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3 Tips for the AP U.S. History Document-Based Question

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Feb. 12, 2020
3 Tips for the AP U.S. History Document-Based Question

The Document-Based Question (DBQ) on the AP U.S. History Exam presents you with six or seven documents that all relate to a particular event/time and ask you to create an argument around them. Those familiar with what the DBQ entails might also know that you're welcome to choose whatever argument you want — as long as you can support it. (If you're not familiar with the DBQ, this article can help!) But you might still be wondering how to go about answering the DBQ. Here are a few tips to help you nail it on test day.

Read All the Documents and Choose Your Argument

The question you're given will, of course, rely heavily on the documents provided, so there really is no way around reading through all of them — in fact, that's your best place to start. For each document, briefly summarize its stance and relevance to the question.

After a few documents, you might see a trend amongst the documents, with most of them leaning toward one specific argument. It's important to recognize a pattern like this, should it occur; arguing against a trend, as with cutting meat against the grain, is a more difficult task. Keep that in mind once you've gone through all of the documents, and use it to help you decide on an argument that you can easily make.

Briefly Brainstorm With an Outline

Next, your task will be to plan how you're going to express your chosen argument on the page. The best way to do this (and to stay on track!) is to outline your thoughts on scrap paper for one or two minutes, and then to use them to start writing the essay.

Use the notes you took on the documents to determine which points help build your argument. Then, fashion those into at least three body paragraphs. As with your typical five-paragraph essay, your thesis (in this case, your argument) should be stated in an introductory paragraph. Also be sure to include a final paragraph as a conclusion, and if you have not specifically answered the question by then, you must answer it there.

Beyond the documents, the College Board expects you to use evidence from your own studies. As you outline your essay, think about what you've learned in class and how to incorporate your knowledge into your overall argument. Of course, you can't just throw anything into your essay – the information needs to be relevant to your thesis and the question asked. Speaking of which…

Write Clearly to Answer the Question

When it's time to actually write the essay, start by focusing on the question. This may seem obvious, but I assure you there are plenty of students every year who get so excited to answer the question that they … don't answer it. More specifically, an overanxious test-taker might read half of the question, anticipate the rest of the question (without actually reading it), and write an essay that doesn't answer the full question. No matter how well your essay is written, this will not land you a good score.

Next, be straightforward. On average, the people grading your test will spend around two minutes on each essay. That means they aren't looking for anything profound, nor are they examining the subtleties of your writing (as great as they may be!). What they will look for is evidence that you have something reasonably intelligent to say and that you know how to say it. So write as clearly and concisely as possible — trust me when I say your scorer will respect you for getting to the point in your essay, and might even reward you for it.

Prepping for the DBQ portion of the AP U.S. History Exam is a critical step if you want to score your highest. If you think you're going to fudge your way through the exam by using beautiful writing with no substance, think again: You won't fool the graders into thinking you know more than you actually do (they're experts in history, after all!). So, pick up our prep book to get a comprehensive set of strategies and content review before the big day.

Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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