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All essays on the AP are scored by test graders on a scale from 0 (awful) to 9 (perfect). The average score on the DBQ in recent years has been a pathetic 3. With practice you can do better than that, and when you do, your final score improves dramatically.

The teachers behind the AP want you to think, not just memorize. For that reason, the highest scores on the DBQ go to students who have developed a clear thesis or way of understanding the era of their assigned documents. Here are the guidelines the test graders use for scoring the DBQ.

The 8-to-9 essay

Only a few hundred students — about a tenth of 1 percent — get a 9. A few thousand — still less than 1 percent — get an 8. An essay that earns an 8 or 9 has these characteristics:

- Contains a well-developed thesis that may explain most of the changes within the DBQ era

- Supports the thesis with an effective analysis of economic, social, and political trends

- Effectively uses a substantial number of documents

- Supports or proves the thesis with substantial (ideally, at least 50 percent) and relevant outside information

- May contain minor errors

- Is clearly organized and well-written

The 5-to-7 essay

Fewer than 2 percent of test takers get a score of 7; around 4 percent get a score of 6; and 10 percent score a 5. An essay that scores in the range of 5 to 7 has these characteristics:

- Contains a thesis that explains many of the changes within the era

- Has a limited analysis of the information supporting the thesis

- Effectively uses some documents

- Supports the thesis with some outside information for proof

- May have some errors that don't seriously get in the way of main essay points

- Shows acceptable organization and writing; language errors don't stop understanding

The 2-to-4 essay

Unfortunately, scores in the 2 to 4 range are the most common. About 18 percent of test takers get a 4; around 30 percent get a 3 (3.16 is the average DBQ score); and 27 percent get only a 2. An essay within this scoring range has these characteristics:

- Contains a limited or undeveloped thesis

- Lacks analysis and deals with questions in a simplistic way

- Just parrots back a laundry list of documents

- Contains little outside information or includes information that's wrong

- May contain substantial factual errors

- Is poorly organized and/or poorly written

The 0-to-1 essay

Seven percent of test takers get a 1; about half a percent get a 0 (and another half a percent get nothing because they apparently drifted off before they got to the DBQ). An essay earning a 0 or 1 has these characteristics:

- Lacks a thesis or just restates the question

- Shows the test taker doesn't really understand the question

- Shows the test taker has little understanding of the documents or just ignores them

- Contains no outside information

- Contains wrong information

- Is badly written

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