Section II of the AP World History exam is divided into two parts: the document-based question (DBQ) and the long-essay question. The first part of Section II is the document-based question (DBQ). This essay asks you to think like a historian; it will ask a specific question and present 4 to 10 related documents. Essentially, you are the historian who will take these sources and draw conclusions based on your analytical skills. The DBQ evaluates historical understanding at its purest: the task is not to remember facts but to organize information in an analytical manner.
If the AP World History DBQ prompt and accompanying documents cover something well outside the mainstream, don’t panic! The exam writers do this on purpose. The other essay on the exam—the long essay question—will evaluate your knowledge of history, but the DBQ evaluates your ability to work with historical material, even material with which you’re less familiar. Writing the DBQ is a skill that can be learned much like any other skill, and these strategies will help you hone that skill.
The 100 minutes for Section II of the AP World History exam is divided into two parts: the first 15 minutes is the suggested reading and organizing time, and the last 85 minutes is the suggested essay writing time. The proctor will make timing announcements, and it is recommended that you spend 45 minutes writing the document-based question, and 40 minutes writing the long essay question. However, you will not be forced to move from reading to writing, or from the DBQ to the long essay, if you’re not yet ready.
You will want to spend the first 10 minutes of the suggested reading period on the DBQ since this essay requires the most preparation time. Use the remaining five minutes to read and prep for the long essay question.
- First, read the AP World History DBQ prompt. Underline the words that are most relevant to your task.
- Second, read the documents. Most of the first 10 minutes of the suggested reading period will be used to review the documents and organize them into groups for analysis. Each of the 4 to 10 documents will have a number above a box. Inside the box will be information about the source of the document, which is very important as you will see later, and the document itself.
Documents can be of many different sorts. They can be pictures, photographs, maps, charts, graphs, or text. Written documents are usually excerpts of much longer pieces that have been edited specifically for the exam. They could be from personal letters, private journals, official decrees, public speeches, or propaganda posters. Obviously, the nature of the source should guide you in how you analyze the document. Often, students have a harder time analyzing the visual and graphic sources than the written sources. Even so, use all of the documents in your essay, treating the non-written sources with the same attention as the written ones.
All of the essay questions on the AP World History exam will be presented in a booklet. Feel free to write notes in this booklet as you read the documents and to underline important words in both the source line and the document itself. Nothing in the booklet is read as part of the essay scoring. Use the generous margins for notes that will help you group the documents together and discuss their points of view.
Once you have finished reading and have made short notes of all of the documents, reread the question. Again, note what the question asks. If you have not done so already, mark which documents address the different issues that the question includes. Group the documents by their similarities. At this point, you should be able to draw enough conclusions to organize a strong, analytical thesis.
At the end of the 15 minutes, the proctor will announce that the time is up for the suggested reading period. If you have not yet finished reading and organizing your essays, take a few more minutes to finish up. A few students might be ready to write before the end of the reading period, but most find that the given time is just about right.
According to the College Board, a high-scoring AP World History DBQ response will:
- respond to the question with an evaluative thesis that makes a historically defensible claim. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place—either in the introduction or the conclusion. Neither the introduction nor the conclusion is necessarily limited to a single paragraph.
- describe a broader historical context immediately relevant to the question that relates the topic of the question to historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or after the time frame of the question. This description should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
- explain how at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence (beyond those found in the documents) relates to an argument about the question. This example must be different from the evidence used to earn credit for contextualization, and the explanation should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
- use historical reasoning to explain relationships among the pieces of evidence provided in the response and how they corroborate, qualify, or modify the argument made in the thesis. In addition, a good response should utilize the content of at least six documents to support an argument based on the question.
- explain how the documents’ point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to the argument for at least four of the documents.
To effectively prepare for the DBQ, it is important to understand what components are needed for a high-scoring response. The AP World History exam readers will be looking for proficiency in four reporting categories: Thesis/Claim, Contextualization, Evidence, and Analyzing and Reasoning. The readers use a rubric similar to the following to determine your raw score, which can range from 0-7.
|Reporting Category||Scoring Criteria||Decision Rules|
|Thesis/Claim (0-1 pt)||Responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the thesis must make a claim that responds to the prompt rather than restating or rephrasing the prompt. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion.|
|Contextualization (0-1 pt)||Describes a broader historical context relevant to the prompt. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the response must relate the topic of the prompt to broader historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or continue after the time frame of the question. This point is not awarded for merely a phrase or reference.|
|Evidence (0-3 pts)||Evidence from the Documents: Uses the content of at least three documents to address the topic of the prompt. (1 pt) OR Supports an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents. (2 pts)||To earn one point, the response must accurately describe—rather than simply quote—the content from at least three of the documents. To earn two points, the response must accurately describe—rather than simply quote—the content from at least six documents. In addition, the response must use the content of the documents to support an argument in response to the prompt.|
|Evidence cont’d||Evidence Beyond the Documents: Uses at least one additional piece of the specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the response must describe the evidence and must use more than a phrase or reference. This additional piece of evidence must be different from the evidence used to earn the point for contextualization.|
|Analysis and Reasoning (0-2 pts)||For at least three documents, explains how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the response must explain how or why (rather than simply identifying) the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, or audience is relevant to an argument about the prompt for each of the three documents sourced.|
|Analysis and Reasoning cont’d||Demonstrates a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt, using evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the question. (1 pt)||A response may demonstrate a complex understanding in a variety of ways, such as:|
• Explaining nuance of an issue by analyzing multiple variables
• Explaining both similarity and difference, or explaining both continuity and change, or explaining multiple causes, or explaining both cause and effect
• Explaining relevant and insightful connections within and across periods
• Confirming the validity of an argument by corroborating multiple perspectives across themes
• Qualifying or modifying an argument by considering diverse or alternative views or evidence
This understanding must be part of the argument, not merely a phrase or reference.
Final Notes on How to Write the AP World History DBQ
- Take notes in the margins during the reading period relating to the background of the speaker and his/her possible point of view.
- Assume that each document provides only a snapshot of the topic—just one perspective.
- Look for connections between documents for grouping.
- In the documents booklet, mark off documents that you use so that you do not forget to mention them.
- As you are writing, refer to the authorship of the documents, not just the document numbers.
- Mention additional documents and the reasons why they would help further analyze the question.
- Mark off each part of the instructions for the essay as you accomplish them.
- Use visual and graphic information in documents that are not text-based.
- Repeat information from the historical background in your essay.
- Assume that the documents are universally valid rather than presenting a single perspective.
- Spend too much time on the AP World History DBQ rather than moving on to the other essay.
- Write the first paragraph before you have a clear idea of what your thesis will be.
- Ignore part of the question.
- Structure the essay with just one paragraph.
- Underline or highlight the thesis. (This may be done as an exercise for class, but it looks juvenile on the exam.)
One of the best ways to prepare for the DBQ (the “document-based question” on the AP European History, AP US History, and AP World History exams) is to look over sample questions and example essays. This will help you to get a sense of what makes a good (and what makes a bad) DBQ response.
That said, not all DBQ essay examples are created equal. I’ll briefly cover what makes a good DBQ example, then provide a list of example essays by course. Lastly, I’ve provided some tips on how to best use sample essays in your own preparation process.
What's a Good DBQ Example?
Without a doubt, the best sample resources come from the College Board. This is because they are the ones who design and administer the AP exams. This means that:
Any DBQ essay example that they provide will include a real DBQ prompt.
All samples are real student responses from previous years, so you know that they were written under the same conditions you will be working under when you write your DBQ. In other words, they're authentic!
They not only have scores, they have explanations of each essay's score according to the terms of the rubric.
Each prompt includes several sample essays with a variety of scores.
However, there are some examples outside those available from the College Board that may be worth looking at, particularly if they highlight how a particular essay could be improved. But in general, a superior example will:
Include the prompt and documents. It will be much easier for you to see how the information from the documents is integrated into the essay if you can actually look at the documents.
Have a score. Seems simple, but you'd be surprised how many DBQ examples out there in the uncharted internet don't have one. Without a real, official score, it's hard to gauge how trustworthy a sample actually is.
With that in mind, I have below compiled lists, organized by exam, of high-quality example DBQs.
Don't spend all your study time sharpening your pencil.
Every DBQ Example Essay You Could Ever Need, by Exam
Here are your example essays! We'll start with AP US History, then move to AP European History, and finally wrap up with AP World History.
AP US History: Official College Board Examples
Because of the recent test redesign, the College Board has only posted sample responses from 2016 and 2015. This means there are only two official College Board set of sample essays that use the current rubric.
Neither of these links include analysis (so you can look at the question separately from the scoring guidelines). When you're ready for the sample responses, here are the DBQ samples from 2015 and the samples from 2016.
If you want to see additional sample sets, you can also look at older College Board US History DBQ example response sets, all the way back to 2003. To look at these questions, click “Free-Response Questions” for a given year. For the corresponding DBQ examples and scoring guidelines, click “Sample Responses Q1.”
Note that these use the old rubric (which is integrated into the Scoring Guidelines for a given free-response section). General comments about the quality of the essay, outside information, and document analysis still apply, but the score is on a nine-point scale instead of the new seven-point scale, and some of the particulars will be different. Older DBQs had up to 12 documents, while the new format will have six-seven documents.
If you do look at older DBQ examples, I recommend using the new rubric to “re-grade” the essays in the sample according to the new seven-scale score. I'll also give more advice on how to use all of these samples in your prep later on.
Mr. Bald Eagle is an AP US History DBQ Grader in his spare time.
AP European History: Official College Board Examples
Unfortunately, there aren't as many sample resources for the AP Euro DBQ compared to the other AP history tests because 2016 was the first year the AP Euro test was administered in the new format. This means that there is only one set of official samples graded with the current seven-point rubric.
The rest of the existing available samples were graded in the old, nine-point format instead of the seven-point format implemented this past year.
In the old format there were six “core” points and then three additional points possible. The old rubric is integrated with the sample responses for each question, but I’ll highlight some key differences between the old and new formats:
In the old format, you were given a brief “historical background” section before the documents.
There were more documents—up to twelve. The new format will have 6-7.
There was an emphasis on “grouping” the documents that is not present in the new rubric.
There was also an explicit emphasis on correctly interpreting the documents that is not found in the new rubric.
The essential components of the DBQ are still the same between the two formats, although you should definitely look at the new rubric if you look at any of the old AP European History samples. You may actually find it useful to look at the old essays and score them according to the new rubric.
Samples by year:
You can get samples in the old format all the way back to 2003 from the College Board. (Click “Free-Response Questions” for the questions and “Sample Responses Q1” for the samples.)
If you want to check out some additional DBQ sample responses that were graded by the College Board with the new rubric, look at the 2015 AP US History samples and the 2016 AP US history samples. The content will of course be different, but the structure and scoring are the same as they will be for the AP Euro 2016 test.
AP European History: Unofficial Samples
Because of the rubric revision, other European History-specific samples are also in the old format. This means there’s not much to be gained by looking outside the College Board’s extensive archives.
However, the New York State Regents exam also has a DBQ on it. The format is not identical, and it is scored out of 5 under a different rubric, but I do like this European-History themed example from Regents Prep because it has highlighted sections that show where the documents are used versus where outside information is referenced. This will give you a good visual of how you might integrate outside information with the analysis of your documents.
Consider how you might integrate this castle into the DBQ that is your life.
AP World History: Official College Board Examples
The World History AP exam has just transitioned to a new format to more resemble AP US History and AP European History for the 2017 test. This means that all currently available samples were graded in the old, nine-point format instead of the seven-point format to be implemented this year.
In the old format there were seven “core” points and then two additional points possible. The old rubric is integrated with the sample responses for each question, but I’ll highlight some key differences between the old and new formats:
There were more documents—up to ten. The new format will have 6-7.
There was an emphasis on “grouping” the documents on the old rubric that is not present in the new rubric.
There was also an explicit emphasis on correctly interpreting the documents that is not found in the new rubric.
- In the old rubric, you needed to identify one additional document that would aid in your analysis. The new rubric does not have this requirement.
The essential components of the DBQ are still the same between the two formats, although you should definitely look at the new rubric if you look at any of the old AP World History samples. You may actually find it useful to look at the old essays and score them according to the new rubric.
For whatever reason the questions and the samples with scoring notes are completely separate documents for World History, so you’ll need to click separate links to get the question and documents and then the responses.
If you want to take a look at some DBQs that have been graded with the new rubric, you could check out the 2015 and 2016 samples from AP US History and the 2016 samples from AP European History. The historical content is different, but this will give you an idea of how the new rubric is implemented.
Don't worry, the old format isn't as old as this guy right here.
How Should I Use DBQ Examples to Prepare?
So, now that you have all of these examples, what should you do with them? I'll go over some tips as to how you can use example DBQs in your own studying, including when to start using them and how many you should plan to review.
What Should I Do With These DBQs?
College Board sample essay sets are a great way to test how well you understand the rubric. This is why I recommend that you grade a sample set early on in your study process—maybe even before you've written a practice DBQ.
Then, when you compare the scores you gave to the scores and scoring notes for the samples, you'll have a good idea of what parts of the rubric you don't really understand. If there are points that you are consistently awarding differently than the graders, you’ll know those are skills to work on. Keep giving points for the thesis and then finding out the sample didn't get those points? You'll know that you need to work on your thesis skills. Not giving points for historical context and then finding out the AP Grader gave full credit? You need to work on recognizing what constitutes historical context according to the AP.
You can check out my tips on building specific rubric-based skills in my article on how to write a DBQ.
Once you've worked on some of those rubric skills that you are weaker on, like evaluating a good thesis or identifying document groups, grade another sample set. This way you can see how your ability to grade the essays like an AP graderimproves over time!
Obviously, grading sample exams is a much more difficult proposition when you are looking at examples in an old format (e.g. AP European History or AP World History samples). The old scores as awarded by the College Board will be helpful in establishing a ballpark—obviously a 9 is still going to be a good essay under the 7-point scale—but there may be some modest differences in grades between the two scales. (Maybe that perfect 9 is now a 6 out of 7 due to rubric changes.)
For practice grading with old samples, you might want to pull out two copies of the new rubric, recruit a trusted study buddy or academic advisor (or even two study buddies!), and each re-grade the samples.
Then, you can discuss any major differences in the grades you awarded. Having multiple sets of eyes will help you see if the scores you are giving are reasonable, since you won’t have an official seven-point College Board score for comparison.
How Many Example DBQs Should I Be Using?
The answer to this question depends on your study plans! If it's six months before the exam and you plan on transforming yourself into a hard diamond of DBQ excellence, you might complete some practice grading on a sample set every few weeks to a month to check in on your progress towards thinking like an AP grader. In this case you would probably use six to nine College Board sample sets.
If, on the other hand, the exam is in a month and you are just trying to get in some skill-polishing, you might do a sample set every week to 10 days. It makes sense to check in on your skills more often when you have less time to study, because you want to be extra-sure that you are focusing your time on the skills that need the most work. So for a short time frame, expect to use somewhere in the range of three to four range College Board sample sets.
Either way, you should be integrating your sample essay grading with skills practice, and doing some practice DBQ writing of your own.
Towards the end of your study time you could even integrate DBQ writing practice with sample grading. Read and complete a timed prompt, then grade the sample set for that prompt, including yours! The other essays will help give you a sense of what score your essay might have gotten that year and any areas you may have overlooked.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to using sample sets, but in general they are a useful tool for making sure you have a good idea what the DBQ graders will be looking for when you write your DBQ.
Hey, where can we find a good DBQ around here?
Closing Thoughts on Example DBQs
Example DBQ essays are a valuable resource in your arsenal of study strategies for the AP History exams. Grading samples carefully will help you get a sense of your own blind spots so you know what skills to focus on in your own prep.
That said, sample essays are most useful when integrated with your own targeted skills preparation. Grading a hundred sample essays won't help you if you aren't practicing your skills; you will just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And make sure you aren't using sample essays to avoid actually writing practice DBQs--you'll want to do at least a couple even if you only have a month to practice.
There you have it, folks. With this list of DBQ examples and tips on how to use them, you are all prepared to integrate samples into your study strategy!
Still not sure what a DBQ is? Check out my explanation of the DBQ.
Want tips on how to really dig in and study? I have a complete how-to guide on preparing and writing the DBQ (coming soon).
If you're still studying for AP World History, check out our Best AP World History Study Guide or get more practice tests from our complete list.
Want more material for AP US History? Look into this article on the best notes to use for studying from one of our experts. Also check out her review of the best AP US History textbooks!
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