The DBQ (The Writing Sample) on AP Exams

Posted by The Aged Tutor on 4/9/13 9:14 AM

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One of the trickiest tasks in the humanities AP tests – whether it’s for AP World History, AP U.S. History, or AP European – is the dreaded Document Based Question, or DBQ. 

As an experienced high school academic tutor in New York City, I’ve seen students take many different approaches to these essays.  It’s too bad that high school students get so little practice on these types of essays, as they test such specific techniques and really require some serious attention in order to master.  The only way to improve your writing style on the DBQ is to write as many practice essays as possible and to have someone who knows what they’re doing offer you corrections.  But by learning how to structure your mandatory planning time effectively, the whole process becomes so much easier. 

Here are some of the writing tips I give the students I work with online and in the city:

1. Address the prompt

This sounds obvious, but the first thing you need to do is read the prompt and generate a strong thesis (two sentences works well here) that you can defend tirelessly throughout the essay.  Up to 2 of the 9 total points you get for this essay can be awarded in the thesis statement alone, so be sure to give this some serious thought.

2. Brainstorm

Whatever you do – don’t look at the documents right away.  Give yourself a couple minutes at this point to list rapid-fire as many historical facts as you can that could be relevant to the prompt you’re addressing.  By avoiding turning to the documents, you’re letting your mind wander in very productive way that just can’t be replicated once you’ve been influenced by the documents.  Once you have your list of facts, start to think about how you might group them to create three solid body paragraphs and to address your thesis in a fluid, ordered manner.

3. Now you can read the documents

Remember, if you get the gist of the document after reading the author, the title, and by skimming a few sentences, make a note to yourself in the margin on main idea and move on.  It’s crucial you don’t misunderstand the texts here, but remember that you have a limited amount of time to get your thoughts together.  Think about how you can group and impose order on the documents – if the rubric you’ve already designed still works (and it should) start clumping documents into the appropriate categories.  Try to make them all work, but at least shoot for two thirds of them.

Now before you start writing, maybe consider what voices and perspectives are missing from this list of documents.  Chances are the test makers have considered this question themselves in their selection, and if you’ve done a really thorough job with your initial brainstorming list, you might just have the answer there. 

By getting organized immediately in the planning process and by making the documents work for you, a lot of the worry can be taken out of the DBQ.  And remember to practice your technique – you should always feel free to ask a school teacher to look over your written work, or get in touch with Cambridge Coaching and one of our highly qualified tutors would be thrilled to help you work on your study skills and achieve your academic goals.

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Tags: expository writing, AP exams