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AP History Exams

The Advanced Placement Program (AP) provides collegiate level classwork to high school students who feel ready to tackle a more rigorous, enriching workload. Each AP course is correlated to an introductory collegiate course on the same subject. The courses culminate in exams offered at the end of the school year, graded on a scale of 1 to 5.

Taking AP exams and scoring well offers a student several significant advantages, with the most obvious being the cultivation of a competitive edge in college applications. While not mandatory for college admission, the successful completion of AP exams demonstrates to colleges and universities that the student has attained solid footing in academic subjects, has cultivated a strong work ethic, and is willing to go the extra mile.

Another great benefit of taking AP exams is the head start that it provides. By scoring well on the exams, students can often skip introductory courses or satisfy prerequisites for his or her college major. The ability to jump into the core of the academic program frees up time to take additional electives for a more well-rounded college curriculum. Additionally, being able to skip these credits can represent a considerable savings on college tuition.

AP courses and exams cover a wide range of subjects, including math, sciences, humanities, social sciences, arts, and languages. This blog provides a brief overview of the three AP history exams. In a census conducted by the College Board, students often cite the AP History courses (European History, US History, and World History) as the hardest exams to score well on. In AP European History, students enhance their understanding of European history through analysis of historical sources and craft arguments as they navigate concepts like interaction of Europe and the world, economic and commercial developments, cultural and intellectual developments, and other key relationships.

Similarly, in AP US History students investigate significant events, individuals, developments, and processes in nine historical periods from approximately 1491 to the present. They learn to apply raw knowledge in informed arguments that help explain the historical trajectory of the United States.

In AP World History, students investigate events of great significance and prominent historical figures from 1200 to present. Students cultivate and use the same skills, practices, and methods employed by historians: analyzing primary and secondary sources, and utilizing reasoning about comparison, causation, and continuity and change over time amongst other skills.

Nicole, an expert AP History tutor here at Peninsula Academy, had this to say about the AP History exams:

“In recent years, the AP History exams have greatly increased in difficulty, beyond what is usually expected in even a first year college history class. All parts of the exams (multiple choice, short answer, data-based question, and long answer) focus on analysis rather than just memorization of historical facts.

While knowledge of detailed historical fact is expected, the exams now test the students' ability to apply this knowledge in various ways, such as recognizing relationships across time (such as cause/effect and change/continuation) and identifying nuances in thought and events (compare/contrast and degrees). The exams also expect the student to have a working understanding of economics, philosophy, the arts, and government, and be able to apply these concepts in an analytical fashion. This is no small task for a high school student.”

Among the three exams, AP US History is the most popular. Taken by a little over 500,000 high school students in the U.S. in 2018 with an average of 2.7 (2019 national data not available yet). AP World History is also popular, taken by more than 300,000 high school students in 2018 with an average of 2.8. Usually considered the most difficult of the three, AP European History is also taken by fewer students than the other two; for example, in 2018, about 100,000 students took this exam, with an average of 2.9. Understandably, although fewer students take AP European History, those who do are usually serious about pursuing a major in humanities and government. In our experience, students tend to invest more time in this class and exam.

Peninsula Academy offers tutoring in all AP courses and exams (including the three in history) and has the distinct privilege of helping our student Shelley obtain a perfect 5 on the AP European History exam. We got to sit down with her to ask how she did it, why, and what the strategic basis was for her enrollment.

“I took AP European History because I really love history and wanted the challenge. It was my first AP exam, and all the information seemed so overwhelming. I read through the entire textbook by Palmer from January to May, and continued to work through available multiple choice practice questions. In addition, Nicole helped me analyze multiple choice questions and figure out ways to approach them. She also helped me cover and analyze DBQs (Document Based Questions) so that I could get used to those types of questions. These DBQs were definitely the most challenging part of the test. I am happy I worked hard for my score because I learned a lot and also have an idea of how to tackle AP exams going forward. I am really grateful to Nicole and Peninsula Academy for all of their help.”

We felt immensely proud of Shelley. Scoring the perfect 5 has not only put her in the top 10% of students taking the exam, based on data from the College Board, but also encouraged and empowered her to take more AP classes and exams, as she continues to challenge herself.

The names of Peninsula Academy’s students have been changed in order to preserve their anonymity.


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