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So you’re thinking about taking the American Government CLEP exam? Awesome! Here’s what you need to know.

The 100 question exam is designed to be the equivalent of a freshman single semester course.  You’ll cover the basics, like US governmental structure and civil liberties, before diving into a few trickier topics, like theories of democracy and the electoral process.

Fast American Government
Study Guide

If you’ve previously studied American Government during high school or through extracurriculars, you’ll likely find this test pleasantly fast.  If not, you can study through it in no time and be up and running.  It’s probably one of the slightly easier CLEP exams, but be careful not to underestimate it!

The exam will be divided into five major chunks:

  • (30%-35%) Institutions and Policy Processes

    Presidency, Bureaucracy and Congress: This section sounds incredibly dry and boring, but it’s actually pretty simple once you get into it. You’ll want to understand things like how the three branches of the US government work together (that’s the Executive branch, the Judicial branch, and the Legislative branch). Fun fact: Most people think of the Executive branch as just the Presidency, but it also includes about 5 million people employed by the various government administrations: Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, etc.

  • (15%–20%) Federal Courts, Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

    This section will probably be a faster and more fun study – this is where we get to learn about our rights as US citizens! You’ll want to start with the Bill of Rights: the 10 amendments to the US Constitution that were passed as a bundle to define the minimum rights we hold as humans. You’ll also want to study a bit of the civil rights history and how our civil liberties have evolved. Why for instance was slavery still allowed for nearly a century after the Bill of Rights?

  • (15%–20%) Political Parties and Interest Groups

    Another easy section – even if you’re not voting quite yet, you probably were involved in recent elections. But don’t be fooled – this section goes far beyond the Donkey and the Elephant. Before you walk in for your test, you should understand how interest groups work (aka, lobbyists) and how the electoral process works (it’s complicated, but once you dig in it becomes clear).

  • (10%–15%) Political Beliefs and Behavior

    As a democratic republic, United States citizens have a very critical and important role.  Particularly when first founded 2 centuries ago, a United States citizen has a unique opportunity to influence politics.  This section digs into exactly how that works: how people learn about political issues, how they take action (voting, protests), the various political sub-cultures formed, and how public opinion does (or doesn’t) affect our elected leaders.

  • (15%–20%) Constitutional Underpinnings of American Democracy

    Ok, so this is getting into the boring realm again, but, trust me, it’s actually really fun when you engage. Basically, the US Constitution is the single foundation for our entire governmental structure.  Sure, it’s been supplemented with dozens of amendments and millions of federal and state laws, but it’s kind of amazing that the entire government still boils down to a four page document. In this section you’ll learn about Federalism, separation of powers, and the other (sometimes conflicting) theories of democracy that contributed to this singular document.

American Government
Practice Quiz

Ready to give it a shot?  Dive into the 10 question quiz below to get a feel for how prepared you are! Once you’ve written down your answers, hover over (or tap on a phone) the question to see the answers and explanations.

Please do keep in mind that we can’t guarantee the accuracy of this quiz, so we do recommend you also run through a full-length practice exam.  The CollegeBoard offers a good one that we’ll share in the resources section below.

Question 1: The majority rule principle in US governmental design means that…

a) The proposal with the majority of votes wins
b) The political party with the most registered voters wins
c) A proposal requires more than 50% of votes to win
d) The largest states get extra seats in the senate

Answer: c) A proposal requires more than 50% of votes to win

Surprisingly enough, majority rule doesn’t actually mean that majority wins. Rather, it means that absolute majority is required for victory. If you have three options and the most popular wins 40% of the vote, alternate means of decision will be triggered (which specifically vary between the branches of government).

Question 2: What portions of the US government fall under the Executive branch, one of the three major branches?

a) The President, Cabinet, and Federal Agencies
b) The Supreme Court and lower courts
c) The Department of State
d) The Senate and House of Representatives

Answer: a) The President, Cabinet, and Federal Agencies

This was an easy one. 🙂 The Executive branch contains the Presidency and administrative agencies (including the State Department). The Judicial branch includes the Supreme Court and other federal courts. The Legislative branch includes the Senate and House of Representatives.

Question 3: While interest groups draw many critics, James Madison (our fourth president and the “Father of the Constitution”) wrote a stirring defense in Federalist Paper No. 10.  Why did he defend the idea?

a) Because interest groups bring much needed money to Washington
b) Because interest groups force corporate influence campaigns to remain somewhat transparent
c) Because competing interest groups make sure no single majority can completely take over
d) Because interest groups let minorities pool their influence behind one hard-hitting idea

Answer: c) Because competing interest groups make sure no single majority can completely take over

This is the basic principle of pluralism: the idea that various forces in a democracy balance each other out and drive the system toward a happy medium. Critics have pointed out that many issues don’t have a balanced middle. In a zero sum game what’s good for one group is bad for another.  Additionally, critics argue that interest groups tend work more often for the middle- and upper-class Americans, while ignoring those without money to lobby.

Question 4: What rights are protected by the sixth amendment to the Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights)?

a) The right to avoid cruel or unusual punishment.
b) The right to freedom of religion.
c) The right to keep and bear arms.
d) The right to a speedy and public trial.

Answer: d) The right to a speedy and public trial.

All answers are actual amendments in the Bill of Rights, but the sixth specifically reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Question 5: Which seminal event was a major victory for civil rights against deep seated racial segregation and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first successful nonviolent protests?

a) Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)
b) Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
c) Desegregation at Little Rock (1957)
d) Freedom Rides (1961)

Answer: b) Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)

Remember Rosa Parks? A seamstress by trade, she was also her city’s secretary for the NAACP. After years of racial segregation on public transit, she was riding on December day in the front-most row that black people were allowed to sit in (a middle row).  When a white man boarded the bus, the bus driver demanded that everyone in Rosa Parks’ row move back to make room.  In a bold act of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks refused and was arrested on Dec 1. After her trial on Dec 5 resulted in a “guilty” verdict, the Montgomery bus boycott began. It ended just over a year later following a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transit was against the law.

Question 6: What happens if the electoral college fails to select a winning Presidential candidate with greater than 50% majority?

a) Each state must select a fresh batch of electors to replace any potential faithless electors
b) The House of Representatives must vote for one of the top three candidates from the electoral vote
c) The Senate must vote between the top two candidates from the popular vote
d) The sitting president remains in office for another year while the election is reset

Answer: b) The House of Representatives must vote for one of the top three candidates from the electoral vote

Fascinatingly, this has actually occurred on two separate occasions: once in 1800 when the electoral college resulted in a tie, and once again in 1824 when neither candidate received a 50% majority.  Faithless electors – those who vote contrary to their pledge – have been targeted by some state laws, but no one has ever been formally charged and Constitution experts argue the state laws probably would crumble if ever challenged in court. No election result has ever been changed by faithless electors, but in 2016 seven electors did vote contrary to their pledge (and the popular vote in their state).

Question 7: Lobbying in the United States political sphere can best be described as…

a) Hiring of professional advocates to push for specific legislation in US Congress and other governing bodies
b) Community organizing of mass political rallies with the purpose of showing voter interest in specific causes
c) Investing in public interest campaigns to educate voters on specific legislation or causes
d) Backroom dealing and bribery to get special legislation passed for companies or individuals

Answer: a) Hiring of professional advocates to push for specific legislation in US Congress and other governing bodies

Lobbying as a term potentially dates back to President Ulysses who used the term to describe the political advocates who waited to find him in his hotel’s lobby.  Today it’s a massive industry with foreign governments alone spending half a billion dollars each year endeavoring to influence US governmental decisions. While it certainly has negative connotations for many, the vast majority of lobbying is completely legal, and bribery or backroom dealings would result in significant legal charges for anyone involved.

Question 8: During the formation of the US Constitution, debate raged between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. What central tenet did the Federalists propose?

a) A stronger central government
b) A smaller central government made of strong state governments
c) Lower taxes on trade between states
d) A weak central/state government system where “we the people” retained power

Answer: a) A stronger central government

We often think of the US governmental system as one with an initially weak central government surrounded by strong state governments. This is true, but only because the Anti-Federalist movement held significant sway in the writing of the Constitution.  The Anti-Federalists wanted almost no central government (as per the Articles of Confederacy), and the Federalists had to fight hard to get even the small central government put forth in the Constitution. Over the last 200 years, the central government has grow dramatically stronger by adding programs like Social Security, IRS, and many more.

Question 9: During a presidential campaign, dozens of opinion polls seek to accurately predict the election outcome. What is the biggest challenge these polls face?

a) Dirty campaigns with last minute surprises can sway voter opinion
b) The internet fundamentally shifts the way people learn about political issues
c) In today’s real-time world, voters change their minds so often that polls can’t keep up
d) Opinion polls are frequently not representative samples of actual voters

Answer: d) Opinion polls are frequently not representative samples of actual voters

While opinion polls are facing many challenges today in accurately predicting the results of elections, the single biggest issue is finding a truly representative sample of potential voters.  This is due to both sample size (the number of people surveyed) and selection bias (people willing to engage in a poll are less likely to be busy professions for instance). Other factors like the evolution of media online definitely change the way people engage with politics but do not directly impact the accuracy of polls.

Question 10: Set by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, which person is next in line for the presidency after the Vice President?

a) Secretary of State
b) Speaker of the House
c) Senate Majority Leader
d) Temporarily empty with a special election

Answer: b) Speaker of the House

Particularly in any catastrophe that removed the President and Vice President, the government needs an immediate replacement with no delays for special election. As a result, the full succession list covers more than a dozen people including Speaker of the House, President pro tempore of the Senate, Secretary of State, and a number of other cabinet members. Interestingly, succession past Vice President has not yet been tested, and experts have some disagreement as to whether Senate approval is required for succession to the Presidency if Senate approval has already been given for a previous position.

More CLEP Study Resources

Looking for a study guide to fill a couple gaps, or just want a full length practice exam? You can find a few of my favorite resources below.  Note that some of the links are affiliate – meaning I’ll make a few dollars if you purchase, but I’m only sharing those resources that were genuinely helpful during my own CLEP journey.

Official CLEP Study Guide: It’s quite short on the study side of things, but this is the go-to practice test bank.  I don’t think I’ve done a single CLEP test without taking the practice test in this book first.

REA CLEP American Government: I’m not huge on reading, but this book series is fantastic if you’re into that kind of thing. It also includes some nifty online practice tests, though I always found the official practice tests more reassuring.

InstantCert Academy: The website looks like it was made before the internet, but it’s legitimately the single most useful study guide I’ve found. Basically it’s a series of flashcards that help you learn about American Government in a fast paced and fun way.

Plenty of other resources exist – just do a quick internet search – but these are the three that I’ve personally found the most helpful back when I did CLEP.

Congrats on starting your CLEP study journey! Study hard, earn credit, and most of all remember to have fun.