Allena Berry

AP US History: Your Complete Guide to Preparing for the Test

ap us history complete guide

If you have been following along with our APUSH blogs, you will know that here at Magoosh, we care a lot about how you prepare. We want you to do well on the test, sure; but we also want you to learn A LOT. As a history teacher and researcher, I can tell you with confidence that the only way those things are going to happen (you doing well on the exam and learning a lot) is if you have a plan of action.

Consider this blog post such a plan. This is your complete guide to preparing for the APUSH test. Read it once over before you start your APUSH course and then start adapting it in a way that suits your schedule.

Ready? Let’s go!

First things first: an overview

I’m going to get a little nerdy here and explain how your brain works. Why? Because if you have a better idea of how your brain works, you will have a deeper understanding of how learning happens and this guide will make more sense.

In a popular book titled How we Learn, author Benedict Carey makes an argument that most of the ways in which we think we should learn information – repetition, zero distractions, memorization – are actually counterintuitive to real, deep learning. Check out the video below for another exploration of how your brain works.


Overview of how learning works, from the Forney Independent School District. Source: here.

I happen to agree with these perspectives. Learning – especially the type of learning you will have to do in order to do well on the APUSH exam – is not going to happen through rote memorization. Instead, you should play to your strengths in your preparation for the exam. This means you should recognize that:

1. Time is on your side. Prepare early and prepare often.
2. Rethink what it means to prepare. If you can get your preparation routine out of the classroom and into your everyday life, you can integrate your preparation into more aspects of your life.
3. Tell stories about history. I mean, the word story is right there in the name of the subject! Your brain likes narratives – they are easier to remember than discrete bits of decontextualized information – do play to that strength!

This guide will use those three larger points about your brain and learning in my recommendations. The blog will be organized around what you can be doing to prepare each month prior to taking the exam. Leave some comments if you have other suggestions to add!

(It should go without saying that throughout all of this, you need to make sure you understand the history. After all, if you don’t understand the subject matter, any amount of tips and tricks for preparation will not be sufficient.)

August/September

You are likely just beginning your APUSH journey. Classes have started, and you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by what it is you have to do.

That feeling is normal. You’re following this guide now so that you can feel less overwhelmed by the time the test rolls around in May. During this time, you should be focused on the following:

1. Developing a good relationship with your APUSH teacher.
2. Overviewing what the APUSH exam actually looks like.
3. Finding ways to incorporate stories about history into various parts of your life.

For #3, I suggest looking into the wonderful world of podcasts. There are some amazing history podcasts out there that will help you make connections and see U.S. history as something that is alive and vibrant. Here are a list of some of my favorites:

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History
  • Stuff You Missed in History Class
  • Backstory
  • October/November

    You are likely in the thick of your course now. Maybe you have had your first writing assignment, or your first major test. Use this as an opportunity to understand where you can improve. Remember I said that back at the beginning of the course, you should be developing a good relationship with your APUSH teacher. In October and November, this is where the relationship begins to become really important.

    You want your teacher to give you constructive feedback on your assignments, as well as help you figure out a strategy to improve. It’s in October and November that I believe you should:

    1. Look at student examples of past work and understand how to improve. You should check out my blog posts on the subjects (APUSH Document Based Questions and Responses: A Study Guide; APUSH Short Answer Questions and Responses: A Study Guide; and APUSH Free Response Questions and Responses: A Study Guide).
    2. Set up an account with the College Board so that you can explore even more past exam questions.
    3. You will want to start putting your timeline together (see the blog post I wrote about creating a timeline). This will help you contextualize all of the information you are encountering in your classes.
    4. Continue doing what you were doing in August/September.

    December

    This is a time to get real with yourself.

    Have you been sticking with your study plan? Are you understanding the material? Ask classmates and your teacher to evaluate how you are doing at this point in the year. This will be a great time to change course if you need to.

    But most importantly, try to relax a little at this point. Perhaps you can spend some time engaging with history in a different way, such as looking at historical documentaries or movies (here’s a good, but not nearly complete, list) or take some time to head to a museum and see history in a new way.

    Use this month to recharge your batteries because you will be going hard for the APUSH exam in the new year.

    January/February

    It’s go time.

    You should be doing the following to prepare for the exam:

    1. Start practicing with more exams. You should especially be writing a lot at this point. As I have mentioned in previous posts about writing for the APUSH exam, your thesis statement is the most important thing in your writing, so make sure you can write an excellent thesis statement by now.
    2. Use some of the other Magoosh study guides for help. There are tips for multiple choice questions, outlines, and study books.
    3. You should be able to fill in more of your timeline at this point. Don’t forget about that as a study tool!
    4. Continue with the steps I outlined for August – November.

    March/April

    It’s crunch time now.

    Your timeline should be nearly complete, and you should have had lots of experience taking practice exams by this point. If you haven’t started those practice exams, START NOW. (Here’s a blog post with more sample exams and questions). Also, look at all of the quick reviews that Magoosh has published (complete with questions at the end!) for various topics you are likely to see on the exam. Here’s one about the Great Migration.

    Continue talking with your APUSH teacher about where you can improve. Practice creating your own APUSH questions with people in your classes (this is actually a really excellent strategy for any test).

    Most importantly, start believing that the preparation you have done up until now (if you are following the advice of this post) is going to pay off in just a few short weeks.

    May – APUSH exam

    Your APUSH exam is usually in early to mid-May. At this point, you should not be trying to cram too much new information into your brain. Cramming does not work. Instead, relax (especially the night before your exam!).

    You want to know one of the best things you can do a few weeks before the APUSH exam? Talk through your ideas. Talking with other people is one of the best ways to get your brain working and synthesizing information (synthesis is a really key component of the APUSH exam).

    I’ve given you a lot of information to digest, but you can do it. Print out or reference the table below to help you make sure you are staying on top of your studies.

    Let us know how you do!

    August/September1. Develop a good relationship with your APUSH teacher.
    2. Overview what the APUSH exam actually looks like.
    3. Find ways to incorporate stories about history into various parts of your life.
    October/November1. Look at student examples of past work on the APUSH exam and understand how to improve.
    2. Set up an account with the College Board so that you can explore even more past exam questions.
    3. Begin to put your APUSH timeline together.
    4. Continue doing what you were doing in August/September.
    December1. Assess your study plan. Adjust accordingly.
    2. Experience history in new ways through movies and museums.
    January/February1. Start practicing with more APUSH exams.
    2. You should be able to fill in more of your timeline at this point. Don’t forget about that as a study tool!
    3. Continue with the steps I outlined for August - November.
    March/April1. Continue taking APUSH practice exams.
    2. Try creating your own APUSH style questions with classmates.
    3. Read Magoosh overview topics to get quick refreshers on APUSH topics.
    May1. Relax
    2. Talk to peers about everything you have learned.

    About 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.


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