The Advanced Placement World History exam is one of the most popular exams that the College Board offers as part of the AP program. It covers significant events, people, development, and processes over the course of six historical periods and aims to develop your ability to analyze and assess historical evidence, data, and significant issues, as well as help you understand historical sources, images graphs, and maps. The format of the exam and grading rubric is the same as those used for the AP US History and AP European History.
The test was redesigned in 2016, and while the course content remains the same, older practice tests and materials no longer apply to the current version of the test. For more information on the course and exam, check out CollegeVine’s Ultimate Guide to the World History AP Exam and the College Board’s AP World History Course and Exam Description.
In this post, we look look at one of the most important components of the World History exam: the Document Based question. Because your response to this question is worth 25 percent of your total score, you should prepare for it as thoroughly as possible. Read on for advice on how to study for and master this section.
What is the Document Based Question?
The Document Based Question (DBQ) asks you to mimic the work that real historians perform in analyzing historical documents. The DBQ is an essay question that presents a set of documents, which can include written text, letters, speech transcripts, charts, images, or nearly any other type of document or image imaginable. The essay prompts are based directly on the content included in the documents documents, but also require contextual historical knowledge and related historical skills, which you have likely learned in the course leading up to the exam.
You will have 55 minutes to respond, 15 of which are generally meant for reading, planning, and outlining, and 40 of which are allotted for writing, although you may divide your time as you wish.
How is the DBQ evaluated and scored?
In general, the DBQ is designed to test certain skills, including argumentation, analyzing evidence, contextualization, and synthesis. Each individual DBQ will also test one additional skill, such as comparison, causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, or periodization.
A successful response addresses all aspects of the question (be careful here; you might want to make a list of all parts of the question so you remember to answer every component) and uses all (or all but one) of the documents. When using the documents as evidence, you must take into account the context and point of view of each document, paying attention to the person or persons who created it and what is being conveyed. Your response should also have a strong thesis argument, and use plenty of evidence, including the documents at hand, other sources with which you are familiar, and outside facts for context.
You can find the scoring rubric for the DBQ and other components of the AP History exams here. As you can see, the graders will specifically measure your response according to its thesis argument and development, document analysis, use of evidence beyond the documents, and synthesis with fact and materials that are not directly connected in the question or documents presented, such as a different time period, theme of the course, or discipline.
Preparing for the DBQ
The DBQ may cover any part of the AP World History curriculum, so your overall study strategy must be cohesive and exhaustive. Be sure to cover every period included in the curriculum completely and thoroughly.
You should also take plenty of practice tests. Refer to our guide for information about where to find practice exams and how to use them. When you take practice tests, try to emulate the exam’s official timing and testing environment to replicate the conditions under which you will take the real test. If your AP teacher offers practice tests, take them seriously and prepare for them as you would any test that counts for a grade.
Using practice prompts, create outlines that address every required portion of your answer; doing so will help you write your essay much more quickly and easily. Plan out the organization of your essay, categorizing documents, identifying where they will fit into your essay, and writing notes about you will say about them. Identify which quotes you will use and jot down any notes that help you explain their relevance and how they contribute to your argument. Make sure you are including analysis in your outline, and that it is not simply a list of sources. If you practice creating outline now, you will be well-versed in how to make an effective one when test day comes.
Your test day plan of attack for the DBQ
First things first: calm down. You may be nervous on test day, but remember that if you’ve studied and prepared, all you need to do is employ the skills and strategies you’ve already mastered.
When you get to the DBQ, read the prompt carefully. Then read it another time. Review the instructions and expectations for what you should include in your response. Then read and review the documents with the question in mind, taking notes and making annotations as you go.
Plan quickly but carefully. Create an outline as you have practiced. The planning stage should take about 15 minutes. Next, write the essay. Use your outline to guide you, and refer to the documents provided as needed. While you should use quotes to bolster your argument and provide evidence, most of your essay should be your own original analysis. Try to write quickly, but be mindful of legibility, spelling, and grammar. Leave a few minutes of the 40 minutes you have allotted for writing to briefly review your essay for errors or anything else you might want to change.
The DBQ may seem daunting, but careful preparation for this important component of the AP World History exam will make the process much easier. For more help preparing for the exam, check out our Ultimate Guide to the World History AP Exam.
For more information
Want to ace your AP exams? CollegeVine has you covered. Check out our Academic Tutoring program to work with our top tutors, who study at top colleges and are intimately familiar with their subject areas. Check out the program here to learn more and sign up.
Looking for more information on approaching similar AP courses and exams? Check out these posts:
Ultimate Guide to the U.S. History AP Exam
Ultimate Guide to European History AP Exam
Ultimate Guide to the Art History AP Exam
The Ultimate Guide to Comparative Government and Politics AP Exam
AP Exam Scores: All Your Questions Answered
How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
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WHAT THIS HANDOUT IS ABOUT
This handout describes what a thesis statement is, how thesis statements work in your writing, and how you can craft or refine one for your draft.
Writing in college often takes the form of persuasion—convincing others that you have an interesting, logical point of view on the subject you are studying. Persuasion is a skill you practice regularly in your daily life. You persuade your roommate to clean up, your parents to let you borrow the car, your friend to vote for your favorite candidate or policy. In college, course assignments often ask you to make a persuasive case in writing. You are asked to convince your reader of your point of view. This form of persuasion, often called academic argument, follows a predictable pattern in writing. After a brief introduction of your topic, you state your point of view on the topic directly and often in one sentence. This sentence is the thesis statement, and it serves as a summary of the argument you’ll make in the rest of your paper.
WHAT IS A THESIS STATEMENT?
A thesis statement:
- tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
- is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
- directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
- makes a claim that others might dispute.
- is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.
If your assignment asks you to take a position or develop a claim about a subject, you may need to convey that position or claim in a thesis statement near the beginning of your draft. The assignment may not explicitly state that you need a thesis statement because your instructor may assume you will include one. When in doubt, ask your instructor if the assignment requires a thesis statement. When an assignment asks you to analyze, to interpret, to compare and contrast, to demonstrate cause and effect, or to take a stand on an issue, it is likely that you are being asked to develop a thesis and to support it persuasively.
HOW DO I GET A THESIS?
A thesis is the result of a lengthy thinking process. Formulating a thesis is not the first thing you do after reading an essay assignment. Before you develop an argument on any topic, you have to collect and organize evidence, look for possible relationships between known facts (such as surprising contrasts or similarities), and think about the significance of these relationships. Once you do this thinking, you will probably have a “working thesis,” a basic or main idea, an argument that you think you can support with evidence but that may need adjustment along the way.
Writers use all kinds of techniques to stimulate their thinking and to help them clarify relationships or comprehend the broader significance of a topic and arrive at a thesis statement.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY THESIS IS STRONG?
If there’s time, run it by your instructor or make an appointment at the Writing Center to get some feedback. Even if you do not have time to get advice elsewhere, you can do some thesis evaluation of your own. When reviewing your first draft and its working thesis,ask yourself the following:
- Do I answer the question? Re-reading the question prompt after constructing a working thesis can help you fix an argument that misses the focus of the question.
- Have I taken a position that others might challenge or oppose?If your thesis simply states facts that no one would, or even could, disagree with, it’s possible that you are simply providing a summary, rather than making an argument.
- Is my thesis statement specific enough? Thesis statements that are too vague often do not have a strong argument. If your thesis contains words like “good” or “successful,” see if you could be more specific: why is something “good”; what specifically makes something “successful”?
- Does my thesis pass the “So what?” test? If a reader’s first response is, “So what?” then you need to clarify, to forge a relationship, or to connect to a larger issue.
- Does my essay support my thesis specifically and without wandering? If your thesis and the body of your essay do not seem to go together, one of them has to change. It’s okay to change your working thesis to reflect things you have figured out in the course of writing your paper. Remember, always reassess and revise your writing as necessary.
- Does my thesis pass the “how and why?” test? If a reader’s first response is “how?” or “why?” your thesis may be too open-ended and lack guidance for the reader. See what you can add to give the reader a better take on your position right from the beginning.
Suppose you are taking a course on 19th-century America, and the instructor hands out the following essay assignment: Compare and contrast the reasons why the North and South fought the Civil War. You turn on the computer and type out the following:
- The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.
This weak thesis restates the question without providing any additional information. You will expand on this new information in the body of the essay, but it is important that the reader know where you are heading. A reader of this weak thesis might think, “What reasons? How are they the same? How are they different?” Ask yourself these same questions and begin to compare Northern and Southern attitudes (perhaps you first think, “The South believed slavery was right, and the North thought slavery was wrong”). Now, push your comparison toward an interpretation—why did one side think slavery was right and the other side think it was wrong? You look again at the evidence, and you decide that you are going to argue that the North believed slavery was immoral while the South believed it upheld the Southern way of life. You write:
- While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.
Now you have a working thesis! Included in this working thesis is a reason for the war and some idea of how the two sides disagreed over this reason. As you write the essay, you will probably begin to characterize these differences more precisely, and your working thesis may start to seem too vague. Maybe you decide that both sides fought for moral reasons, and that they just focused on different moral issues. You end up revising the working thesis into a final thesis that really captures the argument in your paper:
- While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own right to self-government.
Compare this to the original weak thesis. This final thesis presents a way of interpreting evidence that illuminates the significance of the question. Keep in mind that this is one of many possible interpretations of the Civil War—it is not the one and only right answer to the question. There isn’t one right answer; there are only strong and weak thesis statements and strong and weak uses of evidence.
Let’s look at another example. Suppose your literature professor hands out the following assignment in a class on the American novel: Write an analysis of some aspect of Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn. “This will be easy,” you think. “I loved Huckleberry Finn!” You grab a pad of paper and write:
- Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a great American novel.
Why is this thesis weak? Think about what the reader would expect from the essay that follows: you will most likely provide a general, appreciative summary of Twain’s novel. The question did not ask you to summarize; it asked you to analyze. Your professor is probably not interested in your opinion of the novel; instead, she wants you to think about why it’s such a great novel—what do Huck’s adventures tell us about life, about America, about coming of age, about race relations, etc.? First, the question asks you to pick an aspect of the novel that you think is important to its structure or meaning—for example, the role of storytelling, the contrasting scenes between the shore and the river, or the relationships between adults and children. Now you write:
- In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain develops a contrast between life on the river and life on the shore.
Here’s a working thesis with potential: you have highlighted an important aspect of the novel for investigation; however, it’s still not clear what your analysis will reveal. Your reader is intrigued, but is still thinking, “So what? What’s the point of this contrast? What does it signify?” Perhaps you are not sure yet, either. That’s fine—begin to work on comparing scenes from the book and see what you discover. Free write, make lists, jot down Huck’s actions and reactions. Eventually you will be able to clarify for yourself, and then for the reader, why this contrast matters. After examining the evidence and considering your own insights, you write:
- Through its contrasting river and shore scenes, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests that to find the true expression of American democratic ideals, one must leave “civilized” society and go back to nature.
This final thesis statement presents an interpretation of a literary work based on an analysis of its content. Of course, for the essay itself to be successful, you must now present evidence from the novel that will convince the reader of your interpretation.
SPECIAL THANKS TO: Mr. Brynes of Leonardtown High School