AP US history has a reputation for being one of the most challenging AP history courses offered. Yet, as a student who took this course last year (2021-2022), I had a very positive experience. Personally, I think AP US history has a difficult reputation, simply because it is often the first AP history that students take. Going into this course, you need to know a few things about how to write and about how to study. You also should have some sort of interest in this course. In this guide, I will be taking you through different factors to consider in taking this class.
AP US history is a significantly easier class to do well in when you are interested in the content. If you are better at looking at the big picture rather than specific details, AP US history will be easier for you. This course quickly moves through American history under a very specific curriculum. No topic gets too specific, as teachers have to keep moving in order to teach all content. AP US history covers the following units:
Period 1: 1491–1607 – European exploration, native Americans, encomiendas
Period 2: 1607–1754 – differences between 13 colonies
Period 3: 1754–1800 – revolutionary war (before, during, after)
Period 4: 1800–1848 – westward expansion, manifest destiny, railroads
Period 5: 1844–1877 – civil war (before, during after)
Period 6: 1865–1898 – industrialization, monopolies, poor working conditions
Period 7: 1890–1945 – world war 1, world war 2, Great Depression, racial tension, women’s suffrage
Period 8: 1945–1980 – black rights, social movements, suburbs, great society, mass culture
Period 9: 1980–Present – globalization, Reagan, Middle East, 9/11, up to present
Units 1 through 5 will most likely fall under first semester. It is very important to learn these units well, as they will be largely included in the AP test in May. Additionally, these units are often less familiar to students, so first semester is often the more difficult one. Units 6 through 9 will most likely fall under second semester. Students often have a lot of previous knowledge on these units as they are more recent. Some topics of unit 9 are not covered on the AP US test. If you have no interest in American history, it may be difficult to fully pay attention and do careful and close readings. Being interested in at least some of the content makes the course significantly easier.
The key to succeeding in AP US history is simply memorizing key terms! Most teachers give students a list of specific key terms to memorize, but if they do not key terms and concepts can be found online on the College Board website. Memorizing key terms is similar to memorizing vocabulary words. Writing down definitions in your notes and reviewing definitions is key to succeeding in the class. If you are unable to memorize definitions, then perhaps AP US history is not the best option for you. If you are good at memorizing definitions, then you will do very well in this course.
Oftentimes people who take AP US history as their first AP history course struggle because of the writing. Rather than essays in your English class, AP history essays use a very specific formula. It is critical that you understand the formula to do well in history essay writing. Even if you are not a particularly strong writer, if you are able to understand the formulas for history writing you will do well. Personally, I recommend truly familiarizing yourself with the different formulas for history writing, as once you know you are almost guaranteed to do well.
The 3 types of writing include:
Short Answer Responses – These responses are typically 2-4 sentences. You are given a question and then you have to concisely answer it. These writing responses are usually easy for students.
Long Essay Responses – These responses are typically 4-5 paragraphs. You are given 40 minutes to answer a question without using any outside sources. These essays students often find the most difficulty with.
Document Based Questions – These responses are typically 4-5 paragraphs. You are given 55 minutes to read 7 sources and answer a question using 6 sources to back your claim. You also have to conduct HIPP (explaining historical analysis, intended audience, purpose, or point of view) on 2 of the sources. Students often do well in these essays after learning the formulas.
Additionally, to succeed in writing you have to truly know your history very well. With multiple choice questions, you often just have to know the bare minimum, but with writing you have to know specific information. Oftentimes teachers will give you possible long essay response topics, as you need to know details and dates for these essays. On the AP test, you are given options for essay responses.
The homework and workload really varies by teacher. I spent about 30 minutes-1 hour doing AP US homework a night, however I know some student in other schools that spend 2 hours doing AP US homework. Most of the homework will consist of textbook readings. Personally, rather than taking notes I would just fill out key terms definitions which worked well for me. I found that taking notes would take twice as long with no real difference in my grades. If you are able to efficiently read textbooks, then the workload should be no issue for you. Again, if you are interested in the course topics it makes reading the textbook SO MUCH easier. Other than text book reading, you may receive worksheets, take home essays, and other typical homework assignments from history courses. As long as you have a reasonable teacher, AP US history is definetly a manageable course.
AP Test: The AP US history test is really not that bad. It is composed of a multiple choice section and a writing section. It is critical that you can retain and relearn information from the beginning of the year. Personally, I found watching review videos extremely helpful, as they gave me great reminders of various content. If you aren’t taking too many other APs, studying for the AP test is definitely manageable.
If you are interested in American history, you will love this class. Doing well in AP US history definitely requires studying and memorizing vocabulary, but it is very doable. Personally I found this class to be 4/10 difficulty, as I found the content interesting and did all readings. If your school offers an honors US history, I personally would choose to take AP US history. With honors US history, since there is a less strict curriculum and time crunch, oftentimes teachers will go into much more details. With details there often comes difficulty, so AP US history might just be the better option. AP US history is a great course that you can be successful in
If you are also thinking about taking AP Lang, check out The Compete Guide to High-school AP Language & Composition – Should you take it?