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Acing the Document Based Question on the AP US History Exam

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Taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) exams and accompanying coursework while you’re in high school is a great way to demonstrate your academic skill and prepare for college coursework. If you do well on your AP exams, those high scores will be valuable assets when it comes time for you to apply to college.


One of the most popular AP exams is AP United States History, which was taken by nearly half a million high school students in 2016. This exam consists of 55 multiple-choice questions, four short-answer questions, a longer essay with a choice of two prompts, and a special type of essay question: the Document Based Question, or DBQ.


The DBQ doesn’t have to be intimidating, but you may not be familiar with its expectations, so it pays to get well acquainted with its format beforehand. Read on to learn what to expect from the AP US History DBQ, as well as some advice for getting prepared for this type of question and formulating your plan of attack for test day.


AP US History: a brief introduction


As its title indicates, the AP US History exam and its accompanying course curriculum deal with the history of the now-United States, starting in the 1490s with the arrival of European colonists and extending until the present day. It covers not only events and people from this time and place, but also broader historical trends that have shaped US history.


In its role as an Advanced Placement course, AP US History exists not only to teach you historical facts, but to help you understand how to approach and analyze historical content in the way that college-level courses will eventually expect you to be able to do. The AP US History exam is intended to test your skill at this type of analysis, and the DBQ is an important part of this assessment.   


While many students take AP US History courses at their high schools in preparation for the exam, you can also study for the exam independently. Check out our blog posts Which AP Should I Self-Study? and The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams for more information about whether and how to self-study for this and other AP exams.  


Since AP US History is so popular, there’s no shortage of study guides and other preparatory materials for this exam on the market. However, you should be aware that in 2015, this exam was updated, and some significant changes were made in how it approaches historical material.


When you’re studying on your own, either instead of or in addition to taking an AP course at your high school, seek out materials specific to this most recent version of the test. Older study materials will no longer be accurate.


For CollegeVine’s overview of this exam, take a look at our Ultimate Guide to the US History AP Exam. You can also find a very detailed overview of the exam and curriculum in the official College Board AP United States History Course and Exam Description, available on the College Board’s website.


What is the Document Based Question?


The DBQ is the first of two essay questions you’ll face on the AP US History exam. Unlike the other essay question, in which you’ll choose between two essay prompts that rely heavily upon your memory of the course content, the DBQ asks you to answer a question with specific reference to a number of documents that are provided for you within the exam booklet.


You’ll be given 55 minutes to complete the DBQ. It’s recommended that you spend 15 minutes reading the documents and planning your essay, and the remaining 40 minutes writing. Your DBQ score will account for 25% of your overall score on the exam.


In requiring you to analyze primary and secondary sources on your own, the DBQ mimics the work that professional historians do in assessing historical documents. This is how the AP US History exam determines how well you’ve acquired not only historical facts, but methods of approaching the study of history.


The documents provided for the DBQ will vary a great deal from year to year and topic to topic. Most of them will be the type of written sources you’re used to seeing in history classes, such as letters, speech transcripts, newspaper articles, or passages from scholarly works.


However, the term “document” is used broadly here, and the documents you’re given could also include such diverse sources as song lyrics, graphs of data, maps, political cartoons, or photographs. You’ll have to be ready to tease meaning out of whatever type of source you’re given.


The DBQ’s documents will provide you with a lot of useful information, which can make writing your essay easier in certain ways—you won’t be coming into this essay trying to work from memory alone. On the other hand, the more complicated format and high expectations of the DBQ can present some unique challenges.


For one thing, you’ll still need to employ a great deal of the knowledge you accrued in your  AP US History course or self-studying experience. You’ll be expected to understand the various historical contexts in which your documents were created, the events and issues they reference, and the possible impact of authorial biases on their composition.


Practically speaking, writing a successful DBQ essay requires you to read, comprehend, and assimilate into your larger historical understanding a number of new and unfamiliar pieces of information within a very short period of time. This can be done, but it’s not an easy task.


Also, as we’ll go over in greater detail below, the DBQ has high expectations. While the question in the test booklet will come with a long list of specific, stated requirements in terms of what you need to address and how, you’ll also need to come into the test being already familiar with the goals and standards of the AP US History curriculum.


How is the DBQ evaluated?


The AP US History DBQ is always designed to test a certain set of skills that it considers essential to historical study. The readers will judge your essay upon how well it demonstrates solid argumentation, analysis of evidence, contextualization, and synthesis.


In addition to these skills, each year’s DBQ requires test-takers to demonstrate understanding of one additional theme from a set provided by the College Board. The DBQ you receive will focus either on historical causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, comparison, interpretation, or periodization.


Aside from these factors, a successful DBQ response will fully address the question that you’ve been asked, which can sometimes be complex or have multiple components. In composing your essay, you’ll need to follow the provided directions exactly as they’re given, and watch out to make sure answer all parts of a multi-part question.


A successful essay will also make full use of the documents you’ve been provided. You should do your best to address all the documents in your essay, though it’s acceptable to use all but one. Mentioning these documents isn’t enough—you’ll need to show that you really understand them, from the meaning of the text to the historical context of the authors’ identities and points of view.


It’s very important to remember that a high-scoring DBQ essay is an essay, not just a list of comments on your sources. It should have the same components as any other short essay, including a strong thesis statement and ample supporting evidence for this thesis. Most of all, it has to be coherent and make sense as an argument for your point.


For more specific details of how the DBQ is evaluated and scored, the rubric that’s used for all the AP history exams is available on the College Board website.


Preparing for the DBQ


When you’re studying for your DBQ, it’s important for you to keep in mind that the question and accompanying documents may come from any part of the AP US History curriculum. There’s no way of knowing what material your DBQ will involve, so it’s essential that you have a strong overall strategy for reviewing the full scope of what you’ve learned.


As we’ve mentioned, the purpose of the DBQ is to teach you how to approach historical data and documents in a way that’s similar to how a real historian would do it. You’ll be given specific details, but it’s up to you to place those details in their proper historical context and develop a well-supported interpretation of the materials you’re given.


It’s essential, then, that you build up your ability to interpret sources, making use of the concepts and skills you’ve learned through the AP US History curriculum. You can’t simply rely on memorizing your textbook’s explanations of historical events; you also have to develop this skill and make your understanding of the material your own.


On a more specific, practical level, when preparing for your AP US History exam, and specifically for the DBQ, completing practice test questions and full practice tests is always helpful. At the moment, practice test options are limited due to the recent exam updates, so if you do get to take a practice test, it’s especially important for you to take it seriously.


Whatever practice you’re able to accomplish, make sure you do it with correct timing and a testing environment that mimic the real exam. Time management in the silence and stress of the exam room is a difficult thing, and timed practice questions will help you get a better feel for how quickly you need to work to complete your essay on time.


Your test day plan of attack for the DBQ


Finally, it’s time for the moment of truth: test day. In the span of three hours and fifteen minutes, you’ll answer multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions that might address any topic in the broad-ranging AP US History curriculum. Sandwiched in the middle of this test will be, of course, the DBQ.


Studying the material that will appear on the test is important, but with a timed, standardized test, it’s also important to be prepared for the particular testing environment. Here are some tips for approaching the real AP US History exam in the moment, when stress levels are high and time is of the essence.


  • Read and re-read the question carefully. Make sure you understand exactly what you’re being asked to do—a misunderstanding can derail your entire essay.
  • Read the test’s list of requirements for your answer. You don’t need to guess at what to include in your response—the test will tell you exactly what the readers are looking for.
  • Read the documents carefully, keeping the question and requirements in mind. Take note of the author, the date, the location, and any other facts that frame the document, and think about how these may have affected its creation.
  • Plan wisely—it makes a difference. Taking a moment to plan ensures that your essay will contain all its required parts and makes the writing process go much more smoothly.
  • Make sure your planned answer is cohesive and analytical. It needs to be a coherent essay with depth and a strong thesis, not just a list of the sources.
  • Write quickly and stay focused. Follow the plan you’ve made, watch for mistakes that obscure your meaning, and make sure your handwriting is legible.
  • Save a few moments to review your essay briefly for errors. You can’t make any major changes at this point, of course, and minor spelling or grammar errors won’t count against you, but you’ll want to make sure that your essay makes sense.


For more information


Here at the CollegeVine blog, we’re no strangers to the demands of AP exams and courses. Take a look at our other blog posts about the AP program for more information about AP course offerings and how to prepare for your AP exams.



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.