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

More than 326,000 students took the Advanced Placement Exam for US Government and Politics in 2020. The class includes two forms of assessment: end-of-year examination and “in the year” assignments such as course project, teacher-set tests, unit exams and so on.

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

Since the 2018-2019 academic year, AP US Government and Politics has been using an updated curriculum. High school students who take this course should be aware of these changes so that they can secure updated study materials and prepare accordingly.

Below is a breakdown of course changes that affect the different types of assessment, as well as tips on how to prepare successfully in light of the changes.

Course content

The revised US Government and Policy curriculum allows students and educators to focus on important topics in greater depth than before. The course is divided into five modules: Foundations of American Democracy, Interactions between Branches of Government, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights, American Political Ideologies and Beliefs, and Political Participation.

The more specific nature of the curriculum means that students will know precisely what they are responsible for understanding and imparting assessments. A good way to get started is to review the AP USA Government and Politics Course Overview document to see which topics are tested in the “Personal Progress” examinations throughout the year, as well as weighted for the year-end exam.

If you benefit from creating flashcards, for example, consider starting with content from Unit Two – Interactions between Government Branches – as this unit accounts for 25% to 36% of the year-end exam.

Knowledge application

The updated course design also aims to make US Government and Politics a class focused on the application of knowledge.

Rather than prioritizing memorizing concepts, US government and politics urge students to take the knowledge they learn and apply it to “analyze, compare, interpret, and communicate political information,” according to the College Board’s website. Research Project of the Year, for example, is one way students are asked to translate class content into 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.

Instead of just reading the article or watching the presentation, think critically about the information provided. Make connections between what you learned in class and what you hear or read. Take notes, and pay attention to key terms like “referendum” and “martial law,” then look for any terms or names you don’t know.

Primary sources

The redesigned chapter on American Government and Politics requires students to be familiar with a variety of primary sources.

Students should expect to read and discuss a set of founding documents and 15 US Supreme Court cases. These include sources such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, specific federal papers, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from 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 US history. It can be said, for this reason alone, that you recognize them.

Understanding all of these documents may seem daunting, but the task becomes much more manageable when it is broken down into smaller pieces. Since there are about 26 weeks in the school year, you can aim to study one document per week. This pace will also give you a chance to read each text multiple times, which is essential due to its thick, old-fashioned language and complex vocabulary.

Student-led research project

All students enrolled in AP US Government and Politics must complete an applied civics or political science project. This student-led project should relate the course content to a real word problem.

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.

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

Note that an applied civics project or a political science research project does not count toward the final score for the AP exam.

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

For example, you can create an online political survey to learn about the logistics of polling. If you enjoy this process, it may mean that you already have an idea for your project. If not, you are at least one step closer to choosing the project format you want.

Success in AP US Government and Politics is built upon throughout the entire academic year and can be achieved through simple activities.


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