Is AP U.S. History Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide

Considering taking AP U.S. History? Learn how difficult this course and exam are and get tips on how you can earn the score you want.

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by Kasia Kovacs

Published on March 4, 2022 · Updated on April 7, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is AP U.S. History Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide


AP U.S. History ranks as a popular course. Almost half a million high school students took AP U.S. History in 2020, according to the College Board, making it the second-most popular AP subject for high school students that year.

But students aren't enrolling in this course because it's an easy A. AP U.S. History certainly comes with its challenges. In fact, it's among the hardest AP classes based on exam pass rate. If you're on the fence about enrolling in AP U.S. History— perhaps wondering "Is AP U.S. History hard?" — this guide breaks down everything you need to know.

What Does AP U.S. History Cover?

AP U.S. History spans from approximately 1491 to the present. The course begins with Native American societies and the Europeans' exploration of the New World. The material then covers the European colonies in North America, the Revolutionary War, the early years of the Republic, and the Civil War, before eventually moving into the 20th century.

APUSH also emphasizes critical thinking skills, with students learning how to evaluate primary source documentation and how to consider events within their historical contexts.

Additionally, learners exercise their argumentation skills by making historically defensible claims with the appropriate evidence.

Here are the major time periods covered in AP U.S. History:

  • Period 1: 1491-1607
  • Period 2: 1607-1754
  • Period 3: 1754-1800
  • Period 4: 1800-1848
  • Period 5: 1844-1877
  • Period 6: 1865-1898
  • Period 7: 1890-1945
  • Period 8: 1945-1980
  • Period 9: 1980-present

What Determines the Difficulty of AP U.S. History? 3 Key Factors

AP courses follow a more challenging curriculum than typical high school courses. The sections below dive into the difficulty of the course. If you're feeling on the fence about AP U.S. History, read these five questions to ask yourself before taking AP classes.

The Pass Rate

Less than 60% of students pass the AP U.S. History exam with a score of 3 or higher. Compared to the average pass rate for all AP exams — about 71% — that's somewhat lower.

Additionally, only 13% of AP U.S. History students pass the exam with a perfect score, compared to 20% of students on average across all AP exams.

That said, while most advanced placement courses challenge students, the AP U.S. History course is among the more difficult of the AP subjects.

AP Exam Pass Rates
AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
U.S. History 58.8% 13%
All AP Classes 71.13% 19.57%

Source: College Board

Keep in mind that while AP exam scores are a good way to glean how difficult the course is overall, each school is different. Some teachers may require heavier workloads or more challenging assignments than others.

Ask your teacher or an administrator if they can provide the pass rate for the U.S. History exam for your school.

The Course Material

The difficulty of a course depends in part on the amount of material it covers. With AP U.S. History spanning over several centuries, the pace of the course is often quick. Teachers frequently assign plenty of reading, essays, and other assignments to get through the full 500-odd years.

For students who struggle with time management or who dedicate their time to other courses and extracurricular activities, this work load may seem demanding.

Your Subject Skills

Your subject skills also play into how difficult a course may seem. AP U.S. History requires critical thinking and essay writing skills. Students should be able to analyze historical evidence and sources, make historical connections, and put together (and support) a historical argument.

If you possess these skills, AP U.S. History will prove an engaging and rewarding challenge. But if you typically struggle in these areas, then the course may seem particularly difficult.

When Should You Take AP U.S. History?

Learners typically take AP U.S. History as juniors or seniors. The course follows an advanced curriculum and includes a heavy workload. Therefore, having a couple of years of high school history under your belt can prepare you for this more challenging course.

Some students might choose to take the course their sophomore year. However, jumping into an AP course early in your high school years may be a difficult adjustment.

Students also sometimes take multiple AP courses at once. If you wish to take AP U.S. History along with another advanced course — or several courses —make sure you're not overwhelming yourself with your course load.

AP U.S. History Exam 2022: What You Need to Know

The AP U.S. History exam evaluates your knowledge of the course material and your critical thinking skills. Learn about the exam, including how it's structured and scored, in the sections below.

AP United States History
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 61,243 13.0%
4 90,646 19.2%
3 125,555 26.6%
2 96,214 20.4%
1 99,039 21.0%

Source: College Board

How Is the AP U.S. History Exam Structured?

The AP U.S. History exam consists of two parts: Sections 1 and 2. Section 1 is also further broken down into Part A (multiple choice questions) and Part B (four short answer questions). Section 2 requires writing, with students answering a document-based question and a long essay question.

Test-takers get 55 minutes to complete the 55 multiple choice questions, and 50 minutes to answer the four short answer questions. Section 2 takes 100 minutes in total.

How Is the AP U.S. History Exam Scored?

Test-takers receive a score of 1-5, with 5 as the best score and 1 as the worst.

Section 1 accounts for 60% of the exam score, and it consists of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Multiple-choice questions make up 55 points, and short-answer questions account for nine points.

Section 2 accounts for 40% of the score. Test-takers must respond to one long essay question and answer a document-based question. The long essay and document-based essay make up seven and six points, respectively.

Then, all those points are converted to scaled scores out of 150.

Section 1 (60% of Exam Score)
Multiple-Choice Questions 40%
Short-Answer Questions 20%
Section 2 (40% of Exam Score)
Document-Based Question 25%
Long Essay Question 15%

Source: College Board

AP U.S. History: What Score Do You Need for College Credit?

Different schools award college credit for different scores on the AP U.S. History exam. Many universities grant credit for scores of 4 or 5. Sometimes colleges offer credit for a score of 3 as well.

In addition, some schools may offer more credit for a higher score. You might earn six college credits if you score 4 or 5, but just three credits if you score 3 on the exam. Check with your prospective colleges for specific information.

Should I Take AP U.S. History?

Like all AP classes, the course offers a greater challenge than a typical high school course. Students who possess a keen interest in history often embrace that challenge.

But for students who might not feel as motivated about the topic, putting in the work in this course might lead to burnout.

If you're concerned about the difficulty level or workload, ask teachers and past students about the course. That's a great way to learn what to expect. Make sure you evaluate for yourself which AP classes you should take, considering your own interests and academic goals.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP U.S. History

Is AP U.S. History worth it? true

Ultimately, as with any AP course, the answer to this question depends on you. For many students, AP U.S. History is worth it. Not only can this course prepare you for college-level courses, but it can also help you gain college credit before you graduate high school. If you want to study history in college, this course can help you jump start your higher education journey.

Even if your goal isn't to earn college credit, AP U.S. History could be worth it if you possess a keen interest in history, enjoy critical thinking and analysis, and want a challenge. Conversely, if you do not enjoy history or if earning college credit is not a priority, then this course may not be worth it.

Do colleges care about AP U.S. History? true

Colleges often look for applicants who challenge themselves with rigorous courses in high school. In that way, taking any AP course — including AP U.S. History —can appeal to college counselors or faculty making admission decisions.

A 2015 report from the College Board also found that students who took AP courses are more likely to graduate within four years from a college or university. This also appeals to many college admission teams, who aim to enroll students who remain committed to higher education.

How many credits do you get for AP U.S. History? true

The number of credits you earn for AP U.S. History varies depending on the school and your exam score. Generally speaking, colleges give credit for a score of 4 or 5, although some colleges offer credit for a score of 3 as well. Students typically receive 3-6 credits, but this, too, can vary.

On top of that, schools sometimes offer different credits based on exam scores. At the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, for instance, students who receive a score of 3 can earn three credits for one history course. However, test-takers who score 4 or 5 can receive six transfer credits that count for two history courses.

Feature Image: DNY59 / E+ / Getty Images

Discover the difference between honors vs. AP classes with our guide. Ensure you make the right decisions in high school when preparing for college. What are the differences between IB vs. AP classes? Read about IB and AP classes in high school and learn more about how these programs work. Learn how to find the "easiest" AP classes, which have more flexible study requirements, and earn college credit through classes with high exam pass rates.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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