AP® U.S. History Short-Answer Questions

Mastering the short-answer questions (SAQs) section of the AP U.S. History® (APUSH) exam is crucial for achieving a high score, yet it is often overlooked when preparing for the exam. The SAQ of the AP U.S. History exam is worth 20 percent of your overall exam grade—that counts more than the long-essay question.

The good news is that the SAQ section is considered the most straightforward section of the test. That does not imply it is easy. SAQs do not simply ask you to regurgitate names and dates. The short-answer questions assess your historical reasoning and require you to cite evidence to support a historical claim.

You must understand the types of SAQs on the APUSH exam to achieve a high score. You'll also need to learn how to answer the questions in a way that will earn you credit. Plus, you'll need to be able to answer the questions within the allotted time.

Below is a breakdown of what to expect in the SAQ section of the AP U.S. History exam. You will learn about the format and requirements of the SAQ section and see examples of the different types of SAQs you will encounter. Plus, you will find strategies and resources that will help you excel in the AP U.S. History short-answer section.

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Format of AP U.S. History SAQ section

On the AP U.S. History exam, the first free response questions you will answer are the short answer questions. You have 40 minutes to complete this section of the exam. You should spend approximately 15 minutes on each question (5 minutes on each subpart).

Each SAQ is divided into three parts. Each SAQ should be between two and three sentences long. You must compare, describe, evaluate, explain, identify, or support an argument.

Question 1 (required) will be based on paired secondary sources from prominent or influential historians. The passages will present different interpretations of historical developments or processes between 1754 and 1980.

Question 2 (required) will be based on a primary source and require you to explain a historical development or process between 1754 and 1980. The source could be a passage, data, or visual source.

After completing the required questions, you may choose between two non-stimulus questions. One question focuses on early American history between the years 1491 and 1877, while the other question focuses on the years between 1865 and 2001.

How to Write an SAQ APUSH

Remember, SAQs are not essays, and unlike DBQs and LEQs, there is no need for a thesis statement; simply answer the prompt. Answering an SAQ requires you to be brief, yet you also need to give enough details to answer all parts of the prompt. Bulleted lists are not acceptable, so try to provide a straightforward answer in complete sentences.

For an "identify" or "describe" prompt, you’ll need to give and support a simple answer with evidence. Then "explain" or "expand" your claim by connecting your evidence to the original prompt to support it.

A useful strategy is the A.C.E. method: answer, cite evidence, and explain. Therefore, respond directly to the question in a complete sentence and avoid restating the prompt. Next, cite evidence that supports your answer. Lastly, provide an explanation or additional context to ensure you have completely answered the question.

AP U.S. History short-answer questions (SAQ) examples

Knowing what to expect is the first step to achieving a perfect score on the APUSH SAQ section. Here are examples of the basic question types you will encounter in this section.

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How can I practice AP U.S. History Short Answer Questions?

Achieving a score of 5 on the APUSH exam requires mastery of the SAQ section. Practicing short-answer questions is also a great way to review content and practice timed writing.

It is important that you practice SAQs that are similar to those asked on the exam. Also, practice the secondary source questions the most, as they will always appear on the SAQ portion of the APUSH examination.

Many of the SAQs from past exams are no longer relevant due to the massive exam revision that began in 2017. As a result of this restructuring, the course no longer covers content before 1200.

UWorld's AP U.S. History Qbank contains original short-answer questions aligned with the most recent course and exam description (CED) from the College Board®. These questions include exemplars and scoring commentary.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The short answer section of the APUSH exam consists of three questions, each of which can receive 0 to 3 points. Each part of the SAQ is worth a point. In total, 9 points are possible, and each point is earned independently.

When the section is scored, College Board graders will determine if each part of your SAQs earned a point or not. Here are the criteria for earning points on SAQs:

  • Clarity. You must clearly communicate your answer to receive a point.
  • Accuracy. The answer must be historically defensible.
  • Description. You must include relevant information that describes the historical process or development.
  • Explanation. You must provide insight into historical development or explain relevant historical relationships.

The SAQ section of the APUSH exam accounts for 20 percent of your score. You can use a score calculator to see what you’ll need to score depending on how you perform in the other sections. A good thing about SAQs is that a perfect score in this section is relatively easy to achieve compared to the other sections due to their straightforward nature.

The short-answer section of the APUSH exam consists of three questions, given in three parts. You’ll have 40 minutes total to complete the section. Although this may seem like a lot of time, it works out to less than 5 minutes per part.

The College Board website, AP Central, has SAQs from 2015 to 2021 with scoring commentary available for download.

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