How to Approach Each Question Type on the AP U.S. History Exam (page 3)
If you are presently enrolled in an AP U.S. History class you have undoubtedly already taken a large number of multiple-choice tests. In all probability, your teacher will give you plenty of practice on these as the year progresses. Remember, you will have 55 minutes to complete 80 questions. This does not give you a lot of time to “ponder” each question.
All questions on the test will have fi ve possible answers. The following question follows the format of many questions on the exam:
1. America during the Great Depression experienced
A. severe drought across the vast majority of the country
B. a vast increase in the number of Americans opposed to the policies of Franklin Roosevelt
C. widespread unemployment in both urban and rural sectors
D. increased employment possibilities for women and blacks
E. an increased sense of militarism
Look familiar? It should! You may also have questions on your exam asking you to interpret a political cartoon or a graph. To answer these, rely on the social studies skills you have developed from all of your social studies courses.
Many students maintain that the hardest type of questions encountered on the exam are the “which of the following is not correct” kind. Here is an example:
2. All of the following are true about Americans during the Great Depression except
A. Americans were put to work by programs such as the W.P.A.
B. American saw an increase in the power of labor unions through acts such as the Wagner Act.
C. By the end of the decade, many Americans favored the policies of Father Coughlin and Charles Townshend.
D. The majority of Americans rejected socialist solutions to the problems of the Great Depression.
E. The majority of Americans favored the programs of the New Deal.
Some Useful Hints on the Multiple-Choice Section
• Guessing: The most commonly asked question about this section is whether or not to guess if you are not completely sure of a question. If you can eliminate at least one of the answers as defi nitely wrong, the answer is: absolutely guess! As the College Board notes in a recent publication on the AP U.S. History test:
Many candidates wonder whether or not to guess the answers to questions about which they are not certain. In this section of the examination, as a correction for haphazard guessing, one-fourth of the number of questions you answer incorrectly will be subtracted from the number of questions you answer correctly. It is improbable, therefore, that mere guessing will improve your score signifi cantly; it may even lower your score, and it does take time. If, however, you are not sure of the best answer but have some knowledge of the question and are able to eliminate one or more answer choices as wrong, your chance of getting the right answer is improved, and it may be to your advantage to answer such a question.
• If you think the questions are getting harder, you are right! The questions on this exam are linked in a predictable format. Usually, they are bunched in groups of nine to twelve questions (occasionally eight to twelve). Each group of questions follows a chronological pattern: the fi rst question is on an early period in American history, while the last question is the closest to the present day. Each group of questions is harder than the group before it. Now that you know this, don’t get thrown by it!
• There may be more than one “possibly right answer”: The directions ask you to “select the one that is best in each case.” Get rid of the one or two responses that are obviously incorrect, and focus on the others. For example:
3. Which of the following was not a major infl uence on American youth in the late 1960s?
A. Rock and roll music as popularized through AM and FM radio.
B. The works of novelists of the Beat Generation such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
C. The continued infl uenced of the anti-communist movement championed by Joseph McCarthy.
D. Television shows specifi cally designed for the teen audience, such as American Bandstand.
E. Films, novels, and songs that contained anti-establishment themes.
So, what do you think the right answer is? Let’s eliminate the obvious choices: Rock music and popular culture with anti-establishment themes were generally popular with teenagers, so throw out A and E. B, C, and D all might be correct. Yet there were still some kids who read the Beats in the 1960s, and shows like American Bandstand still appealed to the “teenybopper” set. Therefore, the “best” answer would be C.
• Memorizing the facts is NOT enough: Although this is what 50–55 questions on the test will ask you to do, the other questions require some degree of analysis. For example:
4. The most accurate assessment of the Reconstruction era would be
A. a period when many of the tensions leading up to the Civil War ended
B. a period when southern blacks achieved racial equality throughout the South
C. a period when former abolitionists from the north were generally welcomed by southern whites
D. a period when southern economic growth increased dramatically
E. a period when the postwar ideals of Abraham Lincoln were only partially realized
E is the correct answer. To answer this question you need to be able to categorize the entire era of the Reconstruction.
• Don’t overlook the obvious: Questions on the AP U.S. History test emphasize the major themes, events, trends, and people in United States history. Don’t overthink the question. If you think an answer is so obvious that it has to be right, it probably is! The correct answer on this section of the test will probably not be some weird oddity of American history.
• Use a good pencil with a good eraser: I know this may seem a little far-fetched, but I have a colleague who is convinced that this is an approach to be emphasized. He maintains that many students get marked off because they don’t entirely fi ll in the bubbles or totally erase when they change their answers. He claims to have proof of this. He is so convinced of this that I thought I would pass this on.
Document-Based Essay Questions
During this essay section, you are required to analyze a number of documents and to utilize previously learned knowledge on an era to answer a question. Not all of the information needed to earn a fi ve is included in the documents. You need to bring what you know about the period in question to the table as well. In a typical question you might be presented with a photo, a graph, extracts from several speeches, and part of an editorial from the 1930s and be asked to discuss the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt. By the time of the AP test your teacher has probably provided you with numerous documentbased questions.
Here are some hints for answering the DBQs:
• Use the standard essay format that you have used for all historical essays. Start off with a thesis and then use analysis of individual documents to prove your thesis. If the documents are presented chronologically, then write about them in the same way.
• It is not always necessary to use every single document to construct your answer; use as many as possible but make sure that their inclusion in your essay is relevant.
• It is not necessary to spend every second of the 45 minutes writing the essay. Answer the question, including what the documents say and what you can say about them, and be done with it. To repeat, some of what you already know has to be included in your answer.
• There must be logic to your answer. Organization as well as knowledge is important. Please remember that there is no “right answer” to the DBQs.
• Many students ask whether spelling counts. The answer is: generally, no. Scorers know that you are rushed on these essays; in all probability, if you think your writing is bad they have probably seen worse. Nevertheless, do what you can to make your presentation as readable as possible. I know from personal experience as an instructor that it is hard to give a good grade to a student if you can hardly read what the student is writing.
• It will not help your score to spend time or space including direct quotes from the sources in your DBQ essay. Some students rely on placing quotes in the essay without actually analyzing them. If you are going to quote your sources, it is perfectly acceptable to paraphrase your quote; it is much more important to be sure to comment on any and all quotes that you include in your essay.
Free-Response Essay Questions
Immediately after taking the DBQ you will have to answer two free-response questions. You will receive two questions about the United States before the Civil War, and you will have to answer one of these. You will receive two questions about the United States after the Civil War, and you will have to answer one of these. Free-response questions ask you to utilize higher-order thinking skills; you will be asked to analyze events and trends of the past. As stated above, you will have 70 minutes to answer these questions.
For example, you might be asked to answer one of the following:
I. What were the most important reasons for increased tensions between American colonies and Great Britain between 1760 and 1776?
II. Analyze the major reasons for the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Here are some hints for answering the free-response essay questions:
• Use the organizational approach that you have probably utilized in answering essay questions all year:
• Create a thesis: what will your essay say?
• An effective opening statement is crucial.
• Support your opening statement with historical facts. Don’t include facts for the sake of including them: make sure they support your opening argument.
• If you can, include “counter-arguments”: this shows that you thoroughly understand the issue at hand. This is usually done after you have supported your opening statement with suffi cient evidence; this section often begins with “however, some historians believe . . . ” and gives evidence that contradicts your original thesis.
• An effective conclusion in which you restate your original argument.
• Make an outline before you begin to write. Make sure to answer the question. Don’t just go around in circles with information you know about the topic in question.
• Be sure to pick the question that you know the most about. I have had students say they a chose a specifi c questions because it “looked easier.” Avoid that approach.
• Watch your time! I have had students so intent on constructing the perfect essay for the fi rst free-response question that they didn’t realize until it was too late that they only had 15 minutes to answer the second question.
• Several students report that they get so wrapped up in the DBQ that once it was completed they relaxed a bit. Remember that a large part of the exam remains after the DBQ.
Reading and Interpreting Primary Source Documents
As a student of AP U.S. History, you will undoubtedly be spending a lot of time this year analyzing primary source documents. Your teacher will probably give you a number of them to read during the year; in addition, the document-based questions (DBQs) that are on every AP examination in May will ask you to read and interpret a number of primary sources and then to make a historical argument based upon them.
Historical documents, accounts, and books can be either primary or secondary sources. A secondary source is an account written after the fact. A chapter in your textbook is a secondary source, as is a biography, for example, of Franklin Roosevelt written in 2005. However, when historians write secondary source accounts, their research should include a thorough study of the available primary sources. A primary source is a document from the era or person in question. A primary source relating to George Washington might be a letter that George Washington wrote when he was at Valley Forge, an account on Washington written by someone who knew him personally, or a portrait of Washington that was done when he was alive. Primary sources relating to the 1950s might be a speech made by Senator Joseph McCarthy, a recording of the song “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley, or an episode of the television show “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” (Note that primary source documents are not limited to written documents.) Secondary source accounts such as your textbook usually have excerpts from various primary source accounts scattered throughout the chapters.
Analyzing primary source documents allows you to study history as a historian does. When you are analyzing, for example, the actual text of a fi reside chat given by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, you are the one doing the historical analysis; no other historian or author is doing the work for you. Types of primary source documents that you will be reading will include:
Published documents from a time period—These will include magazine articles, newspaper accounts, official government documents, posters, Supreme Court decisions, novels written during the era, and countless other sources.
Resources published after the fact—These will include letters and diaries written by historical (and non-historical) figures that were not originally meant for publication. These can be incredibly revealing; many politicians, for example, are much more honest in their diary entries than they are when they are giving speeches to the public. Oral histories are also very valuable and can be found at many local historical societies. A wonderful primary source would be the transcript (or audiotape) of a “common person” telling about the effect of the Great Depression on their family and community.
Visual documents—Paintings and photographs can provide incredibly revealing details about any time period you may be studying. Recently, the photographs of people waiting for help after Hurricane Katrina told more about the suffering in New Orleans than a thousand-word article could have. In 1945, photographs from recently liberated Nazi concentration camps shocked the world. Newsreel and television footage of historical events can also be invaluable.
Films—Movies from any era can provide a fascinating window into the values and beliefs of that period. By watching a film from, for example, the 1980s, you can get an idea of how people talked, what they wore, and what they believed in that era. A 1967 movie, “Bonnie and Clyde,” glorified the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two small-time gangsters who continually fl outed authority during the Great Depression. Although this film was about the 1930s, it perfectly reflected the disrespect for authority of many young people in the late 1960s.
Songs, recordings, etc.—Sources that one can listen to can also be valuable. As with fi lms, songs are very valuable windows into the culture and values of a time period, whether it is “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy or “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan. Listening to speeches given by historical figures can also be a valuable historical tool.
It should be remembered that virtually every single primary source document contains some amount of bias. Memoirs written by many historical figures are generally self-serving, and generally do not dwell on mistakes and problems from the writer’s past. It is virtually impossible to write about anything without bias; therefore, it is critical to consider this when evaluating primary sources. A source in which an observer discusses the impact that Theodore Roosevelt had on people when he met them would be influenced by preexisting judgments and opinions the author already had about Theodore Roosevelt. As a result, it is necessary to use a number of primary sources when evaluating a historical fi gure, event, or era.
Analyzing Primary Source Documents
There are many methods that historians and students can utilize when studying primary source documents. When looking at a document, try to find some information about its producer: what the relationship of the author was to the person/event being described; whether the producer had preexisting biases toward the subject of the document; and how far after the events being described was the document actually written. Another important question is the audience: the historian/student should identify the target group at which the document was aimed, and whether or not this might have influenced what was stated by the author. Students wanting more specifi c information on analyzing primary source documents can turn to numerous resources, including the Learning Page of the Library of Congress (http:// memory.loc.gov/ learn/lesson/psources/analyze/html) or an excellent analysis of the use of primary sources available from the Wisconsin Historical Society (www. wisconsinhistory .org/turningpoints/primarysources.asp). (
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