What You Need to Know for APUSH

Alright, here is the article I promised. This article is a continuation of another article on this blog called “Should I take APUSH?“. If you didn’t read it yet and you’re not sure whether or not you should take APUSH, check it out. Today, I’m going to go over the basic structure of this class and what kinds of things you are expected to know. To those who came from on-level World, pay attention.

Unit Essays/LEQs

First off, the unit essays. I post essay prep for most units of APUSH on this blog and you can find them here. At the end of each unit (which lasts for about a month each, depending on your teacher), you’re expected to be able to write an in-depth essay on the prompt in question. There are several types, some of which I’ll describe here:

  •  Compare and contrast: It is helpful to clearly state whether the items being compared are more similar or more different in your thesis and expand on that in your body paragraphs. This way, if you have fewer points for how similar/different the items are to each other, you’ve already made your point that they were more similar/different. Also, tie in every attribute of the two things being compared to a larger theme. For example, if you’re comparing and contrasting Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policies vs Woodrow Wilson’s, instead of comparing each thing they did separately, tie it in to the theme that both of them sought to exert American influence internationally although they had very different methods of doing so. This helps you keep focus and it makes writing a conclusion much easier.
  • Evaluate the impact: This question requires you to not only list out what happened as the result of something, but also need to say just how impactful it is. If it’s a question about the impact of technological innovation during the Market Revolution, you have to list out new inventions and methods and also how it ties in to the larger movement, ie the beginning of Northern industrialisation and Southern specialisation that was part of the Market Revolution.
  • Relative Importance: There are also some people who miss the point of this type of essay and as a result, they get points docked. This type of essay prompt requires you to say which event is more relevant to the event of something else. If it asks you to evaluate the relative importance of foreign and domestic affairs in 1790s American politics, list and explain what foreign and domestic affairs there were and then talk about the policies that were passed in the 1790s and say whether foreign or domestic affairs were more influential in said politics.
  • Really though, all you need is to read the prompt. Do what it tells you to do and you should be fine. Be aware of dates because some prompts have time restrictions (ie 1860s to 1920s) and you can’t use events that occur outside the time period (or else you might get points taken off).

In those essays, you also need a synthesis point, a thesis and a contextualization point to get a 100%. The synthesis point requires you to connect the current prompt to another time period (as a rule of thumb, pick something that’s twenty years from the time period in question) and explain why the two are similar. If the question asks for what impacted America’s decision to join WWI, you can use the War of 1812 as a synthesis point and then lay out the similarities (namely, naval aggravation).

For the thesis, you need to completely answer all aspects of the question. Like the examples I gave you above in the types of essays you’ll get, be aware of what the prompt is asking you and make sure you address all parts of the question.

For contextualization, you need to expand on what else is happening in the same time period as the question. If I use the example above in the synthesis point paragraph and I used economic interest and German naval policy as reasons for the US entering WWI, then I could use Allied propaganda or Wilson’s idealism as an expansion on another possible reason for why the US entered the war.


These are short answer questions and you’re going to see several of them on the AP exam. Basically, what the SAQ does is it usually gives you a document, whether it’s a piece of text or a picture, and it asks you to describe what it means, what the context is and how it figures into the bigger patterns of US history and things like that. There are slightly different questions depending on what they give you but that’s the general idea. Don’t spend time on trying to cram in too many details; for these, just bring up one solid detail for each question and explain it. There are usually three questions for one document. Since the AP Exam is timed, you shouldn’t spend too much time on the SAQs. Around fifteen minutes each is what you’re trying to aim for. Your teacher might hand these out in class as practice for the AP exam.


DBQs, in my opinion, are the easiest to write because you don’t need to pull all the information from your brain and provide an in-depth analysis like on a full-blown long essay question but you also have more freedom on what you can write than on an SAQ. Basically, for this type of essay, you get a packet of documents (like the name of the essay says, it’s a document-based question) and you have to answer the prompt using the information from the documents. To get full points, you also need contextualization, a thesis and a synthesis point. Since this is a DBQ, you’ll also need to use the majority of documents and be able to provide information beyond the documents for some of them.

For example, if there are nine documents, you need to use seven in your essay and provide information beyond the document for four of them. What I mean by information beyond the document is, well, exactly what it says. For example, in the first unit, a possible DBQ packet contains a graph that tells you the names of the people on ships that came to Virginia or Massachusetts during the colonial age. By looking at their names and ages, you can tell that many more families and older people came to Massachusetts vs Virginia. Information beyond the document (sometimes called evidence beyond the document) would be something like how the people who went to Massachusetts were Puritans and were looking to establish their way of life away from the religious oppression of England and thus, brought their whole families along in the interest of long-term establishment.

Discussion Groups

Discussion groups are basically just debates; you get a stance on a topic and the information to argue your side. My teacher first has us split into groups of four and gives us a list of debate topics pertaining to the time period we’re studying and tells us to choose a topic to debate. When we decide our topic, we get a packet that details the arguments to the yes and no sides of the debate. The rubric has a written and speaking part so to get full points, you need to have a thesis paragraph prepared complete with a synthesis point as well as a basic outline detailing your argument against the opposing side. Then, to get the speaking part of the grade, you just need to present all the points of your argument, be persuasive about it and be able to come up with good rebuttals and you’re set.


There is assigned reading every unit from the textbook that usually spans anywhere from 60 to over 100 pages but I usually never do it. Some of my friends at other schools say that their teacher gives out quizzes to make sure they read every night but since my teacher doesn’t and I can get my information elsewhere, I just don’t do my textbook reading. Of course, reading the textbook is the surest way to get the information you’d need for the unit but it’s not always necessary depending on your teacher and how they structure their class so you’ll just have to figure that out for yourself.

There are also several books that you might have to read throughout the school year. This year, my teacher had us read Founding Brothers and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas during the first semester. I know that he also occasionally has his students read a book about the Revolutionary War and Paul Revere. Again, this differs between teachers and schools, but these readings you obviously have to do and there’s usually some sort of assessment at the end of it. For Founding Brothers, we got a series of short-answer questions about the book and what it meant and for the Narrative, we had to write an LEQ about how Frederick Douglas tries to dispel stereotypes about black people in his book and how his book might be considered “literary”. While it’s true that you need to be a good writer to do well in APUSH, your ability to understand and analyse what you read is way more important.


I’m not sure how other teachers do it, but besides the (optional) textbook reading and the occasional reading assignments, there is no homework. Whatever work you decide to do for APUSH is mostly optional and of the preparatory nature rather than you having to turn it in for a grade. To break it down, this is my usual MO when it comes to tackling each unit:

  • Listen to teacher lectures
  • Do classwork (ie document study– to provide a more in-depth, primary-source view of the time period)
  • Do essay prep for unit essays (again, I upload essay prep on this blog)
  • Look at the Key Terms list (I also have key terms on this blog but there are no definitions; if you guys want me to upload definitions, tell me. If there are enough requests, I might upload definitions as well.)
  • Watch the corresponding episodes of Crash Course US History
  • If applicable, finish reading assignments and prepare for discussion groups


That’s all. I think APUSH is challenging but if you prepare and listen during class, you should be fine. If you lay out a plan for each unit and put aside time to study exclusively for APUSH, then even better. I myself am not a good student; I do minimal work and I finish assignments last-minute but I have a good memory and I can absorb material really fast so my shortcomings are covered by my strengths and I got an A+ in my first semester of APUSH. So you just need to know yourself and your limitations and work with your teacher and counselor to see what works the best for you.

If you have any general questions, drop us a line and we’ll do our best to answer. Talk to you later.

Featured Image from Parthenon Graphics

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