How to Master the Document-Based Essay Question on the AP U.S. History Exam

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  • 0:03 New AP U.S. History Exam
  • 1:18 Planning The DBQ: Steps 1-3
  • 3:22 Planning The DBQ: Steps 4-6
  • 5:20 Writing The DBQ: Steps 7 and 8
  • 6:34 Tips For Writing The DBQ Essay
  • 7:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Are you ready to take the revised AP U.S. History exam? In this lesson, you'll learn about the document-based question, or DBQ, plus some tips to help you maximize your score.

The New AP U.S. History Exam

The AP U.S. History exam is divided into two main sections, each with two parts. Section I consists of 55 multiple-choice and four short-answer questions. Section II has one document-based question, or DBQ, and one long essay. Let's talk about how you can master Section II, Part A: the DBQ!

The DBQ includes a detailed question, some historical background, and several primary source documents. You have an hour to prepare and write an essay that answers the question based on your own, unique thesis, supported by the documents provided. It is worth 25% of your final exam score.

More than any other section, the DBQ challenges you to use the skills of a professional historian. You have documents, but what do they mean? Can you interpret the evidence, analyze its point of view, deal with conflicting information, organize it into meaningful groups, place it into the appropriate context based on your own historical knowledge, and draw a logical conclusion from it? On the DBQ, your thesis must reflect your ability to perform all of these tasks.

Planning the DBQ: Steps 1-3

Before you begin writing your essay (that's the easy part!), you need to do the hard work of planning a DBQ. Expect to spend a full 15 minutes getting ready to write. Here are some guidelines for using your planning time productively:

1. Read and understand the question.

Every DBQ will focus on one of the following historical skills: causation, change and continuity over time, comparison, interpretation, or periodization. First, determine which one you need to demonstrate. Here's an example: 'Analyze the impact of big business on the economy and politics and the responses of Americans to these changes. Confine your answer to the period 1870 to 1900.'

This question is asking you to analyze change over time. Second, mark key words that identify your specific task. Finally, use the question to create a brief chart. One of the first steps in analyzing documents is grouping them logically. So, this chart can help you achieve those groups, provide a basic outline of your essay, and ensure you're addressing all parts of the question. In our sample question, we have three main ideas, but you would create as many columns as needed based on the question on your exam.

2. After you understand the question, read the historical background provided.

Remember: it's NOT one of your documents; it merely puts the evidence into a historical framework. College Board recommends you use the acronym P.E.R.S.I.A to help you summarize the time period. That is, jot down your knowledge of the

  • Political
  • Economic
  • Religious
  • Social
  • Intellectual
  • Artistic

factors that influenced the time period in question.

3. Considering the prompt, your basic outline, and prior knowledge of the topic, formulate a tentative thesis that answers the question - before you even look at the documents.

Planning the DBQ: Steps 4-6

4. Read the documents - every part of every one, including the title and source information.

They can include a variety of written sources, as well as charts, graphs, cartoons, maps, photographs, illustrations, and artifacts. Some teachers recommend that students use APPARTS while reading documents. If you're familiar with this process, then this is the time to quickly assess:

  • Author
  • Place and time
  • Prior knowledge
  • Audience
  • Reason
  • The main idea
  • Significance of each document

Regardless of which process you use, there are several things you should note in the margin as you read the documents:

  • The main point of each
  • Anything that stands out about the source
  • Inferences, such as causes, effects, and correlations
  • How it fits into your tentative thesis
  • Outside information that comes to mind

5. Organize the evidence into groups.

As you read each document, write down its number every place it fits in the chart you created. This can help you create very natural and meaningful groups of information. Try to include all of the documents. If you have more than one that doesn't seem to fit into the chart, determine how they work together and form an additional group. Finally, look for logical subgroups. For example, a DBQ on the women's suffrage movement might have two main groups of documents representing 'for' and 'against,' while a subgroup could include methods of the suffragettes, or men and women who opposed the vote.

6. Finalize your outline.

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