Essay Test Questions American History

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We’ve already written about the kinds of American history questions you’ll find on the APUSH exam (multiple choice, free response essays, and so on). So today, let’s talk about the five historical themes that show up on the exam year after year.

Which themes should I study for AP American history questions?

The following historical themes appear on almost all of the APUSH exams from the last three years. American history questions on these themes appear in both the multiple-choice section and throughout the free response essays. Although you can’t know for sure whether you’ll have to respond to a multiple-choice question or essay, you can prepare yourself by studying that particular topic.

As you study, remember that AP American history questions demand more than just memorized facts. Ensure your working knowledge of each subject includes the causes leading up to historical events, the consequences of those events, and how those pieces fit together in the overall APUSH puzzle.

Theme #1: Women’s role in history

Women play an important role in history and in your upcoming American history exam. In the last three years, more than six free response essays have featured a prompt regarding women. Make sure you understand the roles of women throughout history and how those roles have shaped society.

  • Rise of women’s rights, especially the right to vote
  • Women and the Civil Rights Movement
  • Betty Friedan
  • Title IX
  • Seneca Falls Convention
  • Women’s roles during 1970s-90s
  • Women’s suffrage

Theme #2: American independence

Make sure to study more than just the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The struggle for American independence covers decades of information. Review content on the colonies all the way to the Civil War. Also note the few names associated with this question theme—multiple questions have been asked regarding the role each of these gentlemen played in the quest for American Independence.

  • British colonies
  • Samuel Adams
  • Rights of the colonists
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  • Constitution, as ratified in 1788
  • Civil War, Battle of Antietam

Theme #3: Historical Figures

There are a few names listed under specific themes, but the following historical figures get their own category. This means they came up more than a few times throughout the past three APUSH exams. Our Most Valuable APUSH Players: Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson. Questions regarding these two men are in every. Single. Exam.

  • Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of Treasury financial plans
  • George Washington, Farewell Address of 1796
  • Woodrow Wilson, foreign policy
  • John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Andrew Jackson, nullification crisis, bank war, removal of Native Americans
  • Jacob Riis
  • Senator Joseph McCarthy, rise and fall of McCarthyism

Theme #4: Civil Rights

The struggle for Civil Rights covers a broad range of events. It might be helpful to reference a chronological timeline that includes the beginning of the antislavery movement all the way up to the present day. Two main Supreme Court cases, Brown v. Board and Plessy v. Ferguson, are extremely common themes in the most recent APUSH exams. Multiple questions reference these cases.

Theme #5: Immigration & Migration

APUSH keeps these two topics separate in some questions, and overlaps them in others. Focus on understanding the major catalysts for both migration and immigration trends across the APUSH timeline. Also, think about how both migration and immigration patterns helped shape society.

What are the best resources for studying AP American history questions?

The sites below can help focus and concentrate your efforts on the five common American history question themes. Although there is no way to know for sure which questions will appear on your exam, it is always a great idea to study from as many resources as possible to increase your chances of success.


McGraw-Hill’s 500 AP US History Test Questions to know by test day was originally published in 2010, but still contains content relevant to current APUSH exams. Each of the 500 questions comes with a full explanation for every answer (both right and wrong), so you can brush up on what you really need to know in order to score that 5. Pay close attention to the language of each question: some are potentially misleading in their phrasing.


Always a favorite! Quizlet has two different quizzes: Frequently Asked Questions for APUSH and 250 things every AP Student should know about US History. Like all Quizlet sets, you can choose to review this information through flashcards, a test, matching practice or an online game. You can also search for individual sets that focus on specific information such as amendments, Presidents or Civil Rights leaders.

AP College Board

Your best bet for official APUSH materials. Find the released exam from 2017, as well as free response prompts dating all the way back to 2001. College Board is one of the few places that offers a full-length practice test, so take advantage of it if you have the time. Nothing prepares you as well for the real test! Time yourself (especially the free response essays) for the most accurate testing experience.

Need even more practice?

If you are looking for even more APUSH questions to practice, visit some of our great resources at Magoosh! Our favorite practice tests, online resources, course notes and study tips are only a quick click away!

About Beth Gonzales

Beth is an educator and freelance creative designer who devises innovative and fun-loving solutions for clients. She works with families, students, teachers and small businesses to create and implement programs, campaigns and experiences that help support and maximize efforts to grow communities who critically think, engage and continue to learn.

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!

While a number of the most important reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries grew out of efforts to combat the negative effects of industrialization, the main focus of their efforts was not the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the natural environment. Although some reformers, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, were deeply worried about the consequences of economic development on the natural environment, the most influential, most effective reformers were primarily concerned with the impact of the rise of big business on small businesses, industrial workers, and consumers, and with corruption in government that reformers believed resulted from the economic power of large corporations.

Farmers were upset at what they regarded as arbitrary and excessive railroad rates and abuses such as rebates to big business like Standard Oil. These farmers were among the first and most outspoken advocates of reform in the late 19th century. Pressure from the Farmers’ Alliances convinced Congress to pass and President Cleveland to sign the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, a piece of legislation designed to regulate railroad rates and prohibit corrupt practices such as rebates. By 1890, these Farmers’ Alliances had entered politics in a number of Southern and Midwestern states and succeeded in pressuring Congress to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act, outlawing all “combinations in restraint of trade.” By 1892, a national People’s Party had been organized, nominating a third-party presidential candidate and electing several members of Congress. The Populist movement, a reform movement attempting to combat the negative effects of industrialization and the rise of big business, was now in full swing.

Beginning at the state level and with strong support in many urban areas, a new progressive movement reached the national level during the first years of the 20th century. Supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, progressive reformers, like the Populists, sought to strengthen railroad regulation and both enforce and further strengthen the antitrust laws. In 1902, President Roosevelt not only forced mine owners to submit to arbitration to settle a nationwide coal strike, he also asked his attorney general to file an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Company, a large railroad holding company. After the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision to break up the Northern Securities Company in 1904, Roosevelt went on to strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ability to regulate railroad rates by pushing the Hepburn Act through Congress in 1906. A few years later, another progressive reformer, Woodrow Wilson, succeeded to the presidency, and he managed to further strengthen the antitrust laws by pushing the Clayton Antitrust Act through Congress in 1914.

While railroad regulation and antitrust actions attracted the most attention of reformers during the period 1880–1920, some efforts were made by reformers to mitigate the effects of industrialization and commercial expansion on the natural environment. President Roosevelt used his executive authority to put thousands of acres of public lands aside for national parks, saving them from commercial exploitation. In 1908, he convened a conservation conference at the White House in an effort to further mitigate the damage that mining and manufacturing were doing to the natural environment, especially in the West. President Roosevelt also pushed for the establishment of the forest service and appointed a conservation-minded ally, Gifford Pinchot, to head that agency. Finally, even after retiring from office, Roosevelt supported Pinchot in his efforts to prevent President Taft’s secretary of the interior, Richard Ballinger, from opening additional public lands to commercial exploitation.

Thus, both the populist and progressive movements sought to combat the negative effects of industrialization and economic expansion by focusing primarily on railroad regulation and the strengthening and enforcement of antitrust legislation. Nevertheless, some progressive reformers like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot did pay significant attention to preventing further damage to the natural environment and helped to found the modern conservation movement.


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