Social Studies Study Guide for the HiSET Test

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General Information

This section of the HiSET® test covers four content areas and assesses your ability to think and reason about them. These areas are covered approximately the listed emphasis:

  • History (35%)
  • Civics/Government (35%)
  • Economics (20%)
  • Geography (10%)

In addition to being based on one or more of the said content areas, answering the questions correctly will require you to interpret, apply, analyze, evaluate, and generalize in response to information given in passages, as well as graphs, maps, and other visual stimulation.

During the test session, you will have 70 minutes to complete 60 multiple-choice questions. In this study guide, you will be given an outline of the areas of social studies content with which you should be familiar. If there are concepts that require further study, there are plenty of online and book resources about them, so you should seek additional reading in these areas. The last part of this guide takes you through the types of thinking processes you will need to use on the test. Practicing these on your own will help you to be successful on test day.

The following four content areas are covered on the HiSET® Social Studies test. We have mentioned some of the most basic terms and ideas, and the things you should be able to do with these concepts. Be sure you are very familiar with all of these by doing further study in these areas.


History is the process of studying and analyzing the past to prepare for the future. Studying history is important because we need to learn from past mistakes in order to prevent future mistakes.

Historical Sources and Perspectives

Historical sources include primary and secondary sources. A primary source is something from the actual historical event/time period. An example might be a photograph of an event or the personal journal of a historical figure. A secondary source is something created after the event. Textbooks are good examples of secondary sources. Perspective refers to the way in which we study history, much like a viewpoint. We can analyze the past from different perspectives much like spectators at a baseball game have different viewpoints of the field.

Past, Present, and Future

You may have heard the saying “every action has a reaction.” Even though this was originally referring to science, it can also be true of history. Every action has a consequence and history is all about studying the actions and consequences throughout time. The present world we live in is a consequence of the actions and decisions people made in the past. Likewise, the future is being molded based on the decisions and actions people are making today.

Eras in History

An era of history simply refers to a time period that can be distinguished from other time periods based on economic, cultural, and political characteristics. Since so much has happened on Earth over the years, breaking history down into eras helps us better study, understand, and apply what has happened over time.

U.S. Historical Eras

One perspective we can take when studying history is by looking at one particular country over time. There are several major eras of history concerning the United States. Most of these eras are characterized by major events, such as wars, or technological advancements. Carefully review the following eras in U.S. History and try to remember the major theme of each era, or time period.

Pre-Colonial Era—This era refers to the time before 1620. Prior to the discovery of the Americas by Europeans, native people inhabited what is today the United States. The people living here during this time period are sometimes referred to as Indians, Native Americans, or Indigenous peoples. Not much is known about America before the Europeans arrived, but it is estimated that anywhere from 30 to 120 million people inhabited the continent.
Important People and Ideas: Native Americans, Indians, Indigenous

Colonial Era—The first British colonies included Jamestown and Plymouth. This period lasted roughly from 1600 to 1760 and was characterized by the British control and population of the 13 American colonies.
Important People and Ideas: Pilgrims, John Smith, 13 American Colonies, King George, French and Indian War

Revolutionary Era—Characterized by revolt against British authority in the American colonies, the revolutionary era generally includes the events between 1763 and 1783. Many colonists were upset about taxes placed on them without their consent, and after a series of revolts, the Americans declared independence and went to war with Great Britain.
Important People and Ideas: George Washington, Boston Tea Party, Continental Congress, Revolutionary War, Declaration of Independence

A New Nation—The years between 1783 and 1815 were critical to the development of the United States as a new country and solidifying their role as an independent country. This era was characterized by the Articles of Confederation, the development of the U.S. Constitution, and the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison.
Important People and Ideas: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Louisiana Purchase, Federalists and Antifederalists

U.S. Expansion—Following the war of 1812, the United States experienced rapid growth in industry, development, and physical size. From 1815 to 1860, the U.S. showed the world it would remain independent and true to its roots. Pioneers settled the West and industry in the East boomed, thanks to canals.
Important People and Ideas: Andrew Jackson, Erie Canal, Second Great Awakening, Slavery and Anti-slavery

Civil War—In 1860, Civil War broke out in the country, largely due to the issue of slavery. Though the war would end by 1865 and the U.S. would remain a unified country, the impacts of the war would linger for decades. Slavery was abolished but prejudice remained. It would take nearly 30 years to rebuild the South and heal the wounds inflicted by the civil war.
Important People and Ideas: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Reconstruction, African American Emancipation (13th Amendment)

The Gilded Age—The U.S. emerged as a global manufacturing powerhouse in the late 1800s. Often referred to as the Gilded Age, the time period from 1880 to 1900 was characterized by rapid industrialization and economic growth. The country grew wealthy and expanded through steel and the building of railroads.
Important People and Ideas: John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, railroads, urbanization, monopoly

The Progressive Era—This era was characterized by a series of reforms meant to solve problems that were created during the Gilded Age. Topics of note from 1900 to 1920 include Jim Crow laws and the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to cities in the North, the preservation movement, WWI, the roaring twenties, and prohibition.
Important People and Ideas: Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Woodrow Wilson, 19th Amendment

Great Depression and WWII—After soaring economic growth in the 1920s, faith in business failed when the stock market crashed in 1929. Throughout the 1930s, the country experienced its worst economic depression to date as New Deal programs struggled to put people back to work. It would eventually take U.S. involvement in WWII to revive the economy with the demand for factory workers, war supplies, and soldiers.
Important People and Ideas: Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Great Depression, The New Deal, WWII, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust, Harry Truman, Atom Bomb

The Current Era—The world changed drastically after WWII as two major superpowers emerged: the Soviet Union and the United States. Much of the twentieth century was characterized by the Cold War and an arms race between these two superpowers. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the U.S. has remained a global leader in economics, culture, and politics, proving to the world that democracy and capitalism are successful practices.
Important People and Ideas: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, Civil Rights Movement, Space Race, Vietnam War, communism and democracy

World Historical Eras

When taking a global perspective, we can identify several other eras that help to break history down into understandable segments. These eras are characterized by culture, economics, and politics as well as human development (the improvements in technology that advance society).

Stone Age—This era can also be referred to as “pre-history,” dating from 50,000 BC to 3,000 BC. Not much is known about this time other than that it was probably characterized by the use of wood and stone for tools and weapons.

Bronze Age—Dating from 3,000 BC to 1,300 BC, the Bronze Age saw the first use of metal by man. Bronze was used and melted to create tools and weapons while the first forms of writing were being established.

Iron Age—Characterized by the use of iron and steel for tools, this era lasted from roughly 1,200 BC to 230 BC. Agricultural developments made great strides and trade expanded.

Ancient Civilizations—Three main ancient civilizations characterized world history: the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. These powerful empires were established between 7,000 BC and 400 AD that contributed rich culture, knowledge, technology, economy, and politics. Jesus, the founder of Christianity, lived under the Roman Empire.
Important People and Ideas: Egyptian Pharaoh, Julius Caesar, Emperor Nero, democracy, Alexander the Great, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus Christ

Dark Ages—The Dark Ages (400 AD–1400s AD) refer to a time when religious conflict consumed Europe and the Middle East. After the creation of Islam, Christians and Muslims struggled for control of the Holy Land. Known as the Crusades, these wars characterized much of the Dark Ages.
Important People and Ideas: Mohammed, Constantine, Charlemagne, Sultans/Ottoman Empire

Age of Discovery—Characterized by a desire to find an all-water route to the far East (in order to have direct access to the spices there), the age of discovery saw a vast expansion in the world known to Europeans. The Americas were discovered and trade connections throughout Africa and Asia were expanded.
Important People and Ideas: Henry the Navigator, Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, Spice Trade, Silk Road, Columbian Exchange

Renaissance and Reformation—Beginning in the 1400s, the Renaissance was an awakening of culture that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages. Renaissance means rebirth and this time period was characterized by an explosion of cultural, artistic, and scientific progress. The Protestant Reformation continued to spread knowledge as people could now read the Bible in their own language.
Important People and Ideas: Martin Luther, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Shakespeare

Age of Revolutions—Marked by great changes worldwide, this time period lasted from the mid-1700s to 1900. Some of the most important revolutions that took place include the American and the French Revolutions. However, the most sweeping changes occurred during the Industrial Revolution.
Important People and Ideas: Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Rousseau, Karl Marx, George Washington, King Louis XVI, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Henry Bessemer

Age of World Wars—Lasting from 1915 to 1945, this time period was characterized by the world’s two major conflicts (World Wars I and II) and the global economic downturn between them.
Important People and Ideas: Woodrow Wilson, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman

Post-War Era—After WWII, the political and economic landscape of the world was dominated by two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The competition and political conflict between the two nations, known as the Cold War, characterized the second half of the 1900s.
Important People and Ideas: Joseph Stalin, John F Kennedy, Cold War, Vietnam War, Gorbachev, Reagan, NATO

Information Age—Beginning in the 1970s and carrying through to today, the modern era in which we live has been characterized by considerable advances in technology that have revolutionized entire countries and lifestyles across the world. Computers and the Internet have been the most dramatic innovations during this time period.
Important People and Ideas: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Internet, interdependence, globalization


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