AP US History Overview
AP US History covers the history of the United States spanning 1491 to the present. Students will learn about significant people, events, developments, and processes during that period. AP US History is designed to be equivalent to a 2 semester college US History course, and uses the same techniques and practices used by historians. There are no prerequisites for the class, but students should possess the ability to read and write at a college level.
We’ll cover the course, exams, and our picks for the best AP US History books, Flashcards, and Review Guides for test year 2021 below, but if you just can’t wait, here’s the short list:
The famous saying says “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” This is a contentious period in America, and having the proper historical context to process todays events, political climate, and so on can be incredibly helpful. Whatever your motivation for studying AP US History, we’re here to help you succeed!
A full Course Description for AP US History is available from collegeboard.org.
There are 7 key themes covered by AP US History which would commonly be found in a college level US History course:
- Politics and Power
- American and National Identity
- Work, Exchange, and Technology
- Culture and Society
- Migration and Settlement
- Geography and the Environment
- America in the World
Each of these themes focus on one or more major historical issues, changes, or events. In order to help students absorb the information in these themes, each one includes several learning objectives which a student should meet.
As an example, the following learning objectives are defined for the Politics and Power theme:
- Explain how political systems, institutions, ideas, beliefs, and parties have evolved over time.
- Explain how popular movements, reforms, and activists have worked to change society and institutions.
- Explain how differing beliefs about the federal government’s role in the economy and society have affected policies.
The other 6 broad themes have similar objectives, and by the end of the course the student should be well versed in all of them.
The AP US History course covers 9 historical periods beginning in 1491, and spanning to the present day. The periods differ in length and are roughly organized around major events or historical topics (though some overlap occurs).
The Founding Documents (especially the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the Bill of Rights) provide significant context for many events and periods in US History. In depth reading and study of the documents is generally included in most AP US History courses, though the degree of emphasis is up to the instructor. The AP US History Exam requires students to cite and draw on knowledge of primary and secondary sources, and as such it’s highly recommended to learn and understand the documents thoroughly.
Students taking the AP US History Exam are responsible for demonstrating knowledge of the above mentioned historical themes and periods. The student’s knowledge is assessed through questions in multiple choice or free response format, lasting 3 hours and 15 minutes. The exam is broken up into 4 parts, and the parts are weighted to determine a final score between 1 and 5.
Section 1: Multiple Choice and Short Answer
- Part A: 55 multiple choice questions, lasting 55 minutes, 40% of overall score.
- Part B: 3 short answer questions, lasting 40 minutes, 20% of overall score.
Section 2: Free Response
- Part A: 1 document based question, lasting 60 minutes, 25% of overall score.
- Part B: 1 long essay question, lasting 40 minutes, 15% of overall score.
The multiple choice section is grouped into sets between 2-5 questions each. Each question asks the student to respond to a primary or secondary source like a written passage, image, or chart. Question sets will focus on a particular period, but may require students to make connections to other thematic developments from other periods.
The short answer section has 4 total questions, with students required to answer the first and second, and either the third or fourth question. Each question requires the student to cite examples of historical events or concepts related to the topic.
The document based question requires a student to present an argument based on historical source material. It includes 7 documents like charts, graphs, written material, etc. Students are also expected to include examples and information which is not explicitly included in the document set for top marks.
The long essay question requires students to choose from 1 of 3 essay topics. Each topic covers 3 periods from the curriculum, and the student must develop and support an argument with specific examples and information.
For exam dates, refer to The College Board AP Calendar.
Best AP US History Books
AP US History has several strong contenders for the best textbooks and review guides which we’ve ranked for you above. Continue on for detailed information on each one!
Cracking the AP US History Exam
Pros: Comprehensive material with multiple full length tests.
Cons: A decent amount of overlap with course textbooks and somewhat wordy in places.
Best For: Supplemental study aid for the duration of the course and leading up to the exam.
Our Rating: 5 / 5
Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP US History Exam is our top recommendation for best AP history review guide for 2020. As with years past, the guide contains a wealth of information, tips and tricks, and practice tests. The book works well as both a year long textbook supplement, or a last minute review leading up to the exam. The full list of features include:
- 2 Full length practice tests with detailed answer key.
- End of chapter summary and review to aid material absorption.
- Detailed guide to the document and long form essay questions.
- Pacing drills, tips, and strategies to help you stay on track and maximize points.
When it comes to preparing for the AP US History exam, princeton review books are typically rated among the best resources, and this year’s guide is no exception. With its low price-tag and tons of features, it’s a value that can’t be beat. Last minute prep, or as a supplement to your other course materials, we can’t recommend this enough.
AP US History Crash Course
Pros: Accelerated review with none of the fluff.
Cons: Limited number of practice tests included.
Best For: A literal crash course in AP US History in the days leading up to the test.
Our Rating: 4.5 / 5
AP US History Crash Course is well named. It’s not a full blown review, but a literal crash course in some of the most important ideas and concepts covered by the exam. The book is best suited as a quick review for last minute cramming leading up to your exam date, as opposed to a course study aid. Additional features include:
- Review of 7 keys to success, and 60 terms required for success.
- Free online practice exam.
- Strategies for tackling each of the 4 exam sections.
If you’re planning well ahead of time, we recommend a full length guide due to their more in-depth coverage and supplemental resources. However, if you’re a procrastinator or just looking for a quick refresh in the days leading up to your exam date, you can’t go wrong with AP History Crash Course.
5 Steps To A 5: AP US History
Pros: Solid digital resources compliment printed materials.
Cons: Less detail and depth than some guides on this list.
Best For: Year long study aid to compliment course textbook.
Our Rating: 4.5 / 5
5 Steps To A 5: AP US History has some of the best digital resources of any of the books on this list. It’s a solid guidebook overall, and combined with the online materials it really stands out. Features included:
- 6 Full length practice tests (3 in the book + 3 cross platform)
- Proven strategies for each of the 4 test sections.
- Study planning resources to help you focus your efforts.
- Hundreds of practice questions with detailed answers.
5 Steps To A 5: AP US History is a solid entry on this list, though it doesn’t claim the top spot in either the comprehensive review or last minute crash course categories. All in all, if you’re a fan of 5 Steps To A 5’s other AP course guides, you’ll probably enjoy this one too.
Barron’s AP US History
Pros: Comprehensive US History overview helps with understanding broad concepts.
Cons: Can be too wordy for some people's tastes in places.
Best For: Supplemental material which compliments other exam specific guides.
Our Rating: 4.5 / 5
The Barron’s AP exam guides are generally high quality resources, and the US History edition is no exception. It contains a fantastic review of all exam and course materials, coupled with a numerous online and print practice exams. Features include:
- 2 Full length practice tests with detailed answer keys, plus access to 3 online tests.
- Test taking strategies for all 4 exam sections.
- Detailed review of course materials
Barron’s AP US History is a top-tier review guide, and perfect as a supplement to other instructional materials required by your teacher. It does well both throughout the year, as well as in the days leading up to the exam for final review. All in all, Barron’s won’t steer you wrong.
Best AP US History Flashcards
In addition to the excellent books mentioned above, AP US History students will see significant benefits in prepping for the exam using flashcards. Our top picks for Best AP US History Flashcards are outlined below.
Barron’s AP US History Flash Cards
Pros: Well organized and comprehensive terms.
Cons: Some cards are somewhat densely packed.
Our Rating: 5 / 5
Barron’s AP US History Flash Cards are a great compliment to Barron’s AP US History guide, or any of the other books outlined above. It serves as a fantastic way to memorize key facts and information tested in the exam in a way that’s fun and entertaining. Key features include:
- Over 500 flashcards.
- Covers all major periods and themes from AP US History course.
We fully recommend flashcards as a supplement to any full length textbook or guidebook. Barron’s are our #1 recommendation for AP US History flashcards.
Essential AP U.S. History
Pros: Information directly related to the test, available in multiple formats.
Cons: Less well organized than Barron's version
Our Rating: 3.5 / 5
Essential AP U.S. History flashcards come from the Princeton Review, which has our top pick for overall review guide. Their flashcards are effective, but haven’t been updated in recent years. Key Features include:
- Over 450 flashcards, color-coded for progress tracking.
- Covers most major subject areas for the exam.
All in all, we generally recommend the Barron’s flashcards for most students. If you’re looking for even more review material, or you have a strong liking for the princeton review, these are a passable resource.
AP US History is a challenging topic covering tons of information spanning the history of the United States. There are a number of great resources out there to compliment your assigned course material, and we’ve rounded up some of the best in this list above.
Which book is right for you? It depends heavily on your particular circumstances. To recap our list of recommendations for different use cases:
|Top Overall Recommendation||Cracking the AP US History Exam|
|Top Pick For Course Supplement||Cracking the AP US History Exam|
|Top Pick For Last Minute Prep||AP US History Crash Course|
|Top Pick For Flashcards||Barron’s AP US History Flash Cards|
Our top overall pick and best choice for students who want to supplement their other course material throughout the year, is Cracking the AP US History Exam from Princeton Review. It’s a well structured and in-depth guidebook with tons of bonus goodies that will compliment your other textbooks well.
For students with less time before the exam, we recommend AP US History Crash Course and Barron’s AP US History Flash Cards for more abbreviated study. Their narrow focus on the topics and information contained in the actual exam will make sure you have everything you need to succeed.
Whatever your circumstance, supplemental study and review materials are a key part of ensuring success on the exam. We’ve listed some of the best AP US History resources available. Good luck, and study hard!