Chapter 3

Psyching Yourself Up for the Big Test

In This Chapter

● Making the most of the way you learn best

● Relaxing your body to concentrate your mind

● Taking the test with icy cool

The first two chapters of this friendly guide show you how to use Challenge Question history review and political, economic, and social (PES) information to squirrel away some choice information that you can put down on the big day. The next three chapters show you how to leap gracefully across each of the three question types standing between you and that golden moment when you hand in your completed exam with a secret thumbs-up. (You’ve got to keep that thumbs-up secret, because you cannot forget the Ironclad Rule of Fake Test Agony: Just act out mild despair with the other students as you leave the exam. Complaining that all tests are hard and unfair is the only way to maintain social respectability as you quietly ace your way to the top.)

Before you look at the next three chapters to get down to cases of slaying the exam demons — multiple-choice questions, Document-Based Questions (DBQs), and regular essay questions — it’s time for a little talk: How is your AP U.S. History confidence level at this point?

Success comes from more than just what you know; it also comes from how you use what you know. (It’s not just the meat; it’s also the motion.) You’ll succeed on the day of the big test because you’re going to have an unstoppable combination of knowledge and attitude. This chapter gives you pointers on how to prepare yourself for exam day so you stay calm, cool, and collected. Don’t worry if you’re a little anxious; that’s good. You can use that nervous energy to slay the test dragon. This chapter gives you pointers on how to do it.

Taking Advantage of the Way You Learn Best

As I outline in Chapter 2, your goal is to arm yourself with information by studying U.S. history and the AP exam for an hour a day. Think about your study time as powering up with items to beat the big test boss. You know you need Copy Machine smarts to remember PES events with the approximate times they happened. Copy Machine power comes from active review with its best friend: Challenge Questions.

But how is any dude or dudette going to remember all that history? The secret is mnemonics, the art and science of memory. Naturally, just to mess with your head, the big brains over in the Word Design Department picked a word for memory that’s both hard to remember and tricky to say. Just pronounce it without the first letter, and you’ll be close enough. You may remember a demon kneeing you in the stomach to get you to remember: demonic mnemonics.

Part I: College Credit, Here I Come!

Be a poet, and you won't blow it

Most people have heard this mnemonic: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Sadly, basing an entire essay response around this fact is hard, but it's a hint: You can make facts as stick-to-your-brain as a song in your head you just can't stop singing. How about this one? "Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. When short February's done, all the rest have thirty-one. . ." When is the last time you used hath in daily conversation? But there it is, stuck in your brain.

In addition to bad poetry, you can make up first-letter lists. Did you ever wonder Why Ants Jump More and More All June? Bet not, but the first letters of those silly words help you remember the first seven presidents: Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, and Jackson. In the same way, HOMES can help you remember the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. This technique is stupid, perhaps, but what's un-stupid is being able to remember an impressive list when AP time rolls around.

Mnemonics is the psychological system behind psyching yourself up for the big exam. There are three basic ways of learning. You’re going to lean naturally on the way you learn the best.

● It turns out about 65 percent of humans prefer to learn things visually and, therefore, are visual learners. That’s why they invented writing instead of just singing or tapdancing history to one another.

● Another 30 percent are auditory learners — that is, they prefer to learn things through sound. That makes them good at learning from lectures and songs, but not as good at grabbing facts through reading. Auditory folks would be in favor of singing history.

● That leaves the final 5 percent, whose favorite way of learning is through kinesthetic movement.

Sorry — no tap-dancing for history review. I cover these learning preferences in more detail in the later sections. Consider each of these preferences carefully and see whether any of them apply to you. If so, you can take full advantage of your preference to make studying for the AP U.S. History exam easier and less stressful.

Just because you have a preference for one kind of learning doesn’t mean you can’t remember facts in the other ways as well. Also, you can use strategies for maximizing the kind of learning that comes most naturally. Even better, visiting another learning style helps break up your intellectual traffic jam. You become DJ Mixmaster Smarty.

Studying by sight

Visual people remember colorful emotional images best. Make a picture of a bright, loud religious revival in your mind when you read about the First Great Awakening. You may people the scene with Jonathan Edwards holding a sign that says “1730 — Revolution’s Coming.” That’s visual learning.

Writing key events into your own notes helps fix them in your mind. This technique can be especially useful for timelines. History is, at its core, the study of change over time. Write out a timeline for major topics so that you can see the big picture of how the changes in one field developed. You could make a timeline of women’s rights, U.S. expansion, the 50-year run-up to the Civil War, and other key themes.

Flash cards don’t work for everybody, but they have saved more than one determined student on the AP. At the very least, you get to write down terms and their meaning one more time. The more you write stuff down, the better you’ll remember it. Studying is a great example of instant karma. Research shows that students who put 50 percent more time into preparation do 50 percent better on big tests. You may want to color-code your flash cards by era. Just don’t go overboard and spend more time decorating beautiful flash cards than using them.

Studying by sound

If you’re having trouble remembering the facts you read, you may be much better as an auditory learner (you need to hear to remember). If you’re a passive learner, hunched over your desk watching the textbook pages of history facts flip slowly by, you’ll be lucky to remember 10 percent of what you see. Even people who don’t prefer to learn things by sound remember 20 percent of what they hear. So close your eyes, visualize the facts with their dates, and say them to yourself.

As an auditory fan, while studying, make sure to say things like “First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, 1730 — Revolution’s Coming” out loud repeatedly to yourself with your eyes closed. (Don’t do this in a crowded coffeehouse; people may think you’re crazy instead of brilliant. There’s such a fine line.)

Even if you do prefer sound to sight, also try forming the words into a vivid picture in your mind; most folks can remember 30 percent of what they see.

A high-tech solution is available for auditory learners: You can actually scan text into a text-to-speech program and have the facts read to you by a friendly computer voice. Check out the programs at

Studying through movement

Kinesthetic learners are hands-on people who concentrate better and learn more easily when movement is involved. Although you can’t dance your way through the Big AP, you can learn to use movement sense to help your memory.

Kinesthetic people can make a scene into a movie in their heads. Just imagine Jonathan Edwards pounding the pulpit and waving a “1730 — Revolution’s Coming” banner. It doesn’t matter how silly the image is; in fact, the sillier it is, the better. Humor is an easy emotion to remember, and anything out of the ordinary is better than trying to remember gray words on paper.

If you have to see the facts spatially because you are a kinesthetic learner, try putting color-coded sticky notes containing key facts in date order along a route that you take through your house. Walk that route several times, stopping to associate each fact with where you are standing. That way, you can associate facts with known locations. Don’t leave the sticky notes up too long, though; your mother may come along and vacuum a hole in the 1800s.

Taking Advantage of School Resources

If your school offers after-class review sessions for AP U.S. History, be there. Your teacher can’t slip and tell you exactly what is going to be on the test, because he doesn’t know. He does know what has been on the test in the past, however.

Also, review sessions are great places to practice that other smartness that is going to win a clap-for-you score. I call this skill Shakespeare Jr., also known as short essay writing. You weren’t very good at riding a bike until you had the chance to try again and again. You won’t be really good at short history essays until you have written at least ten. You wouldn’t want your first time on a bike to be at the bike races, and you don’t want your first experience with a DBQ to be on the big test. If your school offers feedback on practice essays, make sure you are first in line.

Streamlining Your Learning Outside Class

The topic of study skills sounds about as interesting as lint collecting, but there are some moves that can help you get more miles to the gallon out of your learning time:

● Have a regular study place and time, and stick to them every day.

● When you study outside class, break up your hour time into two 30-minute chunks, with a 5-minute break between chunks.

● Review during the day, when you are really awake. An hour during daylight can be worth 2 hours at night.

● As New Agey as this sounds, tell yourself that you strongly intend to remember what you are studying. At the beginning of your study session, for example, say, “I am going to remember the presidents from Abe Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt tonight.” Research shows that the act of seriously committing to remember improves retention as much as 50 percent. Trying and not quite making it is okay; you can always do better tomorrow. What is not okay is just waiting to see what happens to you. You have to set a clear goal and push hard to make it. Dreams come true because people make them come true.

● Always associate a new fact with an old one, as in “Oh, I see. John Charles Fremont becomes the Great Pathfinder for the Republican Party as its first presidential candidate (1856) after he was the Great Pathfinder of the West on the trails to California (1836-1853).”

● Study the difficult stuff first. Set some reward milestones. After you make it through the Civil War, it’s time for a small party!

● Get emotional about the events you are studying: Women’s rights were awesome and long overdue; slavery sucked. You remember facts that mean something to your heart, not just your fine mind.

● Although your friends and family may not seem to be begging for the latest in your history insights, teach them about some of the important events you are learning. Teaching a concept to someone else more than doubles your memory of that concept.

Cramming the Night Before May Not Help

Just because lots of people cram the night before the test doesn’t make it right. You, in fact, are much too calm for that. Or at least you’re going to be that calm. Or at a minimum, you will fake it till you make it.

Because the AP U.S. History test involves Shakespeare Jr. (heavy writing) as well as Copy Machine (remembering facts), you’re way better off with a rested body and fresh mind the day of the test than you are trying to tip just one more woozy date into your tired cerebellum the night before. As hard as it is to admit, Grandma was right: Diet, exercise, and rest are keys to success.

You’ll want to benefit from maximum sleep the two nights before the test. If you usually sleep for seven hours on vacation, give yourself room for eight both nights. You need two nights of good sleep, because sleep deprivation can skip a day. People can have a low-rest night, skate through the next 24 hours on fumes, and run out of gas on the second day. You don’t want to get stuck in AP Land.

Triathletes and marathon racers knock off training two days before their event to build up an energy reserve. You can study your regular amount up to the last day, but you should knock off anything that distracts your mind or body two days before the big test. Replace coffee, junk food, and media with exercise and relaxation techniques. Kick up your exercise routine by 50 percent; more exercise keeps you calm and helps you think.

Cooling Out Pretest Anxiety

If you’re a worrier, be honest with yourself. Are you worried because you really haven’t prepared for the test? Here’s the reality check: Have you gotten decent grades in your high school AP U.S. History course? Are you following your hour-a-day test-prep schedule? If the answer to those two questions is yes, you need to deal with your real problem: chronic anxiety. This condition is nothing to be ashamed of; the United States itself once suffered from overwhelming anxiety. In the inaugural words of longest-serving president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts.” If you have done the study basics but are restless, check out the relaxation techniques later in the following sections. Relaxation doesn’t just keep you comfortable; staying loose also helps you perform better on the test. You are going to be too cool to be a fool for a feeling that paralyzes needed efforts.

If your worry is justified because you really haven’t done the preparation you need, consider the words of somebody who was just the opposite of a famous president. That would be Death Valley Scotty. In the early 1900s, Scotty was a prospector in the hottest place in the United States: Death Valley, California. Scotty never found gold, but he did find a beautiful oasis and many adventures, laughs, and friends. Scotty said, “There’s just two things ain’t worth worrying about: things you can change and things you can’t.” If it is already too late to study, consider that the lesson you’re about to learn, no matter how painful, is cheap tuition for the rest of your life. If you still have time to get a study program together, start working right now. The effort you make will take your mind off your anxiety.

In the following three sections are professional techniques to buy yourself some worry-free time while you improve your sleep and concentration in the weeks before the test.

Think they're having a good time overseas? They're not

While Americans are sweating the APs and SATs, students in Japan are attending juku, or private cram schools. Japanese students sometimes go to juku every day after school and up to 16 hours a day on weekends to prepare for "examination hell" in January, which will decide their university fates. Row upon row of quiet students stare at the blackboard. Kids in the back even look through binoculars to grasp every word.

Meanwhile, in jolly old England, students are obsessing the A levels. A levels come in a variety of subjects, just like the APs, and you need to pass at least three to get into a good university. U.K. schools have grades like those in the United States, except that the land of Harry Potter has not forgotten about E Average grade distribution is 10 percent A, 15 percent B, 10 percent C, 15 percent D, and 20 percent E A further 20 percent are allowed an O-level pass, which is sort of like saying, "Thanks for showing up." The real flunkies get a U and have to play in rock-and-roll bands.

Using progressive relaxation

Lots of people, auditory learners or not, feel better hearing progressive-relaxation steps read out loud to them. You can get a spoken recording of relaxation instructions on the Web ( Many slightly different versions of this technique are available; all of them work if you let them.

Relaxation is a natural state: it’s what you do when you are asleep. You can learn to do progressive relaxation while you’re awake and use it to clear your mind. First, get into comfortable clothing and choose a quiet space. Then:

1. Lie flat on your back, with your eyes closed.

2. Feel your feet getting heavy. Consciously relax them, and let them sink down. Start with your toes and move up your foot to your ankles.

3. Feel your knees getting heavy. Consciously relax them, and let them sink down.

4. Feel your upper legs and thighs getting heavy. Consciously relax them, and feel them sink down.

5. Feel your abdomen and chest while you breathe. Consciously let them relax. Let your breathing be deep and regular. Let your abdomen and chest sink down.

6. Feel your back down to your upper legs. Consciously relax, and let your back sink down.

7. Feel your hands getting heavy. Consciously relax them, and feel them sink down.

8. Feel your arms getting heavy. Consciously relax them, and feel them sink down.

9. Feel your shoulders getting heavy. Consciously relax them, and feel them sink down.

10. Feel your head and neck getting heavy. Consciously relax your neck, and feel your head sink down.

11. Feel your mouth and jaw. Pay attention to your jaw muscles, and unclench them if they are tight. Feel your mouth and jaw relax.

12. Feel your eyes. Are you forcibly closing your eyelids? Consciously relax your eyelids, and feel the tension slide off your eyes.

13. Mentally scan down your body. If you find any place that’s still tense, consciously relax that place, and let it sink down.

14. Lie still for 5 minutes.

Practicing deep breathing

As simple as it seems, deep breathing is a great way to relax your body and concentrate energy, which is why it’s an important part of spiritual, meditation, and martial-arts traditions around the world.

1. Sit comfortably, straight up, with a loose waist and your stomach relaxed.

Don’t worry about looking fat; no one is watching. A chair is fine; you don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor, wearing a turban. Just check that your back is comfortably straight and your middle is loose and relaxed.

2. Let your whole self relax.

You can work your way from bottom to top, as in the progressive-relaxation technique in the preceding section.

3. Begin to inhale slowly through your nose. Count to four as you fill your lungs in four parts from bottom to top. Breathe in slowly, taking about 5 seconds for a full breath.

4. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds.

5. Quietly relax, and let the air flow all the way out through your mouth.

6. Wait a few seconds, and do it again.

Breathe in through your nose in four sections; let the air out completely through your mouth in a long, peaceful “Ahh” or “Ohm.” (That’s the dial tone of the universe.)

7. If you get dizzy, you’re going too fast. Slow down.

8. Imagine that you’re floating, and pretty soon you will be.

Using Quiet Ears

This technique works like listening to a seashell at the beach. Since it stills the world around you, Quiet Ears helps you connect to your own inner strength. This technique works for everybody, but especially if you are easily distracted by outside sounds:

1. Close your eyes.

2. Place your hands loosely on top of your head.

3. Cup your hands and cover both your ears.

You hear the slow, rushing sound of your own blood circulating. This is a good thing.

4. Listen to this sound while you count to 10, ten times.

5. Relax your arms, and do it again.

You may find yourself breathing peacefully.

Keeping Calm and Cool on the Big Day

On the day of the test, eat a medium breakfast. You’re on your way to a performance, and you don’t need heavy food to slow you down. Give yourself more time than you think you need to get to the test site; no last-minute parking problems or traffic tickets should spoil your mood. If you get to the site early, walk around. You’ll be sitting for a long time, and you want to get your blood circulating. Don’t drink a lot of liquid. You’ll get a break in the middle, but you don’t want to be going to the bathroom while the test clock is running. If you run into friends, be nice, but don’t listen very hard to what they say. Watch the pros before a race. They acknowledge one another with a nod, but they’re already in their own space.

Bring three No. 2 pencils and a good separate eraser for the multiple-choice questions. If you change a scan-marked multiple-choice answer, you want to make sure that the mark in the scan oval you rejected is erased completely. Bring a couple of your favorite ink pens for the essay section. Wear a watch. You won’t be allowed to look at your cell phone, and time control is important.

Pick a spot in the test room with good light and a minimum of possibly distracting people. You’ll get an exam packet with the Section I multiple-choice questions and the Section II essay questions. Section I has a Scantron answer form with more than enough spaces. You mark your answers to the 80 multiple-choice questions by filling in the correct ovals carefully with a pencil. Section II essay questions are on a green insert; you write your answers in the supplied pink essay book.

For both Section I and Section II, you can make notes in the question books but not on the answer pages. You have 55 minutes to answer as many of the 80 multiple-choice questions as you can. After a 10-minute break, you have 2 hours and 10 minutes to study and write three essays. The Section II essay time begins with a mandatory 15-minute reading period. During the reading period, you study the questions but are not allowed to begin writing the essays.

Staying wide awake in AP land

With the proctor’s word “Begin,” you open the Section I multiple-choice book and dive in.

You discover the strategy for handling multiple-choice questions in Chapter 4. For now, just realize that the 80 questions each have 5 alternatives for a total of 400 possible answers. You are going to be reading 400 possible answers, each of which is designed to at least minimally suck you into picking it as the right match for its question. You will be answering multiple-choice questions for 55 minutes, which means you have 41 seconds per question and only 8 seconds per possible answer. Don’t panic; the time is longer than it seems. Try holding your breath for 41 seconds; you’ll feel how long that is.

You don’t have to be right about everything to score a perfect 5 on the big AP. The test grade is curved; test mavens realize that few people are going to burn through all 80 multiple-choice questions at 41 seconds each and come up with a perfect score. You can skate by on Section I by getting fewer than 50 questions right and still pull it out with an aces 5 score just by getting — two-thirds of the possible Shakespeare Jr. credits for essay writing in Section II.

Avoiding a multiple-choice panic

Panicking is something to avoid at all times during the test, but especially during the multiple-choice section. What panic can do to you on multiple-choice questions is make you lose concentration and stop reading carefully. The situation only gets worse; the reality is that the questions get harder as you move through the 80 mini-challenges.

Don’t stop to freak out. If you aren’t sure about a question, cross off the answer choices that you do know are wrong in the question book. If you can cross out only one, do it, and move on. Keep going. Most people don’t get through all the questions. You are refusing to panic — just moving along harvesting all the good questions that you know. After you’ve got the low-hanging fruit, go back and work on the tougher questions. Use every minute to complete multiple-choice questions that you skipped earlier and to double-check the answers you’ve already marked.

Getting all the way to the end has a time-sequence wrong-answer elimination advantage. You learn what this mouthful means in Chapter 4.

Don’t outsmart yourself on multiple-choice. Save double-checking for last, because you do not want to trap yourself by overthinking. Usually, your first hunch is your best shot; you don’t get any smarter by squinching up your eyebrows. Obsessing over every question as you go only slows you down. If you have time for a recheck, don’t change any answers unless you’re sure those answers are wrong.

Tuning up at break time

When 55 minutes are up, the proctor will say: “Stop working. Close your booklet, and put your answer sheet on your desk.” You’ve got a 10-minute break before the Section II essay section calls upon you to create great history fast. Use those 10 minutes to get up and walk as far as you can from the crowd. Practice deep breathing lightly as you walk: four-count deep inhalation through your nose and a long, peaceful exhale through your mouth. Shake your arms; roll your shoulders and neck. This is not a time to impress people or gossip; you are in the middle of a race. Make sure to hit the bathroom on your way back, if there’s any chance you’ll need to go in the next 2 hours.

As you walk, think about what was good about how you did on Section I. Congratulate yourself for the answers that you knew, and leave the other ones behind. Besides the preparation you already have, your strongest weapon going into the Section II essay section is a positive mind.

Cruising with Shakespeare Jr. in Section II

Shakespeare Jr. is what I call short essay writing, covered in Section II of the exam. You’re going to be having fun and earning points in Section II. Part A is the famous Document-Based Question (DBQ). Chapter 5 is devoted to nothing but this single topic. The DBQ is perhaps the greatest moment of high art in any history exam. For now, you don’t have to appreciate its beauty. Just remember: Prepare before you write.

In Section II, Part B and Part C each contain two regular essay questions. Here, you get to choose the rope with which you want to hang yourself. You’re going to pick the one question from each of the two parts that seems the least scary. But not yet.

Before you can uncoil your pen, Section II wants you to spend 15 minutes alone with it, just reading. Your proctor will recommend that you take the entire time to read the documents and to scan the pictures and charts in the DBQ. This time, amazing as it may seem, the grownup is right. The proctor can’t do anything to stop you from sailing right past the documents in Part A and having a peek at what question beasts await you in Parts B and C. Don’t do it. Whatever is in Parts B and C will wait for you to get there. You don’t need it hanging over your head while you do the DBQ.

As you work through the three essays, keep this positive thought in mind: Each of your compositions will be scored by a completely different reader who doesn’t know who you are, what you’ve done on the other parts of the test, or even who graded your other essays. It’s a new day every time.

Here’s another tip on how to approach the essays: Plan before you write, making notes on the green question insert and not in the pink answer booklet, which is only for your essays. Look at the essays in this happy way: It’s like 2 hours and 10 minutes to grab everything you can carry from your favorite store. You have nothing to lose. You can only gain points by — weaving the themes and topics you know into a well-argued essay.

It’s payday. Copy Machine and Shakespeare Jr. are singing together!

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