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The Document Based Question (DBQ) asks you to mimic the work that real historians perform in analyzing historical documents.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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