The AP U.S. Government and Politics exam can be challenging, but with the right strategic mindset, you can get yourself on track for earning the 3, 4, or 5 that you need to qualify for college credit or advanced placement. Below are strategies to aid you on the multiple choice section of the exam. These strategies will set you up for success on the official exam.
The multiple-choice section is worth 50 percent of your total score, with the other 50 percent coming from the free-response section. The multiple-choice section is scored electronically. Each correct question is awarded one point, and no points are deducted for incorrect or unanswered questions.
Multiple-choice questions will ask about a variety of topics, ranging from more straightforward to more complex. One question might ask you to identify an example of the separation of powers, while the next question might ask you to apply a constitutional principle to a hypothetical scenario, and the question after that might ask you to analyze relevant trends based on a table of election data.
There are several question formats you will see on the AP exam. One is the question set, typically containing between two and four questions that all pertain to a visual or textual stimulus. Question sets test the following skills.
- Quantitative Analysis: You must interpret data from an information graphic, such as a bar graph or a data table.
- Qualitative Analysis: You must interpret a text passage.
- Visual Analysis: You must interpret a political cartoon, map, or historical image.
This is a unique question type that puts political concepts side by side in a table format. The skill you will need to demonstrate is part of the name itself.
- Comparison: You must identify the similarities and differences between political concepts.
These are individual, one-off questions. They typically test the following skills.
- Concept Application: You must explain the application of political concepts in various contexts.
- Knowledge: You must define and identify political principles, processes, institutions, policies, and behaviors.
You have 1 hour 20 minutes to answer 55 multiple-choice questions. Some questions, such as stimulus-based question sets, may naturally take longer to answer, while other questions may take less time. As you move through the exam, gauge your time accordingly. Check your time periodically (but not obsessively); in order to stay on pace, you should complete about 10–12 questions every 15 minutes.
Answer questions as efficiently as you can in order to bank extra time for the questions that need it. Don’t rush, though, or you’ll open yourself up to making silly mistakes. Save yourself a little time at the end to fill in guesses on any questions you skipped over or didn’t have time to answer. If you finish early, you can go back to spend some extra time on any questions you skipped.
There are many important key terms in the study of U.S. Government and Politics, and multiple- choice questions will fold these terms into both the question stem and the answer choices. Therefore, in order to answer the questions, you’ll need to have a solid foundation of terminology. Free-response questions (as you’ll see in the following section) also rely on knowledge of termi- nology, so learning these terms and practicing with them in the multiple-choice section will help prepare you for the AP exam as a whole.
When studying terminology, it’s crucial to learn both the definitions of terms and the connections they have to other terms and topics. For example, to answer a question about the Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), you need to know about jurisprudence, the free exercise clause, and the rights granted in the First Amendment. Furthermore, you need to know how this case could potentially impact future decisions and legislation.
The AP exam now has more stimulus-based questions than ever. These are questions based on some type of chart, map, graph, or other visual element, and they almost always come in sets of two or more questions.
Before you spend too much time studying the stimulus, make sure you carefully read the relevant question stems and understand what they are asking. For example, the first question about a stimulus typically is straightforward analysis of the information presented, such as identifying trends in a data table. The second question often deals with applying stimulus data to your knowledge of government and politics. Questions involving a stimulus can be narrowly focused. One question may only deal with a certain part of a table or section of a chart. Generalized questions are also possible, such as identifying the theme of an image stimulus.
For any stimulus, focusing on just a few main aspects will often yield what you need to answer the question at hand.
- Titles or captions: Students are often tempted to skip these seemingly simple features, but a lot of information can be gleaned from them. Read any titles or captions carefully, noting the subject as well as any years, sources, or other pertinent details.
- Keys or labels: There might be color coding in a map, or bars in a graph, that you need to understand in order to answer the question. The AP exam will always provide a key or label to help you decode this information.
- Trends: Think about what trends or patterns this stimulus is depicting, where they are occurring, and where they are not occurring. It may help to think about why people would have created the image. What were they trying to convey? Why did they choose to include certain information? After all, maps, charts, and other visuals are ways we organize informa- tion to better understand it.
With stimulus-based questions, keep in mind that you’ll need to both analyze the given stimulus and activate your prior knowledge.
Process of Elimination and Educated Guessing
Never leave a multiple-choice question unanswered! A blind guess gives you a 1 in 4 (25 percent) chance of getting the correct answer. Even better, every incorrect answer you can confidently eliminate increases those odds: eliminate one answer choice and your chances improve to 33 percent, two and you’re at 50 percent. Eliminate all three incorrect answer choices, and you just got the question right! Whenever the correct answer isn’t immediately clear, start eliminating and see where it gets you. One approach for elimination is to identify answer choices that address a topic other than the one being discussed in the question stem. For example, you may not know what a congressional whip does, but you might know that one of the answer choices, casting a tie-breaking vote, is actually a duty of the vice president. Therefore, you can at least get rid of that choice. If you end up guess- ing on that question, at least you have now improved your odds.
General background knowledge can be helpful for eliminating answer choices as well. For example, when dealing with Supreme Court cases, dates are a good tool. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the Supreme Court issued many landmark rulings that dealt with civil rights and civil liberties. Beginning in the 1990s, the Supreme Court became increasingly skeptical of federal power. Thus, rulings that deal with either of those themes can typically be sorted by those respective date ranges. Throughout the multiple-choice section, remember: there’s no penalty for wrong answers, so answering every question can’t hurt. It might even help your score.
Focus on Your Strengths
The questions on the AP exam are numbered, but that doesn’t mean you have to answer them in the order presented. Every question, regardless of how hard or easy it seems, is worth the same amount. That means you should feel free to answer the questions in an order that plays to your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses. You don’t want to spend precious minutes puzzling over a question that has you stumped. Always be willing to skip over a tough question and come back to it later.
When using this approach, it’s important to be extra careful filling in your answer grid. If you decide to skip a particular multiple-choice question, do not leave it blank! Instead, make a mark next to that question so you know where to come back to in your next pass. (Just make sure to remove all extra marks from your grid before time is up.)