Every green card holder (lawful permanent resident) who applies for naturalized U.S. citizenship must, as one of the last stages in the process, attend an interview at an office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). There, an examiner will interview the applicant and orally administer various tests, one of which covers U.S. history, civics, and government.
Fortunately for applicants, they don't have to learn endless amounts of material. All the possible questions are available in advance. In 2020, however, the list of study questions was lengthened and changed, as described here.
For decades leading up to December 2020, the naturalization civics exam included 100 possible questions. Going forward, the list that applicants will need to study includes a longer list, of 128 questions.
What's more, the USCIS examiner will ask more questions during the interview than ever before. In the previous version, applicants needed to answer only six out of 12 questions correctly in order to pass this exam. The revised version requires answering at least 12 out of 20 questions correctly in order to pass.
The examiner will choose which questions to ask. In another change from past practice, however, the examiner won't stop once someone gets the minimum number correct. In other words, even if you've answered 12 out of 15 questions correctly, such that your passing is guaranteed, the examiner will go on to ask a total of 20 questions.
Applicants who qualify to take a shorter exam because they're age 65 or older will not see any changes to the total number of questions asked. As before, they'll need to check for asterisks ("*") on the list of potential questions. However, the 20 potential questions have changed along with the 2020 revision (though some remain the same as before).
Some of the questions on the previous exam have been broken into two, creating new questions, while some questions are entirely new. We'll address them in the categories that appear on USCIS's latest list.
The new list starts with a question one might be surprised to hear has never been on the exam before: "What is the form of government of the United States?" (Acceptable answers include, "Republic," "Constitution-based federal republic," and "Representative democracy.)
Another new question asks applicants to name one of the many documents that influenced the U.S. Constitution.
Several new questions concern the branches of the U.S. government, starting with Congress. One asks applicants to name one power of Congress; another asks why U.S. representatives serve shorter terms than U.S. senators; another asks why each state has two senators; and two more ask who elects U.S. senators then who elects members of the House of Representatives.
With regard to the executive branch, applicants will now need to be able to name one of its parts, plus potentially answer several new questions about the U.S. President. For example, one new question asks why the President can serve only two terms in office; another asks applicants to name one power of the president; and another asks who appoints federal judges (the President).
The President's election comes up in another new question: “Why is the Electoral College important?” (Acceptable answers include, “It decides who is elected president” and “It provides a compromise between the popular election of the president and congressional selection.”)
Moving on to the judicial branch, a new question asks applicants to name one of its parts. Another asks how many Supreme Court justices are usually needed to decide a case (five). Yet another asks how long Supreme Court justices serve for (for life or until retirement), with a potential follow-up question on why that is.
The balance of power between federal and state government also receives attention on the revised exam. A new question asks, "What is the purpose of the 10th Amendment?" (the answer being, "It states that the powers not given to the federal government belong to the states or to the people").
A new question asks, "How can people become United States citizens?"
And an old question that asked for examples of how people can participate in democracy has been broken into two questions, asking, "What are two examples of civic participation in the United States?" and "What is one way Americans can serve their country?".
Questions asking "why" are an interesting recurring theme in the 2020 exam. Two new ones in this section ask, "Why is it important to pay federal taxes?" (people have surely wondered about this!) and why it's important for all men age 18 through 25 to register for the Selective Service.
The vast majority of new questions in this section focus on war history.
For example, applicants might be asked "What war did the Americans fight to win independence from Britain?"; or to name one of the important events of either the American Revolution or the Civil War; or which U.S. war ended slavery; or about why the United States entered World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Persian Gulf War; which country was the U.S.'s main rival during the Cold War; and to name one U.S. military conflict after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Another new question asks, "Why were the Federalist Papers important?".
The Founding Fathers are featured more heavily, as the 2020 exam asks what both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were famous for. (Sadly, answering that Hamilton is famous for the musical that bears his name will not be counted as correct.)
And "What amendment gives citizenship to all persons born in the United States?" has been added to the list.
The subject of voting led to two new questions, one asking, "When did all men get the right to vote?," and one asking when women got the right to vote.
Moving along to the 20th century, two new questions ask about the Great Depression; what is was and when it started.
President Dwight Eisenhower earned a new question, which asks what he was famous for.
This section ends with a fun new question, asking applicants to name one example of an American innovation. (Answers can include the light bulb, automobile, skyscraper, airplane, assembly line, moon landing, or integrated circuit (IC).)
Perhaps in response to immigrants' curiosity about the phrase on U.S. coins, a new question asks, "The Nation’s first motto was “E Pluribus Unum.” What does that mean?"
This section also has two new questions about holidays, "What is Memorial Day?" and "What is Veterans Day?".
A number of questions have been altered or rewritten, often to expand, collapse, or clarify their meaning.
For instance, the old question, "The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?" (answer: We the People) was changed to the following:
"The U.S. Constitution starts with the words "We the People.” What does "We the People" mean?" (acceptable answers include: "self-government," "popular sovereignty," "consent of the governed," "people should govern themselves," and "(Example of) social contract.")
And the old question of, "What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?" (with possible answers including "checks and balances" and "separation of powers") was changed to: "There are three branches of government. Why?" (with possible answers including "So one part does not become too powerful" and "Checks and balances").
Another old question, “What did Susan B. Anthony do?” was substantially changed, to: “Name one leader of the women’s rights movement in the 1800s.” (Acceptable answers include Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone.)
And poor George Washington, who used to have two questions dedicated to him, now has only one, asking applicants to name one thing he was famous for.
Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, got added attention. A question that once asked only for his name as the author of the Declaration of Independence now asks what he was famous for, and applicants can choose from a long-ish list.
An old question asking what date Independence Day falls on has been changed to, "What is Independence Day?"
Not much was dropped, but some questions that past applicants studied are now gone from the exam.
One example is, "What is freedom of religion?" The answer was, "You can practice any religion, or not practice a religion." The new exam now only lists "freedom of religion" among the possible answers to a question about what rights everyone living in the United States has.
Also dropped was, "If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?" (Answer: Speaker of the House.)
Here's an interesting omission: The questions "What are the two major political parties in the United States?" (Democratic and Republican) and "What is the political party of the President now?" are now both gone from the exam.
And, the exam no longer asks what month we vote for President in or when the last day to send in federal income tax forms is. Hopefully applicants will remember the dates without these reminders!