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How to Ace the AP World History DBQ: Rubric, Examples, and Tips

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Feb 25, 2022 5:00:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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AP World History is a challenging class, and in order to get credit for it you’ll have to take an equally challenging exam. And one of the toughest parts of the test is the AP World History document-based question, or AP World DBQ. This question asks you to read and analyze documents on the fly, then write an argumentative essay…all in one hour. 

It can be hard to know what–and how–to study for the AP World History DBQ, especially when you don’t know which documents you’ll receive on test day. But don’t worry: we’ll break down everything you need to know about the AP World History DBQ so you can ace it on test day. (We’ll even give you AP World History DBQ example questions and an AP World History DBQ rubric example!) 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • An explanation of what the AP World History DBQ is 
  • A look at how the DBQ works on the AP World History exam
  • A step-by-step process for tackling the AP World History DBQ
  • A guide to studying for and answering the AP World History DBQ

Let’s get going!

 


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What Is an AP World History DBQ? 

The document-based question (DBQ) is a question on the AP World History exam in which you are given a selection of seven documents and are asked to write an essay that incorporates information from at least six of them in a coherent argument based on a given prompt.

In other words: you’ll be writing an essay on a topic and incorporating resources that you’re given on the day of the exam! 

The DBQ tests over a wide range of skills, like writing, organizing thoughts, making arguments, making connections between different perspectives, and having a knowledge of world history. Yeah, the DBQs are definitely tough! That’s why it’s important to understand what the DBQ APWH is and how to best tackle it. 

 

How DBQs Work on the AP World History Exam

The DBQ format AP World History uses consists of a single open-ended prompt, and will focus on the time period of 1450-2001.

Question Type
# of Questions
% of Total Score
Multiple Choice 
55 questions
40% 
Short Answer
3 questions 
20%
Free Response (Essay)
2 questions 
40%

 

Of the two free response questions, one is a long essay (worth 15%) and one is a DBQ. This means that the sole DBQ is, by itself, worth 25% of your total grade, making it the single most heavily-weighted question on the AP World History exam. 

Here are some actual AP World History DBQ examples from previous years’ AP World History exams:

  • “Evaluate the extent to which economic factors led to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920).” (2021)
  • “Evaluate the extent to which the Portuguese transformed maritime trade in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century.” (2019)
  • “Evaluate the extent to which railroads affected the process of empire-building in Afro-Eurasia between 1860 and 1918.” (2018)

Of course, one of the things that makes AP DBQ questions unique is that you’ll be given seven documents to analyze as part of your essay response. Not only will you have to read and analyze these documents on exam day, you’ll have to include them as evidence in your essay to prove your argument! 

The seven documents you’ll receive will be a mixture of: 

  • Primary texts: texts that were actually written in the time period you’re being asked about 
  • Secondary texts: texts written by later historians that explain or interpret the time period 
  • Images: usually either political cartoons or artwork from the time period 

How many of each type of document you get varies by year, so you’ll need to be comfortable using all three types to support an essay-based argument. 

To answer the AP World History DBQ, you’ll have to read through all seven documents and write an argumentative essay that answers the prompt. So not only will you have to come up with an arguable point, you’ll have to prove that thesis using evidence contained in at least three of the seven documents. If you want to earn full credit for your DBQ, you’ll actually have to use six of the seven documents to support your position! 

 

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Just like in a sport, understanding how to score points on your DBQ is key to doing well on your exam. 

 

Understand the AP World DBQ Rubric

First, you need to understand what the expectations are and how your answer will be graded. Doing this will help you figure out what you need to study and which skills you need to brush up on. It’ll also ensure that you know exactly what a great DBQ response requires so that you earn as many points as possible! 

The good news is that the College Board has provided the AP World History DBQ rubric 2021 as part of their 2021 AP World History: Modern Sample Student Responses and Scoring Commentary document. The AP World History DBQ rubric contains all the information you need to know about how your response will be scored. 

Here’s how the rubric breaks down:

 

Thesis (1 Point) 

First you’ll need to create a thesis that “responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning.” In order to get this point you’ll need to make an arguable claim based on the documents that answers the question of the prompt. 

 

Contextualization (1 Point) 

In order to get a point for contextualization you’ll need to “accurately describe a context relevant” to the time period covered by the prompt. What this means is that you’ll have to describe the political, social, or economic events and trends that contributed to the topic you’re writing about. 

Some of this you’ll know from the provided documents, but some of it you will also be expected to know based on what you’ve studied in AP World History class. You’ll also need to relate your knowledge to “broader historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or continue after the time frame of the question.” In other words, you’ll have to show how the events of this time period are relevant now or how they are similar to some other historical situation.

 

Evidence (3 Points) 

This category assigns points based on how well you use the documents provided to you on the test. 

For this category, you get one of the potential three points solely for if you incorporate specific evidence that does not come from the provided documents in a way that is relevant to your thesis. 

However, in order to earn the other two points, you must support your argument by using even more evidence from the documents provided. If you use three to five documents, you’ll earn an additional point. If you integrate six or more documents in your response, you can earn up to two points…and full credit for this category!  

Just remember: You can’t just randomly throw information from the documents into your essay, though, you have to use it in a way that supports your argument and accurately represents what the documents are saying

 

Analysis and Reasoning (2 Points) 

For the analysis and reasoning section, you get one point for explaining “how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument,” and you get one point for “complexity,” showing that you understand the time period that the prompt covers and use evidence to prove your understanding and back up your argument

Here’s what that means: you’ll have to prove how the documents are relevant to your argument, and your argument has to show that you understand the period you’re writing about. Additionally, you’ll need to write an essay that proves your argument in a way that shows you understand that there are a variety of possible perspectives about that time period or issue, and that not everyone in that period had the same experiences. 

 

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If all that sounds like a lot...that's because it is! But don't worry. We'll walk you through the steps you can take to get prepared for your DBQ.

 

5 Steps for Tackling an AP World History DBQ

The AP World History DBQ is a complicated question that tests you over several different skills, so there isn’t a simple technique to ace it. However, if you master each of the individual skills it takes to do well on the DBQ examples, you’ll set yourself up to write a successful DBQ! response! 

Here are five steps you can follow to prepare for–and tackle!--the AP World History DBQ. 

 

Step 1: Use Past AP World DBQ Prompts to Practice

Taking practice exams is a great way to prepare for any standardized test–including the AP World exam. Not only do you get a chance to test your knowledge, practice tests also give you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the test format…which is really important when it comes to AP World DBQs.

There’s good news when it comes to AP World DBQ prompts, though. College Board’s website has the actual AP World DBQ prompts from 2002-2020 available to download. This means you can take almost 20 practice AP World History exams, as well as access AP World History DBQ example responses and AP World History DBQ rubrics, for free!  

It’s good to take one practice test before you start studying intensely for it because that will let you know where your skills are now (and it’ll let you track your progress). However, the nature of a free response means that it won’t be easy for you to grade by yourself. When it comes to assessing your response, use the AP World History DBQ rubric and honestly assess whether or not you incorporated the information thoroughly and accurately. If that doesn’t work for you, you can always ask a family member, tutor, or teacher to give you feedback on your response as well! 

Don’t be afraid to use multiple AP World DBQ prompts as part of your test prep strategy. The more DBQs you do, the better prepared you’ll be on test day! 

 

Step 2: Practice Creating a Thesis

A thesis statement is a sentence or two, located in your essay’s introduction, that explains what your essay will be about. In this case, your thesis will outline the argument you make in your AP World DBQ. 

The most important aspect of your thesis is that it has to make a claim that is both arguable and relevant to the prompt you’re given. However, you don’t want to just restate the prompt in your thesis! 

Here’s what we mean. Say you’re given the following prompt:

“Evaluate the extent to which economic factors led to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920).” 

You don’t want your thesis to be “Economic factors led to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution,” since that just restates the prompt without adding in your own argument. To write a great DBQ, you want to make a specific claim about how and why economic factors led to the Mexican Revolution, and you want to be able to use the AP World History DBQ documents provided to prove it!

Here are two AP World History DBQ examples that College Board considers acceptable theses for this prompt:

  • “Mexico’s inability to resist the political dominance of the United States and European powers was the most significant factor in leading to the revolution because foreign dominance prevented the Mexican government from enacting economic reforms.”
  • “Ethnic tensions were just as important in leading to the Mexican Revolution as economic factors because much of the economic exploitation that was occurring in Mexico affected poor indigenous communities.”

See how these two examples both make specific claims? The first argues that foreign influences prevented the Mexican government from enacting economic reforms. This is a claim that the author can prove by showing how foreign governments interfered with the Mexican government, and how that action led to reforms being stalled. 

The second AP World History DBQ example thesis addresses something more complex: how ethnic tensions led to economic exploitation. The author can then use the provided documents as evidence that poor indigenous communities were exploited, and can argue that those actions led to the Mexican Revolution.

 

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Outlines take a little time, but they'll keep your DBQ from derailing. (Staying on topic is key!)

 

Step 3: Practice Creating an Outline

Remember the AP World History DBQ is timed, and you’ll only have one hour to complete it! To keep your writing organized and on track, it’s a good idea for you to create a quick outline before you jump into writing your essay. 

Having said that, you’ll need to be careful not to spend too much time on your outline so you have enough time to write your DBQ. That’s why we recommend spending 15 minutes reading documents, 5 minutes outlining your essay, and 40 minutes writing your response. 

The most important things that your outline will need are an introduction and conclusion! Your introduction sets up your thesis while your conclusion restates your thesis and explains how it’s relevant to the reader in some way–perhaps by showing that a similar claim could be made about another time period, or that the effects of the thesis are still being felt today. 

Apart from your intro and conclusion, you’ll need body paragraphs. Since you only have about 45 minutes to write this essay, you don’t want too many of them. Three or four body paragraphs will be enough to make your argument. The most important thing about your body paragraphs is that each of them supports your argument and incorporates information from the documents!

To help you out, here is an example of a usable outline for the AP World History DBQ:

  • Introduction
    • Set up your argument and include your thesis.
    • You can break down your thesis into several steps, which will then become the topics of each body paragraph
  • 1st Body Paragraph (Context)
    • Tell the reader what they need to know about the historical situation. 
    • Include any information you might already know from outside the provided documents.
  • 2nd Body Paragraph 
    • Make the first point you mentioned in your introduction.
    • Use information from the documents to illustrate and prove your point.
    • Include two or three documents that support your point 
  • 3rd Body Paragraph
    • Just like the previous paragraph, use two or three different documents to prove the second point of your thesis
  • 4th Body Paragraph (if necessary)
    • If you make a third point in your thesis, explain it here using one or two different documents as evidence 
  • Conclusion
    • Restate your thesis and summarize the main points you’ve made.
    • Show how it’s relevant to the reader.

Your outline doesn’t need to be anything fancy–it just needs to give you an idea of how to structure your DBQ. Trust us: outlining might seem like a waste of time, but having a guide will make writing go much faster. 

 

Step 4: Practice Incorporating Quotes and References

As you write your essay, you’ll need to use examples from the documents provided–and each time you do, you’ll need to indicate which documents you pulled the information from. You’ll do this whether you are quoting your source or just paraphrasing it. 

Here are two attribution examples that College Board considers acceptable for the AP World History DBQ:

  • (Document 1): “The finance minister tells strikers that unemployment is the result of supply and demand and is out of the government’s hands, a position which probably increased people’s discontent with the government because they were unwilling to help.”
  • (Document 2): “The newspaper cartoon shows that the government was willing to use violence to put down popular protests against a rigged election system. Such oppressive government policies may have contributed to increased support for the eventual revolution.”

Note that both of these connect the contents of the document to the argument the author is trying to make. They don’t just paraphrase or quote the contents of the document for the sake of using them–you should use documents to support your argument!

Keep in mind that the College Board is pretty specific about how they want you to use AP World history DBQ documents. In the 2021 AP World History Scoring Guidelines rubric, College Board makes the point that you should “describe and explain” the contents of the document: By “describe'' they mean you should point out to your reader what about the document is relevant and illustrate it as if the reader did not have the document in front of them. 

From there, you’ll need to explain the document. That means you should use the document to show the reader why changes or situations in history have happened or why there is a relationship between two factors you’re writing about. 

 

Step 5: Understand Time Management

One of the most important skills you can acquire by taking multiple attempts at the AP World DBQ practice test will be time management. 

When you’re in the actual test environment, you won’t be able to use your phone to set a timer or alarm, so it’ll be difficult to keep track of how much time you’re spending on reading and re-reading the documents, brainstorming, and outlining. You want to leave yourself the majority of the time allowed (which will be one hour) for writing. 

College Board’s AP World History DBQ rubric recommends that you spend 15 minutes reading the documents and 45 minutes writing the essay. When you write your practice DBQs, be sure to use this format so you can get a feel for how much time you do (or don’t!) have for the question. Practicing with a timer is a great way to make sure you’re using your time wisely on test day! 

 

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4 Tips for Studying for and Answering the AP World History DBQs

Now that you’ve read our step-by-step process for tackling the AP World History DBQ and have seen several AP World History DBQ examples, here are some expert tips on doing well on the AP World History DBQ. We’ve developed these tips based on the AP World History rubric to make sure you earn as many points as possible! 

 

Tip 1: Know Your Rubric

Go through the AP World History DBQ rubric 2021 and notice that it tells you exactly how to earn points in each category. Most categories are worth multiple points, so you need to know how to earn all the points possible. 

For example, the rubric is clear about how to earn points for your thesis statement. You’ll have to make sure that you have a thesis that states outright what argument you are trying to make if you want to earn credit for that category of the rubric! 

The scoring for the DBQ is pretty objective, and knowing exactly what the scorers are looking for will help you earn the most points possible.

 

Tip 2: Your Essay Can Contain Errors

In an AP World History DBQ, you’ll be able to make tiny errors and still be able to earn full credit for your response. 

Before you get too excited, there are big (and we mean big!) limits to this rule. For instance, you can’t misrepresent a document by saying an author makes one claim when they clearly aren’t. You also can’t write something that is obviously wrong, like that America continues under British rule because the revolution was unsuccessful! 

But you can make minor errors that don’t detract from your argument as long as you are demonstrating a knowledge of the time period and the ability to incorporate evidence to make an argument. So for example, you can make the mistake of saying that President Nixon’s impeachment hearings began in July 1974 (instead of May, when they actually began), and still earn full credit as long as you aren’t making an argument that depends on the accuracy of those dates.  

 

Tip 3: Write for Clarity 

One thing to keep in mind is that you’re graded on the quality of your argument and how well you prove it–you don’t get graded on how beautifully or fluently you write

So, while you’ll want to use correct grammar and write as clearly as you can, don’t spend too much time making your writing beautiful. Instead, focus on clearly explaining your ideas! 

To this end, you won’t have points taken away for grammatical errors unless they make it difficult for the graders to see how you’ve used the evidence to make an argument. So while you want your writing to be as error-free as possible, it’s more important that you’re making your argument as clearly–and as persuasively–as possible. 

 

Tip 4: Write for Relevance

As you’re outlining and writing your AP World DBQ, ask yourself, why is this relevant to today’s readers? To earn a perfect score, you’ll have to tie your argument to another time period or historical situation. 

This is your chance to show that while the period you’re writing about may have been long in the past, the events are still relevant to us today! This is why we read, write, and study history in the first place. So as you outline and write your DBQ, make sure you’re doing your best to show your reader why this historical moment or event is still important.

 

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What’s Next? 

No matter what AP course you’re taking, you’ll want to have a study plan in place when it comes to exam time. This blog article can help you put together a prep strategy that works.

Not sure what a “good” AP test score is for AP World History? This list of the average AP test scores for every exam will help you understand how your scores stack up. 

Perfect test scores are great, but do you really need a perfect AP World History score? Our experts will explain the pros and cons of getting perfect 5s on your AP exams. 

 

Looking for help studying for your AP exam?

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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