You’re starting to study for your AP European History exam and you come across your first document-based question (DBQ). You freak out. Don’t worry, that reaction is completely natural. After all, AP Euro is aimed at students interested in earning a first-year college credit for History. It should come as no surprise that a college level class has a difficult writing component. However in order to excel in AP Euro, you’re going to need to confront the DBQ head on.
The DBQ can be very intimidating at first. However, once you understand what the objective of the DBQ is, it gets easier. That’s why this AP European History review is going to give you the most beneficial 9 Steps to Scoring a 9 on the AP European History DBQ.
Let’s get started!
What is the AP Euro DBQ?
Just in case you are fairly early in your AP Euro review sessions, we wanted to start by going over exactly what the DBQ is. And if you haven’t heard of it yet, trust us, you will. The DBQ has been seen as the bane of the AP Euro student’s existence. But it’s really not all that bad when you break it down. You will have 55 minutes to answer a single question. Your answer is going to revolve around 10 to 12 primary-source documents that range between photographs, letters, legal cases, etc.
But the answer you provide is going to have to be in a concise essay format with a thesis that covers nearly every single document and shows that you understand the complexities of the historical narrative provided. That means structure and argumentation matter nearly as much as the evidence you use.
If this sounds like a lot, don’t worry. This AP Euro History review should demystify the whole BDQ thing. Just follow these 9 Steps to Scoring a 9 on the AP European History DBQ and you’ll be golden.
1. Familiarize Yourself with How the AP European History Course Works
This one may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how helpful it can be to get to know the AP Euro History course and exam.
First, you are going to want to thoroughly go through the CollegeBoard Websiteand the AP European History Course and Exam Description. These two resources are going to be jam-packed with useful information. By looking through these resources, you are going to get a feel for how the CollegeBoard wants teachers to approach the class.
This includes the eras/topics that are going to be focused on the most in the classroom and the significance of everything covered. But perhaps most importantly, it will lay out how every piece of information covered in the AP Euro course relates to the exam itself.
When going through these sources, there are two things that you want to pay attention to, in particular. First, read through the AP European History course Themes and Learning Objectives. These are the central nerve of what you will be tested on in the DBQ section, so familiarize yourself with them. Second, you will want to become best friends with the practice questions they provide, so make sure you have easy access to all of those. More on that later.
2. Get to Know the CollegeBoard’s Expectations for the DBQ
After you’ve read through all of the CollegeBoard materials, you should already be getting a clearer image of the task laid out ahead of you. Next, you are going to want to delve a little bit deeper into the DBQ section itself and get to know how the examiners are going to score the section.
Here’s how the scoring on the AP European History Exam DBQ breaks down:
BASIC CORE: 1 Point Each to a Total of 6 Points
1. Provides an appropriate, explicitly stated thesis that directly addresses all parts of the question. Thesis must not simply restate the question.
2. Discusses a majority of the documents individually and specifically
3. Demonstrates understanding of the basic meaning of a majority of the documents (may misinterpret no more than one).
4. Supports the thesis with appropriate interpretations of a majority of the documents.
5. Analyzes point of view or bias in at least three documents.
6. Analyzes documents by explicitly organizing them in at least three appropriate groups.
EXPANDED CORE: 0-3 Points to a Total of 9 Points
• Has a clear, analytical, and comprehensive thesis
• Uses all or almost all of the documents (10-11 documents)
• Uses the documents persuasively as evidence
• Shows understanding of nuances of the documents
• Analyzes the documents in additional ways (e.g. develops more groupings)
• Recognizes and develops change over time (body paragraphs that consistently address changing conceptions)
• Brings in relevant “outside” information
Get to know these expectations and always keep them in mind when you are going through your AP Euro review sessions. This way, you are bound to hit every single point here when it comes to the DBQ section of your exam.
It’s always a good policy to get to know what your examiners are thinking when they test you on a subject. So, make sure you read through these to get into the heads of those at the CollegeBoard. And this is true of any exam, not just the AP European History DBQ section.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice
You are probably tired of hearing this at this point in your AP Euro studies, but practice, practice, practice. The more you work on example DBQs, the less daunting they will become. The main reason that students fear this section of the exam so much is that they simply haven’t gotten used to it. But practice makes perfect, as they say.
This is also where perusing the CollegeBoard Website and the AP European History Course and Exam Descriptionwill come in handy once more. Like we mentioned above, both the course website and the coinciding description have a number of practice DBQs for you to get your hands dirty with. Plus, many of these practice exams are actually from previous exams, so you know you’re getting the real deal by working with these.
You are going to want to make sure you set out some of your time every week in order to get your practice sessions in. Try not to slack on this since the more you practice, the more it will become second nature.
4. Become the Master of Time
One of the main reasons practicing your DBQs will help you score that 5 on the exam is that you will learn how to master the clock. Remember, you only have 55 minutes to complete this section of the AP Euro exam. It may seem like a lot of time now, but as you dive into the practice questions, you will soon realize that it’s not very much time at all.
The more you practice, the more you will get to know yourself as a test-taker as well. Do you need an extra five minutes to read through the documents thoroughly? Are you the type of essay writer who can blow through the introductory paragraph in a matter of seconds? It doesn’t matter what your strengths and weaknesses are. Everyone tests differently.
But the more you work on these practice questions, the more you are going to understand where you will be needing to allot your time and energy. So, as you work on your DBQs, increasingly rely on a stopwatch. This will reproduce a more authentic test-taking experience. When doing this, break down your 55 minutes.
Here’s one way to approach the DBQ:
• 10 minutes to read the question and documents
• 5 minutes to outline
• 35 minutes to write the essay
• 5 minutes to review and edit
This isn’t a set-in-stone schedule, so tweak it to where it suits you best.
5. Outline Your Thoughts
You may have noticed in our little DBQ 55 minute schedule, we allotted some time for outlining. Yes, you should outline before writing your essays. This essay-writing technique actually serves a number of purposes and will prevent quite a few headaches when it comes to your AP Euro exam day.
First, and probably most obviously, it’s going to help organize your thoughts. You need to juggle the thesis, 10 or more documents, structure, topic sentences, etc. So, do yourself a favor and figure out how all of those things unify with one another in a quick outline before you do your actual writing.
Second, outlines help with fluidity. Nothing irritates a history teacher more than reading an essay that rambles and makes little sense. Spending five minutes or so early on in your DBQ time will help to ensure that all of your thoughts connect to one another and the writing itself is clear and solid.
Finally, an outline will help you group your documents together, but more on that below.
6. Group the Documents Together
After you’ve read through the question and the documents and you’ve started working on your outline, the time will come when you need to begin grouping the documents together. Remember that the people at the CollegeBoard chose these documents intentionally; that means they are related to one another somehow. It’s just up to you to put those relationships together and make an argumentative case for it.
The best way to approach document-grouping is to think back on the Course Themes and Learning Objectives from the AP European History Course and Exam Description. These are excellent ways to consider when you’re at the grouping stage of the outline.
Let’s take a quick look at the DBQ from the year 2015:
Analyze changing conceptions of French national identity and culture in the period since 1960.
Many of the documents related to the question actually support state-sanctioned (Theme 4) actions to ‘preserve’ French culture. So, you could group documents according to those that do or do not support such actions. There are also documents relating to individual subjectivity (Theme 5). And so on.
A couple things to keep in mind while you are doing this grouping: First, make sure that you are using either all or most of the documents. Show your reader that you understand the history well enough to connect all ideas represented. And second, always think about the writer’s perspective by putting the document into historical context. Doing these things will get you that much close to scoring a 9 on the DBQ.
7. Appreciate Historical Context
Always remember that these documents were written in a historical context. Plus, historians love it when you show how the documents provided operated in relation to what else was going on at the time. When reading through the previous years’ Scoring Guidelines on the CollegeBoard website, you’ll notice that nearly every example of a good thesis indicates a historical trend, but puts those trends into a bigger picture that extends beyond the documents themselves.
Back to the 2015 exam. You’ll notice that the examples of the stronger theses consider global events/factors like the Cold War, globalization, increased immigration patterns following WWII, etc. That’s because those who wrote the essay understood that through a complex history of globalization and modernity, a new French identity was being formed.
In other words, they put the document into context. Nothing in the question specifically reference the Cold War or globalization. But the authors of these essays knew to put what they were reading in relation to the bigger picture. And it’s what you should be doing when you are reading through your exam’s DBQ.
8. Be Yourself
Be bold, be smart, and be proud of your intellectual vigor.
There’s nothing worse than reading a boring cliché argument repeated over and over again. And the examiners at the CollegeBoard feel the same way. We guarantee it.
Show your readers that you have come to your own conclusions about the documents in question. The DBQ questions are intentionally created to be complex and open to interpretation. Remember that historians use primary-source documents to indicate trends and shifts in those trends as they occurred in the past.
Also show your own understanding of how things have changed over time throughout the history of Europe. It’s up to you to identify those shifts.
9. Prepare Mind and Body
Our last piece of advice is to take care of yourself. With all that studying you’ve been doing, you may have forgotten to eat well or get enough sleep. Don’t worry. It happens to all of us. But don’t let those late study nights take over your good health.
This may actually be the most important of the 9 Steps to Scoring a 9 on the European History DBQ. Human brains get sluggish when deprived of enough sleep and quality food. Do yourself a favor and maintain a lightning-fast thought process for the exam.
Take care of your body and your mind will follow suit.
As long as you follow these tips, you’re sure to rock the DBQ section of the AP Euro exam. Good luck!
What did you think of our review? Let us know how we did!
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We all know that success on the AP® history exams depends on the success of our students’ writing. Yes, knowledge of history is key… and the ability of students to read sources carefully is important, but if our students are not prepared to express their understanding through effective writing… well, what they know won’t help them! So, we have to ask ourselves this question: How can we help our students be successful on the essay portions of the AP® exam? I am suggesting that to answer that question… you ask yourself a different one… How do I make pecan pie?
When I was growing up, my grandmother made the best pecan pie in the world! I looked forward to her pie on every holiday, and, if I was lucky, at family birthday dinners. When I grew up and became a real grown-up, I decided it was time I learned to make this amazing dish. My grandmother graciously agreed to teach me to make pecan pie. Now, my grandmother (and probably yours) could create her pecan pie without much reference to a recipe. But, she wrote down the recipe with the ingredients and instructions so that I, too, could create a pecan pie. I used the recipe, I followed the instructions… and, low and behold, I baked a pecan pie… It was not as good as my grandmother’s pie, but it was good! I was proud! After a few successful pies, I got a little cocky and did not pay close attention to the recipe… and when I took the pie out of the oven I discovered that I had made pecan soup! Without careful attention to the recipe, I could not make a good pecan pie…
Now, I know what you are thinking… what does pecan pie have to do with AP® essay writing? Well, we wouldn’t expect our students to be able to make a pecan pie without a recipe… why should we expect them to be able to write an essay without one. Here’s the thing… a pecan pie is a complicated concoction with a lot of parts … when it is done well, it is a beautiful thing… but when it is not done well… well, you get pecan soup! The same is true for an AP® essay. The AP® essay is a complicated concoction with many parts, but it’s construction can be boiled down to a recipe that students can learn and follow to write beautiful essays. We can teach students the recipe and use it to help them not only write well-developed essays for the AP® exam, but also to write effective essays in other courses and in college. Since the rubrics for AP® essays are the same across all three history courses (AP® US History, AP® World History and AP® European History), the recipe can be effectively implemented in each course.
The AP® Essay Recipe:
1 part - Thesis Statement
1 part - Contextualization
6 parts - Document Analysis
4 parts - Extended Analysis
1 part - Outside Evidence
1 part - Synthesis
1 part - Argument Development
- Read the prompt carefully.
- Identify the Historical Thinking Skill required in the prompt
- Quickly analyze the seven documents
- Extend analysis of at least 4 documents by historical context, intended audience, purpose, and point of view of the author
- Write a thesis statement that addresses the Historical Thinking Skills and answers the question
- Organize at least six documents to support the thesis statement
- Contextualize the thesis by explaining the relationship of topics OTHER THAN THE PROMPT TOPIC to the thesis
- Choose one or two ways that the documents relate to one another - either by contradiction, corroboration, or qualification
- Choose at least one piece of evidence that supports your thesis
- Think of at least one way that your thesis could be applied to a different time period, different historical context, or different discipline. You only need to use one part of your thesis statement to do this.
The recipe for an AP® essay can be illustrated with an hourglass model. The hourglass model illustrates exactly where students can plug in each requirement of the AP® rubrics. This model can work in teaching students to successfully write a Document Based Question Essay, a Long Essay Question, and even more importantly, a college level essay. The AP® Essay Model below shows the recipe applied to the DBQ and to the LEQ.
AP® Essay Model for the DBQ
In the recipe for a successful AP® essay, the top part of the model represents the introduction. I explain to students that the hourglass is a good model for any essay, because essays should always start with the “big picture” that sets the essay’s thesis statement into historical context, which is what is required to show the skill of Contextualization. However, it is important to emphasize that only the DBQ requires students to write a full introductory paragraph… this is where the skill of contextualization should be shown. Contextualization in the DBQ is a skill that can be confusing for students, but it works if you explain to students that contextualizing means they are “introducing” their thesis statement. It is important that students use specific factual information (SFI) in their contextualization to show that they understand how the specific topic of the essay prompt relates to other developments, events, processes that were important in the time period. Here is a key to the recipe and to the DBQ rubric… Contextualization comes FIRST in the essay as the first 4 - 5 sentences in the introduction with the thesis statement as the last sentence (or two) in the introductory paragraph. Organizing contextualization into the introduction teaches students to write effective essays, both for the AP exam and in college.
The narrow, middle sections of the hourglass model represents the body paragraphs of the essay. As you can see in the model, the recipe for each body paragraph begins with restating a part of the thesis statement. It is important for students to understand that the recipe is designed to convince the reader that they are making a strong argument. The recipe requires students to restate a part of their thesis in each body paragraph. Then, the recipe directs students to use the sentences in the body paragraphs to illustrate the evidence that supports the historical argument in their thesis statement. The model shows that each sentence should have a purpose in supporting the thesis and that students should use transitions between sentences to illustrate the way in which different documents or evidence show contradictions in evidence or documents, corroboration between evidence or documents, and/or qualification of evidence or documents. The recipe also tells students to restate their main argument at the end of the paragraph - making the historical argument clear is key.
The bottom of the hourglass model is an inversion of the top… or an inversion of the introductory paragraph. Therefore, according to the recipe, the thesis statement comes first in the conclusion. Restating the thesis is important for making a synthesis argument. Just as the skill of contextualization should be illustrated in the introduction, the skill of synthesis can be easily shown in the conclusion. Now, the AP rubrics do not require that contextualization or synthesis be included in any certain part of the essay… and that is exactly why these skills are confusing to our students. This recipe clarifies for students where these skills can be effectively shown. So, in the conclusion, students begin by restating their thesis statement. Then, the recipe requires that students take at least one part of their thesis statement and apply it in a different time period, different geographical situation, or different discipline. Synthesis is simply showing understanding of patterns in history. And… to be completely honest, students can write a very effective DBQ (or LEQ) without the synthesis point… yes… I said that! Tell students to never stress out about the synthesis point. They should definitely try to include the synthesis argument, but it is “gravy”... (sorry for mixing my food metaphors)... but, if a student does a good job at writing the rest of the essay according to the recipe, they will be successful.
The LEQ Model follows the DBQ model. The main difference is that the skill of contextualization is not required in the LEQ and the evidence in the body paragraphs is based on evidence students know as opposed to document based evidence.