U.S. History Essay Questions

The long essay question on the AP U.S. History exam is designed to test your ability to apply knowledge of history in a complex, analytic manner. In other words, you are expected to treat history and historical questions as a historian would. This process is called historiography— the skills and strategies historians use to analyze and interpret historical evidence to reach a conclusion. Thus, when writing an effective essay, you must be able to write a strong and clearly developed thesis and supply a substantial amount of relevant evidence to support your thesis.

Success on the long essay section of the exam starts with breaking down the task of essay writing into specific steps. As part of your yearlong preparation for taking the AP U.S. History exam, you should be writing at least two essays (one Document Based Question and one Long Essay Question) each month.

 

Stick to the Subject

In your essay, giving historical information before or after the time period in the essay topic will not get you any extra points.

Step 1: Dissect the Question

Always keep in mind that the AP U.S. History exam is written to be challenging and rigorous. Thus, the questions will require you to identify specific and important information prior to constructing a response. When given an essay prompt, first take some of your time to slow down and understand exactly what the question is asking you to do. The key here is to understand how to answer all parts of the question. Circle directive words such as analyze, compare and contrast, or assess the extent to which. Commonly, prompts will ask you to validate or refute a statement or to explain the impact of one event on another or the degree of impact. List these directives as pieces of the puzzle that you will attempt to put together with your history knowledge.

 

THERE’S NO U IN HISTORY

Don’t include personal opinions in the essay. The reader is looking for your grasp of the history itself and your ability to write about it.

Step 2: Formulate a Thesis

A major area of concern each year for the Chief Readers of the AP exams is that students do not take the time to understand all parts of the question and plan their responses. We have already dissected the question; now it is time to plan a thesis. The thesis is your way of telling the reader why he or she should care about reading your essay. If you have a weak thesis, the reader will not be convinced that you understand the question. He or she will not trust that you have the depth of knowledge necessary to answer the question! Therefore, you must have a thesis that takes a stand, answers the entire question, and shows the reader the path you will take in your essay answer. It is not enough to merely restate the question as your thesis. One of the most important things to do is to take a position. Don’t be afraid of taking a strong stand for or against a prompt as long as you can provide proper and relevant evidence to support your assertions.

Think of your thesis as the “road map” to your essay. It will provide the reader with the stops along the way to the final destination—the conclusion. Only through a thorough study of U.S. history can you construct a strong thesis.

 

THINK AHEAD

During the planning time, make a short outline of all the outside information you’re planning to use in your essay; you will have the info handy while you’re writing.

Step 3: Plan Your Evidence

Now that you have a “road map,” you need to brainstorm all of the relevant evidence you can recall that relates to the question. There are several ways to do this. Some students prefer to use a cluster strategy; that is, they place the main thoughts in bubbles and then scatter supporting evidence around the main bubbles. Other students prefer to list facts and evidence in a bulleted list. Some like to create an outline of relevant information. Whatever you prefer, this is a step you cannot skip! Students who do not take the time to plan their evidence often find themselves scratching out irrelevant information during the exam, thus wasting valuable time. Also, you must learn to brainstorm efficiently—you should use only about five minutes to complete the first three steps of essay writing. Use abbreviations, pictures, or other cues that are efficient for you.

Once you have a list, you can move to the next (and most important) step—writing!

As you practice writing essays using these strategies, you will have the luxury of taking time to write topic sentences, list evidence, and construct “mini conclusions” for each prompt. However, on the AP exam, time is of the essence! You have 35 minutes to construct a coherent essay response for the LEQ and about 55 minutes for the DBQ. If you practice the prewriting strategies from the previously outlined steps 1 through 3, you will find it easy to write a developed paper in a short time.

 

Expert Tip

When composing your essay, start with your most important information; if you run out of time when you’re writing, your key points are already in the essay.

There is no “standard” number of paragraphs you must have. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is one body paragraph for each portion of the essay prompt. Some AP U.S. History exam questions will be structured to fit a five-paragraph essay, while others may need more and others less. You will not be penalized for writing a strong four-paragraph response. Likewise, you will not be rewarded for constructing a weak six-paragraph response. AP readers look for quality, not quantity.

Your first paragraph should always introduce your essay. Your thesis from step 2 is only part of your introduction. The first paragraph of your essay should include your thesis and any other organizational cues you can give your reader. Ask yourself, “Could a complete stranger understand where my essay is going from just my first paragraph?” If your answer is no, then you must rework the introduction. Do not spend time creating a “hook” or flashy statement for your first sentence. Do not use rhetorical questions. AP Faculty Consultants are reading for the items that are listed on the scoring guide. You will notice that creativity in language and structure is not a listed item. However, a well-written and developed argument is a desired item.

Your body paragraphs should follow the “road map” you set in your introduction and thesis. Don’t stray from your plan, or you will find yourself straying from the question. You have taken the time to plan, so follow it! Do not merely list facts and events in a “laundry list” fashion. You must have some element of analysis between each set of evidence you provide. Using transition words such as however, therefore, and thus to show a shift in thought can make creating analytic sentences quick and easy. You should practice stringing facts and thoughts together using these “qualifying transitions” in your sentences.

 

KNOW THE LINGO

Whenever possible, use historical terms or phrases instead of general ones. For example, instead of saying that the South established laws against an owner freeing slaves, say that the South established laws against manumission. This shows the reader that you really know your stuff.

 

Beware of telling a story rather than answering the question. Readers are looking for analysis, not a revised version of your textbook. Do not attempt to shower the reader with extra factoids and showy language. Say what you need to say cleanly and simply. Readers will be impressed with your ability to write clearly and concisely in a way that showcases your historical knowledge, rather than your ability to write creatively. Because this is a formal essay, you should avoid using personal pronouns such as you, I, or we. Avoid the use of terms that could be “loaded” unless you intend on explaining them to the reader. For instance, you would not want to use the term liberal to describe Thomas Jefferson unless you were prepared to explain your use of the word liberal in the historical context. Do not use slang in any part of your essay. Also, because your essay is about history and thus is about the past, write your essay in the past tense. Do not write about Franklin D. Roosevelt as if he were still alive today.

You should end each body paragraph with a “mini conclusion” that ties the paragraph back to the thesis. It can serve as a transition sentence into the next paragraph or stand alone. In either case, the reader should be able to tell easily that you are shifting gears into another part of the essay.

Lastly, write your conclusion. Many students have learned that they should simply restate their thesis in the conclusion; these students may recopy what they wrote in the introduction word for word. This is incorrect. Yes, you should restate your thesis, but in a new way. Instead of rewriting it word for word, explain why your thesis is significant to the question. Do not introduce new evidence in your conclusion. The conclusion should tie all the “mini conclusion” sentences together and leave the reader with a sense of completion. If for some reason you are running out of time when you reach the conclusion, you may leave it off without incurring a specific penalty on the scoring guide. However, if you practice writing timed essays, you will learn the proper timing it takes to write a complete essay, conclusion included.

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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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