APUSH Free Response Questions and Responses: A Study Guide

The Free Response Question (FRQ) is a tried-and-true component of the APUSH exam. The FRQ is basically a fancy way of saying an essay. But, as I’m sure you have uncovered, there’s a lot of different types of essays on the APUSH exam. Refer to the table below about the differences between the essay types.

Short Answer QuestionLong Essay QuestionDocument Based Question
Question can be based on graph, quote, or have no reference material. Responses should be short (2-3 sentences) and are broken up into responses (a), (b), and (c) . Question is generally not based on any reference material. Response should take the form of an argumentative essay (meaning there is a clear thesis statement), including appropriate evidence from student’s historical knowledge. Question is based on documents as reference material. Response should reference these documents, grouping them as appropriate to for an argumentative essay. Although the bulk of the response should focus on the document, student should also extend beyond the documents in response.

For this blog post, I will take you through the steps of answering a Long Essay Question (LEQ) for the APUSH exam, including given you student responses to analyze. At the end of this blog post, I will give you a new question for you to try on your own (and you should – doing well on the APUSH exam will require lots of practice!). All of the material in this blog post will come from the College Board website, and I strongly suggest you create your own student account to get more material.

Alright, let’s go!

Free Response Questions: LEQ #1

This LEQ comes from the 2016 APUSH exam that you can find on the College Board website. Please read the question below:

Evaluate the extent to which United States participation in the First World War (1917–1918) marked a turning point in the nation’s role in world affairs. In the development of your argument, explain what changed and what stayed the same from the period immediately before the war to the period immediately following it. (Historical thinking skill: Periodization).

Maximum Possible Points: 6

Please note:

  • Each point of the rubric is earned independently, e.g., a student could earn the point for synthesis without earning the point for thesis.
  • Unique evidence from the student response is required to earn each point, e.g., evidence in the student response that qualifies for either of the targeted skill points could not be used to earn the point for thesis.
  • Before you start writing, it will be INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT for you to organize your thoughts. Follow these three steps to organize your thoughts for the LEQ.

    1. Understand what the question is asking you to do.
    2. Make a table about what information is and is not relevant.
    3. Develop your outline. Start with your thesis.

    Below, I will take you through each step.

    Understand what the question is asking you to do

    Not every question is going to ask you to do the same thing. Some questions will ask you to compare and contrast events, and others will have you identify change and continuities over time. For this question, you are asked to evaluate the role of the U.S. in World War I and the extent to which this represented a turning point in the post-WWI world. Three words should stick out to you here:

    1. Evaluate;
    2. Extent; and
    3. Turning point.

    (Yes, that’s technically four words. I know.)

    If I were to translate this into plain speech, I would come up with the following:

    How much (if at all) did the U.S. involvement in WWI represent a turning point in how the nation operated in global affairs? Explain with evidence.

    It’s only when you can put the question in your own words that you can go about answering it at a high level.

    Make a table about what information is and is not relevant

    A table is a useful way for you to brainstorm information quickly and efficiently. I suggest creating two categories in your table because not everything you think up will be relevant to answering the question. Take a look at the table I have created below and see if you can identify which information is relevant and which information is not.

    Ideas for LEQ
    Woodrow Wilson
    “Make the world safe for democracy”
    League of Nations
    Women’s Suffrage
    14 Points
    Congress refusal to join the League of Nations
    Weimar Republic
    The Great Migration

    Can you identify what ideas would be useful to answer this question and which would not?

    If you thought “women’s suffrage”, “Weimar Republic”, and “the Great Migration” wouldn’t be helpful, you were right. The question is asking about the United States involvement in global affairs after WWI. Women’s suffrage involves the US, and the 19th amendment passed after WWI, but it doesn’t deal with global affairs; the Weimar Republic is the post-WWI world, but doesn’t really affect the US in the way the question is asking; finally, the Great Migration hits the U.S. criteria, but isn’t really about global affairs.

    Develop your outline. Start with your thesis.

    After you have developed a list of ideas that are relevant to helping you answer the question, come up with your outline but always start with your thesis. Remember that your thesis is a direct answer to the question. In this instance, you need to answer how much the US involvement in WWI represented a turning point for the nation in global affairs.

    What does the evidence you generated tell you?

    However you decide to answer the question, make sure that your evidence matches the conclusion you reach.

    Another useful way to organize your outline is based on the scoring rubric. You will be assessed on the following:

    A. Thesis (1 point)
    B. Argument Development: Using the Targeted Historical Thinking Skill (2 points)
    C. Argument Development: Using Evidence (2 points)
    D. Synthesis (1 point)

    In the next section, I will explain what the APUSH exam is looking for in a thesis statement. I strongly suggest that you look at all of the content that the College Board provides in their expanded version of scoring notes. You will need to create an account to access this, but trust me: it’s worth it.

    Free Response Question (LEQ #1): Breaking Down the Scoring Rubric

    In this section, I will explain what the APUSH scorers are looking at for each section. Remember, all of this information is available via the College Board website.

    A. Thesis

    According to the College Board, the APUSH exam scoring notes state, “the thesis does not need to be a single sentence, it does need to be discrete, meaning it cannot be pieced together from across multiple places within the essay. It can be located in either the introduction or the conclusion, but not split between the two.”

    Reference the table below for two examples of acceptable thesis statements.

    Example #1Example #2
    The First World War has been widely considered as the nation’s turning point in world affairs. However, it was the Second, not the First World War that really impacted our nation’s foreign policy. Although the First World War created a lasting mark internationally, our nation sought to
    return to a period of isolationism after the war.
    Before World War One the United States at
    tempted to stay as neutral and isolated from
    Europe as possible so as to avoid unnecessary conflict. This had been its foreign policy as much as possible since the days of Washington and the First
    World War changed that when the United
    States got involved. The war marked a turning point in America’s national role to a great extent as it paved the way for more involvement outside of our own country.

    If you noticed, the two thesis statements above opposite perspectives and yet, they both received full credit. It does not matter what side you come down on in answering the question, as long as you are clear and have evidence.

    Notice the difference between the above thesis statements and the below thesis statement:

    The United States has always been a powerhouse country. The American economy has been strong (despite a couple of bumps) and the people even stronger. The First World War showed the true power of the United States due to the willingness of its citizens and the brightness of
    their minds.

    This thesis statement does not answer the question clearly, and, as such, it did not receive a point.

    Free Response Question #2: Putting it all together

    Now it’s your turn! This sample question is also from the 2016 APUSH exam. Once you have followed the steps I provided above (Understand what the question is asking you to do, 2. Make a table about what information is and is not relevant, and 3. Develop your outline. Start with your thesis!!), you should check your response against the scoring notes provided for the question and read other student work. Good luck!


    Evaluate the extent to which the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution marked a turning point in the history of United States politics and society. In the development of your argument, explain what changed and what stayed the same from the period immediately before the amendments to the period immediately following them. (Historical thinking skill: Periodization)

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    • Allena Berry

      Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

    By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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