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A Guide to scoring a 5 on the APUSH Exam

.How to study to earn a 5 on the APUSH exam

How to score a 5 on the AP United States History exam

The scores for the 2021 AP U.S. History exam came out mid-July, so I’m writing this to tell you how I got a 5 on the exam and how you can too! The APUSH exam is not hard if you’re well prepared!

First off, the one paid resource I used to crack the AP U.S. history exam was the latest Princeton Review Premium book. I highly recommend this, as it is so worth it to have 6 APUSH exam practice tests and answer sheets compiled together. You can also access practice tests through the AP classroom using the code your teacher or AP coordinator gives you.

Apush Exam 2022 format & tips 

APUSH exam times per section

A common question people ask is how long the APUSH exam is - in total, the exam takes 3 hours and 15 minutes without breaks. Here is the exact order and times for the exam:

Time (minutes)

# of Questions

% of Total Score

Multiple Choice




Short Answer




Document-Based Question


1 Essay


Long-Essay Question


1 Essay


MCQ: Multiple Choice Question 

APUSH Multiple Choice section

The MCQs in the AP APUSH exam are stimulus-based, so you’ll have to read short primary sources to answer the questions.

I practiced the MCQs in my prep book, and I also did ⅓ of the MCQs provided on Khan Academy.

Basic tips for Multiple Choice:
  • Use the process of elimination: immediately cut out every answer choice you know is wrong.
  • Underline any signal words like LEAST, MOST, and NOT.
  • Underline key details in the stimulus paragraphs.

SAQ: Short Answer Question

The SAQ is quite easy - just try using 3 - 5 sentences to answer. I also got a lot of the advice below from my teachers and I just wanted to share it with all of you!

Try using the acronym ACE:

A - Answer the prompt: Directly answer the question in a sentence.
C - Cite specific evidence: Include key people/events/places/ideas to support your claim.
E - Explain: Just explain how your evidence supports your claim and how it relates to the prompt!

DBQ: Document-Based Question

APUSH DBQs to score a 5

The Document-Based Question is when you are given a 15 minute reading period along with 40 minutes to write an argumentative essay based on 6 - 7 documents and a prompt.

Some tips:
  • Make sure to have good handwriting so you don’t get any points off because your grader can’t read what you wrote!
  • Try to include ALL of the documents, or at least mention the overall themes.
  • Don’t use phrases like “I think” or “in my opinion”.
Here’s a simplified version of the DBQ rubric from the Course and Exam Description:






Create a historically defensible claim.



Describe a broader historical context relevant to the prompt.

Evidence from the Documents




Use evidence from 3 Docs and explain it well.


Use evidence from 6-7 Docs to uphold and progress your argument/thesis.

Outside Evidence


Use 1 piece of evidence outside of the documents to progress your argument.



For at least 3 documents explain one of the following and how it is relevant to the argument:

  • Historical Context

  • Intended Audience

  • Purpose

  • Point of View



Do one of the following:

  • Counterclaim

  • Explaining nuance by analyzing multiple variables

  • Explaining both similarity and difference, both continuity and change, or multiple causes, or both causes and effects. 

  • etc.

How to use your 15 minute Planning Period

The reading period is when you should carefully read the prompt and then quickly skim through all the documents. Make sure to highlight 2 -3 key details in each document. Look at the possible source, the date of the source, and the point of view (POV) of who wrote it.

Try sorting the documents into 2-3 different groupings. Some documents may have opposing ideas - which is great! Choose the documents you agree with for your evidence, and then use documents you disagree with as evidence for an argument that opposes yours. Then you can disprove this opposing argument (we have that complexity point in the bag!).

Based on what you read, try thinking of other events or proper nouns in the same period that were not explicitly stated in the documents. This is going to be your piece of outside evidence.

This is also a good time to create a short outline as well as formulate your thesis statement so you can rewrite it later on.

How to Structure a DBQ:


1. Contextualization

First comes contextualization in your Intro Paragraph. It should be about 1-3 sentences of larger historical context including around 10 - 50 years before the time period. Be specific about WHO, WHY, and WHAT.

2. Thesis

Next, write your thesis. This is my favorite thesis formula from Heimler’s History:

Although [counter-argument], [2 pieces of evidence], therefore [your argument].
  • The thesis must argue something historically defensible - and do not copy or rearrange the prompt.
  • Don’t use moral arguments. Using words like unfair or unjust is a red flag. 🚩
  • Make sure to underline your thesis! It will make the grader’s life easier, and a happy grader means you have a higher chance of a good score!
P.S. You can also write your thesis in the conclusion, but by writing your thesis in the beginning you have a nice outline to work your body paragraphs around.

Body Paragraphs

After your intro paragraph, you can write three body paragraphs including the evidence from the documents.

3. Evidence

  • Don’t overquote. Paraphrase the ideas and themes so you’re more likely to get points.
  • The only quotes you might use are 3 - 4 SINGLE WORDS of word choice for the paragraph.
  • Make sure to cite the document evidence! After each piece of the paraphrased text write (Doc [number]) at the end.
  • Use all the documents as some sort of evidence. This is to maximize your chances of getting 2 points for the evidence, just in case you interpret one of the seven documents wrong, at least you’ll still have six documents!

4. Outside Evidence

Make sure to use at least one piece of outside evidence from your memory! This must be different from the contextualization used in the first paragraph.

5. Analysation

Make sure to analyze all your documents and connect them back to your original claim - the summarization of the documents is actually less important than using it to further your argument. The argument comes first… NOT the document.

Some examples of analysis sentence starters:
  • This is significant because…
  • This is important because…
  • This shows that…


You also have to use one of the parts of the HIPP acronym for at least three of the documents to gain an extra point.



Historical Context

What events and culture at the time influenced the creation of this document?

The historical context of this document is that most slaves migrated North for freedom and economic prosperity.

Intended Audience

Who was this document created for? Who is the message for?

President Lincoln’s intended audience for the Emancipation Proclamation was the 11 rebelling states. He wanted to send them the message that the slaves in the Confederate states were freed by law. 


Why did the author create this document?

The purpose of the South Carolina Black Code was to suppress Black people so whites could profit and not have to majorly change their racist behaviors post-war. 

Point of View

What is the author’s POV and why do they have that POV? How might different groups of people at the time agree or disagree with this POV?

From the point of view of presidents like President Polk and President Tyler, winning the Mexican-American war would result in the U.S. gaining more territory as well as helping to “free” states like Texas from Mexican rule, as Texas had already tried to rebel against Mexico once before. 

7. Complexity

There are multiple ways to earn the complexity point, which can be found on the DBQ rubric. But the easiest way for me to gain the point is to include one counterclaim body paragraph that includes the documents from the opposing side along with two other body paragraphs.


Don’t mention any new or outside info. Just restate your thesis and any wrapping up ideas.

See how you can earn almost all the points on the DBQ? On to the LEQ!

Want a sample DBQ to look at?

You can find sample DBQs scored officially by College Board here.

LEQ: Long Essay Question

LEQs to score a 5 on the APUSH exam

Now for the 40-minute LEQ - which is much easier! For this essay question, you will get 3 different prompts to choose from and zero documents. Make sure to choose an LEQ prompt that you know a lot of background info about, and are already fairly comfortable with.

Though this is the last part of the APUSH exam, the LEQ is worth 15% of your exam score, so make sure to finish strong!

Here’s a simplified version of the rubric for an LEQ:






Create a historically defensible claim.



Describe a broader historical context relevant to the prompt.





Provide specific evidence relevant to the prompt.


Provide specific evidence relevant to the prompt that supports an argument.

Analysis and Reasoning 


Use comparison, causation, or change and continuity over time to structure an argument that addresses the prompt. 



Do one of the following:

  • Counterclaim

  • Explaining nuance by analyzing multiple variables

  • Explaining both similarity and difference, both continuity and change, or multiple causes, or both causes and effects. 

  • etc.

Use the same advice for the Thesis, Contextualization, Analysis and Reasoning, and Complexity from the DBQ above. The only thing different is that all your evidence will be from memory, and you no longer need to do HIPP. Once again, remember that your evidence must be different from your Contextualization in the first paragraph.

Want a sample LEQ?

You can find sample LEQs scored officially by College Board here.

What to do throughout the School year

Write flashcards, not notes

APUSH vocabulary tips to score a 5

I had 3 notebooks full of APUSH course notes, and I probably only glanced at one page of all that when studying for the exam. If you can, start writing your “notes” directly into a Quizlet! This is such a time saver since you won’t have to write notes and a separate set of Quizlet terms. By the month before the APUSH exam, you’ll have a whole library of flashcards to study off of!

Quick tips to make great flashcards:
  • Write the significance, along with the term and definition. This is super helpful when trying to gain the Contextualization and/or Complexity points on the DBQ and LEQ
  • Write concisely:
    • Use symbols like “=” “→” and “&.
    • Substitute long words like “because” with “bc.”
    • Ignore grammatical rules, so you have less to store in your brain - these cards are for you and you only, so you’re allowed to ignore grammatical convention!
For example, a Quizlet card might look like this:


Dred Scott Decision 


Supreme court ruled that Dred Scott had to stay a slave even if he lived in the North bc:

*he was property and thus could not sue in court.

*asserted that all African Americans at the time were NOT citizens (even if free)

*Made Missouri Compromise unconstitutional → angered Northerners. 

* means this is the significance of the term.

To read or to not read

APUSH textbook

You don’t necessarily need to read the textbook! I honestly just looked at the textbook for the first month or so. Afterward, I just watched summary Youtube videos (the Youtubers I most recommend for this class is Heimler’s History for an overview and Jocz Productions for more detailed info) that were less dense than the book. But, this only worked because my teacher gave me a list of proper nouns to know for each test, so I could watch the videos and make Quizlets based on the list. Filling out these vocab lists gives you a great guideline of what to look for when trying to learn the new info.

Start studying for the APUSH exam ASAP!

Some people start studying for the exam during winter break while others start much later. I personally told myself that I would start during Spring Break in March (spoiler: I didn’t get much done!). In reality, I did the bulk of my studying in April, in which I crammed a bunch for the exams which would be in early May.

Here’s my recommendation:

Start early. Start in January or February if you can, and revise all the periods you’ve learned so far in school. Also start brushing up on the periods to come, as your class may be behind schedule - many classes this year didn’t get to Periods 8 and 9, which would have definitely hurt scores (did you know 52% of APUSH exam test takers failed on the 2021 exam?). If you do a little bit of studying every day, the weeks coming up to the exam will be light and less stressful. Plus, around late April and May, you’ll probably have to study for so many other finals, so it’s better to think ahead!

HOW to study for the APUSH exam:

How to study to score a 5 on the APUSH exam

Memorize Vocabulary

Knowing the vocabulary will be useful when you need to use the names of people, places, laws, events, and other proper nouns as outside evidence in your essays.

So using the Quizlets you’ve made earlier in the year, you should review the terms - especially from the periods you don’t know very well. Make sure to star any terms that you miss or guess on!

Based on this table, you should specifically focus on the middle periods of history, especially periods 7 and 8 - the 2021 APUSH exam barely had any questions on periods 1 and 9!

Also do not worry about memorizing exact dates! You just need a general awareness of the order events came in, but you don’t have to know the exact start and end dates of every single war in U.S. history.

Make Historical Connections

Just knowing the vocab itself won’t be the only thing you need to know as the MCQs are stimulus-based and essays rely on knowing how to compare and contrast, and show continuities and changes. That’s why you should create Graphic organizers and Timelines.

Here are some examples of visuals I made (these are just the ones that I personally thought were helpful but there is an infinite amount of organizers that would help make historical connections).
  • Benefits and costs of various events (i.e. pros and cons of gaining Independence).
  • Successes and failures of various court cases, laws, and people (i.e. successes and failures of the Articles of Confederation).
  • Timelines of the Civil war and World War 2 including the significance of each event or battle.
  • The advantages and disadvantages that each side in the Civil War had (i.e. South lacked infrastructure while the North dealt with some reluctant civilians, shown through the New York Draft Riots).
  • Tables showing the different political parties throughout the years including what they believed in and who supported them.

And take APUSH Practice Exams!

take APUSH practice tests

The only way to up your skills in taking the standardized tests is to practice the test itself! That means timing yourself using the measurements above.

You can even use this APUSH exam score calculator from to predict your score based on your practice tests! It’s super motivating to see your score increase over time.

Each time you take a practice test, check your answers:

Multiple Choice

  1. Write down the questions and answers you got wrong.
  2. Write down why you got that wrong based on the answer explanations. For example, did you not know enough about a certain event like the Civil War? Was it a careless mistake? Did you interpret the stimulus paragraph incorrectly? There is a multitude of other reasons why you might get something wrong.
  3. Based on the reasons from number 2, you should study accordingly. For example, if you didn’t know enough about a certain event like the Civil War, you should go back and go through Quizlets of the proper nouns from that time period.
  4. Keep on reviewing any of the wrong questions from before.

Written questions
  1. Self-grade your written questions using the rubric. Write down any of the points you failed to earn.
  2. Write down why you missed this point. Did you just forget to include something? Or were you unable to interpret and incorporate a document into your argument? Again, there is an infinite amount of other reasons why you might get something wrong.
  3. Based on the reasons from number 2, practice the skill accordingly. For example, if you were unable to interpret a document, continue to practice reading and understanding primary sources.
Hopefully, this gave you a good overview of the AP U.S. History Exam and helps you achieve a 5 on the exam! If you have any questions about studying for it, drop them down below in the comments and I will be happy to answer!

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