The following strategies for answering the free-response questions were developed by faculty consultants to help you on exam day.
Please note: These strategies apply to exams taken in the traditional paper and pencil format, and may not apply to the digital AP United States History Exams in 2021. Learn more about the digital AP United States History Exam.
- Answering essay questions generally requires a good deal of training and practice. Students too often begin to write immediately, creating a string of disconnected, poorly planned thoughts. You need to learn to attack questions methodically and to plan your answers before putting pencil to paper.
- Carefully analyze the question, thinking through what is being asked, and identify the elements that must be addressed in the response. Each AP Exam asks different types of questions about each subject. For example, some questions may require you to consider the similarities between people or events, and then to think of the ways they are different. Others may ask you to develop an argument with examples in support of or opposing a particular movement or policy. You may even be asked to construct a graph or visual representation explaining relationships in a given scenario. Be sure to carefully craft your answer in response to what is actually being asked in the question prompt.
- After you have determined what is involved in answering the question, consider what evidence you can incorporate into your response. Review the evidence you learned during the year that relates to the question and then decide how it fits into the analysis. Does it demonstrate a similarity or a difference? Does it argue for or against a generalization that is being addressed?
- Whenever you offer evidence to illustrate contrast or similarity, clearly state your intent. Then, with additional information or analysis, elaborate on the ways in which these pieces of evidence are similar or different. If there is evidence that refutes a statement, explain why it argues against the statement. Your answer should reflect an understanding of the subtleties of the questions.
- Begin writing only after you have thought through the evidence you plan to use, and have determined what your thesis statement will be. Once you have done this, you will be in a position to answer the question analytically instead of in a rambling narrative.
- Learn how to present your thesis statement: make your overarching statement or argument and then position your supporting evidence so that it is obviously directed to answering the question, as opposed to being a string of abstract generalizations. State your points as clearly as possible and explicitly connect them to the larger thesis. Do not leave it to the reader to infer what is meant or how something illustrates a point.
- If you have done the analytical work required prior to writing, you should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of the question. You should state your thesis, introduce the elements that support the thesis, and demonstrate the logic that led you to link the elements in support of the thesis. By applying these ideas you will construct an excellent essay.
- While essay writing in general is a valuable exercise, you may wish to work specifically on free-response questions from previous AP Examinations. This will allow you to compare your own responses with those that have already been scored and evaluated. Free-response questions are available through the Advanced Placement Program® in numerous formats. One of the easiest ways to find sample essays is to go to the Exam Preparation section of the U.S. History About the Exam page.
Pay close attention to the task verbs used in the free-response questions. Each one directs you to complete a specific type of response. Here are the task verbs you'll see on the exam:
- Compare: Provide a description or explanation of similarities and/or differences.
- Describe: Provide the relevant characteristics of a specified topic.
- Evaluate: Judge or determine the significance or importance of information, or the quality or accuracy of a claim.
- Explain: Provide information about how or why a relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning. Explain "how" typically requires analyzing the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome; whereas, explain "why" typically requires analysis of motivations or reasons for the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome.
- Identify: Indicate or provide information about a specified topic, without elaboration or explanation.
- Support an argument: Provide specific examples and explain how they support a claim.
AP Short-Answer Response Booklets
Important reminders for completing short-answer responses.
Write each response only on the page designated for that question.
- 1 lined page is provided for each short-answer question.
- The question number is printed as a large watermark on each page, and also appears at the top and bottom of the response area.
Keep responses brief–don't write essays.
- The booklet is designed to provide sufficient space for each response.
- Longer responses will not necessarily receive higher scores than shorter ones that accomplish all the tasks set by the question.