The Advanced Placement World History exam is one of the most popular exams that the College Board offers as part of the AP program. It covers significant events, people, development, and processes over the course of six historical periods and aims to develop your ability to analyze and assess historical evidence, data, and significant issues, as well as help you understand historical sources, images graphs, and maps. The format of the exam and grading rubric is the same as those used for the AP US History and AP European History.
The test was redesigned in 2016, and while the course content remains the same, older practice tests and materials no longer apply to the current version of the test. For more information on the course and exam, check out CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the World History AP Exam and the College Board’s AP World History Course and Exam Description.
In this post, we look look at one of the most important components of the World History exam: the Document Based question. Because your response to this question is worth 25 percent of your total score, you should prepare for it as thoroughly as possible. Read on for advice on how to study for and master this section.
What is the Document Based Question?
The Document Based Question (DBQ) asks you to mimic the work that real historians perform in analyzing historical documents. The DBQ is an essay question that presents a set of documents, which can include written text, letters, speech transcripts, charts, images, or nearly any other type of document or image imaginable. The essay prompts are based directly on the content included in the documents documents, but also require contextual historical knowledge and related historical skills, which you have likely learned in the course leading up to the exam.
You will have 55 minutes to respond, 15 of which are generally meant for reading, planning, and outlining, and 40 of which are allotted for writing, although you may divide your time as you wish.
How is the DBQ evaluated and scored?
In general, the DBQ is designed to test certain skills, including argumentation, analyzing evidence, contextualization, and synthesis. Each individual DBQ will also test one additional skill, such as comparison, causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, or periodization.
A successful response addresses all aspects of the question (be careful here; you might want to make a list of all parts of the question so you remember to answer every component) and uses all (or all but one) of the documents. When using the documents as evidence, you must take into account the context and point of view of each document, paying attention to the person or persons who created it and what is being conveyed. Your response should also have a strong thesis argument, and use plenty of evidence, including the documents at hand, other sources with which you are familiar, and outside facts for context.
You can find the scoring rubric for the DBQ and other components of the AP History exams here. As you can see, the graders will specifically measure your response according to its thesis argument and development, document analysis, use of evidence beyond the documents, and synthesis with fact and materials that are not directly connected in the question or documents presented, such as a different time period, theme of the course, or discipline.
Preparing for the DBQ
The DBQ may cover any part of the AP World History curriculum, so your overall study strategy must be cohesive and exhaustive. Be sure to cover every period included in the curriculum completely and thoroughly.
You should also take plenty of practice tests. Refer to our guide for information about where to find practice exams and how to use them. When you take practice tests, try to emulate the exam’s official timing and testing environment to replicate the conditions under which you will take the real test. If your AP teacher offers practice tests, take them seriously and prepare for them as you would any test that counts for a grade.
Using practice prompts, create outlines that address every required portion of your answer; doing so will help you write your essay much more quickly and easily. Plan out the organization of your essay, categorizing documents, identifying where they will fit into your essay, and writing notes about you will say about them. Identify which quotes you will use and jot down any notes that help you explain their relevance and how they contribute to your argument. Make sure you are including analysis in your outline, and that it is not simply a list of sources. If you practice creating outline now, you will be well-versed in how to make an effective one when test day comes.
Your test day plan of attack for the DBQ
First things first: calm down. You may be nervous on test day, but remember that if you’ve studied and prepared, all you need to do is employ the skills and strategies you’ve already mastered.
When you get to the DBQ, read the prompt carefully. Then read it another time. Review the instructions and expectations for what you should include in your response. Then read and review the documents with the question in mind, taking notes and making annotations as you go.
Plan quickly but carefully. Create an outline as you have practiced. The planning stage should take about 15 minutes. Next, write the essay. Use your outline to guide you, and refer to the documents provided as needed. While you should use quotes to bolster your argument and provide evidence, most of your essay should be your own original analysis. Try to write quickly, but be mindful of legibility, spelling, and grammar. Leave a few minutes of the 40 minutes you have allotted for writing to briefly review your essay for errors or anything else you might want to change.
The DBQ may seem daunting, but careful preparation for this important component of the AP World History exam will make the process much easier. For more help preparing for the exam, check out our Ultimate Guide to the World History AP Exam.
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Looking for more information on approaching similar AP courses and exams? Check out these posts:
Ultimate Guide to the U.S. History AP Exam
Ultimate Guide to European History AP Exam
Ultimate Guide to the Art History AP Exam
The Ultimate Guide to Comparative Government and Politics AP Exam
AP Exam Scores: All Your Questions Answered
How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
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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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