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Scoring Well on Document-Based Questions (DBQs)

To score high on the Document-Based Question (DBQ, for short) that appears on every AP U.S. History exam, you must create a thesis, analyze the documents as they relate to your thesis, and bring in outside evidence (proof) that supports your thesis. Depending on your level of preparation, the DBQ can be either an interesting chance for self-expression or a confusing and desperate search for words. Most people who take the AP test don't do as well as they could on the DBQ because they get overwhelmed by the detail. Using the proof, analysis, and thesis (PAT) method introduced in this chapter, you can be prepared for Document-Based Question. PAT is the essay-writing system that has what teachers look for: You use historical proof with analysis to support a clear thesis or idea.


After working through the 80 multiple-choice questions in Section I, you will return from your well-deserved 10-minute break to take on Section II, the free-response questions. For these questions, you write essays on topics the AP selects. The Document-Based Question essay comes first. On the DBQ you combine what you know about history with what you can pull from a supplied set of documents to answer an assigned question. After you finish the DBQ, you choose two additional regular essays from four available topics. (Regular essays are covered in detail in Chapter 5.)

If you've ever wondered what being a historian would feel like, the Document-Based Question is your chance. For the DBQ you write history from primary sources, just like college students and professors do.

A people's history is what they choose to remember to explain who they are. The historian's job is to make sure that these collective memories are facts interpreted in as honest a manner as the historian's current understanding of the world allows. History doesn't come from wizards with long white beards; it comes from scholars working patiently with primary source material to provide accurate facts plus reasonable analysis and interpretation. That's what your task is on the DBQ.

On the test, you'll confront one interesting analysis question from an important period in U.S. history . To help build your essay on that question, you'll receive a set of 8 to 10 primary source documents. These documents could be letters, news reports, political cartoons, financial reports, pictures, diary entries, charts, graphs, love notes — almost anything that can be printed on paper. Your essay for the DBQ needs to combine your interpretation of the supplied documents with outside history facts you remember about the period and topic in question.


You may not feel like you're ready to interpret everything that happened in U.S. history, but the DBQ is a good place to be as smart as you can. This is the most important essay on the AP exam; your score on the DBQ makes up 22.5 percent of your final grade. Since the AP U.S. History exam is graded on the curve, to get a final grade of 4 or 5, you don't have to have a perfect score — just one that's better than the scores of most other AP test takers. You have a chance to get ahead of the pack on the DBQ because people tend to do poorly on this question due to a lack of organization.

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