One of the best ways to prepare for the DBQ (the “document-based question” on the AP European History, AP US History, and AP World History exams) is to look over sample questions and example essays. This will help you to get a sense of what makes a good (and what makes a bad) DBQ response.
That said, not all DBQ essay examples are created equal. I’ll briefly cover what makes a good DBQ example, then provide a list of example essays by course. Lastly, I’ve provided some tips on how to best use sample essays in your own preparation process.
What's a Good DBQ Example?
Without a doubt, the best sample resources come from the College Board. This is because they are the ones who design and administer the AP exams. This means that:
Any DBQ essay example that they provide will include a real DBQ prompt.
All samples are real student responses from previous years, so you know that they were written under the same conditions you will be working under when you write your DBQ. In other words, they're authentic!
They not only have scores, they have explanations of each essay's score according to the terms of the rubric.
Each prompt includes several sample essays with a variety of scores.
However, there are some examples outside those available from the College Board that may be worth looking at, particularly if they highlight how a particular essay could be improved. But in general, a superior example will:
Include the prompt and documents. It will be much easier for you to see how the information from the documents is integrated into the essay if you can actually look at the documents.
Have a score. Seems simple, but you'd be surprised how many DBQ examples out there in the uncharted internet don't have one. Without a real, official score, it's hard to gauge how trustworthy a sample actually is.
With that in mind, I have below compiled lists, organized by exam, of high-quality example DBQs.
Don't spend all your study time sharpening your pencil.
Every DBQ Example Essay You Could Ever Need, by Exam
Here are your example essays! We'll start with AP US History, then move to AP European History, and finally wrap up with AP World History.
AP US History: Official College Board Examples
Because of the recent test redesign, the College Board has only posted sample responses from 2016 and 2015. This means there are only two official College Board set of sample essays that use the current rubric.
Neither of these links include analysis (so you can look at the question separately from the scoring guidelines). When you're ready for the sample responses, here are the DBQ samples from 2015 and the samples from 2016.
If you want to see additional sample sets, you can also look at older College Board US History DBQ example response sets, all the way back to 2003. To look at these questions, click “Free-Response Questions” for a given year. For the corresponding DBQ examples and scoring guidelines, click “Sample Responses Q1.”
Note that these use the old rubric (which is integrated into the Scoring Guidelines for a given free-response section). General comments about the quality of the essay, outside information, and document analysis still apply, but the score is on a nine-point scale instead of the new seven-point scale, and some of the particulars will be different. Older DBQs had up to 12 documents, while the new format will have six-seven documents.
If you do look at older DBQ examples, I recommend using the new rubric to “re-grade” the essays in the sample according to the new seven-scale score. I'll also give more advice on how to use all of these samples in your prep later on.
Mr. Bald Eagle is an AP US History DBQ Grader in his spare time.
AP European History: Official College Board Examples
Unfortunately, there aren't as many sample resources for the AP Euro DBQ compared to the other AP history tests because 2016 was the first year the AP Euro test was administered in the new format. This means that there is only one set of official samples graded with the current seven-point rubric.
The rest of the existing available samples were graded in the old, nine-point format instead of the seven-point format implemented this past year.
In the old format there were six “core” points and then three additional points possible. The old rubric is integrated with the sample responses for each question, but I’ll highlight some key differences between the old and new formats:
In the old format, you were given a brief “historical background” section before the documents.
There were more documents—up to twelve. The new format will have 6-7.
There was an emphasis on “grouping” the documents that is not present in the new rubric.
There was also an explicit emphasis on correctly interpreting the documents that is not found in the new rubric.
The essential components of the DBQ are still the same between the two formats, although you should definitely look at the new rubric if you look at any of the old AP European History samples. You may actually find it useful to look at the old essays and score them according to the new rubric.
Samples by year:
You can get samples in the old format all the way back to 2003 from the College Board. (Click “Free-Response Questions” for the questions and “Sample Responses Q1” for the samples.)
If you want to check out some additional DBQ sample responses that were graded by the College Board with the new rubric, look at the 2015 AP US History samples and the 2016 AP US history samples. The content will of course be different, but the structure and scoring are the same as they will be for the AP Euro 2016 test.
AP European History: Unofficial Samples
Because of the rubric revision, other European History-specific samples are also in the old format. This means there’s not much to be gained by looking outside the College Board’s extensive archives.
However, the New York State Regents exam also has a DBQ on it. The format is not identical, and it is scored out of 5 under a different rubric, but I do like this European-History themed example from Regents Prep because it has highlighted sections that show where the documents are used versus where outside information is referenced. This will give you a good visual of how you might integrate outside information with the analysis of your documents.
Consider how you might integrate this castle into the DBQ that is your life.
AP World History: Official College Board Examples
The World History AP exam has just transitioned to a new format to more resemble AP US History and AP European History for the 2017 test. This means that all currently available samples were graded in the old, nine-point format instead of the seven-point format to be implemented this year.
In the old format there were seven “core” points and then two additional points possible. The old rubric is integrated with the sample responses for each question, but I’ll highlight some key differences between the old and new formats:
There were more documents—up to ten. The new format will have 6-7.
There was an emphasis on “grouping” the documents on the old rubric that is not present in the new rubric.
There was also an explicit emphasis on correctly interpreting the documents that is not found in the new rubric.
- In the old rubric, you needed to identify one additional document that would aid in your analysis. The new rubric does not have this requirement.
The essential components of the DBQ are still the same between the two formats, although you should definitely look at the new rubric if you look at any of the old AP World History samples. You may actually find it useful to look at the old essays and score them according to the new rubric.
For whatever reason the questions and the samples with scoring notes are completely separate documents for World History, so you’ll need to click separate links to get the question and documents and then the responses.
If you want to take a look at some DBQs that have been graded with the new rubric, you could check out the 2015 and 2016 samples from AP US History and the 2016 samples from AP European History. The historical content is different, but this will give you an idea of how the new rubric is implemented.
Don't worry, the old format isn't as old as this guy right here.
How Should I Use DBQ Examples to Prepare?
So, now that you have all of these examples, what should you do with them? I'll go over some tips as to how you can use example DBQs in your own studying, including when to start using them and how many you should plan to review.
What Should I Do With These DBQs?
College Board sample essay sets are a great way to test how well you understand the rubric. This is why I recommend that you grade a sample set early on in your study process—maybe even before you've written a practice DBQ.
Then, when you compare the scores you gave to the scores and scoring notes for the samples, you'll have a good idea of what parts of the rubric you don't really understand. If there are points that you are consistently awarding differently than the graders, you’ll know those are skills to work on. Keep giving points for the thesis and then finding out the sample didn't get those points? You'll know that you need to work on your thesis skills. Not giving points for historical context and then finding out the AP Grader gave full credit? You need to work on recognizing what constitutes historical context according to the AP.
You can check out my tips on building specific rubric-based skills in my article on how to write a DBQ.
Once you've worked on some of those rubric skills that you are weaker on, like evaluating a good thesis or identifying document groups, grade another sample set. This way you can see how your ability to grade the essays like an AP graderimproves over time!
Obviously, grading sample exams is a much more difficult proposition when you are looking at examples in an old format (e.g. AP European History or AP World History samples). The old scores as awarded by the College Board will be helpful in establishing a ballpark—obviously a 9 is still going to be a good essay under the 7-point scale—but there may be some modest differences in grades between the two scales. (Maybe that perfect 9 is now a 6 out of 7 due to rubric changes.)
For practice grading with old samples, you might want to pull out two copies of the new rubric, recruit a trusted study buddy or academic advisor (or even two study buddies!), and each re-grade the samples.
Then, you can discuss any major differences in the grades you awarded. Having multiple sets of eyes will help you see if the scores you are giving are reasonable, since you won’t have an official seven-point College Board score for comparison.
How Many Example DBQs Should I Be Using?
The answer to this question depends on your study plans! If it's six months before the exam and you plan on transforming yourself into a hard diamond of DBQ excellence, you might complete some practice grading on a sample set every few weeks to a month to check in on your progress towards thinking like an AP grader. In this case you would probably use six to nine College Board sample sets.
If, on the other hand, the exam is in a month and you are just trying to get in some skill-polishing, you might do a sample set every week to 10 days. It makes sense to check in on your skills more often when you have less time to study, because you want to be extra-sure that you are focusing your time on the skills that need the most work. So for a short time frame, expect to use somewhere in the range of three to four range College Board sample sets.
Either way, you should be integrating your sample essay grading with skills practice, and doing some practice DBQ writing of your own.
Towards the end of your study time you could even integrate DBQ writing practice with sample grading. Read and complete a timed prompt, then grade the sample set for that prompt, including yours! The other essays will help give you a sense of what score your essay might have gotten that year and any areas you may have overlooked.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to using sample sets, but in general they are a useful tool for making sure you have a good idea what the DBQ graders will be looking for when you write your DBQ.
Hey, where can we find a good DBQ around here?
Closing Thoughts on Example DBQs
Example DBQ essays are a valuable resource in your arsenal of study strategies for the AP History exams. Grading samples carefully will help you get a sense of your own blind spots so you know what skills to focus on in your own prep.
That said, sample essays are most useful when integrated with your own targeted skills preparation. Grading a hundred sample essays won't help you if you aren't practicing your skills; you will just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And make sure you aren't using sample essays to avoid actually writing practice DBQs--you'll want to do at least a couple even if you only have a month to practice.
There you have it, folks. With this list of DBQ examples and tips on how to use them, you are all prepared to integrate samples into your study strategy!
Still not sure what a DBQ is? Check out my explanation of the DBQ.
Want tips on how to really dig in and study? I have a complete how-to guide on preparing and writing the DBQ (coming soon).
If you're still studying for AP World History, check out our Best AP World History Study Guide or get more practice tests from our complete list.
Want more material for AP US History? Look into this article on the best notes to use for studying from one of our experts. Also check out her review of the best AP US History textbooks!
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Disclaimer: Please note that synthesis is no longer a component of the DBQ or LEQ rubrics for the AP Histories as of the 2017-2018 school year.
In this post, we will explore one of these points students will be looking to earn to help their chances at passing the APUSH exam this Spring: the Synthesis point.
What is the Synthesis Point?
According to the College Board, Synthesis refers to:
Historical thinking involves the ability to develop understanding of the past by making meaningful and persuasive historical and/or cross-disciplinary connections between a given historical issue and other historical contexts, periods, themes, or disciplines.
(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
Synthesis is a crucial critical thinking skill that is featured in the newly redesigned course. In my opinion, this is a great skill to actively address in the classroom. Making connections between different time periods, events and various contexts throughout American history is something I have always attempted to do in my classroom, but the College Board explicitly defining this skill has made me much more cognizant and proactive in helping students see interconnectedness between our past and today.
The place it is most relevant in the course is as one potential point students can earn on both the Document Based Question (DBQ) and Long Essay Question (LEQ). In order to earn the synthesis point, students must “extend the argument.” This means that in addition to making an argument with a thesis and supported by evidence, students must do something beyond answering the specific prompt. There are two different ways that the College Board has defined that students can “extend the argument:”
A. Make connections between a given historical issue and related developments in a different historical context, geographical area, period, or era, including the present. (College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
The first way to earn the synthesis point is to take a part of the essay and compare it to something else that was covered in the course. This could be something from another one of the nine time periods, another region or part of America, or a similar event.
B. Make connections between different course themes and/or approaches to history (such as political, economic, social, cultural, or intellectual) for a given historical issue. (College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)
The second way essentially gives students the ability to add an additional category of analysis: If the question asks for political and economic factors, students could additionally discuss social factors for a particular issue or event.
Note: There is also an additional way in that AP European History and AP World History students can earn the synthesis point, by using another discipline like anthropology or government to explore a historical issue. This third option is not open as a possibility for APUSH students.
Synthesis can technically happen at any time throughout the essay. However, I encourage students to write their synthesis in a conclusion paragraph. I think it makes the most sense there because going beyond the argument of the essay is a good way for students to tie up their thoughts, which typically occurs in the final paragraph. It also ensures that students are thorough and don’t just treat the connection in a superficial way (more on this below). Finally, it makes it less likely that their synthesis attempt will get confused with evidence they are using to build their argument.
Examples of Successful Student Synthesis Points
Regardless of which way students try to earn the synthesis point, one of the biggest pitfalls that students fall into is simply referencing the connection in a few words or a phrase without going into substantive depth. Students need to go into detail explaining what the connection is and why there is a relationship between their essay and the examples they chose.
Comparing Different Time Periods and Events
For example, if students are writing an essay about the causes and effects of the abolitionist movement, they may write:
This is similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
This is not enough depth to be awarded a Synthesis point. Students need to explain what the Civil Rights movement is: who are the main leaders, what were some of their goals, and/or what were successes and failures of the movement. Students also need to be clear on why the abolitionist movement and Civil Rights movement are related. What are similarities and differences? What specific connections can be made between the two? A better response would be:
Similar to the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s continued to promote better conditions and increased equality for African Americans. Like David Walker and Nat Turner, some leaders of the Civil Rights era advocated for violence, including Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. However, like the Free Soil Party and the orator Frederick Douglass, Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee supported peaceful and political tactics to bring attention to their goals of increased social equality and basic rights for African Americans.
Note the dramatic difference. The first is an offhand vague reference that lacks evidence of a depth of understanding. The second example has specific pieces of information that provide substantial evidence of a connection between the two movements.
Comparing Different Geographic Regions
In addition to referencing similarities between different time periods, students can earn the synthesis point by comparing geographic areas. For example, if students are asked to identify the causes of industrialization before the Civil War, students could look at the lack of industrialization in the South in this same time period. One example of a solid student example is below:
While the Northeast began rapid industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s, the South remained predominantly rural and agricultural. Large cities were few and far between, and with the invention of the cotton gin, the plantation economy and an emphasis on farming and agriculture was reasserted. The South shipped their cash crops to European and Northern factories, remaining mostly unindustrialized in the years before the Civil War. These economic differences created stark differences between the North and South on a variety of issues, including protective tariffs, which northern industrialists favored and southern consumer opposed.
Making Connections to Different Course Themes
One effective strategy students can use to earn the synthesis point is to add an additional course theme (or category of analysis). This works best when the prompt explicitly calls for specific themes. For example, if a prompt calls for economic and political causes and effects of the Vietnam War, students could write an additional paragraph on social causes and effects. A good response for students would include class tensions, war protesters, racial tensions in the armed forces, etc. In this scenario, students could also reference specific social documents if it is a DBQ. Again, it is crucial to make sure that students don’t do this in a drive-by sort of way, but go into depth with a variety of specific examples.
Strategies for Teaching Synthesis to Students
1. Make Connections Early and Often
Synthesis is all about making connections between different time periods and situations. After each unit or chapter, have students make 2-3 connections to something else they learned in the class. For example when your class is studying the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1917, students could connect these laws to the United States Constitution’s freedom of speech and press, President Adam’s Sedition Act of 1798, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or even the Patriot Act during the War on Terror. This could be done formally as a written assignment, or informally as a warm-up or exit ticket as a formative assessment. The more comfortable students are in making these connections, the better off they will be on the exam date.
2. Incorporating In-Class Activities
Making teaching Synthesis a part of your class time is crucial in observing student growth on this skill. I have done a few activities that have been especially useful. One is to find a news story that makes a comparison to historical events in the past (one recent piece compared Trump to Andrew Jackson) and ask students to discuss or debate on the similarities and differences (more on current events below).
Additionally, I printed out a variety of terms and events from the first semester cut them out, and randomly handed them out to students. Students had to go around the room and try to figure out how their term was related to another students’ term. Some inevitably were not really related at all, but it forced students to try to make connections between the various periods and subjects we focused on (many times beyond just basic surface-level stuff), which is essentially what synthesis is all about.
3. Assign Many DBQ and LEQ Assessments and Share Specific Examples
The more often students write DBQ’s and LEQ’s, the more comfortable students will get with the entire process and skill set involved, including Synthesis. One thing that has been especially successful in my classroom is to collect a handful of student attempts at the Synthesis point and share them with students. Students then get to examine them and look at effective and less effective attempts at earning Synthesis. Often the best way for students to learn what to do or how to improve is to see what their classmates have done.
4. Review Historical Themes Throughout the Year
The College Board has broken all of the learning objectives into a handful of themes (identity, culture, politics and power, etc.) that are relevant throughout United States history. By relying on these themes, students can see these connections throughout the year, making Synthesis more approachable for students.
For example, one theme I follow throughout the year is immigration and demographic changes. By tracing America’s immigration from colonization to Irish and German in the 1840s to New Immigrants after the Civil War and so on, students are able to find ample opportunities to make historical connections throughout American history.
Additionally, being explicit about covering events through a variety of historical categories of analysis (political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual), allows students to see multiple factors that play a role in key events in American history. For example, when covering the causes of US imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, breaking them down for students into economic factors (such as business markets), social factors (such as Social Darwinism and religious missionaries) and political factors (such as increased government and military power) is useful in helping student organizing their thoughts in a potential essay, as well as giving them some possible ways to go beyond the prompt in adding synthesis.
5. Make Connections to Current Events
I know what you are thinking, I have one school year (less if your school year starts in September) to get through 1491 to Present and now I am supposed to make this a current events class as well? The answer is yes and no. Will stuff from the news pages be content the students need to know for the exam: absolutely not. However, it is a great opportunity for synthesis.
For example, examining the LGBT movement could offer some interesting comparisons for other reform movements in the past. Looking at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a continuation of Social Security or Medicare could offer students a synthesis opportunity. Examining similarities and differences between the Boston Tea Party and the Tea Party movement or how the 2016 election compares to some presidential races in the past allows students unique ways to earn their synthesis point. I have found this approach makes the class more interesting and meaningful for students and allows students to observe that history has continuities and changes that evolve over time.
Any time changes happen, there is a temptation to be reactionary and reject them. I have found that by being more deliberate about helping students make connections between historical events, their engagement and understanding has improved significantly. Teachers always are fighting that battle between covering the content (which is daunting in an AP course) and helping students understand the “so what?” question. Why does this matter to me? By making connections, students can see that history does not every happen in a vacuum. Our shared narrative is a series of events and ideas that continuously evolve and build off of each other. When students gain a firm understanding of how the past impacts their lives today, it makes learning way more meaningful and fun.
Synthesis is tough for students at first, particularly because they have little to connect with in the first period, but especially as you enter second semester, it is a skill application that can be perfected and improved to maximize your students’ chances of earning that point and rocking the AP exam.
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Ben Hubing is an educator at Greendale High School in Greendale, Wisconsin. Ben has taught AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the last eight years and was a reader last year for the AP U.S. History Short Answer. Ben earned his Bachelors degree at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Masters degree at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.