Test Prep

4 Facts About the AP US History Document-Based Question

If you're a college-bound junior or senior, there's a pretty good chance you've got one or two (or more!) AP Exams slotted into your schedule. Each exam is unique in how it will test your knowledge of the relevant content and concepts, so it's crucial to be aware of your specific tests before showing up to take them. If you plan to take the AP US History Exam, one of those elements you'll want to be aware of is what's called the Document-Based Question (DBQ). Here are a few details to help you prep before the test.


1. What Documents Are the DBQ Based on?

The DBQ is an essay question that requires you to interpret a mix of textual and visual primary source documents. There will be six or seven documents that accompany the question, including many (or all!) of the following:

  • Newspaper articles/editorials
  • Letters or diaries
  • Speeches
  • Excerpts from legislation
  • Political cartoons
  • Charts or graphs

Occasionally, these will be drawn from something "classic" that you may have previously seen in a textbook, but typically they'll be lesser-known documents that are new to you. Still, while the documents themselves may be unfamiliar, the event or idea they are relevant to will be something you've studied in the AP class.

2. How Long Is the DBQ?

The DBQ occurs during the second section of the test and will last for about 60 minutes. (You will have a total of 100 minutes for Section II of this exam, which includes both the DBQ and the long essay, but the College Board recommends you spend 60 minutes of that time on the DBQ.) You'll receive a green booklet containing the question and the appropriate documents. You'll also receive a separate booklet in which to write your essay.

Now, an hour may seem like a lot, but it's important to have a strategy going in so you don't lose track of time and end up scrambling. The College Board provides a 15-minute reading period, and my advice is that you use this time not only to do so, but also to start planning your essay with an outline or something similar.

3. Is There a "Right" Answer to the DBQ?

In short, no. DBQs are worded in such a way that you can argue any number of positions. Plus, the question is often one that historians have been debating for years. So, similar to the essay on the ACT, as long as you support your argument here with evidence from the provided documents, you can argue whatever thesis you want.

That said, because evidence is required, you should avoid choosing a thesis that's not fully supported by the documents. If you notice, while reading, that the documents are leaning toward a particular thesis, it is likely to be easier to support an argument of that nature. The last thing you want to do is start with an argument you think you can make, only to get about halfway through your essay and realize most of the evidence points to the contrary.

4. How Is the DBQ Scored?

In 2019, the College Board introduced a rubric that graders use to score the DBQ essay. Before this, the essay was scored more "holistically," which made test takers' jobs a bit harder. Now you know exactly what College Board is looking for, so give it to them! The DBQ counts for 25 percent of your overall 1 to 5 score on the exam.

For more information on the document-based question on the AP US History exam, pick up our prep book. It contains the most up-to-date information in terms of the test structure and strategies to help you score your highest. You'll also find a thorough content review and practice tests to help you study before the big day.

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