and use evidence from one or two additional documents. In your conclusion, you should restate your thesis, summarize your main arguments, and explain how they relate.

Try to paraphrase instead of directly quoting. Doing so demonstrates a deeper understanding and helps you achieve the 'explain' portion of the instructions.

Time management is a crucial aspect of essay writing. Therefore, practicing beforehand is beneficial.


Evaluate the relative importance of different causes for the expanding role of the United States in the world from 1865 to 1910.

In your response, you should do the following:

  • Respond to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis or claim establishing a line of reasoning.
  • Describe a broader historical context relevant to the prompt.
  • Support an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents.
  • Use at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt.
  • For at least three documents, explain how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience are relevant to an argument.
  • Use evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the prompt.

Source: Treaty concerning the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America by his Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias to the United States of America, June 20, 1867.

His Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias agrees to cede to the United States, by this convention, immediately upon the exchange of the ratifications thereof, all the territory and dominion now possessed by his said Majesty on the continent of America and in the adjacent islands, the same being contained within the geographical limits herein set forth. . . .

The inhabitants of the ceded territory, according to their choice . . . may return to Russia within three years; but if they should prefer to remain in the ceded territory, they, with the exception of uncivilized native tribes, shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States, and shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion. The uncivilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may, from time to time, adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country. . . .

In consideration of the cession aforesaid, the United States agree to pay seven million two hundred thousand dollars in gold.

Source: Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, 1885.

It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world’s future. Heretofore there has always been in the history of the world a comparatively unoccupied land westward, into which the crowded countries of the East have poured their surplus populations. But the widening waves of migration, which millenniums ago rolled east and west from the valley of the Euphrates, meet today on our Pacific coast. There are no more new worlds. The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited, and will soon be taken. The time is coming when the pressure of population on the means of subsistence will be felt here as it is now felt in Europe and Asia. Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled. . . . Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth.

Source: Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, 1897.

To affirm the importance of distant markets, and the relation to them of our own immense powers of production, implies logically the recognition of the link that joins the products and the markets,—that is, the carrying trade; the three together constituting that chain of maritime power to which Great Britain owes her wealth and greatness. Further, is it too much to say that, as two of these links, the shipping and the markets, are exterior to our own borders, the acknowledgment of them carries with it a view of the relations of the United States to the world radically distinct from the simple idea of selfsufficingness?. . . There will dawn the realization of America’s unique position, facing the older worlds of the East and West, her shores washed by the oceans which touch the one or the other, but which are common to her alone.

Despite a certain great original superiority conferred by our geographical nearness and immense resources,—due, in other words, to our natural advantages, and not to our intelligent preparations,—the United States is woefully unready, not only in fact but in purpose, to assert in the Caribbean and Central America a weight of influence proportioned to the extent of her interests. We have not the navy, and, what is worse, we are not willing to have the navy, that will weigh seriously in any disputes with those nations whose interests will conflict there with our own. We have not, and we are not anxious to provide, the defence of the seaboard which will leave the navy free for its work at sea. We have not, but many other powers have, positions, either within or on the borders of the Caribbean.

Source: The Boston Globe, May 28, 1898.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-91465

Source: John Hay, United States Secretary of State, The Second Open Door Note, July 3, 1900.

To the Representatives of the United States at Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg, and Tokyo Washington, July 3, 1900

In this critical posture of affairs in China it is deemed appropriate to define the attitude of the United States as far as present circumstances permit this to be done. We adhere to the policy . . . of peace with the Chinese nation, of furtherance of lawful commerce, and of protection of lives and property of our citizens by all means guaranteed under extraterritorial treaty rights and by the law of nations. . . . We regard the condition at Pekin[g] as one of virtual anarchy. . . . The purpose of the President is . . . to act concurrently with the other powers; first, in opening up communication with Pekin[g] and rescuing the American officials, missionaries, and other Americans who are in danger; secondly, in affording all possible protection everywhere in China to American life and property; thirdly, in guarding and protecting all legitimate American interests; and fourthly, in aiding to prevent a spread of the disorders to the other provinces of the Empire and a recurrence of such disasters. . . .

The policy of the Government of the United States is to seek a solution which may bring about permanent safety and peace to China, preserve Chinese territorial and administrative entity, protect all rights guaranteed to friendly powers by treaty and international law, and safeguard for the world the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese Empire.

Source: Puck, a satirical magazine, November 20, 1901.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress #LC-DIG-ppmsca-25583

Source: President Theodore Roosevelt, Fourth Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904.

There are kinds of peace which are highly undesirable, which are in the long run as destructive as any war. Tyrants and oppressors have many times made a wilderness and called it peace. Many times peoples who were slothful or timid or shortsighted, who had been enervated by ease or by luxury, or misled by false teachings, have shrunk in unmanly fashion from doing duty that was stern and that needed self-sacrifice, and have sought to hide from their own minds their shortcomings, their ignoble motives, by calling them love of peace. . . .

It is our duty to remember that a nation has no more right to do injustice to another nation, strong or weak, than an individual has to do injustice to another individual; that the same moral law applies in one case as in the other. But we must also remember that it is as much the duty of the Nation to guard its own rights and its own interests as it is the duty of the individual so to do. . . . It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such as are for their welfare. All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and . . . the exercise of an international police power.

Source: College Board

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Political cartoon representing the Nullification Crisis

Long Essay Question (Free-Response Question 4 on the AP Exam)

This section will demonstrate how to write a Continuity and Change Over Time Long Essay for the AP U.S. History Exam.

Students are asked to develop an argument in response to the prompt using one historical reasoning skill—causation, comparison, continuity, or change over time. In this post, we will look at the steps needed to answer a continuity and change over time prompt.

First, and perhaps most importantly, students should remember that the historical skill of change and continuity over time for AP U.S. History is a chronological look at history. Students must be able to distinguish between historical change and continuity—the things that remain the same. Students can earn the complexity point for writing about both continuity and change in the AP U.S. History CCOT essay.

Long Essay Example Question prompt

Evaluate the extent to which the ratification of the United States Constitution fostered a change in the function of the federal government in the period from 1776 to 1800.

This prompt asks students to write about ‘change’.

Once the student has analyzed the prompt and decided that using the historical skills of continuity and change over time is best to answer the question, they should take a moment and come up with two or three CHANGES that occurred during the era in the prompt.


Two regions: Europe and the Americas


Rise in indentured servitude

Rise in Irish immigration

For the complexity point, determine one CONTINUITY from the era mentioned in the prompt.


Immigrants continued to flow into the U.S. searching for economic gain

Context (one point on both the DBQ and LEQ essays)

From their knowledge of this period in history, what does the student know that could help them analyze (put into context) how long-distance migrations changed during this era?

One way to do this is to situate the argument by explaining the broader historical events, developments, or processes closely relevant to the question. Give historical background for the argument.

  • With context, the writer is ‘setting the scene’ for the essay.
  •  This requires an explanation, typically consisting of multiple sentences.
  •  It usually appears in the introduction to your essay-at least 2-3 sentences.

Think of contextualization like a TV show. Sometimes, at the beginning of an episode, the producers show scenes from previous episodes to set the stage for the current episode. The show’s producers are providing context or background for the current episode.

Brainstorming: Think about the chosen “changes” or “continuities”.

Analysis: Why did the change occur, and what evidence does the student have to support it? (Being able to demonstrate a ‘complex understanding of historical development using evidence to prove the thesis’ will earn the student the ‘complexity point’.)

  • Why was there a rise in indentured servitude?
  • Why was there a rise in Irish migration?

Analysis: Why did the continuity occur, and what evidence does the student have to support it? (Being able to demonstrate a ‘complex understanding of historical development using evidence to prove the thesis’ will get the student the ‘complexity point’.)

  • Why did immigrants continue to flow into the U.S. during this era, searching for economic gain?

This will help the student write their thesis statement.

Write the thesis.

  • The thesis of an essay is the main argument or point. The LEQ and DBQ rubrics for AP U.S. History state that students must provide a “historically defensible thesis that establishes a line of reasoning.”
  • The student is writing a ‘road map’ or summary of what the essay will discuss.
  • The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion.


“From 1700 to 1900, there were many changes in long-distance migrations to Europe and the Americas. Changes included the rise in indentured servitude and Irish migration. One continuity that occurred during this period was the continued flow of immigrants to the U.S. searching for economic wealth.”

Write the Continuity and Change Over Time Essay AP U.S. History

  1. Introductory paragraph: Context (setting the scene) and thesis (responding to the prompt with a specific historically defensible claim)
    1. Questions to consider:
      • Does the historical context tie into the prompt?
      • Did the student mention continuities/changes in the thesis?
  2. Body paragraph #1: Changes Rise in indentured servitude
    1. Historical Reasoning: Topic Statement (Start the paragraph by summarizing the major changes that have taken place. Then add specific and detailed examples throughout the paragraph.)
    2. Cite supporting evidence: state the WHY something occurred
    3. Questions to consider:
      • What are the changes?
      • Did the student give specific examples of the changes and analyze WHY they occurred?
      • Did the student provide descriptive evidence to support the topic statement?
  3. Body paragraph #2: Changes Rise in Irish Migration
    1. Historical Reasoning: Topic Statement (Start the paragraph by summarizing the major changes that have taken place. Then add specific and detailed examples throughout the paragraph.)
    2. Cite supporting evidence: give the WHY something occurred
    3. Questions to consider:
      • What are the changes?
      • Did the student give specific examples of the changes and analyze WHY they occurred?
      • Did the student provide descriptive evidence to support the topic statement?
  4. Body paragraph #3: Continuities (complexity point)
    1. Historical Reasoning: Topic Statement (Start the paragraph by summarizing the major continuities that have taken place.)
    2. Provide evidence to support these continuities
    3. Questions to consider:
      • What are the continuities?
      • Did the student give specific examples of the continuities and analyze WHY they occurred? (This gets the student the ‘complexity point’.)
      • Did the student provide descriptive evidence to support the statement?
  5. Conclusion paragraph: Bring it all together for the reader
    1. Reaffirm the argument (thesis) by explaining how the examples and descriptive evidence support each topic sentence.
    2. Questions to consider:
      • Did the student’s evidence support the thesis?
      • Did they answer the prompt fully?

Handy dandy LEQ Essay Writing Checklist

  • The essay starts with context or background, which “sets the scene” for the essay
  • The context flows into the thesis statement
  • The introductory paragraph contains the context and the thesis
  • The thesis uses the same words as seen in the prompt
  • Thesis answers the prompt and gives specific changes
  • Thesis answers the prompt and gives specific continuities
  • There are at least five paragraphs (more is OK)
  • The first and second body paragraphs address changes
  • There are specific examples of changes given
  • Analysis is provided, explaining WHY there have been changes
  • The third body paragraph addresses continuities
  • There are specific examples of continuities given
  • The conclusion paragraph summarizes the essay’s thesis and main points
  • The evidence is specific and the writing is direct and clear and ties back
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How can I Practice AP U.S. History Free-Response Questions?

The best way to prepare for AP U.S. History FRQs is by using questions from previous College Board exams.

Throughout the year, if you are enrolled in AP U.S. History, your instructor will assist you in learning how to write effective responses and provide you with feedback on your writing. However, if you are self-studying, you should look at the released questions, sample student responses, and explanations of their scores that are available on the College Board website. By analyzing what makes high-scoring essays effective, you will be able to apply the same strategies to your own essays. Ensure that you are familiar with the scoring rubrics used by the graders for each essay. They will tell you how much information you should include in your responses.

Practice writing essays at a slower pace to learn how to effectively express your ideas. Reduce the amount of time you spend on each practice essay until you can complete a quality paper in 40 minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

There are two FRQs on the AP U.S. History exam: a Long Essay Question and a Document-Based Question. They are always presented in this order.

The FRQs are graded by high school AP U.S. History teachers and college professors who teach freshman-level history courses. The College Board provides rubrics that tell graders what to look for in successful essays. Essays are primarily graded on the quality of their ideas and not on the accuracy of grammar, punctuation, or spelling. Handwriting is not factored into the score, and there are specially designated readers available to help read and score essays with unusually bad handwriting.

Students have two hours and twenty minutes to complete the FRQs on the AP U.S. History exam. However, students can use more or less time on either essay if they choose.

You can find released questions from past exams on the AP Central website.

Read More About AP U.S. History

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