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How Hard Is APUSH? AP U.S. History Course & Exam Difficulty

When it comes to AP course offerings, AP U.S. History (APUSH) is one of the most popular offerings among high school students. If you’re considering whether or not this course is right for you, you might be wondering just how difficult the class and exam are. 

AP U.S. History is one of the more challenging AP courses. When compared to other AP exams, this course has a lower rate of students passing the exam. However, its difficulty will ultimately be decided by the course, the student, and their interest and dedication to the material. 

In the rest of this article, we’ll take a closer look at how students score on this exam compared to the other common AP exams. We’ll also see how the test is structured and some of the best methods to prepare effectively for the final test. 

AP US History - Exam Difficulty

How Students Scored on the APUSH Exam

The AP U.S. History (also referred to as APUSH) exam usually attracts around half a million students each year. This number makes it the second most popular AP exam among high school students, only below the AP English Language and Composition exam. 

Just because it’s so popular doesn’t mean it is an easy exam. 

AP Tests are scored from 1-5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. In 2020, only 13% of students who took the AP U.S. History Exam scored a 5. 

However, the more interesting statistic is the number of students who receive a score high enough to pass. In 2020, the exam had a pass rate of 58.8%. This percentage means that just over half of the students who took the exam received a 3 or above. 

Most universities will award college credit for scores of 3, 4, or 5. However, more prestigious universities only give credit to students who scored a 4 or 5 on the exam. Three is still considered passing but it will not unconditionally earn you college credit. 

Looking at that 58.8% passing rate, we can see that nearly half of the students who take this exam do not score high enough to receive college credit. The percentage is even higher when considering students who passed the exam but could not receive credit from their institutions that required a 4 or above. 

Scores in Context

To put these numbers in perspective, let’s take a look at how these statistics stack up against other popular AP exams from the same year. The top five most popular AP Exams are as follows:

  1. English Language and Composition
  2. U.S. History
  3. English Literature 
  4. U.S. Government and Politics
  5. World History

Let’s begin our comparison by seeing the breakdown of scores for the five most popular AP exams. The following statistics are officially provided by the College Board in regards to the 2020 exams.

Exam Name54321Passing
English Language and Composition12.6%20.4%29.1%26.2%11.8%62.1%
U.S. History13%19.2%26.6%20.4%21%58.8%
English Literature9.3%17.3%33.5%27.8%12.2%60.1%
U.S. Government and Politics15.5%16.5%25.5%22%20.5%57.5%
World History9.2%22.8%28.2%26.1%13.7%60.2%

Before we proceed with our comparison, it’s important to note that all of these exams are taken by hundreds of thousands of students consistently each year. While there are far more than these five AP exams, many of the exams are smaller and more specialized. 

On average, less than 3,000 students take these specialized exams in a year. 

The smaller exams likely receive a more specialized, dedicated group of students. Therefore, we’ll only look at these exams that are all taken by large numbers of students each year. This should give us a more accurate feel for the difficulty of the APUSH exam.

Students Who Scored a 5

Let’s begin with students who scored a 5 on this exam. 

Thirteen percent of the students examined scored a 5 on the U.S. History exam, comparable to the 12.6% who scored a 5 on the English Language exam. It’s a higher percentage than the 9.3% that received a 5 on the English Literature exam or the 9.2% on the World History Exam. 

By this measurement, the U.S. Government exam has the highest percentage of students who scored a 5 with 15.5%. These numbers would suggest that the U.S. History exam isn’t the most challenging of the exams, but not the easiest either. 

Students Who Passed

The next data set we will explore is the students who passed the exam, which means they scored a 3, 4, or 5 on their test. The English Language exam has the highest passing percentage, with 62.1% of students likely receiving college credit.

Next, English Literature and World History have comparable percentages, with 60.1% and 60.2% respectively. 

Coming in fourth is the U.S. History exam, with 58.8% of students receiving a 3 or above. The U.S. Government is a close 5th with 57.5% of students receiving a passing score. 

This is perhaps the more relevant set of data for students. For most students, there isn’t much of a difference between a 4 and 5 or even a 3, 4, or 5. A score of 4 can be just as valuable as a 5 since they both will get you college credit when you enter university.

These statistics show us how hard the exams are for students to achieve the practical goal of passing and potentially receiving college credit. While not all students aim for a 5, most students at least aim for a 3 if not a 4. 

We can see from the U.S. History pass rate that this test can be more challenging for students than others. It leaves around 40% of the students who take the exam unable to earn college credit from their year’s worth of study. 

Determining Difficulty 

Some of the major factors in the level of difficulty a student will face in AP U.S. History are their interest in the subject, commitment to the material, and the quality of the course in school. 

AP U.S. History is a great choice for students who are interested in history, excited to do the readings, and want to stay engaged in the lectures. The course can be challenging, but it’ll push motivated students to really understand the material and build on it throughout the year.

For students who love history, the final exam can be a way to display all the knowledge they have acquired throughout the school year. 

The essays are a way for them to show their original analysis using historical context and creatively express what they have come to understand deeply through the course.

The quality of instruction will determine how difficult the exam feels as well. 

Many teachers now shape their classes in a way to make the AP exam feel familiar. Tests and quizzes throughout the year may use actual questions from old AP exams. Students may have practice essays that mimic the AP structure all year long to prepare them for the final essays on the real exam.

However, if the course in school doesn’t incorporate much test preparation, students may find the actual exam quite a bit harder. They may have to take on more responsibility to practice with the multiple-choice section, or they may need to teach themselves the grading rubrics for the essays in order to understand how to score as high as possible.

How difficult this course and exam are will depend a lot on individual situations. 

Students within the same class will likely score differently, depending on their learning style and how well they’ve been consistently preparing throughout the year. 

Source: Thought Co

Study Tips for APUSH

If you’re already thinking about how to study for the exam, remember that your whole year in class is a chance to build the knowledge you’ll need for the exam.

Be committed to your textbook and readings. By digging into the material as you cover it in class, you have the chance to deeply understand the themes and patterns being presented through historical events. 

Take the time to learn the key terms when they come up. 

You’ll build upon these throughout your year in class and will use them on the exam itself. By learning each key term as you go, you’ll save yourself from trying to memorize them all out of context in a final cramming session before the exam. 

Many AP US History teachers design their unit tests to mimic the multiple-choice style of the AP exam. They may even use old questions that have been made available through practice tests. 

Use each quiz and unit test as a chance to practice for your year-end AP exam. Take time to review the test after receiving your grade, using the questions you got wrong to show you which concepts you misunderstood. Speak with your teacher about any incorrect answers you don’t understand. 

Use each test as a chance to deepen your understanding and better prepare for when these topics show up on the AP exam. 

For more tips and tricks for getting the most out of your AP US History class, you can check out this informative Youtube video:

How To Keep Up With the Pace of an AP Class

However, life in an AP class can sometimes feel like it’s moving too fast. There’s a lot of material for the teacher to cover, and you may not be able to process and absorb the information in class fast enough.

If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed by the class content, it’s important to set aside time at home for your reading. By reviewing the day’s material through your notes and relevant textbook chapter, you are giving yourself another chance to absorb the information more accurately. 

You might find it helpful to make your own outline as you read your textbook. As you read, organize the information in a way that makes sense to you in your own handwritten or typed outline. 

You can add information from your class notes as well. 

These personal outlines are great study tools for your upcoming unit exams as well as when it comes time to study for your final AP exam. You can add to them as you continue to study and come to deeper understandings of the topics.

What Materials To Use To Study for the Exam

As the exam gets closer, you may start wondering what else you need to do to prepare for your exam. Using your detailed outlines, notes from class, and your textbook are a great start.

You may also choose to purchase an AP US History prep book. 

These review books will give you several chapters overviewing the historical content you’re expected to know. It’ll be a fresh resource that covers the material you’ve already learned in class. 

Many students enjoy reading through something new to help them remember and review what they’ve been learning all along.

There are also plenty of other resources available online, even for free. For example, the Adam Norris Youtube channel is an incredible resource for APUSH review. Mr. Norris is a teacher who has created powerpoints and lectures for free on Youtube to help students review for the test. 

His channel is one example of the many educational resources available online.

Final Thoughts

If you’re thinking about taking AP U.S. History, it’s good to know that the final test won’t be a piece of cake as you begin your course. However, if you choose to truly learn the material throughout the year and carefully prepare for the exam itself, you’re on the right track to be in the 58.8% of students who pass.

For students interested in history and digging deeper into their country’s most important historical moments, the AP U.S. History course and exam can be a challenging and rewarding experience. 

Recommended Reading:

How To Decide Which History Class To Take in College?

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