Some specifics about the AP US History exam:
The test comprises three sections: the multiple choice section, the document-based question (DBQ), and the free-response essays.
1. Multiple-choice. You will have 55 minutes to complete 80 multiple-choice questions with five answer choices each. The questions are ordered in ascending order of difficulty; the first third are fairly easy, the middle third are intermediate, and the last third is difficult. Also, the questions are in chronological groups of eight; that is, there will be eight or nine questions moving from early American history to late American history, and then the next one will jump backwards in time. When you move from a question on Reaganomics to a question on the Intolerable Acts, you've hit a new section.
About guessing on multiple-choice: You probably should. Yes, there is a -1/4 point penalty for an incorrect answer, but you will almost always be able to eliminate at least one, and usually two or three incorrect answers. Only leave the question blank if you have absolutely no idea.
What they won't be about: Military history will never be the subject of a multiple-choice question. (Caveat scholasticus: On the 2002 AP exam, one of the questions asked which Revolutionary War battle convinced the French that the rebels were deserving of French aid. This is military history, but it's military history in a greater context, so they thought it was fine. You have been warned.) Also, there will be no so-called "Trivial Pursuit" questions—questions which ask you to recall only the name of a treaty or tariff, without any kind of context.
Sample multiple-choice question (check the pipe linked periods for the answers):
Which of the following most accurately describes the attitude of seventeenth-century Puritans toward religious liberty?
- Having suffered persecution in England, they extended toleration to everyone.
- They tolerated no one whose expressed religious views varied from their own views.
- They tolerated all Protestant sects, but not Catholics.
- They tolerated Catholics, but not Quakers.
- They had no coherent views on religious liberty.
2 & 3. DBQ and Free-Response Essays. You will have 2 hours to write these three essays. Note: There are two test booklets for this part. The first contains only the essay questions and documents, and the second is the one that you write the essays in. For the first fifteen minutes, you can't write anything in the actual essay booklet; you can only read the essay questions and documents and write outlines in the margins of the question booklet. The remaining time is yours to divvy up as you see fit amongst the three essays, althought your proctor will tell you the suggested intervals at which you should move on to the next essay (45 minutes of writing for the DBQ, and 30 for both planning and writing each of the free-response essays).
The DBQ: You will be given a "big-picture" question and 9 short primary source documents to cite as evidence in your response. The documents could be political cartoons, or speeches from Presidents and other politicians, or diary excerpts... you get the idea. You'll be given the documents in chronological order—Document A will have been written the earliest, while Document I will be the latest. Citing most (or better yet, all) of the documents is important, but it is critical that you also bring in your own knowledge about the time period. (Didn't used to be this way—up until 1982, DBQs didn't need to have outside evidence...but they did have 20 documents.)
Making sure you have outside knowledge before the test isn't that hard, though, since you'll know from the beginning of the year what the time period of the DBQ will be, and you can easily focus on the five or six big themes from that era. UPDATE! As of the 2003 test, the DBQ time period will no longer be revealed before the test. Time will tell as to how this will affect the DBQ, in terms of both how responses are scored and what kind of questions are presented.
Also, be sure to define your terms—anything subjective, like "progressive" or "liberal" or "isolationist". Five paragraphs is the suggested length of a DBQ: an introductory paragraph, in which you state your thesis; three evidence paragraphs, and a conclusion, in which you state your thesis again, and (for bonus points!) tie the essay topic into some modern-day issue.
Sample DBQ topic:
"Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals." Assess the validity of this statement with specific reference to the years 1825-1850.
The free-response essays: These are arguably the hardest part of the exam: unlike the multiple-choice (where you have process of elimination on your side) and the DBQ (where you have lots of documents to jump-start your recollection of a possibly obscure topic), everything you write about has to be from your memory alone. Fortunately, these essays will be relatively straightforward; the analysis need not be nearly as in-depth as in the DBQ. You'll be given four essay questions in total, in two groups of two; you must pick one from each group. The first group will be from the pre-Civil War era, and the second will be from the Civil War to the 1970s, although you are virtually guaranteed not to get an essay from your DBQ period. Four or five paragraphs each should suffice for these essays.
Sample free-response group:
Choose ONE of the following:
- Compare and contrast United States foreign policy after the First World War and after the Second World War. Consider the periods 1919-1928 and 1945-1950.
- How did the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's address the failures of the Reconstruction?
This writeup is nowhere close to being comprehensive, of course. You should invest in a test-prep book; the Princeton Review's Cracking the AP U.S. History is the one I used, and I highly recommend it, though there are myriad others available. Above all, don't panic, and remember that yes, they are trying to trick you. Good luck!