AP® U.S. History

As majestic as a bald eagle eating a squirrel.

  • Practice questions: 56
  • Practice exams: 3
  • Pages of review: 65
  • Videos: 280

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The Founding Fathers might have put their pens (quills) to paper (the Declaration of Independence) in 1776, but the AP® U.S. History exam goes all the way back to the days when "Christopher Columbus" was nothing but a catchy and vaguely ominous name.

In this guide, you'll find the skills and themes that will help you ace the exam on the first try—and not, like history, repeat it over, and over, and over, and over…

And over, and over, and over…

The Details

Historical Thinking Skills

We already know how to think. Right? We're smart. We're savvy. We've gotten through life so far without accidentally causing the planet to explode.

The AP U.S. History Test requires a special kind of savvy, though. Historical thinking skills are at the heart of history; they're central to understanding, analyzing, and writing about the past.

  • Historical thinking skills are organized into four kinds of skills: Chronological Reasoning, Making Historical Connections, Creating and Supporting Historical Arguments, and Analyzing Historical Sources and Evidence. Phew, that's a lot of capital letters.
  • Chronological Reasoning and Making Historical Connections zero in on fitting the big puzzle pieces of history together. These are mighty fine habits of thinking to practice and make our own, like historians do.
  • On the other hand, Creating and Supporting Historical Arguments and Analyzing Historical Sources and Evidence focus on the concrete skills historians use when they're reading those dusty old documents, and building up fancy arguments and testing them out.
  • We don't learn these puppies overnight. AP U.S. History teachers think about all the historical thinking skills and help you develop them throughout the entire year's course through tons of activities, from research assignments to group projects.
  • When digging into a thematic learning objective, don't use just one skill. Historical Causation might be great when looking at patterns of human migration, but Comparison and Contextualization or Interpretation could be even snazzier.

Period 1: 1491–1607

This time period of early America can be broken into several key concepts that create an outline to help organize studies.

  • Indigenous populations in North America were hardly uncivilized before Europeans knocked on their door. They had many social, economic, and political structures with roots in how they dealt with the environment and each other.
  • The Europeans' desire to streeeeetch out their empires overseas led to the Columbian Exchange, the biggest historical concept the world had ever seen—or at least that we tackle in this guide. The exchange covers all the interactions and adaptations among indigenous and European societies after Columbus made contact, which is why he got the exchange named after him.
  • What?! People in other countries live differently than we do? Yep, contact could be pretty stressful for Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans as they found their worldviews challenged by strangers.

It's dangerously easy to think of American history from a Eurocentric perspective, started only by a bunch of Pilgrims. This section serves as a good reminder of the other societal influences that have been swirled into our melting pot.

Period 2: 1607–1754

The 17th and 18th centuries may seem remote, but they're easier to make sense of with a handy-dandy outline of key concepts.

  • All North American colonies were not created alike. Different environments in different parts of the continent, as well as varying cultures and goals, created varied ways of life.
  • When the Europeans colonized North America, this helped different cultures make contact and learn from each other (good) and/or make contact and kill each other (bad).
  • In the "Atlantic World," Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans exchanged everything from crops and furs to political and religious ideas. These swaps profoundly affected the development of the colonies.

Period 3: 1754–1800

Think of this outline of key concepts as a fine battle plan to guide us through the section.

  • Britain kicked some serious French tail in dominating the colonial landscape of North America. This was great until new conflicts arose. It was time for the British government, the colonists, and the Native Americans to intensely deal with each other.
  • By the late 1700s, traditional systems of empire throughout the Atlantic World were being challenged by fancy new democratic experiments, republican forms of government, and other fresh ideas.
  • Conflicts between people and countries were also heating up as people migrated to new areas in North America and competed for the resources there. All these conflicts led to a new national identity that blended races and ethnicities.
    Bring on the fisticuffs!

Period 4: 1800–1848

The key concepts in this section could be described as "fast and furious." It was one change after another for the fledgling nation.

  • The United States got the blue ribbon for coming up with the first modern mass democracy on the globe. A brand-new national culture was developing, and Americans were busy reforming their institutions to match their shiny democratic ideals.
  • Technology was flying forward at the speed of light even in the 19th century. New innovations, agriculture, and commerce inspired changes in where Americans settled, how they identified themselves by their regions, how their families lived, how they wielded political power, and how they bought and sold consumer goods.
  • There was plenty going on outside the nation's ever-expanding borders, too. Americans were interested in boosting foreign trade—and also in keeping out of other countries' fights. U.S. foreign policy was shifting by the minute.

Period 5: 1844–1877

The key concepts in this section go beyond a country's typical growing pains. It was brother vs. brother.

  • To start things off, America was now majorly connected, globally speaking. Not only was it welcoming immigrants from all over the world, but the country was also very into an expansionist foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. Stand back, everyone else: Uncle Sam's marching in.
  • Meanwhile, the big fight was brewing. This expansion, along with disputes among America's different regions over slavery and other cultural, economic, and political issues, set the country on a crash course with civil war.
  • When the Union won the Civil War (spoiler alert), the matters of slavery and secession were settled. However, plenty of arguments were still to come over the power of the federal government and who deserved citizenship rights.

Fasten your seatbelts. This horse and buggy is rattling off down a dirt road at top speed.

Period 6: 1865–1898

The Guilted Age was a tough time. Strong men wept when their mothers complained that they never called. Mighty politicians crumbled as they remembered all the bribes they'd taken. We sniffled as we realized we wrote an entire section on the Civil War without mentioning the Gettysburg Address.

What? The Gilded Age? Excuse us. We'll be right back.

Got it.

  • Big business boomed in the United States, starting the Gilded Age—when consumption was king—and sparking major migration and urbanization. New efforts grew to revamp the country's economy and environment. As always, people were talking about what the country's identity should now be like in this fast-changing time.
  • The new industrial culture created new opportunity for women, minorities, and crowds of immigrants, but new restrictions, too.
  • The Gilded Age wasn't just about guilders. Cultural and intellectual movements blossomed during this time, along with political arguments over policies affecting society and the economy.

We're on the right track now. It's time for monopolies, corporations, and lots of machines, industrial and political.

Period 7: 1890–1945

It seemed like everything America did in the beginning of the 20th century was giant-sized: major industrialization heating up, people flooding—and soon flying—across the country, and the economy leaping up and down. Hey, if you're going to get involved with a war or have a depression, why do things halfway?

  • It takes a village to make sense of the effects of massive industrialization, economic hiccups, growing cities, and citizens moving all over the place. Governmental, political, and social organizations had their work cut out for them.
  • With telephones, radios, movies, and cars, values and ideas could now spread farther away and much more quickly. Why, look how fast the Maine girls started carrying Alabama-style parasols! Not all was rosy, though. Cultural conflicts between different groups also could spread quickly. They exploded under the pressures of world wars, economic woes, and citizen migration.
  • Nations all over the place were fighting over land, ideology, and resources again. Don't they ever quit it? It made the U.S. start reexamining its place in the world. At the same time, the country was taking the global lead in most things military, political, cultural, and economic.

Fee, fi, fo, fum, here comes the United States.

Period 8: 1945–1980

Post-war America: historians could write tome after tome on this subject alone. Many have. There's the Cold War, decolonization, civil rights, the Great Society…

Let's stop here, or we'll never get into the Big Issues.

  • Americans awoke after World War II into an unstable world where the foreign-policy ground was forever shifting. The U.S. immediately had to start defending its position as Number One Nation, with consequences that reached all over the country and into the outside world.
  • Conservatives had bellowed about the New Deal, but liberalism wasn't done with society yet. Liberals believed that a powerful country's government could be mighty powerful at attaining social goals at home, too. This belief blossomed in the mid-1960s, to both cheers and boos.
  • The postwar changes in the U.S.—economic, technological, and demographic—had significant effects on society and politics, as well as on nature.

That victory glow after World War II wouldn't last forever. Even the happiest parade can sometimes march right into a ditch.

Period 9: 1980–Present

New conservatism, the Moral Majority, techies, fossil-fuel foes: these are only a few of the cast of characters striding across the stage of the modern world. Everyone's got an agenda, and everyone's got a Big Issue.

  • The counterculture didn't succeed in toppling society. In fact, a new conservatism spread its eagle wings in American politics and culture, sticking up for traditional social values. "Liberal" became a bad word in many quarters. Hippies wept.
  • The Cold War ended with the crumbling of a wall and shouts for democracy. Still, democracy didn't carry all the days. New challenges scaled the ramparts of the palace of U.S. leadership in the world, and America had to reexamine its foreign-policy ideas.
  • Social, economic, and demographic changes swept the country as it traveled ahead into the 21st century. You were expecting a peaceful ride?

Saddle up. We're galloping into the future.

What's Inside Shmoop's Online AP U.S. History Test Prep

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our Test Prep resources will help you prepare for exams with fun, engaging, and relatable materials that bring the test to life.

In Shmoop's AP U.S. History guide, you'll find

  • a diagnostic exam to figure out where you're struggling before you even begin.
  • two full-length practice exams that mimic the look and feel of the exam.
  • answer explanations to figure out where you went wrong…or right.
  • loads of practice drills.
  • comprehensive review of the nine different periods of American history, four historical thinking skills, and seven themes.
  • test-taking tips and strategies.

Test Taking Tips

Master the AP U.S. History exam with clearly hilarious and incredibly comprehensive tips, strategies, and review material. We'll give you the lowdown on the shiny new test, including what's in those nine different periods of American history, four historical thinking skills, seven themes, and a partridge in a pear tree. Okay, maybe not that last one, but we thought about including a partridge. That's how much we care.

Full-length Practice Exams

The AP U.S. History exam is the bald eagle of U.S. history exams. It has a huge wingspan, covers a broad swath of the Earth, and happens to be majestic as all get out. It also features a lot of extremely important thematic learning objectives applied to primary and secondary sources, but we're not sure exactly how that fits into a bird metaphor. In other words, we have full-length practice exams that align to the College Board's newest vision of AP U.S. History. We made that eagle just for you.

Practice Drills

As everyone knows, practice makes perfect. We're not completely sure if that's a causative relationship or a correlative relationship, but we have enough practice drills to help us find out. (Then, we'll head over to AP Stats.) Our guide to the exam features hundreds of practice problems, all of which look like the ones that will appear on the actual. In fact, we might even have too many drills. You could probably give some out as favors at your next birthday party and still get that 5.


The AP U.S. History Exam covers a lot of material, mostly because a lot has happened in America's relatively short history. Our diagnostic exam can help you pinpoint where you are on the study spectrum—and where you need to be. Who knows? You could be pleasantly surprised to find that you're not an "Oh no, I need to be studying during every waking moment until test day," but an "Oh hey, I already know most of this stuff." Our goal is to get you to "Pssh, piece of cake" in no time.

We have online Test Prep for each and every AP Exam!

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