Ap Us History Essay Tips For College

The DBQ, or document-based-question, is a somewhat unusually-formatted timed essay on the AP History Exams: AP US History, AP European History, and AP World History. Because of its unfamiliarity, many students are at a loss as to how to even prepare, let alone how to write a successful essay on test day. 

Never fear! I, the DBQ wizard and master, have a wealth of preparation strategies for you, as well as advice on how to cram everything you need to cover into your limited DBQ writing time on exam day. When you're done reading this guide, you'll know exactly how to write a DBQ.

For a general overview of the DBQ—what it is, its purpose, its format, etc.—see my article “What is a DBQ?” 

 

Table of Contents

What Should My Study Timeline Be?

Preparing for the DBQ

Establish a Baseline

Foundational Skills

Rubric Breakdown:

Take Another Practice DBQ

How Can I Succeed on Test Day?

Reading the Question and Documents

Planning Your Essay

Writing Your Essay

Key Takeaways

 

What Should My Study Timeline Be?

Your AP exam study timeline depends on a few things. First, how much time you have to study per week, and how many hours you want to study in total? If you don’t have much time per week, start a little earlier; if you will be able to devote a substantial amount of time per week (10-15 hours) to prep, you can wait until later in the year. 

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the earlier you start studying for your AP test, the less material you will have covered in class. Make sure you continually review older material as the school year goes on to keep things fresh in your mind, but in terms of DBQ prep it probably doesn’t make sense to start before February or January at the absolute earliest. 

Another factor is how much you need to work on. I recommend you complete a baseline DBQ around early February to see where you need to focus your efforts. 

If, for example, you got a six out of seven and missed one point for doing further document analysis, you won’t need to spend too much time studying how to write a DBQ. Maybe just do a document analysis exercise every few weeks and check in a couple months later with another timed practice DBQ to make sure you’ve got it.

However, if you got a two or three out of seven, you’ll know you have more work to do, and you’ll probably want to devote at least an hour or two every week to honing your skills. 

The general flow of your preparation should be: take a practice DBQ, do focused skills practice, take another practice DBQ, do focused skills practice, take another practice DBQ, and so on. How often you take the practice DBQs and how many times you repeat the cycle really depends on how much preparation you need, and how often you want to check your progress. Take practice DBQs often enough that the format stays familiar, but not so much that you’ve done barely any skills practice in between.

He's ready to start studying!

 

Preparing for the DBQ

The general preparation process is to diagnose, practice, test, and repeat.  First, you’ll figure out what you need to work on by establishing a baseline level for your DBQ skills. Then, you’ll practice building skills. Finally, you’ll take another DBQ to see how you've improved and what you still need to work on.

In this next section, I’ll go over the whole process. First, I’ll give guidance on how to establish a baseline. Then I’ll go over some basic, foundational essay-writing skills and how to build them. After that I’ll break down the DBQ rubric. You’ll be acing practice DBQs before you know it!

 

Establish a Baseline

The first thing you need to do is to establish a baseline—figure out where you are at with respect to your DBQ skills. This will let you know where you need to focus your preparation efforts.

To do this, you will take a timed, practice DBQ and have a trusted teacher or advisor grade it according to the appropriate rubric.

 

AP US History

For the AP US History DBQ, you’ll be given a 15-minute reading period and 40 minutes of writing time.

A selection of practice questions from the exam can be found online at the College Board, including a DBQ. (Go to page 136 in the linked document for the practice prompt.)

If you’ve already seen this practice question, perhaps in class, you might use the 2015 DBQ question.

Other available College Board DBQs are going to be in the old format (find them in the “Free-Response Questions” documents). This is fine if you need to use them, but be sure to use the new rubric  (which is out of seven points, rather than nine) to grade.

I advise you to save all these links, or even download all the Free Response Questions and the Scoring Guides, for reference because you will be using them again and again for practice.

 

AP European History

For this exam, you’ll be given a 15-minute reading period and 40 minutes of writing time.

The College Board has provided practice questions for the exam, including a DBQ (see page 200 in the linked document).

If you’ve already seen this question, the only other questions available through the College Board are in the old format, because the 2016 DBQ is in a new, seven-point format identical to the AP US History exam.  Just be sure to use the new DBQ rubric if you want to use any of the old prompts provided by the College Board. (DBQs are in the documents titled “Free-Response Questions.”)

I advise you to save all these links (or even download all the Free Response Questions and the Scoring Guides) for reference, because you will be using them again and again for practice.

 

Who knows—maybe this will be one of your documents!

 

AP World History

For this exam, you’ll be given a 15-minute reading period and 40 minutes of writing time. As for the other two history exams, the College Board has provided practice questions. See page 166 for the DBQ. 

If you’ve already seen this question, the only other questions available through the College Board are in the old format, because the 2017 World History DBQ is in a new, seven-point format identical to the AP US History and AP European History exams.  So be sure to use the new DBQ rubric if you want to use any of the old prompts provided by the College Board. (DBQs are in the documents titled “Free-Response Questions.”)

I advise you to save all these links (or even download all the Free Response Questions and the Scoring Guides) for reference, because you will be using them again and again for practice.

 

Finding a Trusted Advisor to Look at Your Papers

A history teacher would be a great resource, but if they are not available to you in this capacity, here are some other ideas:

  • Ask a librarian at your school or public library! If they can’t help you, they may be able to direct you to resources who can.
  • You could also ask a school guidance counselor to direct you to in-school resources you could use.
  • A tutor. This is especially helpful if they are familiar with the test, although even if they aren’t, they can still advise—the DBQ is mostly testing academic writing skills under pressure.
  • Your parent(s)! Again, ideally your trusted advisor will be familiar with the AP, but if you have used your parents for writing help in the past they can also assist here.
  • You might try an older friend who has already taken the exam and did well...although bear in mind that some people are better at doing than scoring and/or explaining!

 

Can I Prepare For My Baseline?

If you know nothing about the DBQ and you’d like to do a little basic familiarization before you establish your baseline, that’s completely fine. There’s no point in taking a practice exam if you are going to panic and muddle your way through it; it won’t give a useful picture of your skills.

For a basic orientation, check out my article for a basic introduction to the DBQ including DBQ format. 

If you want to look at one or two sample essays, see my article for a list of DBQ example essay resources. Keep in mind that you should use a fresh prompt you haven’t seen to establish your baseline, though, so if you do look at samples don’t use those prompts to set your baseline. 

I would also check out this page about the various “task” words associated with AP essay questions. This page was created primarily for the AP European History Long Essay question, but the definitions are still useful for the DBQ on all the history exams, particularly since these are the definitions provided by the College Board.

Once you feel oriented, take your practice exam! 

Don’t worry if you don’t do well on your first practice! That’s what studying is for. The point of establishing a baseline is not to make you feel bad, but to empower you to focus your efforts on the areas you need to work on. Even if you need to work on all the areas, that is completely fine and doable! Every skill you need for the DBQ can be built. 

In the following section, we’ll go over these skills and how to build them for each exam. 

 

You need a stronger foundation than this sand castle.

 

Foundational Skills

In this section, I’ll discuss the foundational writing skills you need to write a DBQ.

I’ll start with some general information on crafting an effective thesis, since this is a skill you will need for any DBQ exam (and for your entire academic life).  Then, I’ll go over outlining essays, with some sample outline ideas for the DBQ. After I’ll touch on time management. Finally, I’ll briefly discuss how to non-awkwardly integrate information from your documents into your writing.  

It sounds like a lot, but not only are these skills vital to your academic career in general, you probably already have the basic building blocks to master them in your arsenal! 

 

Writing An Effective Thesis

Writing a good thesis is a skill you will need to develop for all your DBQs, and for any essay you write, on the AP or otherwise.

Here are some general rules as to what makes a good thesis:

  • A good thesis does more than just restate the prompt. 

    • Let’s say our class prompt is:  “Analyze the primary factors that led to the French Revolution.”

    • Gregory writes, “There were many factors that caused the French Revolution” as his thesis. This is not an effective thesis. All it does is vaguely restate the prompt.

  • A good thesis makes a plausible claim that you can defend in an essay-length piece of writing.

    • Maybe Karen writes, “Marie Antoinette caused the French Revolution when she said ‘Let them eat cake’ because it made people mad.”

    • This is not an effective thesis, either. For one thing, Marie Antoinette never said that.  More importantly, how are you going to write an entire essay on how one offhand comment by Marie Antoinette caused the entire Revolution? This is both implausible and overly simplistic.

  • A good thesis answers the question.

    • If LaToya writes, “The Reign of Terror led to the ultimate demise of the French Revolution and ultimately paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte to seize control of France,” she may be making a reasonable, defensible claim, but it doesn’t answer the question, which is not about what happened after the Revolution, but what caused it!

  • A good thesis makes it clear where you are going in your essay.

    • Let’s say Juan writes,  “The French Revolution, while caused by a variety of political, social, and economic factors, was primarily incited by the emergence of the highly educated Bourgeois class.” This thesis provides a mini-roadmap for the entire essay, laying out that Juan is going to discuss the political, social, and economic factors that led to the Revolution, in that order, and that he will argue that the members of the Bourgeois class were the ultimate inciters of the Revolution. 

    • This is a great thesis! It answers the question, makes an overarching point, and provides a clear idea of what the writer is going to discuss in the essay.

To review: a good thesis makes a claim, responds to the prompt, and lays out what you will discuss in your essay.

 

If you feel like you have trouble telling the difference between a good thesis and a not-so-good one, here are a few resources you can consult:



So how do you practice your thesis statement skills for the DBQ?

While you should definitely practice looking at DBQ questions and documents and writing a thesis in response to those, you may also find it useful to write some practice thesis statements in response to the Free-Response Questions. While you won’t be taking any documents into account in your argument for the Free-Response Questions, it’s good practice on how to construct an effective thesis in general.

You could even try writing multiple thesis statements in response to the same prompt! It is a great exercise to see how you could approach the prompt from different angles. Time yourself for 5-10 minutes to mimic the time pressure of the AP exam.

If possible, have a trusted advisor or friend look over your practice statements and give you feedback. Barring that, looking over the scoring guidelines for old prompts (accessible from the same page on the College Board where past free-response questions can be found) will provide you with useful tips on what might make a good thesis in response to a given prompt.

Once you can write a thesis, you need to be able to support it—that's where outlining comes in!

 

This is not a good outline. 

 

Outlining and Formatting Your Essay

You may be the greatest document analyst and thesis-writer in the world, but if you don’t know how to put it all together in a DBQ essay outline, you won’t be able to write a cohesive, high-scoring essay on test day.

A good outline will clearly lay out your thesis and how you are going to support that thesis in your body paragraphs. It will keep your writing organized and prevent you from forgetting anything you want to mention!

For some general tips on writing outlines, this page from Roane State has some useful information. While the general principles of outlining an essay hold, the DBQ format is going to have its own unique outlining considerations.To that end, I’ve provided some brief sample outlines that will help you hit all the important points. 

 

Sample DBQ Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Thesis. The most important part of your intro!
  2. Body  1 - contextual information
    1. Any outside historical/contextual information
  3. Body 2 - First point
    1. Documents & analysis that support the first point
    2. If three body paragraphs: use about three documents, do deeper analysis on two
  4. Body 3 - Second point
    1. Documents & analysis that support the second point
    2. Use about three documents, do deeper analysis on two
    3. Be sure to mention your outside example if you have not done so yet!
  5. Body 4 (optional) - Third point
    1. Documents and analysis that support third point
  6. Conclusion
    1. Re-state thesis
    2. Draw a comparison to another time period or situation (synthesis)

 

Depending on your number of body paragraphs and your main points, you may include different numbers of documents in each paragraph, or switch around where you place your contextual information, your outside example, or your synthesis.

There’s no one right way to outline, just so long as each of your body paragraphs has a clear point that you support with documents, and you remember to do a deeper analysis on four documents, bring in outside historical information, and make a comparison to another historical situation or time (you will see these last points further explained in the rubric breakdown).

Of course, all the organizational skills in the world won't help you if you can't write your entire essay in the time allotted. The next section will cover time management skills.

 

You can be as organized as this library!

 

Time Management Skills for Essay Writing

Do you know all of your essay-writing skills, but just can’t get a DBQ essay together in a 15-minute planning period and 40 minutes of writing?

There could be a few things at play here:

  • Do you find yourself spending a lot of time staring at a blank paper?

    • If you feel like you don’t know where to start, spend one-two minutes brainstorming as soon as you read the question and the documents.  Write anything here—don’t censor yourself. No one will look at those notes but you!

    • After you’ve brainstormed for a bit, try to organize those thoughts into a thesis, and then into body paragraphs. It’s better to start working and change things around than to waste time agonizing that you don’t know the perfect thing to say.

  • Are you too anxious to start writing, or does anxiety distract you in the middle of your writing time? Do you just feel overwhelmed?

  • Are you only two thirds of the way through your essay when 40 minutes have passed?

    • You are probably spending too long on your outline, biting off more than you can chew, or both.

    • If you find yourself spending 20+ minutes outlining, you need to practice bringing down your outline time. Remember, an outline is just a guide for your essay—it is fine to switch things around as you are writing. It doesn’t need to be perfect. To cut down on your outline time, practice just outlining for shorter and shorter time intervals. When you can write one in 20 minutes, bring it down to 18, then down to 16.

    • You may also be trying to cover too much in your paper. If you have five body paragraphs, you need to scale things back to three.  If you are spending twenty minutes writing two paragraphs of contextual information, you need to trim it down to a few relevant sentences. Be mindful of where you are spending a lot of time, and target those areas. 

  • You don’t know the problem—you just can’t get it done!

    • If you can’t exactly pinpoint what’s taking you so long, I advise you to simply practice writing DBQs in less and less time. Start with 20 minutes for your outline and 50 for your essay, (or longer, if you need). Then when you can do it in 20 and 50, move back to 18 minutes and 45 for writing, then to 15 and 40.

You absolutely can learn to manage your time effectively so that you can write a great DBQ in the time allotted. On to the next skill!

 

Integrating Citations

The final skill that isn’t explicitly covered in the rubric, but will make a big difference in your essay quality, is integrating document citations into your essay. In other words, how do you reference the information in the documents in a clear, non-awkward way?

It is usually better to use the author or title of the document to identify a document instead of writing “Document A.” So instead of writing “Document A describes the riot as...,” you might say, “In Sven Svenson’s description of the riot…” 

When you quote a document directly without otherwise identifying it, you may want to include a parenthetical citation. For example, you might write, “The strikers were described as ‘valiant and true’ by the working class citizens of the city (Document E).”

 

Now that we’ve reviewed the essential, foundational skills of the DBQ, I’ll move into the rubric breakdowns. We’ll discusseach skill the AP graders will be looking for when they score your exam. All of the history exams share a DBQ rubric, so the guidelines are identical. 

 

Don't worry, you won't need a magnifying glass to examine the rubric. 

 

Rubric Breakdown

The DBQ rubric has four sections for a total of seven points. 

 

Part A: Thesis - 2 Points

One point is for having a thesis that works and is historically defensible. This just means that your thesis can be reasonably supported by the documents and historical fact. So please don’t make the main point of your essay that JFK was a member of the Illuminati or that Pope Urban II was an alien.

Per the College Board, your thesis needs to be located in your introduction or your conclusion. You’ve probably been taught to place your thesis in your intro, so stick with what you’re used to. Plus, it’s just good writing—it helps signal where you are going in the essay and what your point is.

You can receive another point for having a super thesis. 

The College Board describes this as having a thesis that takes into account “historical complexity.” Historical complexity is really just the idea that historical evidence does not always agree about everything, and that there are reasons for agreement, disagreement, etc.

How will you know whether the historical evidence agrees or disagrees? The documents! Suppose you are responding to a prompt about women’s suffrage (suffrage is the right to vote, for those of you who haven’t gotten to that unit in class yet):

“Analyze the responses to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.”

Included among your documents, you have a letter from a suffragette passionately explaining why she feels women should have the vote, a copy of a suffragette’s speech at a women’s meeting, a letter from one congressman to another debating the pros and cons of suffrage, and a political cartoon displaying the death of society and the end of the ‘natural’ order at the hands of female voters.

 

 

A simple but effective thesis might be something like,

“Though ultimately successful, the women’s suffrage movement sharply divided the country between those who believed women’s suffrage was unnatural and those who believed it was an inherent right of women.”

This is good: it answers the question and clearly states the two responses to suffrage that are going to be analyzed in the essay.

A super thesis, however, would take the relationships between the documents (and the people behind the documents!) into account.

It might be something like,

“The dramatic contrast between those who responded in favor of women’s suffrage and those who fought against it revealed a fundamental rift in American society centered on the role of women—whether women were ‘naturally’ meant to be socially and civilly subordinate to men, or whether they were in fact equals.”

This is a “super” thesis because it gets into the specifics of the relationship between historical factors and shows the broader picture—that is, what responses to women’s suffrage revealed about the role of women in the United States overall.

It goes beyond just analyzing the specific issues to a “so what”? It doesn’t just take a position about history, it tells the readerwhy they should care. In this case, our super thesis tells us that the reader should care about women’s suffrage because the issue reveals a fundamental conflict in America over the position of women in society. 

 

Part B: Document Analysis - 2 Points

One point for using six or seven of the documents in your essay to support your argument. Easy-peasy! However, make sure you aren’t just summarizing documents in a list, but are tying them back to the main points of your paragraphs. 

It's best to avoid writing things like, “Document A says X, and Document B says Y, and Document C says Z.”  Instead, you might write something like, “The anonymous author of Document C expresses his support and admiration for the suffragettes but also expresses fear that giving women the right to vote will lead to conflict in the home, highlighting the common fear that women’s suffrage would lead to upheaval in women’s traditional role in society.”

Any summarizing should be connected a point. Essentially, any explanation of what a document says needs to be tied to a “so what?” If it’s not clear to you why what you are writing about a document is related to your main point, it’s not going to be clear to the AP grader. 

You can get an additional point here for doing further analysis on 4 of the documents. This further analysis could be in any of these 4 areas:

  1. Author’s point of view - Why does the author think the way that they do? What is their position in society and how does this influence what they are saying?

  2. Author’s purpose - Why is the author writing what they are writing? What are they trying to convince their audience of? 

  3. Historical context - What broader historical facts are relevant to this document?

  4. Audience - Who is the intended audience for this document? Who is the author addressing or trying to convince?

Be sure to tie any further analysis back to your main argument! And remember, you only have to do this for four documents for full credit, but it’s fine to do it for more if you can.

 

Practicing Document Analysis

So how do you practice document analysis? By analyzing documents!

Luckily for AP test takers everywhere, New York State has an exam called the Regents Exam that has its own DBQ section. Before they write the essay, however, New York students have to answer short answer questions about the documents. 

Answering Regents exam DBQ short-answer questions is good practice for basic document analysis. While most of the questions are pretty basic, it’s a good warm-up in terms of thinking more deeply about the documents and how to use them. This set of Regent-style DBQs from the Teacher’s Project are mostly about US History, but the practice could be good for other tests too. 

This prompt from the Morningside center also has some good document comprehensions questions about a US-History based prompt.

Note: While the document short-answer questions are useful for thinking about basic document analysis, I wouldn’t advise completing entire Regents exam DBQ essay prompts for practice, because the format and rubric are both somewhat different from the AP.

Your AP history textbook may also have documents with questions that you can use to practice. Flip around in there!


This otter is ready to swim in the waters of the DBQ.

 

When you want to do a deeper dive on the documents, you can also pull out those old College Board DBQ prompts.

  • Read the documents carefully.  Write down everything that comes to your attention. Do further analysis—author’s point of view, purpose, audience, and historical context—on all the documents for practice, even though you will only need to do additional analysis on four on test day. Of course, you might not be able to do all kinds of further analysis on things like maps and graphs, which is fine.

  • You might also try thinking about how you would arrange those observations in an argument, or even try writing a practice outline! This exercise would combine your thesis and document-analysis skills practice.

  • When you’ve analyzed everything  you can possibly think of for all the documents, pull up the Scoring Guide for that prompt. It helpfully has an entire list of analysis points for each document.

    • Consider what they identified that you missed.

    • Do you seem way off-base in your interpretation? If so, how did it happen?

 

Part C: Using Evidence Beyond the Documents - 2 Points

Don’t be freaked out by the fact that this is two points!

One point is just for context - if you can locate the issue within its broader historical situation. You do need to write several sentences to a paragraph about it, but don’t stress; all you really need to know to be able to get this point is information about major historical trends over time, and you will need to know this anyways for the multiple choice section. If the question is about the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, for example, be sure to include some of the general information you know about the Great Depression! Boom. Contextualized.

The other point is for naming a specific, relevant example in your essay that does not appear in the documents.

To practice your outside information skills, pull up your College Board prompts!

  • Read through the prompt and documents and then write down all of the contextualizing facts and as many specific examples as you can think of.

  • I advise timing yourself—maybe 5-10 minutes to read the documents and prompt and list your outside knowledge—to imitate the time pressure of the DBQ.

  • When you’ve exhausted your knowledge, make sure to fact-check your examples and your contextual information! You don’t want to use incorrect information on test day.

  • If you can’t remember any examplesor contextual information about that topic, look some up! This will help fill in holes in your knowledge.

 

Part D: Synthesis - 1 Point

All you need to do for synthesis is relate your argument about this specific time period to a different time period, geographical area, historical movement, etc. It is probably easiest to do this in the conclusion of the essay. If your essay is about the Great Depression, you might relate it to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. 

You do need to do more than just mention your synthesis connection. You need to make it meaningful. How are the two things you are comparing similar? What does one reveal about the other? Is there a key difference that highlights something important?

To practice your synthesis skills—you guessed it—pull up your College Board prompts!

  • Read through the prompt and documents and then identify what historical connections you could make for your synthesis point. Be sure to write a few words on why the connection is significant!
  • A great way to make sure that your synthesis connection makes sense is to explain it to someone else. If you explain what you think the connection is and they get it, you’re probably on the right track.
  • You can also look at sample responses and the scoring guide for the old prompts to see what other connections students and AP graders made.

 That's a wrap on the rubric! Let's move on to skill-building strategy.

 

Don't let the DBQ turn you into a dissolving ghost-person, though. 

 

A Note on Skill-Building Strategy

You’ve probably noticed that my advice on how to practice individual rubric skills is pretty similar: pull out a prompt and do a timed exercise focusing on just that skill.

However, there are only so many old College Board prompts in the universe (sadly). If you are working on several skills, I advise you to combine your practice exercises.

What do I mean? Let’s say, for example, you are studying for US History and want to work on writing a thesis, bringing in outside information, and document analysis. Set your timer for 15-20 minutes, pull up a prompt, and:

  • Write 2-3 potential thesis statements in response to the prompt
  • Write all the contextual historical information you can think of, and a few specific examples
  • Write down analysis notes on all the documents.

Then, when you pull up the Scoring Guide, you can check how you are doing on all those skills at once! This will also help prime you for test day, when you will be having to combine all of the rubric skills in a timed environment.

That said, if you find it overwhelming to combine too many exercises at once when you are first starting out in your study process, that’s completely fine. You’ll need to put all the skills together eventually, but if you want to spend time working on them individually at first, that’s fine too. 

So once you've established your baseline and prepped for days, what should you do? It's time to take another practice DBQ to see how you've improved!

 

I know you're tired, but you can do it!

Take Another Practice DBQ

So, you established a baseline, identified the skills you need to work on, and practiced writing a thesis statement and analyzing documents for hours. What now?

Take another timed, practice DBQ from a prompt you haven’t seen before to check how you’ve improved. Recruit your same trusted advisor to grade your exam and give feedback. After, work on any skills that still need to be honed.

Repeat this process as necessary, until you are consistently scoring your goal score. Then you just need to make sure you maintain your skills until test day by doing an occasional practice DBQ.

Eventually, test day will come—read on for my DBQ-test-taking tips. 

 

How Can I Succeed On DBQ Test Day?

Once you’ve prepped your brains out, you still have to take the test! I know, I know. But I’ve got some advice on how to make sure all of your hard work pays off on test day—both some general tips and some specific advice on how to write a DBQ.

 

General Test-Taking Tips

Most of these are probably tips you’ve heard before, but they bear repeating:

  • Get a good night’s sleep for the two nights preceding the exam. This will keep your memory sharp!

  • Eat a good breakfast (and lunch, if the exam is in the afternoon) before the exam with protein and whole grains. This will keep your blood sugar from crashing and making you tired during the exam.

  • Don’t study the night before the exam if you can help it. Instead, do something relaxing.  You’ve been preparing, and you will have an easier time on exam day if you aren’t stressed from trying to cram the night before.


 

This dude knows he needs to get a good night's rest!

 

DBQ Plan and Strategies

Below I’ve laid out how to use your time during the DBQ exam. I’ll provide tips on reading the question and docs, planning your essay, and writing!

Be sure to keep an eye on the clock throughout so you can track your general progress.

 

Reading the Question and the Documents: 5-6 min

First thing’s first: read the question carefully, two or even three times. You may want to circle the task words (“analyze,” “describe,” “evaluate,” “compare”) to make sure they stand out. 

You could also quickly jot down some contextual information you already know before moving on to the documents, but if you can’t remember any right then, move on to the docs and let them jog your memory.

It’s fine to have a general idea of a thesis after you read the question, but if you don’t, move on to the docs and let them guide you in the right direction.

Next, move on to the documents.Mark them as you read—circle things that seem important, jot thoughts and notes in the margins.

After you’ve passed over the documents once, you should choose the four documents you are going to analyze more deeply and read them again. You probably won’t be analyzing the author’s purpose for sources like maps and charts. Good choices are documents in which the author’s social or political position and stake in the issue at hand are clear. 

 

Get ready to go down the document rabbit hole.

 

Planning Your Essay: 9-11 min 

Once you’ve read the question and you have preliminary notes on the documents, it’s time to start working on a thesis. If you still aren’t sure what to talk about, spend a minute or so brainstorming. Write down themes and concepts that seem important and create a thesis from those. Remember, your thesis needs to answer the question and make a claim!

When you’ve got a thesis, it’s time to work on an outline. Once you’ve got some appropriate topics for your body paragraphs, use your notes on the documents to populate your outline. Which documents support which ideas? You don’t need to use every little thought you had about the document when you read it, but you should be sure to use every document.

Here's three things to make sure of:

  • Make sure your outline notes where you are going to include your contextual information (often placed in the first body paragraph, but this is up to you), your specific example (likely in one of the body paragraphs), and your synthesis (the conclusion is a good place for this).

  • Make sure you’ve also integrated the four documents you are going to further analyze and how to analyze them.

  • Make sure you use all the documents! I can’t stress this enough. Take a quick pass over your outline and the docs and make sure all of the docs appear in your outline.

If you go over the planning time a couple of minutes, it’s not the end of the world. This probably just means you have a really thorough outline! But be ready to write pretty fast. 

 

 Writing the Essay - 40 min

If you have a good outline, the hard part is out of the way! You just need to make sure you get all of your great ideas down in the test booklet.

Don’t get too bogged down in writing a super-exciting introduction. You won’t get points for it, so trying to be fancy will just waste time. Spend maybe one or two sentences introducing the issue, then get right to your thesis.

For your body paragraphs, make sure yourtopic sentences clearly state the point of the paragraph. Then you can get right into your evidence and your document analysis. 

As you write, make sure to keep an eye on the time. You want to be a little more than halfway through at the 20-minute mark of the writing period, so you have a couple minutes to go back and edit your essay at the end.

Keep in mind that it’s more important to clearly lay out your argument than to use flowery language. Sentences that are shorter and to the point are completely fine. 

If you are short on time, the conclusion is the least important part of your essay. Even just one sentence to wrap things up is fine just so long as you’ve hit all the points you need to (i.e. don’t skip your conclusion if you still need to put in your synthesis example).

When you are done, make one last past through your essay. Make sure you included everything that was in your outline and hit all the rubric skills! Then take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back.

 

You did it!! Have a cupcake to celebrate.

Key Tips for How to Write a DBQ

I realize I've bombarded you with information, so here are the key points to take away:

  • Remember the drill for prep: establish a baseline, build skills, take another practice DBQ, repeat skill-building as necessary. 

  • Make sure that you know the rubricinside and out so you will remember to hit all the necessary points on test day! It’s easy to lose points just for forgetting something like your synthesis point.

  • On test day, keep yourself on track time-wise!

This may seem like a lot, but you can learn how to ace your DBQ! With a combination of preparation and good test-taking strategy, you will get the score you’re aiming for.  The more you practice, the more natural it will seem, until every DBQ is a breeze.

 

What's Next?

If you want more information about the DBQ, see my introductory guide to the DBQ. Haven't registered for the test yet? See our article for help registering for AP exams. 

For more on studying for the AP US History exam, check out the best AP US History notes to study with. 

Studying for World History? See these AP World History study tips from one of our experts. 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

Tackling the AP US History exam is a tough undertaking. There is a ton of information to be learned, many skills to master, and not a lot of time to do it all.  But you absolutely can do it! And we want to help you through these easy to use study tips!

AP US History DBQ and Free Response Tips

1. Answer the question. If I could only give you one piece of advice for your essay questions, it would be just to answer it. You will probably have this said to you over and over again, and you are probably already tired of hearing it. But the reason people say it so much is because students tend not do it! It doesn’t matter if you have the best-written paper of all time, or include a ton of history facts, if you don’t answer the question; you aren’t going to get all the points. Before you start outlining your answer or reading through documents, make sure you know what the question is really asking you.

2. Pay attention to the rubric. The number one priority of a DBQ or FRQ is answering the question. Aside from that, you need to know what the AP test is looking for in your answer. For a starting point, check out our breakdown of the DBQ rubric here. Understanding this rubric gives you a mental checklist to work through as you write your response.

Writing an outline of your essay will result in a better answer. When you just write without planning ahead much, you might get to the last paragraph and realize that you have nothing left to say, or that none of your ideas flow together. If you just do a rough outline of your main points and supporting details, you will write a much more fluid paper that is easy to follow and stays on track.

3. Understand the documents. As you read through the documents, don’t waste too much time analyzing every single detail and sentence. Instead of picking out every detail, read the documents for understanding. Highlight or underline important parts. At the end of the document, write a sentence or two explaining the main idea of the document and which side of the argument it supports. This will be handy for outlining your essay and seeing how the documents can be used as evidence.

4. Group the documents. This is something you want to do while reading the documents initially, when you are outlining your essay and when actually writing your essay. The test grader is going to be looking for your ability to do this. Most good essays will contain at least three main points, and you want to be sure that you have sources or evidence to support each of those points. For example, you might group documents based on whether they are related to the political, social, or economic side of a question.

5. Use the documents. You want to make sure you use a lot of the documents, but don’t force it. You can get the highest score possible by using most of the available evidence. Just use the sources in a way that naturally supports your argument. Don’t simply throw the documents in randomly just to check it off the list.

6. Don’t “data dump.” One of the key parts of the rubric is that you need to bring in outside information and evidence to support your answer. However, don’t overload the reader with unnecessary information that doesn’t really fit the context. Just because you know the date of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination does not mean you need to throw that into an essay about the first Great Awakening.

7. Go specific. For your free response question choices, choose the topic that is most specific instead of something broad. The broadest topic seems appealing because you think you know a lot about it, but it can actually be really tough to formulate a good thesis because it is so broad. The specific question is more likely to create a solid detailed answer. It makes it easier to answer the question, which we already know is incredibly important.

8. Find the right voice. Your voice. This can be tricky, because it is all about finding a balance between too formal and too personal. You don’t want to write like a robot, stating only facts and not expressing any hints of personality, but you also don’t want it to be like a letter to a friend. Avoid “I” and “you” statements. Basically, don’t be afraid to be yourself in your answer; it just needs to be a very well-spoken version of yourself.

9. Take a stand. Writing for historical purposes is about making an argument and supporting that argument well. When you are writing, it can be easy to just explain both sides of an argument and nothing else. All that does is show your ability to reword information. The essay section of the test wants to know how well you can synthesize lots of information into one cohesive argument. In order to do that, you have to actually take a side. Don’t be biased or make unreasonable claims. Just use the evidence to support a specific claim that is rooted in facts. Got it?

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AP US History Multiple Choice Tips

1. Read the question and answers all the way through.This is a super basic test-taking tip, but it’s still worth mentioning here. Don’t fall into the trap of reading the question partially and jumping to conclusions, or picking the first question that seems right. There are 55 source-based multiple choice questions and 55 minutes to do them, so you have a minute per question. This is enough time to carefully read the question and each answer choice, and consider the best option.

2. Cross out obviously wrong answers. No matter what, you should know that Theodore Roosevelt did not sign the Declaration of Independence. Immediately cross his name off the list of answer choices. This is beneficial because it brings you one step closer to the right answer, and it tells your brain that you are doing something. It is a good way to build confidence, which is going to help you score much higher.

3. Use context clues. If you are unsure of an answer, just try to approach it from a logical perspective. You may not know the exact date of a certain event, but when you put that event in context of other events that you do know the dates for, it can definitely help you narrow down your choices. When you think of history as a giant puzzle that you are trying to put together, you can use all the pieces you do know to try and figure out the piece that you don’t know.

4. Use questions to give you answers. You can learn a lot just from reading the questions. You may not directly get the answer to a question from other questions, but it can certainly give you more information and put you one step closer to the correct answer. You will almost always be able to walk away from the test knowing more than you did before. Also, keep the multiple-choice questions in mind as you write your free response and DBQ essays. You can also just try to think logically about it. Sometimes it works out that if the answer to question 3 is C, then the answer to question 6 has to be D.

5. Take a guess. Losing points for incorrect answers is a thing of the past so you might as well take a stab at the ones you don’t know. Obviously, you want to take your best guess and use all of the skills and techniques you can to narrow down the possible correct answers. But if you get to the point where you really just don’t know, just give it your best shot. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

6. Pace yourself. Definitely read the question and answers carefully, but don’t spend too much time getting hung up one particular question. If you read it, don’t know it, and can’t figure it out, move on. It is much better to finish the test and answer all of the questions that you do know than to get stuck on a question early on and not have time to answer all the latter questions. Like I mentioned earlier, you have less than a minute per question, so use your time wisely.

7. Answer the right question. It might seem silly, but when you are answering 80 questions at a time it can be really easy to get mixed up on your answer sheet. Don’t accidentally skip a question and get to the end wondering what you did wrong. Sometimes you just get into a flow and stop paying attention to which bubble you are filling in.

8. Pay attention to wording. Skimming over a question can sometimes cause you to totally misinterpret said question. Don’t do that. Make sure that you know if the question is asking “Which of the following IS…” or “Which of the following IS NOT…“ That is a huge difference and is going to make for two very different answers. This is such a common and easy mistake to make.

9. Practice! Practice makes perfect, right? But seriously, there are a ton of resources out there for you to practice your AP test taking skills. This will give you a much better idea of what to look for in multiple-choice questions and can guide you in your studying.

10. Use flash cards. Using flash cards is a great way to consistently study and practice. Lucky for you, we even have a guide to making great AP US History flash cards. This is especially helpful for studying for the multiple choice section because you can write the information on flash cards in a question form, or use old questions to make your flash cards. They are also really great for last minute or speedy study sessions, because you can cover a large amount of material in a short amount of time.

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General AP US History Study Tips

1. Start early. We aren’t your parents, and we aren’t going to nag you about doing your homework. But it is absolutely so important that you get an early start on your APUSH review. There is a lot of information to learn, but it is only daunting if you are trying to learn it all in one night. Get out ahead of the game and start chipping away at it. You will be able to spend more time on each idea and will actually learn and remember the things you are studying. When you frantically cram for an exam, you usually only remember the stuff for that day.

2. Outline the course. The wonderful people over at AP CollegeBoard have provided a breakdown of the entire AP US History course. This is such a good place to start, because it breaks the course into nine different periods, ranging from 1491-present. These pre-set periods make it super easy for you to study chunks of history at a time. A really helpful thing when outlining the course is to write a paragraph summary of each section and then explain how each time period transitioned into the next. This helps you establish some continuity in your thinking.

3. Use a giant whiteboard. This is one of my favorite study tips for almost any type of course. Whiteboards allow you to think about things on a big picture scale. Flow charts outlining the transitions between time periods are super helpful. Also, when you use a whiteboard to diagram historical ideas, those ideas become ingrained in your visual, as well as auditory memory. It’s crazy how much having a visual representation of something can help it stick in your mind.

4. Study with friends. This is a pretty dangerous game, because friends can sometimes be the biggest distraction from studying. But if you do it right, they can also be a huge help! Being able to talk about ideas helps you better understand them. And if there is a part of history that you are just really struggling with, chances are you have a friend who is pretty knowledgeable about it. Using the whiteboard technique or a course outline can be very effective when studying with friends. Just be sure to pick your friends wisely and don’t waste your time together watching funny cat videos on YouTube.

5. Get a review book. A review book is one of the most helpful study tools out there. They usually have a pretty comprehensive overview of course material and break down the information in an understandable way. Most are broken into chapters with summaries and review questions at the end of each one. Another great feature of review books is that they usually include test taking strategies or techniques to help you succeed. They also, typically, have practice tests included to put those techniques to good use.

6. Create a study game. No matter how interesting (or boring) you may think APUSH is, studying any type of material for a long time can grow very tiresome. Sometimes, you just need to mix things up and making a game out of it is a good way to do so. A lot of people do Jeopardy style review for history. I prefer to do some kind of weird punishment or wager with friends. For example, we will go through asking each other various questions and for every question one of us gets wrong we have to do three push ups. Or we win a couple of skittles for each correct answer. Whatever it takes to mix things up.

7. Ask your teacher for help! Once again, probably not a piece of advice that you really want to hear, but it is a good thing to do.Your teacher is teaching the class for a reason, and they are probably not only super knowledgeable, but also passionate. Most teachers would be thrilled to give you an extra hand or piece of advice. They are such an untapped resource that students generally don’t take advantage of. If they offer any kind of after school help or study hours, take the opportunity! It certainly isn’t going to hurt, and if anything else, it’s always great to be in good graces with your teacher.

8. Watch extra review videos. Crash Course, a YouTube channel, has a series of 47 videos dedicated to helpingyou understand US History. They are each anywhere between 10-15 minutes long and are great ways to learn. They are quick and entertaining, but also incredibly informative. They can serve as a great introduction to a topic or a good summary after you have finished reviewing it. And there are many more videos like these out there. Aside from helping you learn actual information from the course, there are also a lot of videos to help with test taking strategies. Tom Richey has created a great AP US History review page here.

9. Look at practice questions. Seriously, there are so many resources out there to help you succeed. One of those is a compilation of AP US History sample questions. This 16-page document features not only realistic AP test questions, but also answers and explanations for each one. They even tell you which “Historical Thinking Skills” and key concepts are being tested. This is really an efficient way to become familiar with AP style questions and to see which material you are struggling with. You can also simply do a Google search for APUSH test questions and find a ton to work with.

10. Make a timeline. This kind of goes along with making a course outline, but this is more about testing yourself than using the course description. Take key events, without looking at their dates, and try to put them in order. Some people use a whiteboard for this or just try to organize flash cards. Basically this is just a good way of seeing how things fit together. As you make the timeline, try to pay attention to the sequence of events, or any cause and effect relationships that may be at play.

11. Figure out your greatest weakness. A great way to do this is through practice tests. A lot of practice tests online will show you which areas you need to learn the most in. Use these areas as a starting point and work from there. You don’t want to waste a lot of time focusing on the areas that you are already familiar with. Be smart about your time management.

12. Think about things thematically. This is one of the main historical skills that you are tested on. Encompassed in the testing of themes is the analysis of change over time. These go hand in hand as you think about the way that certain themes evolve through history. For example, you need to be able to explain how the economy of the US has changed over the years, or think about America’s evolving philosophy on foreign affairs.

Tips from the Pros: Teachers and Former Students

1. Pay attention in class! AP US History is a course that is usually pretty heavy on the lecture side. You won’t be able to rely on worksheets or handouts to get by in class. Instead, you will have to pay attention to what the teacher says and take great notes. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever look at your notes again, it is still worth writing things down because the act of writing actually helps you remember.

2. Take part in class discussion. The ultimate way to know that you are fully engaged in class is to be part of a class discussion. Teachers usually mix these in with lectures, and it is so important to be involved. It shows the teacher that you care, and it shows a good study ethic. But also, when you get involved and contribute to discussion, those ideas that you discussed will stick out in your mind. The best way to learn something is by being a part of something.

3. Keep up with your assigned reading. Chances are, your teacher has a lot of reading for you to do throughout the year. There might not always be quizzes on the reading, but it is SO important that you do it. There is no way you can always catch up on an entire year’s worth of AP US History reading, so it is essential to stay on top of things.

4. Do it for the college credit. Sticking with an AP class throughout the year can be pretty tough, but it is absolutely worth it when you get your passing score. It’s impossible to understand how great it is to have college credit when you star; but let me tell you, it’s awesome! College isn’t cheap these days and any extra help you can get is worth it. AP US History can usually get you out of at least one General Education History requirement. That’s one less class you have to take, and one step closer to graduation. Let that be your motivation!

5. Show up to everything extra.Teachers are usually willing to take time out of their busy schedules to do some extra review or give you some more tips. Take them all up! It might not seem like the most fun to spend your free time learning about AP US History, but I promise, it is worth it. It is a great way to consistently study and stay up to speed.

6. You can never practice writing too much.The DBQ and FRQ are pretty consistent topics of concern among APUSH students, and for a good reason. They can be pretty tough, and are usually obstacles between students and the grade they want. One of the hardest parts about this section is that, it just takes a really long time to be writing. Your hand will start to get tired, and you will slowly feel your brain turn to mush as you go. You have to build up a certain kind of stamina for writing long essays, and you can only do that by practicing. There is no shortage of practice questions, and classmates or teachers are usually willing to grade them for you.

7. Start reading your review books early.Lots of students have nightmarish tales of rushing through their review books in the last couple of weeks leading up to the exam. Its doable, but it sure isn’t fun. Review books are crucial to passing the test, so make sure you actually have enough time to dedicate to actually reading it. This will make your studies a lot less overwhelming. If you need help choosing one, make sure you check out our guide to the best AP US History review books of 2015.

8. Try to have some fun. It may not sound like the most fun, but APUSH really can be. Or at least you can try to make it be fun. Chances are, you don’t plan on dropping the class, and so if you are going to stick it out, you might as well try to make it an enjoyable experience. It can actually be pretty fun learning about the historical events that made America what it is today. If anything else, think of it as a chance to make some new friends while learning some new skills. Oh, and if you pay attention, AP US History might even make you a little better at Trivia Crack and show off for your friends.

9. Always ask, “Why do we care?” Students are conditioned to focus on names and dates as opposed to causes and results; “Why” gets them to start thinking in depth.

10. Support every claim with evidence. My favorite “catch phrase” is…“Evidence please…. ” Everyone has a theory in APUSH…Who has the evidence to back up their theory?

11. Think like a test maker and not a test taker.  Think about what the AP question writer might have been looking to test you on when answering each question.  Understanding this is key to knowing how to answer the question.

Are you a teacher or student? Do you have an awesome tip? Let us know!

The Send Off

If you made it to this point in the article, good job. You are already on your way to being ready for your APUSH exam. Work hard, use some of our helpful tips and ideas, and you are going to crush it.

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