AP® U.S. History Course And Exam Description

While the AP® U.S. History (APUSH) course is more challenging than a standard U.S. history class, achieving a high score on the APUSH exam offers valuable benefits. Students have the opportunity to secure college credit during their high school years through strong performance on the exam. In the year 2023, an impressive 473,000 students took the exam, with 48% achieving a score of 3 or higher. While it holds the position of the second most popular AP course, its pass rate and 5-point scores do lag slightly behind those of other AP exams. Therefore, investing time and effort into exam preparation is crucial for achieving success.

If you’re planning to take APUSH for your junior or senior year, it is important to understand the course content and prepare a dedicated study plan. This article will give you an overview of AP U.S. History’s course units, topics, and concepts you need to know to prepare for the exam. This post will also help you understand whether your existing AP schedule will allow for a heavyweight course like APUSH.

What Skills Will I Develop in the AP U.S. History Course?

The AP U.S. History course covers historical events and processes in the United States from 1491 CE to the present day in a single academic year. Because of the volume of course content, you will have to process and remember a lot of information in a short amount of time. You'll also need to analyze data, understand other people's points of view, make arguments, and explain your point of view clearly and convincingly.

As you journey through the APUSH course content, you'll learn two vital skills and processes:

  1. Historical Thinking Skills
  2. Reasoning Processes
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Historical Thinking Skills

These outline what students should be able to do as they investigate course concepts. In your AP U.S. history course, you will develop the following thinking skills:

  1. Developments and Processes

    You'll learn about historical events, processes, and people to analyze and argue about the past. This primary competency will give you real-world knowledge that you can use with more advanced competencies.

    You will learn to:

    1. Recognize a historical concept, development, or process.
    2. Describe a historical concept, development, or process.
  2. Sourcing and Situations

    Carefully examine sources to determine how they bolster, oppose, or modify an argument. You can utilize this skill to analyze historical sources and formulate historical arguments.

    You will learn to:

    1. Establish a source's viewpoint, purpose, historical context, and/or audience.
    2. Explain a source's purpose, audience, and/or historical context.
    3. Describe how a source's point of view, purpose, historical context, or audience may limit its use(s).
  3. Claims and Evidence in Sources:

    To back up specific claims, you'll have to look for evidence in primary and secondary sources and analyze it. The argument and evidence of a source are determined through this analysis.

    You will learn to:

    1. Locate a claim or argument in a textual or non-text source
    2. Determine the source's corroborating evidence.
    3. Compare arguments (or main ideas) from two sources.
    4. Explain how the evidence supports, modifies, or refutes arguments.
  4. Contextualization

    History does not remain constant, and it is incomprehensible without context. Historical context is, therefore, essential for comparison, causality, continuity, and change over time. Students benefit from historical context when developing thoughtful arguments. These abilities aid in context analysis.

    You will learn to:

    1. Describe the historical context of an event or process.
    2. Describe how a historical event or process fits into a larger picture.
  5. Making Connections

    Analyzing patterns and making connections is at the heart of all historical thinking. This ability connects ideas. You'll apply historical reasoning to identify patterns and explain historical relationships.

    You will learn to:

    1. Recognize historical trends and connections.
    2. Contrast two historical events or processes.
  6. Argumentation

    You will acquire the ability to assess a proposition or scenario and articulate or uphold a claim backed by historical evidence. By practicing the three essay types, students can hone their ability to construct argumentative claims substantiated by evidence.

    You will learn to:

    1. Historical argumentation.
    2. Specific and pertinent evidence is essential.
    3. Justify historical evidence with historical reasoning.
    4. Create a complex argument using a variety of supporting evidence.

Reasoning Processes

History is all about thinking and making sense of things, collectively called “reasoning processes." When you answer questions on the AP exam, you’ll need to understand what the question asks. If you can connect your thoughts to the task, it will help you understand and write better.

In the AP U.S. History course, you’ll learn important thinking skills like Comparison (comparing things), Causation (figuring out why things happen), Continuity (seeing how things stay the same), and Change (changing over time).

AP US History’s Eight Big Ideas

The "big ideas" are themes that help students make connections among concepts. Applying these themes in different contexts will help you develop a conceptual understanding of the historical events and processes included in the APUSH course units.

These big ideas will also improve your historical reasoning and analysis skills, which are crucial for doing well on the APUSH exam. The College Board® defines the 8 big ideas as follows:

  1. Big Idea 1: American and National Identity (NAT)

    This theme focuses on the development of American and national identity and values among the diverse and changing population of North America, as well as citizenship, constitutionalism, foreign policy, assimilation, and American exceptionalism.

  2. Big Idea 2: Work, Exchange, and Technology (WXT)

    This theme focuses on the role of technology, economic markets, and governments in exchange systems.

  3. Big Ideas 3: Geography and the Environment (GEO)

    This theme looks at geography and natural and man-made environments in the context of social and political development in the United States.

  4. Big Idea 4: Migration and Settlement (MIG)

    This theme investigates how and why immigrants adapt to new social and physical environments.

  5. Big Idea 5: Politics and Power (PCE)

    This theme examines the influence of social and political groups on U.S. society and government and the evolution of political beliefs and institutions.

  6. Big Idea 6: America in the World (WOR)

    This theme focuses on interactions between nations during the colonial era and U.S. global influence.

  7. Big Idea 7: American and Regional Culture (ARC)

    This theme examines how national, regional, and group cultures have evolved and influenced economic and governmental policy.

  8. Big Idea 8: Social Structures (SOC)

    This theme investigates the evolution of social organizational systems and their impact on society.

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AP U.S. History—9 Units and Subjects

The course is divided into 9 progressive study units. Each unit focuses on a specific period of U.S. history and consists of specific topics focusing on important events or milestones. Check out the tabs below to learn in depth about each unit:

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

No, there are no prerequisites for AP U.S. History.
The AP U.S. History course is the equivalent of a two-hour introductory U.S. history course in college.

The APUSH exam covers a lot of content; therefore, it is challenging. In 2023, just 11% of students scored a 5, and only about 48% scored a 3 or above. Due to the difficulty of the APUSH examination, it is essential to practice and prepare in advance. Work through high-quality practice questions and online test prep to get a 3, 4, or 5 on your AP U.S. History test.

If you want to score a 3 or above, follow these suggestions to build your confidence, increase your knowledge, and prepare yourself for exam success:

  1. Build a study plan before your exam date and be determined to stick to it.
  2. Take a practice APUSH test to determine how much you already know and where to learn more.
  3. Use an online learning tool with practice AP US History questions and detailed explanations of how to answer them.
  4. Track your progress to see where you are succeeding and where you are struggling.

Read More About the AP US History Exam

To do well on an exam, you need the perfect study guide! We came up with a customized study plan, essential tips, and key resources for you to do well in AP US History.
Interested in learning the APUSH Exam scoring information? Check out this detailed article on the exam scoring system, including a score calculator to estimate your scores.
Staying up-to-date about the exam can boost your confidence! Get a clear understanding of the AP US History exam here: See what’s on the exam, prerequisites, etc.
Looking for an easy-to-read APUSH exam format guide? Discover everything about the AP US History exam components, structure, question types, and much more!
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