The Test-Taker’s Guide to AP U.S. Government and Politics Course

More than 326,000 students took the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics exam in 2020. The class involves two forms of assessment: the end-of-year test and “in-year” assignments like the course project and instructor-developed quizzes, unit exams and so on.

The end-of-year test in May is a three-hour exam that consists of 55 multiple-choice questions and four free-response items. The two parts are equally weighted, each accounting for 50% of the total score, and the test is graded on a curve. The passage rate was 53% in 2020, meaning those test-takers scored a 3, 4 or 5 on the scale of 1-5, according to the College Board, which administers the program.

Since the 2018-2019 school year, AP U.S. Government and Politics has been using an updated curriculum. High school students who are taking this course should be aware of these changes so that they can secure up-to-date study materials and prepare accordingly.

Here’s a breakdown of the course changes that affect the different assessment types, as well as tips on how to successfully prepare given the changes.

Course Content

The revised U.S. Government and Politics curriculum allows students and teachers to focus on important topics in greater depth than previously. The course is divided into five units: Foundations of American Democracy, Interactions Among Branches of Government, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights, American Political Ideologies and Beliefs, and Political Participation.

[Read: 3 Ways to Succeed in Your AP Class.]

The more specific nature of the curriculum means that students will know precisely what they are responsible for understanding and conveying on assessments. A god way to get started is to review the AP U.S. Government and Politics Course at a Glance document to find out which topics are tested on the “personal progress” checks throughout the year, as well as their weighting on the end-of-year exam.

If you benefit from making flashcards, for instance, consider starting with the content from the second unit — Interactions Among Branches of Government — as this unit accounts for 25% to 36% of the end-of-year test.

Application of Knowledge

The updated course design is also intended to make U.S. Government and Politics a class that emphasizes the application of knowledge.

Rather than prioritizing the memorization of concepts, U.S. Government and Politics prompts students to take the knowledge they learn and apply it to “analyze, compare, interpret, and communicate political information,” per the College Board’s website. The in-year research project, for instance, is one way students are asked to translate class content to the real world.

Throughout the year, students can practice applying their knowledge by reading politically oriented articles in newspapers and other publications, and by watching the news on TV.

[READ: How to Tell If an AP Course Isn’t the Right Choice.]

Rather than simply reading the article or watching the show, think critically about the information being presented. Make connections between what you have learned in class and what you are hearing or reading. Take notes, pay attention to key terms like “referendum” and “martial law,” and then research any terminology or names you are unfamiliar with.

Primary Sources

The redesigned U.S. Government and Politics class requires students to be familiar with an assortment of primary sources.

Students should expect to read and discuss a collection of foundational documents and 15 U.S. Supreme Court cases. These include sources like the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution plus the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, specific Federalist Papers, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the court cases Brown v. Board of Education and Marbury v. Madison.

The primary sources chosen for study in this course represent some of the most important documents in U.S. history. Arguably, for this reason alone, it is critical that you become familiar with them.

Understanding all of these documents may seem daunting, but the task becomes more manageable when it is broken down into smaller parts. Since there happen to be about 26 weeks in the school year, you can aim to study about one document per week. This pace will also give you the chance to read each text several times, which is necessary since they tend to contain dense, old-fashioned language and sophisticated vocabulary.

Student-Led Research Project

All students enrolled in AP U.S. Government and Politics must complete an applied civics or political science research project. This student-led project should link course content to a real-word issue.

Students must share their findings through some form of media — such as an article, brochure, podcast, presentation or speech — and are allowed to work in small groups for the project.

[Read: 3 Signs You’re Ready for AP Classes.]

The College Board provides a list of project suggestions, though students are free to explore other options as well. Project examples include holding a mock congress, participating in relevant service-learning opportunities or analyzing public opinion via a survey.

Note that the applied civics or political science research project does not count toward the final AP exam grade.

Because there are so many possibilities for project format, students may feel overwhelmed by the choices. Start by thinking about your project early on and discuss it with others. Meditate on your interests and preferences, and try out different options to see what you like best.

For instance, you could create an online political survey to get a feel for the logistics of polling. If you enjoy the process, that may mean you already have an idea in mind for your project. If not, at least you will be one step closer to choosing a project format you like.

Success in AP U.S. Government and Politics is cultivated throughout the entire school year and can be achieved through simple activities.

More from U.S. News

How to Determine the Right Number of AP Classes to Take

How to Select the Right AP Classes for You

What to Do If Your High School Doesn’t Offer AP Courses

The Test-Taker’s Guide to AP U.S. Government and Politics Course originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up