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.)
Doing well on the AP World History exam really relies on your ability to understand patterns in history. By familiarizing yourself with trends in history as opposed to memorizing facts, you can get a 5 on the AP World History exam. For more on how to study for AP World History, see our blog post here.
Now to the good stuff… here are 50+ AP World History tips.
Thesis/Introductory Paragraphs for AP World History
1. Answer ALL of the question: Make sure your thesis addresses every single part of the question being asked for the AP World History free response section. Missing a single part can cost you significantly in the grading of your essay.
2. Lean one way: Trying to appease both sides creates an argument that’s not nearly as strong as if you take a stance.
3. Lead your reader: Help your reader understand where you are going as you answer the prompt to the essay–provide them with a map of a few of the key areas you are going to talk about in your essay.
4. Organize with strength in mind: When outlining the respective topics you will be discussing, start from the topic you know second best, then the topic you know least, before ending with your strongest topic area. In other words, make your roadmap 2-3-1 so that you leave your reader with the feeling that you have a strong understanding of the question being asked.
5. Understand the word “Analyze”: When the AP exam asks you to analyze, you want to think about the respective parts of what is being asked and look at the way they interact with one another. This means that when you are performing your analysis on the AP World History test, you want to make it very clear to your reader of what you are breaking down into its component parts. For example, what evidence do you have to support a point of view? Who are the important historical figures or institutions involved? How are these structures organized? How does this relate back to the overall change or continuity observed in the world?
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Answering AP World History DBQ Tips
1. Group with intent: One skill tested on the AP exam is your ability to relate documents to one another–this is called grouping. The idea of grouping is to essentially create a nice mixture of supporting materials to bolster a thesis that addresses the DBQ question being asked. In order to group effectively, create at least three different groupings with two subgroups each. When you group–group to respond to the prompt. Do not group just to bundle certain documents together. The best analogy would be you have a few different colored buckets, and you want to put a label over each bucket. Then you have a variety of different colored balls which each color representing a document, and you want to put these balls into buckets. You can have documents that fall into more than one group, but the big picture tip to remember is to group in response to the prompt. This is an absolute must. 33% of your DBQ grade comes from assessing your ability to group.
2. Assess POV with SOAPSTONE: SOAPSTONE helps you answer the question of why the person in the document made the piece of information at that time. It answers the question of the motive behind the document.
3. S: S represents Speaker or Source. You want to begin by asking yourself who is the source of the document. Think about the background of this source. Where do they come from? What do they do? Are they male or female? What are their respective views on religion or philosophy? How old are they? Are they wealthy? Poor? Etc.
4. O: O stands for occasion. You want to ask yourself when the document was said, where was it said, and why it may have been created. You can also think of O as representative of origin.
5. A: A represents for audience. Think about who this person wanted to share this document with. What medium was the document originally delivered in? Is it delivered through an official document or is it an artistic piece like a painting?
6. P: P stands for purpose. Ask again, why did this person create or say this document? What is the main motive behind the document?
7. S: S is for the subject of the document. This is where you see if you have an understanding of how the subject relates to the question the test is asking you. Think about if there are other documents or pieces of history that could further support or not support this document source.
8. TONE: Tone poses the question of what the tone of the document is. This relates closely with speaker. Think about how the creator of the document says certain things. Think about the connotations of certain words.
9. Explicitly state your analysis of POV: Your reader is not psychic. He or she cannot simply read your mind and understand exactly why you are rewriting a quotation by a person from a document. Be sure to explicitly state something along the lines of, “In document X, author states, “[quotation]”; the author may use this [x] tone because he wants to signify [y].” Another example would be, “The speaker’s belief that [speaker’s opinion] is made clear from his usage of particularly negative words such as [xyz].”
10. Assessing Charts and Tables: Sometimes you’ll come across charts of statistics. If you do, ask yourself questions like where the data is coming from, how the data was collected, who released the data, etc. You essentially want to take a similar approach to SOAPSTONE with charts and tables.
11. Assessing Maps: When you come across maps, look at the corners and center of the map. Think about why the map may be oriented in a certain way. Think about if the title of the map or the legend reveals anything about the culture the map originates from. Think about how the map was created–where did the information for the map come from. Think about who the map was intended for.
12. Assessing Cultural Pieces: If you come across more artistic documents such as literature, songs, editorials, or advertisements, you want to really think about the motive of why the piece of art or creative writing was made and who the document was intended for.
13. Be careful with blanket statements: Just because a certain point of view is expressed in a document does not mean that POV applies to everyone from that area. When drawing from the documents, you need to explicitly state which author and document you are citing.
14. Bias will always exist: Even if you’re given data in the form of a table, there is bias in the data. Do not fall into the trap of thinking just because there are numbers, it means the numbers are foolproof.
15. Be creative with introducing bias: Many students understand that they need to show their understanding that documents can be biased, but they go about it the wrong way. Rather than outright stating, “The document is biased because [x]”, try, “In document A, the author is clearly influenced by [y] as he states, “[quotation]”. See the difference? It’s subtle but makes a clear difference in how you demonstrate your understanding of bias.
16. Refer back to the question: As you write your DBQ essay, make sure to reference back to the question to show the reader how the argument you are trying to make relates to the overarching question. This is one way you clearly demonstrate that you spent a few minutes planning your essay in the very beginning.
17. Leave yourself out of it: Do not refer to yourself when writing your DBQ essays! “I” has no place in these AP essays.
18. Stay grounded to the documents: All of your core arguments must be supported through the use of the documents. Do not form the majority of your arguments on what you know from class. Use what you learned in class instead to bolster your arguments in relation to the documents presented.
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Overall AP World History DBQ Essay Tips & Advice
1. Start essay practice early: At least one month before the AP World History exam date, organize a few essay questions you will work through for the next four weeks before the test. Find a proctor whether that be a parent, peer, or teacher and have them simulate a timed test as you answer the essay.
2. Familiarize yourself with the time limits: Part of the reason why we suggest practicing essays early is so that you get so good at writing them that you understand exactly how much time you have left when you begin writing your second to last paragraph. You’ll be so accustomed to writing under timed circumstances that you will have no worries in terms of finishing on time.
3. Learn the rubric: If you have never looked at an AP World History grading rubric before you enter the test, you are going in blind. You must know the rubric like the back of your hand so that you can ensure you tackle all the points the grader is looking for. Here are the 2014 Scoring Guidelines.
4. Read the historical background: You know that little blurb at the beginning of the document? The test takers don’t put it there for no reason. The historical background is like a freebie–it can tell you the time period of the document and shed a little insight into the POV of the source. Read it!
5. Familiarize yourself with analyses of art: This one is optional, but a great way to really get used to analyzing art is to visit an art museum and to listen to the way that art is described. Often times there will be interpretations of the artist’s intent and perspective.
AP World History Multiple Choice Review Tips
1. Identify key patterns: You know that saying, history repeats itself? There’s a reason why people say that, and that is because there are fundamental patterns in history that can be understood and identified. This is especially true with AP World History. If you can learn the frequent patterns of history in relation to the six time periods tested, you’ll be able to guess in a smart manner when you have absolutely no idea about something.
2. Use common sense: The beauty of AP World History is when you understand the core concept being tested and the patterns in history; you can deduce the answer of the question. Identify what exactly is being asked and then go through the process of elimination to figure out the correct answer. Now, this does not mean do not study at all. This means, rather than study 500 random facts about world history, really focus in on understanding the way history interacts with different parts of the world. Think about how minorities have changed over the course of history, their roles in society, etc. You want to look at things at the big picture so that you can have a strong grasp of each time period tested.
3. Familiarize with AP-style questions: If AP World History is the first AP test you’ve ever taken, or even if it isn’t, you need to get used to the way the CollegeBoard introduces and asks you questions. Find a review source to practice AP World History questions. Albert.io has hundreds of AP World History practice questions and detailed explanations to work through.
4. Make note of pain points: As you practice, you’ll quickly realize what you know really well, and what you know not so well. Figure out what you do not know so well and re-read that chapter of your textbook. Then, create flashcards of the key concepts of that chapter along with key events from that time period.
5. Supplement practice with video lectures: A fast way to learn is to do practice problems, identify where you are struggling, learn that concept more intently, and then to practice again. Crash Course has created an incredibly insightful series of World History videos you can watch on YouTube here. Afterwards, go back and practice again. Practice makes perfect, especially when it comes to AP World History.
6. Strike out wrong answer choices: The second you can eliminate an answer choice, strike out the letter of that answer choice and circle the word or phrase behind why that answer choice is incorrect. This way, when you review your answers at the very end, you can quickly check through all of your answers. One of the hardest things is managing time when you’re doing your second run-through to check your answers—this method alleviates that problem by reducing the amount of time it takes for you to remember why you thought a certain answer choice was wrong.
7. Answer every question: If you’re crunched on time and still have several AP World History multiple-choice questions to answer, the best thing to do is to make sure that you answer each and every one of them. There is no guessing penalty for doing so, so take full advantage of this!
Tips Submitted by AP World History Teachers
1. Use high polymer erasers: When answering the multiple choice scantron portion of the AP World History test, use a high polymer eraser. It is the only eraser that will fully erase on a scantron. Thanks for the tip from Ms. J. at Boulder High School.
2. Outline, outline, outline: Take a few minutes to outline your essay based on themes, similarities, bias, etc. It’s the easiest way to craft a fluid essay. Thanks for the tip from Mr. M at Chapel Hill High School.
3. Stay ahead of your reading and when in doubt, read again: You are responsible for a huge amount of information when it comes to tackling AP World History, so make sure you are responsible for some of it. You can’t leave all the work up to your instructor. It’s a team effort. Thanks for the tip from Mr. E at Tri-Central High.
4. Integrate video learning: A great way to really solidify your understanding of a concept is to watch supplementary videos on the topic. Then, read the topic again to truly master it. Thanks for the tip from Mr. D at Royal High School.
5. Keep a study log: Study for three hours for every hour of class you have and keep a study log so that you can see what you accomplished every day as you sit down to study. Thanks for the tip from Mr. R. at Stephen F. Austin High.
6. Practice with transparencies: Use transparencies or a white board to create overlay maps for each of the six periods of AP World History at the start of each period so that you can see a visual of the regions of the world being focused on. Thanks for the tip from Ms. W at Riverbend High.
7. Read every word: Often times in AP World History many questions can be answered without specific historical knowledge. Many questions require critical thinking and attention to detail; the difference between a correct answer and an incorrect answer lies in just one or two words in the question or the answer. Thanks for the tip from Mr. R. at Mandarin High.
8. Cover the entire time frame: When addressing the DBQ on continuity, make sure to cover the entire time frame unless you specifically write in your thesis about a different time period. Thanks for the tip from Mr. H at Great Oak High.
9. Summarize then answer: Ms. B recommends at Desert Edge High recommends to summarize what you know about each answer choice and then to see if it applies to the question when answering the multiple choice questions.
10. Master writing a good thesis: In order to write a good thesis, you want to make sure it properly addresses the whole question or prompt, effectively takes a position on the main topic, includes relevant historical context, and organize key standpoints. Thanks for the tip from Mr. G at Loganville High.
11. Tackle DBQs with SAD and BAD: With the DBQ, think about the Summary, Author, and Date & Context. Also consider the Bias and Additional Documents to verify the bias. Thanks for the tip from Mr. G at WHS.
12. Create a refined thesis in your conclusion: 35 with 40 minutes to write each of your essays, starting with a strong thesis can be difficult, especially since students can find it challenging in what they are about to write. By the time you finish your essay, you have a much more clear idea of how to answer the question. Take a minute and revisit the prompt and try to provide a much more explicit and comprehensive thesis than the one you provided in the beginning as your conclusion. This thesis statement is much more likely to give you the point for thesis than the rushed thesis in the beginning. Thanks for the tip from Mr. R at Mission Hills High.
13. Annotate: Textbook reading is essential for success in AP World History, but learn to annotate smarter, not harder. Be efficient in your reading and note taking. Read, reduce, and reflect. To read – use sticky notes. Using post-its is a lifesaver – use different color stickies for different tasks (pink – summary, blue – questions, green – reflection, etc.) Reduce – go back and look at your sticky notes and see what you can reduce – decide what is truly essential material to know or question. Then reflect – why are the remaining sticky notes important? How will they help you not just understand content, but also understand contextualization or causality or change over time? What does this information show you? Thanks for the tip from Ms. J at Legacy High.
14. Relate back to the themes: Understanding 10,000 years of world history is hard. Knowing all the facts is darn near impossible. If you can use your facts/material and explain it within the context of one of the APWH themes, it makes it easier to process, understand, and apply. The themes are your friends. Thanks for the tip from Ms. J at Legacy High.
15. Form a study group: Everyone has different talents and areas of strength. You don’t, and shouldn’t, try to tackle this class all by yourself. Form a study group and learn from each other, help everybody become better by sharing your talents and skills. This is also a place where you can vent your frustrations and feel a sense of unity and belonging. We are truly all in this together. Thanks for the tip from Ms. J at Legacy High.
16. Look for the missing voice in DBQs: First, look for the missing voice. Who haven’t you heard from in the DBQ? Who’s voice would really help you answer the question more completely? Next, if there isn’t really a missing voice, what evidence do you have access to, that you would like to clarify? For example, if you have a document that says excessive taxation led to the fall of the Roman Empire, what other piece of information would you like to have access to that would help you prove or disprove this statement? Maybe a chart that shows tax amounts from prior to the 3rd Century Crisis to the mid of the 3rd century crisis? Thanks for the tip from Ms. J at Legacy High.
17. Go with your gut: When choosing an answer, it can be tempting to feel anxious and to potentially start second guessing yourself. Don’t. Tests are designed to make test takers get stuck between two or three answer choices (leading to anxiety and eating away time for completing the test). Limit the amount you second guess yourself. If you studied properly, there is a reason why your mind wanted you to pick that original answer before any of the other choices. Thanks for the tip from Mrs. S at Carnahan High School of the Future.
18. Don’t forget to B.S. in your DBQ: B.S. on everything! (Be Specific).
19. Remember your PIE: Writing a thesis is as easy as PIE: Period, Issue, Examples.
20. Look at every answer option: Don’t go for the first “correct” answer; find the most “bulletproof” answer. The one you’d best be able to defend in a debate.
Are you a teacher or student? Do you have an awesome tip? Let us know!
Hopefully you’ve learned a lot from reading all 50+ of these AP World History tips. Doing well in AP World History comes down to recognizing patterns and trends in history, and familiarizing yourself with the nature of the test. Once you get comfortable with the way questions are presented, you’ll realize that you can actually rely on quite a bit of common sense to answer the DBQs as well as the multiple choice questions. Students often think the key to AP history tests is memorizing every single fact of history, and the truth is you may be able to do that and get a 5, but the smart way of doing well on the test comes from understanding the reason why we study history in the first place. By learning the underlying patterns that are tested on the exam, for example how opinions towards women may have influenced the social or political landscape of the world during a certain time period, you can create more compelling theses and demonstrate to AP readers a clear understanding of the bigger picture.
In case you’re the type of student that needs a more structured study plan, we created a one-month AP World History Study Guide here.
Find the patterns, master crafting the essays, and practice hard, and you’ll do well come May. Good luck!
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