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AP US History Multiple Choice Questions

#exambreakdown

#testtakingstrategies

⏱️  9 min read

written by

Robby May

robby may

becca schaeffer

October 28, 2020


So...what is SBMCMQ, anyway...and why do I care?

As you probably know by now, AP classes all have their own unique acronyms. For APUSH, SBMC or SBMCMQ are the multiple-choice questions based on primary or secondary source stimuli. That sounds a bit complex, so let’s break it down, step-by-step. 

First, the questions are stimulus-based. This just means that you are given a small section of a document to help you think about the question. This does not mean that the answers you’re seeking are going to be inside the stimulus! The AP Exam is trying to test your historical thinking skills, not your reading skills. The stimulus is there to help you contextualize the question that is asked and to stimulate your thinking on the topic. 

Multiple types of stimuli are provided on the exam. While they are often pulled from primary and secondary texts, they can also be images like propaganda posters or fine art. They might also be quantitative things, like charts and graphs, or even maps. 

Next, you need to know that the questions are multiple-choice. This can either be a great help or a great hindrance, depending on how you choose to tackle this section. We’ll talk about some strategies later in this guide. 

Now that you know what these questions are, let’s look at why they matter on the AP Exam. Check out this chart that breaks down the APUSH Exam. 

Section

Question Type

Number of Questions

Exam Weighting

Timing

1

Part A: SBMC

Part B: Short-Answer Questions

55 

3

40%

20%

55 minutes

40 minutes

2

Question 1: Document-Based Question

1

25%

60 minutes (including 15 minute reading period)

3

Question 2: Long Essay Question

1

15%

40 minutes

As you can see, the SBMC accounts for 40% of the exam score, and you’ll have 55 minutes to complete the section. That seems reasonable until you realize that you have to complete 55 SBMC in that time! 

For a lot of students, time-management is the hardest part of this section of the exam. In order to finish on time, you can only spend about a minute on each question. When you take into account the time spent on reading the stimulus, it definitely becomes a race against the clock.

For example, you might see something like this on an AP exam: 

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races -- a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color -- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.” 

  • Plessy v. Ferguson, Supreme Court of the United States (163 U.S. 537), May 18, 1896

  1. Which later development is most directly a result of the Plessy case?

    1. The wide popularity of minstrel shows, which mocked African American cultural practices

    2. The organization of a group of Freedom Riders, who sought to desegregate buses in the South.

    3. The establishment of new Jim Crow laws, designed to legally separate blacks and whites in public spaces

    4. The creation of the NAACP formed to advocate for racial equality in the United States.

Did you look at that question, and feel a bit of panic? It’s okay if you did! There are strategies that can help you break down questions and select the best answers. As you practice SBMC questions, you can try out these strategies and see which ones are most useful for you. 

Strategies for SBMC 

1. Look at the sourcing information. 

Let’s be realistic -- you’re probably not going to have enough time to thoroughly read and annotate each text-based stimulus. The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to. Let’s look at our sample stimulus again: 

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races -- a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color -- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.” 

  • Plessy v. Ferguson, Supreme Court of the United States (163 U.S. 537), May 18, 1896

Like most legal rulings, the language here is dense. Reading this through might end up being a blow to your confidence, which is definitely what you do not want on test day. For that reason, it’s better to start with the sourcing information. 

At the bottom of each stimulus, there is a notation that indicates where the document came from. In this case, jumping straight to the sourcing tells us that this document is an excerpt from the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. If you remember the Plessy case, there’s no reason to do more than skim through the stimulus for a quick refresher. Again, the answer you want isn’t going to be explicitly delivered in the stimulus, so there’s no reason to take a lot of time for it. 

2. Decide what the question is actually asking.

Remember, the APUSH Exam is testing your historical thinking skills. It would be helpful to identify some keywords in SBMC questions that highlight what skills the Exam is testing with particular questions. In our example question, 

Which later development is most directly a result of the Plessy case?

The word “result” indicates that the question is looking for causation. In other words, which of the four options is most directly caused by the ruling in the Plessy case? 

There are five historical thinking skills that are assessed through the SBMC section; argumentation is only assessed through the free-response sections.

Developments and Processes

Contextualization

Sourcing and Situation

Making Connections

Claims and Evidence in Sources

For our sample question, you’ve been asked to make a connection between historical events. 

3. Eliminate the unlikely. 

It is likely that there are multiple answers that could be correct for an SBMC. If you read the instructions for the section, however, you’ll see that you need to find the best answer. One way to get at the best answer is to eliminate the less likely options. Let’s look at our options for the sample question. 

  1. The wide popularity of minstrel shows, which mocked African American cultural practices

  2. The organization of a group of Freedom Riders, who sought to desegregate buses in the South.

  3. The establishment of new Jim Crow laws, designed to legally separate blacks and whites in public spaces

  4. The creation of the NAACP, formed to advocate for racial equality in the United States.

Considering these options, and the skill being tested by the question, it’s helpful to know when these events occurred to help eliminate some options. 

  • Minstrel shows are most popular from about 1850 to 1870, which means they can’t have been caused by the Plessy case. We can eliminate that option. 

  • Freedom Riders were attempting to desegregate buses in the early 1960s. This seems like it might be an option, considering that Plessy was about public transportation. Let’s come back to it. 

  • Jim Crow laws were segregation laws adopted between the 1870s and the 1970s, and we know that Plessy was about segregation. Let’s come back to this option, too. 

  • The NAACP was founded in 1909, which makes it seem like a valuable option. Let’s look more in depth at it, as well. 

With dates alone, we can reduce our likely answers from four to three. If nothing else, this increases our likelihood for a correct guess! 

4. Guessing is okay! 

Like most standardized tests, you’re on a time crunch! As you have probably heard for the ACT or other common standardized tests, guessing is not always a bad option, especially when you’re running out of time. 

If you encounter a set of questions that are stumping you, just guess something and move on. You might miss out on the opportunity to answer later questions that you’re more confident about by spending too much time on something you don’t actually know. 

Pick a favorite letter (A, B, C, or D) and use that letter for any questions for which you’re unsure of the best answer. 

5. Leave nothing unanswered.

You don’t want to leave empty bubbles at the end of the test. A lack of answers removes any possibility of your getting points. In the last minute of the 55 minute test time, fill in any remaining bubbles with your favorite guess letter. In this case, it’s better to have something than nothing. 

Answering the Question…

Let’s return to our sample question and finish answering it. 

“A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races -- a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color -- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.” 

-Plessy v. Ferguson, Supreme Court of the United States (163 U.S. 537), May 18, 1896

  1. Which later development is most directly a result of the Plessy case?

  1. The wide popularity of minstrel shows, which mocked African American cultural practices

  2. The organization of a group of Freedom Riders, who sought to desegregate buses in the South.

  3. The establishment of new Jim Crow laws, designed to legally separate blacks and whites in public spaces

  4. The creation of the NAACP, formed to advocate for racial equality in the United States.

At this point, we need to think logically about causation, and what we know of American history to actually answer the question. We’ve used sourcing to decide we don’t need to spend time thoroughly reading the stimulus, and elimination to get rid of one of the answers. 

Let’s look at our remaining options. 

  • It’s unlikely that the Freedom Riders would be the best answer. They’re nearly 70 years removed from the Plessy trial, while the other two options are chronologically closer to the event. 

  • The NAACP’s original mission related to combating racial violence in the South -- I usually associate its earliest years with Ida B. Wells’s crusade against lynching. Plessy doesn’t have a lot to do with lynching. 

  • Jim Crow laws were designed to enforce and define separate spaces for white and black Americans. One way of summing up the Plessy case is with the doctrine of “separate but equal”. This is the best answer for the question. 

If you just said to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of effort for just one question,” you’re not wrong! This is the reason that SBMC questions are challenging. You have to apply both historical knowledge (a lot of historical knowledge) and historical thinking skills. Practice is important for this section! While you’re practicing, try using a timer to simulate the timed experience of the real exam.

Sample SBMC Questions

“I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands….[b]ut this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment.”

  • Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Holmes, April 22, 1820

  1. Which of the following contributed most directly to the issue referenced in this excerpt?

    1. The Missouri Compromise

    2. The Louisiana Purchase

    3. The Census of 1820

    4. The Election of 1820

  2. Debates over issues discussed in the excerpt contributed most directly to which of the following later characteristics of the United States?

    1. Increasing sectional division over the issue of slavery

    2. Increased feelings of patriotism and national unity

    3. Rising support for gradual abolition throughout the country

    4. Decreased interest in expanding the nation’s borders

  3. Which of the following later developments had an effect most similar to that described in the excerpt?

    1. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which also allowed for self-determination on the issue of slavery

    2. The Compromise of 1850, which also attempted to create a balance between free and slave states

    3. The South Carolina Nullification Crisis, which also attempted to advocate for the rights of states

    4. The Crittenden Compromise, which also proposed a constitutional amendment to resolve the issue of slavery

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