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Advanced Placement (AP)
You’ve been working hard in your AP US History class, and now it’s time to start prepping for your APUSH exam.
But there’s a lot you’ll need to know if you want to do well, especially on the APUSH DBQ section. For instance, you’ll need to understand the APUSH DBQ rubric so you know how you’ll be scored on your answers, and you’ll need to look at a few APUSH DBQ examples so you understand what it takes to
Luckily for you, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about APUSH DBQs in one easy place. (That place is, uh, here. ) We’ll go over:
- An explanation of what APUSH DBQs are and why they’re important
- A walkthrough covering how APUSH DBQs work on the exam and what to expect
- A six-step process for writing a great DBQ
- Four tips for studying for and answering the APUSH DBQs
We’ll also give you an APUSH DBQ rubric and APUSH DBQ examples That’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get going!
The APUSH DBQ is an essay-based question, so you'll have to write quickly!
What Is an APUSH DBQ?
A DBQ is a “document-based” question that you’ll have to answer on your AP exam. For these questions, you’ll be given seven “documents,” which are short readings that cover different, usually related aspects of US History. From there, you’ll be asked to answer each DBQ in essay form using information from the documents you’ve been provided!
The good thing about APUSH DBQs is that they’re open-ended, meaning there are multiple correct ways to answer each question. The downside is that in order to answer the question and earn full credit, you’ll need to analyze and incorporate multiple documents as part of your argument.
And did we mention you’ll only have a limited amount of time to answer the DBQ, and that it's worth 25% of your total test score? That’s why APUSH DBQs can be stressful for test-takers!
How Do DBQs Work on the APUSH Exam?
The APUSH exam consists of 60 questions in total. Here’s how they break down across the test:
Of the two free response questions, one is a long essay (worth 15%) and one is a DBQ. This means that the sole DBQ is, by itself, worth 25% of your total grade, making it the single most heavily-weighted question on the APUSH exam.
The APUSH DBQ will consist of a single open-ended prompt . To answer it, you’ll have to create a persuasive argument that uses the documents you’ve been given on the exam itself. (More on that a bit later.)
To give you a little more context, here are some actual APUSH DBQ examples from previous years’ APUSH exams:
- “Evaluate the extent of change in ideas about American independence from 1763 to 1783.” ( 2017 )
- “Evaluate the relative importance of different causes for the expanding role of the United States in the world in the period from 1865 to 1910.” ( 2018 )
- “Evaluate the extent to which the Progressive movement fostered political change in the United States from 1890 to 1920.” ( 2019 )
APUSH Document Types
To answer these questions well, you’ll also have to read, analyze, and incorporate information from seven documents you’ll be provided on test day. These documents will be a mixture of:
- Primary texts : texts that were actually written in the time period you’re being asked about
- Secondary texts : texts written by later historians that explain the time period
- Images: these are typically either political cartoons or artworks from the time period
How many of each type of document you’ll see on your exam varies from year to year, so you’ll need to be equally comfortable using all three types of documents.
You’ll have to read through all seven documents and understand them so you can use them to answer your DBQ question. The information in the documents will help you create a thesis, build your argument, and prove your point…so you can get a great APUSH DBQ score! Just remember: to earn full credit, you’ll also have to explain how at least six of the documents are relevant to your argument, using evidence to back those claims up.
Using Outside Information
Along with the provided documents, you’ll also be expected to use one piece of historical evidence that isn’t included in the documents , but you already know from your own reading. This is information that you’ll have studied in class (or read on your own!) that applies to the DBQ and supports your argument.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to bring any class notes with you on exam day. That means you’ll need to study ahead of time so you’ll be ready to incorporate outside information into your DBQ answer!
Whew! That’s a lot! However, if it makes it any easier, the APUSH DBQ will only cover the period from 1754-1980 . That means you’ll only need to focus on studying–and remembering!--information from about 230 years.
Understand the APUSH DBQ Rubric
First, you need to understand what the expectations are and how your answer will be graded. That means reading through and understanding the official APUSH DBQ rubric!
The good news is that the College Board has provided the APUSH DBQ rubric as part of their 2021 AP Exam Administration Scoring Guidelines - AP United States History document .
Here’s how the rubric breaks down:
Thesis (1 point)
First, you’ll need to create a thesis that “responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning.” In order to get this point you’ll need to make an arguable claim based on the documents that answers the question of the prompt.
In other words, you’ll need to choose a position and then defend it with evidence from the documents and your knowledge base.
Contextualization (1 point)
In order to get a point for contextualization you’ll need to “accurately describe a context relevant” to the time period covered by the prompt. What this means is that you’ll have to describe the political, social, or economic events and trends that contributed to what your thesis is arguing.
Some of this you’ll know from the provided documents, but some of it you will also be expected to know on your own based on what you’ve studied in AP US History. You’ll also need to relate your knowledge to “broader historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or continue after the time frame of the question.” That means you have to show how the events of this time period are relevant now or how they are similar to some other historical situation .
Evidence (3 points)
For this part of the rubric, you’ll earn one point just for incorporating specific evidence that does not come from the provided documents in a way that is relevant to your thesis!
In order to earn the other two points, you must support your argument by using content from six of the seven documents . (If you don’t use six documents, but do use at least three of them, you’ll only earn one point.)
You can’t just randomly throw information from the documents into your essay, though, you have to use it in a way that supports your argument and accurately represents what the documents are saying .
Analysis and Reasoning (2 points)
For the analysis and reasoning section, you get one point for explaining “how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument.” You’ll earn another point for “complexity,” showing that you understand the time period that the prompt covers and use evidence to prove your understanding and back up your argument .
So to earn analysis and reasoning points, you have to prove how the documents are relevant to your argument, your argument has to demonstrate you understand the historical events of the time period, and you’ll have to create an argument that is well-reasoned and “complex.”
You’ll need to show graders you understand there’s a variety of possible perspectives about the issue you’re writing about and that people in that era did not all agree or have the same experiences.
Step-By-Step Process for Tackling an APUSH DBQ
The APUSH DBQ is a complicated question that tests you over several different skills, so there isn’t any simple technique to ace it. However, if you master each of the individual skills it takes to do well on the DBQ examples, rocking your APUSH DBQ will be much easier!
Here are five steps you can follow to build a foundation that’ll help you ace the DBQ.
Step 1: Take a Practice DBQ
The best way to master APUSH DBQs is by practicing with real APUSH DBQ examples.
The College Board’s website has the actual prompts from 2015-2019 available to download. This means you can take at least five practice APUSH exams, as well as read APUSH DBQ example responses and APUSH DBQ rubrics, for free!
This is excellent news because you can take several practice swings at answering APUSH DBQs before you have to tackle the real thing on test day.
Before practicing DBQ responses, it’s a good idea to take at least one APUSH DBQ practice test so you know what your baseline is. That way, you’ll understand your strengths and weaknesses and can really zero in on your weakest areas! From there, you can work through the practice APUSH DBQ prompts on their own.
However, the nature of a free response means that it won’t be easy for you to grade by yourself. To evaluate your DBQs, be sure to use the APUSH DBQ rubric we walked through above. Honestly try to assess whether or not you incorporated the information thoroughly and accurately. You can also ask a teacher, tutor, or even a family member to grade your APUSH DBQs for you as well!
Later, after you practice the skills outlined in the steps below, take another practice DBQ and see if it seems easier for you. Compare your score to the baseline score from your first attempt. Then, re-read over your textbooks and take it again. Repeat the cycle a couple of times. The big benefit will be that you will eventually get so used to the APUSH DBQ that you will be more comfortable in the actual testing environment .
Step 2: Practice Writing a Thesis
Because your DBQ response will have to choose a position and defend it, you’ll need to work on writing strong thesis statements. A thesis statement is essentially your argument in a nutshell, and it sums up the purpose of your essay.
The most important aspect of your APUSH DBQ thesis is that it has to make a claim that is both arguable (meaning you can use evidence to prove it) and is relevant to the prompt you’re given. However, you don’t want to just restate the prompt in your thesis!
Here’s what we mean. Let’s say your APUSH DBQ prompt is:
Evaluate the extent of change in ideas about American independence from 1763 to 1783.
You don’t want your thesis to be “Ideas about American independence changed a lot from 1763 to 1783. That’s just adding a few words to the prompt…and it’s not descriptive enough to cover the argument you’ll make later. Instead, make a specific claim about how and why ideas about American independence changed, and you’ll need to use the documents provided to prove it!
So for this example, a better thesis might be, “Between 1763 and 1783, American ideas about independence changed from being unsure about how the nation could survive without British rule to believing in (and fighting for) the nation’s independence.”
Because APUSH DBQs are open-ended, there are actually many different thesis statements you could come up with that would let you write an amazing answer. Here are two APUSH DBQ examples that College Board considers acceptable theses for this prompt:
- “The ideas about American independence changed greatly from 1763 to 1783. In the beginning, colonists only wanted representation and a say in the legislation of new laws, but by 1783 Americans wanted true freedom from British rule.”
- “From 1763–1783, ideas of American independence changed from the colonies blindly accepting the tyranny of the British by religious rights of divine kings to believing in natural rights of individuals against British rule.”
Let’s look at how these theses make specific claims:
The first thesis argues that colonists originally only wanted representation, but by 1783 wanted freedom from British rule. These are two different mindsets that the author can then use the documents to illustrate and prove actually existed.
The second example thesis addresses a more theoretical change in belief: one that changes from Americans of 1763 accepting the medieval notion of the king inheriting from God the right to govern, to one in which Americans of 1783 believed that individuals had the natural right of freedom from tyranny. The author can then use the documents as evidence that Americans in that time period had those beliefs, and can argue about what happened to change them.
By practicing thesis writing, you’ll be able to create a detailed–and defensible!--statement that will help you create a convincing DBQ argument.
An outline will serve as a roadmap that'll help you write a great essay—and it'll help you manage your time, too.
Step 3: Practice Creating an Outline
With only an hour to read the documents to write your essay, you probably won’t have time to revise. It’s very important that you make the best use of the limited time you will have available, so an outline will help you organize your thoughts and will keep you on track as you write.
Just be careful that you don’t take too much time with your outline–you need to write a whole essay! Five minutes (or less!) is all you need to put together an outline that’ll help you write an awesome DBQ.
With that said, let’s talk about what makes up a great outline.
Two important elements of a good outline are an introduction and conclusion ! Your intro will set up your thesis and your conclusion to restate your thesis while explaining why it’s relevant to the reader today. Because both of these sections center around your thesis statement, they’ll help you organize the rest of your argument…and your DBQ essay!
Once you have those in place, you can start adding body paragraphs to your outline. Since you only have about 45 minutes to write this essay, you don’t want too many of them. Three or four body paragraphs will be enough to get the job done.
The most important thing about your body paragraphs is that each of them makes a claim that a) supports your thesis and b) allows you to incorporate information from the documents as evidence. You may even want to make a note of which documents you want to use in each body paragraph!
Here’s an outline template you can use as you practice your APUSH DBQs:
- Set up your argument and include your thesis.
- You can break down your thesis into several component steps, which will then become the body paragraphs as you expand upon them.
- Tell the reader what they need to know about the historical situation.
- Include any information you might already know from outside the provided documents.
- Make the first argumentative point you mentioned in your introduction/thesis.
- Use information from two to three documents to illustrate and prove your point.
- Make the second argumentative point you mentioned in your introduction/thesis.
- Use two to three different documents to support this point.
- If you have a third argumentative point, you’ll need to make it here.
- Be sure to use at least one document to support your argumentative point.
- Restate your thesis and summarize the main points you’ve made.
- Show how it’s relevant to the reader.
Again, this outline doesn’t need to be fancy! Jotting down a few words–or a short sentence–for each point will get you to where you need to go.
Step 4: Practice Incorporating Quotes and References
As you write your essay, you’ll need to use examples from the documents provided–and each time you do so, you need to explain documents you pulled the information from. You’ll do this whether you are quoting your source or just paraphrasing it.
There are two ways to do this:
Attributing your information means you tell your reader in the sentence which document you’re quoting or paraphrasing from. Below are two attribution DBQ examples APUSH considers acceptable:
"Charles Inglis uses reason to note that the colonies would be unable to sustain themselves without British support because the colonies don’t make enough money through agriculture and commerce.”
Notice that even though this APUSH DBQ example doesn’t quote Inglis outright, the author still lets the readers know which source they’re using to prove their point.
Using a parenthetical citation means that you put either the author of the source’s name or which document it’s from, in parentheses, at the end of the sentence. H ere’s an example of parenthetical citation that the College Board considers acceptable:
“He claimed only man himself can direct his own actions and decisions, not the rule of any legislative authority or man (Doc. 3).”
Since the sentence does not say who “he” is, the author of this essay has included this parenthetical citation (Doc. 3) that the reader can use to read the document in question and see if the argument the author is making is correctly represented from the source.
As you use these sources, you need to make sure that you are using the document accurately and not plagiarizing. Your goal is to show that you understand each document and know how to incorporate it into an argument.
Step 5: Understand Time Management
One of the most important skills you can acquire by taking multiple attempts at the APUSH DBQ practice test will be time management . When you’re in the actual test environment, you won’t be able to use your phone to set a timer or alarm, so it can be difficult to keep track of how much time you’re spending on reading and re-reading the documents, brainstorming, and outlining.
You want to leave yourself the majority of the time allowed (which will be one hour) for writing. College Board’s APUSH DBQ rubric recommends that you spend 15 minutes reading the documents and 45 minutes writing the essay .
The best way to get your time management down is practice . Set timers during your APUSH DBQ practice test so you can get a feel for how much time it takes to put an answer together. That way you have a feel for the process and will have enough time to write your DBQ on test day.
4 Tips for Mastering APUSH DBQs
Now that you’ve read our step-by-step process for tackling the APUSH DBQ and have seen several APUSH DBQ examples, here are some expert tips on doing well on the APUSH DBQ .
Tip 1: Remember that Each Point Is Scored Separately
Go through the APUSH DBQ rubric and take note of each individual task since you’ll be scored on how well you complete each one . For each task, there are usually multiple points available.
For example, you’ll earn one point for using at least three documents in your DBQ. But if you want to earn the full two points for that category, you’ll need to incorporate at least six documents into your answer.
By understanding the rubric, you’ll be able to maximize how many points you earn on your DBQ.
Tip 2: Your Essay Can Contain Errors
Now, don’t misunderstand us: you can’t say an author makes one claim when they are clearly saying the opposite. You also can’t write something that is obviously wrong, like that America continues under British rule because the revolution was unsuccessful, and get full credit!
But you can make minor errors that don’t detract from your argument as long as you are demonstrating a knowledge of the time period and the ability to incorporate evidence to make an argument. So for example, if you said that the First Continental Congress ended in November instead of October of 1774, you’ll still be able to earn full credit despite making a small error.
Tip 3: Write For Clarity
One thing to keep in mind is that you will be graded on how well you make and argue a thesis, and how well you incorporate the evidence from the documents to support that thesis– you don’t get graded on how beautifully or fluently you write ! So, while you’ll want to use correct grammar and write as clearly as you can, don’t spend too much time thinking about how best to phrase things as if you were writing for publication. Just focus on clearly explaining your ideas!
You won’t have points taken away for grammatical errors unless they make it difficult for the graders to see how you’ve used the evidence to make an argument.
Tip 4: Connect the Dots
Not only for the APUSH DBQ, but for everything you write, you need to ask yourself, why is this relevant? In the contextualization section, you are required to relate the information you’re conveying to other time periods or situations to earn full credit.
This is your chance to show that while the period you’re writing about may have been long in the past, the events are still relevant to us today ! This is why we read, write, and study history in the first place!
If you’re taking APUSH, you’re probably taking other AP classes as well! Here’s a general guide to preparing for AP tests that’ll help you get ready for any other AP exams you take.
Like we mentioned earlier, taking practice tests is one of the best ways you can get ready for your actual AP exams. Here’s a guide that’ll help you find the best AP practice tests for each exam.
If you’re taking multiple AP tests, you’ll need to maximize your study time. One way to do this is to study for each test based on when you’ll have to take it! Our complete breakdown of the AP exam schedule will help you manage your study time efficiently and effectively.
Looking for help studying for your AP exam?
Our one-on-one online AP tutoring services can help you prepare for your AP exams. Get matched with a top tutor who got a high score on the exam you're studying for!
Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.
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