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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AP Euro DBQ Rubric
AP Euro DBQ Rubric Explanation Video
In this video, I explain all seven points of the latest AP European History DBQ Rubric.
Teachers who subscribe to my Eight Month Writing Clinic can share the instructional videos with their students. In this clinic, I will model how to earn every point on the DBQ and LEQ.
Revised AP Euro DBQs
I have revised several old DBQs to conform to the format of the redesigned AP Euro exam. These DBQs are available to teachers who join the AP Euro Teachers email list. Please use an institutional email to sign up so that we can keep these revised DBQs in the hands of teachers.