For many students, AP World History is their very first attempt at an AP course. Both the World History course and exam require strong critical thinking and writing skills. But the majority of students taking AP World do so in their sophomore year, an early time to take on college-level material. With careful planning, hard work, and determination, students can achieve their desired AP world history test.
Know the AP World History Exam Format, Timing and Scoring Rubric
Before you dive into your AP World History test prep, take time to understand the test itself. Learn the format and timing of the exam and how it’s scored. Note that, with the 2019-2020 curriculum, the College Board rebranded the course AP World History: Modern and eliminated content from pre-history through 1200.
Purpose and Goals of AP World History
The College Board explicitly lays out the learning goals for AP World History. According to the College Board, they are:
- evaluating primary and secondary sources
- analyzing the claims, evidence and reasoning in those sources
- putting historical developments in context and making connections between them
- developing a thesis and supporting it in writing
Memorizing facts and dates is absent from this list. After all, the AP class could earn you college credit. So the bar is higher. Regurgitating treaties and facts will not earn you top marks.
Section I, Part A: Multiple Choice
- 55 Questions
- 55 minutes
- 40% of your exam grade
The multiple choice section consists of roughly 13-18 sets of questions organized around a single prompt. The stimulus for each set of 3-4 questions can be a primary or secondary source. Texts and images, official documents and works of popular culture are all fair game. For example, you may find a map, chart, autobiographical account, excerpt from a law, cartoon, painting or poster.
Remember that the purpose of AP World History is to stretch your ability to analyze historical documents, identify continuity and change over time, and make connections across cultures and time periods. Don’t expect your standard multiple choice questions testing factual recall.
Texts or images may not be easy to understand upon first reading. They may contain technical or archaic vocabulary, visual metaphors or complex arguments.
Review these questions carefully, as they serve as your very best guide to what multiple choice questions on the new exam are like.
Section I, Part B: Short Answer
- 3 Questions
- 40 minutes
- 20% of your exam grade
On the short answer section, you’ll answer two required questions and choose between two options for your third response.
Question 1 will include one or two historical documents. Both questions may cover material from the full AP World History timeline (1200-present).
Questions 3 and 4 will not include any source material. Question 3 will focus on the period 1200-1750 while Question 4 will focus on the period 1750-present).
You’ll have just 13 minutes to review texts and draft a response to each question. Keep answers brief and tied to specific evidence.
The questions lend themselves to brevity and clarity. Each question consists of three parts. In general, each part follows a consistent pattern:
- Identify one way in which the historical document demonstrates a continuity with past (social, political, economic, cultural) trends in the same society, or reflects a connection or similar pattern seen in other cultures, societies or time periods.
- Identify one way in which the historical document demonstrates a change with or disruption of past historical forces.
- Explain one way that the document embodies the thinking of its time period. Or explain a way that audiences or scholars from a later period might interpret the document differently than contemporary audiences did. Or explain a way in which one historical force seen in the text influenced another historical force.
You probably want to think of answering each sub-question in one to two sentences. Don’t write more than four or five sentences total for each short answer response or you’ll run out of time.
Section II: Free Response
- 2 Questions — Document-Based Question (DBQ) and Long Essay (LEQ)
- 1 hour 40 minutes (includes a 15 minute reading period for Document-Based Question)
- 40% of your exam grade
Each of the essays tests a different skill set. Students must respond to the DBQ and choose from among three options for the LEQ. Don’t worry about getting stuck if you don’t immediately feel comfortable with the time period or topic. There is wide latitude to choose a thesis and direction for your essay that best showcases your knowledge and historical reasoning skills. As always in the field of history, there is no single “right” answer.
Document-Based Question: You review seven historical documents and then craft an argument based on the documents. As with the prompts in the multiple choice and free response sections, the documents will vary in style, length and genre. A successful response requires an evidence-based response pulling from from several documents, and offers deeper analysis into the point of view, purpose or context of those texts.
Long Essay Question: Choose one of three prompts to answer. Each question reflects a different time period in the full course time line: Question 1 (1200-1450), Question 2 (1450-1750) and Question 3 (1750-present). Unlike the document-based question, which is bound to a specific event or short time frame, these questions require students to evaluate change and continuity across centuries and continents.
Know the Scoring System
AP-certified teachers who score the tests will read roughly 1.5 million document based questions, LEQs and short answer responses. To fairly and efficiently grade that much student writing, the College Board created a very clear system for scoring.
More than just a checklist, it gives your World History test readers straightforward guidelines for how each point is earned. Even better, it publishes examples of student work, along with an explanation of why that response received the score it did. Think of it as your roadmap to your best AP score.
Specifically, let’s look at how the AP World History rubric works for each of the three types of written response:
Short Answer Rubric: 3 points
Earn up to three points for each short answer question. In total, you can earn up to nine points on this section.
Within each question, you can receive one point each for parts A, B and C . You need only respond in one (or maximum two) sentences to receive each point.
You earn a point for a response that is accurate, descriptive, and offers context for how or why a historical development or process occurs or a relationship exists. In other words, don’t just throw out a term without defining it.
Think of each point as an on-off switch: you either earn it or you don’t. That means a decent (but brief) answer is just as valuable as a detailed but time consuming one. It also means you can’t make up ground if your answer to Part B is excellent, but your answer to Part A was lackluster.
Given that you only have 13 minutes per question, use your time wisely. Make sure you specifically answer each of the sub-questions in its own right.
Document-Based Question Rubric: 7 points
Students receive a score of 0 to 7 on the DBQ.
Thesis (1 point): Make sure it’s clear and accurate. This is the easiest point to earn.
Context (1 point): Situate your argument within broader historical trends (e.g. anti-colonialism, women’s rights movements, economic liberalism).
Evidence from Documents (2 points): Support your argument using at least six (of the seven) documents. Beyond simply quoting each document, you need to describe the document and use its content to reinforce your argument.
Evidence Beyond the Documents (1 point): Deploy at least one piece of historical evidence beyond the documents to advance your argument. Specificity is key. For example, a particular event, individual, uprising, legal treaty, religious practice or war counts as evidence. Vague generalizations about a course theme, such as imperialism or women’s rights, do not.
Analysis and Reasoning (2 points): For at least three documents, you need to dive deeper. Explain how the document’s point of view, purpose, context or audience applies to your argument.
Don’t try to earn extra credit. Overcrowding your response with descriptions of seven documents is a recipe for incoherence. Demonstrate that you can select relevant information and use the telling detail judiciously. After all, the historian’s job is to tease out the thread of a story from the chaff of irrelevant detail.
Long Essay Question Rubric: 7 points
Students also receive a score of 0 to 7 on the LEQ.
Thesis (1 point): Set the stage for a well-organized essay with a concise but insightful thesis in your first paragraph.
Context (1 point): Like the DBQ, you’ll want to draw upon the major themes and historical patterns in the AP World course.
Evidence (2 points): Use at least two specific historical examples. As with the DBQ, evidence is specific. That said, you don’t need to name particular dates, names or treaties, as you might with the DBQ. Given that the LEQ focuses on centuries-long historical trends, even your evidence can be more thematic in nature. That said, it must support your argument.
Analysis & Reasoning (2 points): The sixth and seventh point resemble the “sophistication” point on the AP English Language exam. Unlike other points, it’s harder to check these off with a single sentence or paragraph. Rather, the student who garners top marks on the LEQ offers an insightful, evidence-based thesis and corroborates it using relevant facts. Further, the best answers introduce complexity and demonstrate an understanding of historical causation and change and continuity over time.
Is the AP World History Exam Hard?
In general, it’s hardest to get a top score of 5 on the most popular AP exams. That shouldn’t be surprising, if you look at the statistics. The most specialized exams, such as AP Physics C Electricity & Magnetism attract fewer students because they have pre-requisites, such as calculus. What’s more, exams such as AP Physics C or BC Calculus seem intimidating. That further deters students. In fact, in 2021, 14 times as many students took AP World History as took AP Physics C!
As a result, the students taking these low-enrollment exams tend to be highly motivated. Further, they often have experience with previous AP exams. In contrast, the most popular AP exams attract a wide range of students. And many of them may be taking the first or only AP course of their high school career.
AP World History was the 4th Most Popular AP Exam in 2021
In 2021, 264,254 students took the AP World History exam. That means AP World had the fourth-highest enrollment among all 38 Advanced Placement exams. As always, AP English Language and Composition took the top spot, with 476,321. AP U.S. History (399,676) and AP English Literature (297,009) rounded out the top four.
Results of 2021 AP World History Exam: A 5 is Hard, but Passing Is Attainable
Given its popularity, it’s not surprising then that in 2021, only 10% of students achieved a 5 on the AP World History exam. Out of 38 AP exams, only 7 exams had a lower percentage of students achieve the top score. At the other end of the spectrum, 38% of students reached the top score on BC Calculus and a full 47% earned top honors on the AP Japanese exam!
But those statistics shouldn’t discourage students from taking the AP World History exam. While achieving the top score requires diligent study, passing the AP test is within reach of most students. Fully 52% of students received a 3 or higher on the 2021 exam.
Interestingly, AP World History scores have also been trending upwards over the past decade. That is true based on multiple measures. The share of students receiving a five has nearly doubled from a historical low of 5.7% in 2013. The median (average) score has moved from 2.53 to 2.88. Moreover, since 2014, more than half of students have passed the AP exam every single year.
As a reminder, many colleges offer college credit for a score of 3 or higher.
That’s good news for all those students wondering whether they should take the AP exam. If past results are any guide, a good score is within reach.
What’s the Easiest and Hardest Parts of the AP World History Test?
Of course, every student is different. Questions that send one student into panic mode feel like smooth sailing to another. For that reason, you need to recognize your personal strengths and areas for improvement.
That said, the College Board helpfully analyzes all questions on the exam and reports on which questions — in general — students get right or wrong.
Here are the results:
Multiple Choice Section: Time Periods Are Roughly Equal, But the Skill of Making Connections is Tricky
Interestingly, students answered questions equally well across all 9 time periods. Students performed particularly well on questions related to Units 1-4 (1200-1750) and Unit 9 (1900-present). It’s perhaps not surprising that questions from modern history felt more familiar. After all, many have immediate relatives who’ve lived through most of that period.
At the same time, you wouldn’t necessarily expect students to post their best scores on the earlier units. However, Units 1-4 cover weighty issues such as commercial exchange networks, transoceanic exploration and trade, and imperialism. Many AP teachers spend a significant portion of class time on these topics (particularly Units 2-4), and that investment seems to reflect well in the results.
What is interesting is that early modern history (1750-1900) proved slightly more difficult. Topics in these periods include the Industrial Revolution, trade policies, economic imperialism and the growth of a global economy. In general, AP World History students find political and social issues more relevant to their experience. In contrast, economic and commercial issues may be more difficult to grasp.
Of the 9 historical thinking skills, students performed best on questions that tested contextualization (Skill 3). In contrast, making connections (Skill 5) proved slightly more challenging.
Take note! When you see words and phrases such as continuity, change, disruption or causation, you are likely in the realm of the hardest questions.
Free Response Section: Thesis and Context Are No Problem, But Don’t Forget the Evidence and Analysis
Students receive a score of 0 to 7 on the DBQ and long essay, and up to 3 points on each of the short answer questions. The College Board evaluates essays and short answer responses according to a very clear rubric. Students receive one point for a thesis statement. They receive 0 to 4 points for the use of evidence. Finally, they may garner a sixth “sophistication” point for offering a well-written and thoughtful argument that effectively deploys evidence.
On all three essays, at least 90% of students earned the thesis point. That’s no surprise, given that it typically requires a single sentence in your introductory paragraph.
Roughly two-thirds of students received 2 or 3 evidence points. On each essay, fewer than 5% of students received 0 evidence points. Equally, only 14-26% of students received all four evidence points.
Finally, 6-14% of students received the sophistication point. In particular, students seemed to find it more difficult to attain that higher level of writing on the argument essay. That’s not particularly surprisingly, given that the argument essay does not provide any documents or passages that students can rely upon when building their own position.
In short, know the scoring rubric so that you can pick up those precious fifth and sixth points. It’s no surprise that the sophistication points correspond closely with those students who ultimately receive a 5 on the exam.
Your AP World History Study Guide
Now that you know the format, scoring and timing of the exam and the types of questions that trip students up, let’s look at some strategies to get you ready for test day.
Sometimes students ask how to study for the AP test in a single day. Can I do well, they wonder? Unsurprisingly, the reality is that cramming rarely works. But with consistent effort and a solid study plan, you’ll find you’ve laid the groundwork for AP test day success.
For a more comprehensive review of how to build an AP study guide, read our guide on how to ace your AP exams.
Keep Up with History Class Readings
To succeed in class, you have to keep up with a mountain of reading. Many AP World History courses require a full 20-page (or more) textbook chapter per week! Even more, there’s bound to be primary sources.
If you want to do well on the AP exam, it’s essential to make slow and steady progress through your history textbook. There’s just no other way to learn eight centuries of history than slow and steady!
Reading long passages can be tough. It’s all too easy to fumble through the archaic language of primary sources. After hours of frustration, you realize you’ve retained almost nothing. But you can avoid this pitfall by developing active reading skills.
First, take notes while you read. Next, create an outline of each chapter in your notebook. That not only helps you retain information while reading, but provides a useful study guide. You refer back to that handy guide when it’s time to study for the AP exam in the spring.
The AP world history exam is not something you can cram for the night before. You have to prepare throughout the year to do well.
Outline Each Chapter
You won’t have time to reread your entire textbook when preparing for the AP exam. That’s why it’s important to take good notes as you go. Outlining each chapter as you read it is a great study tool. Suddenly, it’s easy to skim important facts or dates or brush up on relevant information.
Outlining each chapter helps you create your own AP study guide. And don’t forget that many history textbooks have chapter outlines or summaries. Take advantage of these ready-made study tools!
It’s impossible to memorize hundreds of names, dates, places, and events. That’s why using outlines and summaries is the work smart approach. Narrow your focus and keep your sanity as you prepare for the AP exam.
Focus on the AP Exam’s Historical Thinking Skills
The College Board wants AP World History students to become active readers and successful students of history. Keep those goals in mind as you engage with the course materials. According to the College Board, students should learn the methods that historians themselves use to understand history.
The AP test evaluates nine historical thinking skills that can be grouped into four categories. These categories include:
Analyzing Historical Sources and Evidence
You can improve these skills by analyzing a variety of primary and secondary sources. Think letters, legal documents, novels or works of art, for instance. Exposure to a variety of multi-media sources will help you discover the complex perspectives that shape our understanding of history.
Making Historical Connections
Comparison – You can practice this skill by reading and evaluating multiple perspectives on historical events. Compare diverse perspectives and then form your own conclusions about an event.
Contextualization – Connect historical events to broader historical trends. First, situate an event or historical figure within a larger context. Then provide perspective on the thinking, biases or preconceptions of the actors involved. Finally, draw conclusions about the significance of that event.
Deploying Chronological Reasoning
Causation – You must be able to analyze and evaluate historical cause and effect. Practice identifying these relationships as long-term or immediate
Patterns of Continuity and Change – Recognize and assess continuity and change over time. Identify patterns and relate a single historical event to broader themes or processes, such as colonialism or industrialization.
Periodization – Study the ways that history is divided into periods. Develop a point of view about whether and to what extent a period such as the Cold War adequately captures all the events occurring on that timeline.
Bringing Together Historical Arguments: Synthesis is the Hardest Skill
Synthesis is one of the most challenging skills a student must demonstrate on the AP World History exam. Can you bring together all these historical skills into an interesting thesis? And can you support that thesis with relevant evidence? Then you’re ready for synthesis.
Be Strategic in Your Memorization
It’s impossible to memorize everything from your AP World History class. But the good news is you don’t need a photographic memory to do well on the AP exam.
Sure, the AP exam readers may ask you to give evidence to explain how World War I influenced late colonialism. Or they may ask you to compare and contrast instances across multiple continents when religious conflict turned into political conflict. But they will never ask you to pinpoint the dates of the 100 Years’ War or name the Chinese dynasties in chronological order.
Instead, take note of the key facts that illustrate the themes of the course. Identify 100 (or so) names and terms and make flashcards. For example, you should include the names of key figures, cultural and religious concepts, economic trends, major wars or conflicts. Limit yourself to those people, places and facts that could be used to answer different questions on a variety of subjects.
Finally, test your top 100 vocabulary list against actual short answer, DBQs and LEQs. Ask yourself if the information at your fingertips will provide relevant evidence in each instance. If not, review your list of flashcards and add another 50.
Focus on General Trends and Themes in World History
Keep a close eye on the AP World History themes before you start your memorization. Think of each fact, map, vocabulary word, treaty or historical figure as a puzzle piece. Choose only those puzzle pieces that help you assemble a clear picture of history.
To be clear, the College Board tells us outright what the bigger puzzle looks like. It divides AP World History into nine historical periods. Each period captures an important theme. In general, those themes explain how cultures and civilizations interact, influence each other and come into conflict. They also explain how civilizations advance technologically and economically, and change over time.
The exam focuses on nine units from 1200 to the present day. These include:
- The global tapestry
- Networks of exchange
- Land-based empires
- Transoceanic interconnections
- Consequences of Industrialization
- Global conflict
- Cold War and decolonization
For each time period, you should focus on the major world powers. In addition, identify the political, economic, technological and social changes.
Being able to recognize patterns is critical for acing the test. You’ll see patterns such as:
- Cause and effect
- Action and reaction
- Oppressor vs. oppressed
- Dissemination and receptor
Situate evidence within the context of these historical trends and patterns. It brings depth and coherence to your argument. History is much easier to understand when you can recognize patterns. The AP exam graders will not be impressed with a student who has memorized a list of dates and names but can’t analyze their significance.
Work on Timing for the AP Exam
Practice tests will familiarize you with time limits of the test. Without adequate practice, taking the test can be daunting. What’s more, you may not even finish!
Understanding the material is only half the battle. You also need to answer questions quickly.
For example, you’ll have 55 minutes to answer 55 multiple-choice questions. This section is worth 40% of your score. That’s only one minute per question, so you have to read and respond quickly.
In short, working confidently and finishing the exam requires practice. Don’t waste precious minutes during the AP exam trying to decipher the test-makers’ intent. Know the format and timing in advance and you’re less likely to feel rushed or stressed.
Practice Speed Writing
For the essay portion of the AP test, you need to brainstorm and plan quickly. Then, you have to write well-organized essay with a clear thesis. Cite specific evidence that supports both your broad argument and each specific point.
Practice writing essays within the time limits. Stick to short and grammatically correct sentences. And make sure the first sentence of each paragraph clearly states the point you intend to make. Remember, the AP essay graders know you have limited time to complete each essay. They don’t expect gorgeous prose. Keep your writing simple and easy to read.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to practice tidy handwriting under time pressure. If you rush and your grader can’t decipher your scratches, you won’t earn the points you deserve.
It takes time to develop the skills you need to think on your feet and produce a quick essay. The more you practice writing under time pressure, the better you’ll feel about your abilities on test day.
Invest in AP Exam Prep Materials
You can find many free prep materials online. In addition, there are many excellent AP World History resources available for purchase. Even if you pay attention in class, you still need supplementary materials to help you ace the test.
A prep book will focus on key concepts you’re likely to see on the test. Make sure you purchase an updated version, because the course and exam changed significantly in 2019. What’s more, you can find packs of pre-made flash cards.
Keep in mind that a tutor can also help you do well on the AP world history test. An expert tutor can help you develop a tailor-made study strategy to keep you focused and get you ready to do your best.
Ace the AP World History Test
Acing the AP world history test isn’t easy. In fact, it takes determination, preparation, and hard work. But the good news is there are many ways to increase your chances for success. Our expert tutors are here to help.
If you are hoping to get college credit on the AP world history test, or you want to keep up with the heavy workload all year long, tutoring may be an excellent option for you. Contact us today to discuss your academic goals.
Hire a Tutor
Tutors aren’t just for struggling students or those who are at risk of failing. An AP World History tutor can help even high-achieving students. Whatever your level, a tutor can help build strong historical thinking skills and help you stay on track with course material and reading throughout the AP course. Or they can help you review content to prepare for the AP exam.
A tutor can also help you develop a study schedule for the AP World History test. They can work with you on weak areas and help you develop the study strategies you need to do your absolute best.