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The AP US History Document-Based Question (DBQ) can be intimidating at first. With some practice and careful studying, though, DBQs can be a lot of fun.
One of the most useful things you can do to ensure a high score on the DBQ is to look over past DBQs. Previous years’ questions give you an opportunity to practice your historical thinking and writing skills. Also, the CollegeBoard releases information about how they graded each one of these prompts, so you can get a sense of what you should emphasize in your writing and how you would have done on that exam.
To help you study for this year’s AP U.S. History DBQ, we will spend this post walking through the 2016 version. You will learn what the 2016 test-takers did right and wrong, as well as what you need to do to get full credit when you take the exam. By the end of the post, you will have a solid grasp of what graders were looking for in the 2016 exam and what you need to do more generally to get full credit on the DBQ section of the test.
Before we dive deep into the 2016 DBQ prompt, however, let us briefly review what the U.S. History DBQ is and how the CollegeBoard scores it.
Format of the AP U.S. History DBQ
Be aware that resources from before the 2014-2015 school year detail an old AP U.S. History exam format. The CollegeBoard now uses an exam format with different standards. Here, we focus on the current form.
The DBQ asks you to make an argument based on a series of included historical documents as well as your knowledge of United States historical context (see here). You have 55 minutes to write your response. The CollegeBoard suggests that you spend 15 of those minutes reading the documents and the remaining 40 minutes writing your essay.
You can earn a maximum of seven possible points for the DBQ question. The points are split up into the following seven categories (see here), with one point for each category:
- Argument Development
- Use of the Documents
- Sourcing the Documents
- Outside Evidence
Each point in the rubric is earned independently, meaning if you miss one point, you will not necessarily get marked down on other points as well (see here).
However, keep in mind that you need to show unique evidence that you have addressed each point in the rubric. So, if you receive a point for sourcing documents in a particular sentence, you cannot also receive points for your thesis in the same sentence.
We will go through the specifics of how you can get each of these seven points in a bit, but first, let us consider the DBQ prompt for the 2016 AP U.S. History Exam, so you can see examples of how real DBQ responses were scored based on these seven criteria.
The 2016 AP U.S. History DBQ Prompt
In 2016, the DBQ prompt was as follows (see here):
“Explain the causes of the rise of a women’s rights movement in the period1940-1975.”
Along with the prompt were six included documents, each meant to be analyzed and synthesized for you to build an argument based on the prompt. Here we will just summarize each one so you can follow along, but you are encouraged to look at the full documents by clicking on their links below.
- A poster promoting stenography work for women during WWII under the headline: “Victory Waits on Your Fingers—Keep ‘Em Flying Miss U.S.A.” (see here).
- An excerpt from Betty Friedan’s (1952) UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) Fights for Women Workers, decrying female inequality in the workplace (see here).
- An excerpt of “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo from Casey Hayden and Mary King to a number of other women in the peace and freedom movements” (1965). The excerpt argues that even women in the peace and freedom movements are bound up in a caste-like system of traditional gender arrangements (see here).
- An excerpt from a press release (1968) entitled “No More Miss America!”, by Robin Morgan and the New York Radical Women. The excerpt calls for a Miss America protest because the contest promotes an image of femininity that oppresses women (see here).
- A passage from Mirta Vidal’s (1971) “Women: New Voice of La Raza,” that argues Chicana oppression is different from that suffered by other women in the United States due to their lack of class status as well as deep sexism and chauvinism within the Chicano community (see here).
- An excerpt from Title IX legislation (1972), guaranteeing that people in the United States would not be excluded from educational programs or Federal financial assistance on the basis of sex (see here).
- A photograph of a crowd at a reproductive rights demonstration in Pittsburgh, PA in 1974 (see here).
How to Get All 7 Points in the AP US History DBQ
1. Write a Strong Thesis Statement
What is the main point you are trying to get across in the essay? AP graders want you to clearly state a thesis statement in either your introduction or conclusion. A good thesis statement should make a historically defensible claim and encapsulate the entire argument for your essay in a sentence or two (see here). A good thesis should also respond to all parts of the DBQ prompt. If you write a thesis that succeeds at checking all these boxes, graders will award you your first point. Let us examine what a good thesis statement would look like for the 2016 DBQ and how to avoid writing a bad one.
A 2016 student, for instance, posed the following argument (see here):
“The women’s rights movement from 1940–1975 was caused politically by unfair treatment towards females, economically by financial discrimination towards females, and socially by the defiance of the traditional image of an American woman.”
This thesis is good because it makes a historically defensible claim that explains some of the causes of the women’s rights movement. Specifically, the claim stresses political, economic, and identity-based forces as the impetus for the movement from 1940 through 1975. As such, it responds to all parts of the prompt as well.
The specifics of your argument depend on what you find most interesting about the question, what you know most about the surrounding historical context, as well as what themes focused on in the included documents. For instance, another good thesis from a student who took the 2016 exam additionally focused on the influence of other rights movements (see here):
“The women’s rights movement arose as a result of women’s experiences with inequality at work and the influence of other rights movements.”
Both theses go beyond rewriting the prompt and specifically address the characteristics of historical change that the students plan to discuss in the remainder of their response.
If your thesis makes a historically defensible claim, responds to all parts of the question, and occurs in the introduction or conclusion, the graders will give you one point for successfully writing a thesis statement (see here).
A bad thesis statement, on the other hand, may not include one or all of the things that make a good thesis. For instance, a thesis may be too vague, like this one from a 2016 test taker (see here):
“The woman’s rights movement was the product of unfair treatment in economics, politics, and society.”
While the student mentioned the topic, they just restated the prompt, with only vague indications of what they plan to talk about next. General categories like “economics,” “politics,” and “society” are too vague to identify what the student is referring to. To make a historically defensible claim, they need to be more specific about what they mean by these terms.
2. Develop the Thesis into a Cohesive Argument
To earn a point for “Argument Development,” graders want you to avoid simply listing facts in support of your thesis. The CollegeBoard wants you to explicitly illustrate the relationship between your thesis and each piece of evidence you cite (see here). Instead of only listing a string of facts and documents from memory, they want you to talk about how each piece of evidence either contradicts, corroborates, or qualifies your main thesis. Let us take a look at a couple of good and bad ways of developing arguments in the 2016 DBQ.
For instance, one test-taker in 2016 effectively used a contradiction between the substance of two included documents to flesh out the argument for their thesis (see here):
“The main reason for a rise of the women’s rights movement, according to activists such as Friedan, was discontent with suburban conformity. This may have been true for white women, but a woman of color such as Mirta Vidal (Document 5) portrayed the rise of the women’s rights movement as due to a combination of the rising movement for Chicano civil rights and a growing resistance to male chauvinism within the Chicano community.”
The student uses contradiction here between Friedan and Mirta Vidal to emphasize the complexity of the women’s rights movement and how diverging identity groups experienced the movement differently. Historical documents are often rife with disagreements, providing an easy way to develop your arguments and get full credit for “Argument Development” on the AP exam.
Another test-taker earned a point by corroborating their thesis with historical evidence (see here):
“Although the women’s rights movement grew out of many factors, government support was a key factor in changing public beliefs about women’s roles. This occurred most powerfully during World War II, when women worked in war-related manufacturing industries. The war recruiting poster (Document 1) shows how government propaganda portrayed women’s work as vital to the war effort, even in secretarial work.”
Note how the specifics of the Document 1 recruiting poster are used to bolster the overall point that government support was a key factor in changing public beliefs. The student does not merely summarize the document but engages with it and uses it to bolster their argument.
Both of these excerpts illustrate that the test-takers developed their thesis into a cohesive argument and would have earned one point for the argument development section of the rubric.
On the other hand, graders will not award you a point if you string together facts, without explicitly relating them back to your thesis. For instance, bad argument development might just list the facts of the different documents without using them to contradict, corroborate, or qualify the thesis. To illustrate, read this student’s argument (see here):
“In Document 2 Betty Friedan wants women to be paid the same as men for doing the same jobs. She wants women to take action and protest against wage discrimination. She believes regardless if you are a man or a woman you should get paid the same and not less because you’re a woman. In Document 7 this picture relates to women being able to have full control over their bodies. They believe they should be able to choose if they want to keep a baby or not, this also talks about a woman’s right to birth control.”
While the facts here are relevant to the question, the writer does not explicitly address how they come to bear on the thesis. As a result, we are left not knowing how the writer intends to mobilize the documents to make their point. This point is subtle but important: make sure you are making an explicit argument with the historical evidence. Otherwise, you will not receive a point for the argument development section of the DBQ rubric.
3. Use 6 Documents from the Included Documents
To get the point for the “Use of the Documents” section of the DBQ rubric, you will need to use the at least six of the documents to support your thesis. It is not enough to simply quote or paraphrase a document for it to count, though. You must explicitly connect it to your thesis (i.e. in the same way as the Argument Development point). Let us take a look at good and bad examples of document references from the 2016 DBQ.
For instance, for one of their six document references, one 2016 test-taker wrote (see here):
“Friedan (Document 2) shows that in the 1950’s, women might betreated as important by advertisers, but were not given equal pay or job opportunities in the workplace. This led Friedan to call for an end to exploitation of women on the part of major companies.”
In this case, the writer explicitly uses the information from Document 2 to address how workplace gender inequality bolstered the women’s rights movement. If the writer successfully applies at least six documents to the thesis in this same way, the writer will receive one point for “Use of the Documents”.
Contrast the above excerpt with this 2016 test taker’s work (see here):
“In 1974, women and men protested for the rights of ‘women to choose and to refuse’ what society wants to put their sexist labels on (Document 7). If the women were given the right to choose what to wear, they would refuse to wear dresses and girdles.”
While the test-taker successfully mentioned Document 7, they misread the point of the document (it emphasizes reproduction rights rather than clothes). Furthermore, the writer does not say how their point connects to a larger discussion of the emerging women’s rights movement.
To get the point for the “Use of the Documents” section of the AP U.S. History DBQ, be sure to include your documents only in service of your larger thesis. For each document you add to your response, you should ask yourself the question: “How does this document relate to my thesis?” Be sure to explicitly state your answer to the question whenever you mention a document. Otherwise, you will miss out on one of the seven DBQ points.
4. Explain the Significance of 4 Documents’ Social and Historical Context
To get the point for the “Sourcing the Documents” section of the rubric, you must account for the significance of 4 documents’ social and historical context. For specific examples of test-takers who successfully explained the significance of the 2016 DBQ documents, consider the following “good” examples.
For instance, you may mention the significance of the document author’s point of view in forming the argument they present in the document. One test-taker wrote (see here):
“Another cause for women to protest was their feeling that the natural rights of choice was being taken from them. Document 7 shows a demonstration protesting against laws such as the law against abortion. They felt that with the discrimination of their jobs, pay, and sex in general, their choice of abortion was another right taken away from them.”
The student mentions protestors’ point of view as women whose rights were being taken away from them, driving them to protest for the right to choose to have an abortion.
You might also explain the significant of an author’s purpose in creating the document. For instance, another test-taker wrote (see here):
“An example of this call for action is described in Document 4, ‘No More Miss America.’ They call for women to stand up against idealized roles of women and how they are portrayed. They call for women to boycott against any ‘woman-garbage’ and to protest against the Pageant. They go to the extent of refusing any contact with men, even men protestors who would join them. Strong protests and visible discontent was used to push the women’s rights movement further along.”
The test-taker explicitly addresses how protestors’ purpose in writing Document 4 was to push the women’s rights movement forward by creating strong and visible discontent. Further treatment of the source may deal with how the significance of purpose plays into the document’s usefulness as a source of historical information.
Another approach to take is to explain how the document fits into larger historical trends and what significance these larger trends may have on the interpretation of the document. For instance, this student situates the poster in Document 1 (see here):
“In ‘Victory Waits on Your Fingers’ Document 1, it depicts a young woman at a type writer. It advertises for a stenograph job and shows women that they need the support and help of women in the workforce as their contribution to the war effort. It was the first time in a while that women were asked to step out of their roles as homemakers and work in paying jobs.”
The significance here of the document’s surrounding historical context lies in the government asking women to step outside of traditionally defined roles.
The intended audience might also be a significant factor in the authorship of a document. Another student wrote (see here):
“Betty Freidan reveals how women are being exploited by the patriarchy to save money. She was trying to make an appeal to other women to show them how much less they are being paid and how corporate America is benefiting from this.”
The test taker takes into account Friedan’s female worker audience, making the particular language she uses in her document more understandable in light of its social and historical perspective.
If you use any of the preceding approaches to demonstrate the significance of the social and historical context of four of your documents, you will receive a point for the “Sourcing the Documents” section of the rubric.
A common mistake that test takers make is mentioning the social and historical context of a source, but not addressing the significance of that context for the production of the document. You must address the significance of the social and historical context for four documents to get the “Sourcing the Documents” point on the DBQ rubric.
For instance, while this student mentions the author’s point of view, they do not explain its significance (see here):
“Document 6 also shows how the government contributed to the women’s rights movement. This document is an excerpt from the education amendments. It describes how no person can be excluded from the benefits of an education program due to race. The point of view of this document is from Congress and helps to show the political action the government took to increase women’s rights.”
Merely stating the point of view of an author is not enough to get you a point. You must address the role that point of view played in generating the document at hand. From Congress’ point of view, what is the purpose of Title IX?
Similarly, another student explicitly mentions the purpose of a document’s author (see here):
“Document 2 provides that women are ‘paid less than the underpaid sweeper’ being ‘rated lower than common labor (male).’ Betty Friedan’s purpose is to emphasize how women have the same skills as men, but are discriminated on their wage.”
However, the student makes no effort to analyze why this purpose played a role in driving Friedan to write what she did and how her purpose might play into the way we use the document as evidence in support of our thesis.
In the same way, if you only hint at the intended audience without explicitly telling the reader why the audience significantly influences the document’s content, you will not receive credit. Consider this student’s response (see here):
“The New York Radical Women prepared a press release (Document 4) to publicize their position and use inflammatory language to make as many women as possible join their cause.”
While the test taker mentions an audience (“as many women as possible”), they do not discuss the role this audience played in the construction of the press release. For instance, why did they choose to exclude men from the proceedings? Why is the focus on constructing a counter-event to the Miss America Pageant and not some other event entirely? What is it about the audience that made them write the press release in this way?
In summary, to ensure that you get credit for this section of the DBQ be sure to describe the correct context for four of the documents (whether that be the author’s point of view, purpose, historical context, or audience) as well as explicitly state the significance of each context. It would be a shame to get marked down for something you implicitly know but did not say explicitly!
5. Contextualize Your Thesis in Light of Broader Trends in United States History
To get the “Contextualization” point, you will need to state how your thesis fits into the larger U.S. historical context. Specifically, you should contextualize your position based on your understanding of U.S. History outside of the included documents. Let us take a look at what good and bad examples of contextualizing might be for the 2016 DBQ.
Some relevant trends that the CollegeBoard looked for when they graded the “Contextualization” point in the 2016 DBQ included the following (see the full list here):
- The experience of women after the Nineteenth Amendment or in finding employment during the Great Depression
- Federal encouragement of women to fill defense jobs during the Second World War
- Women granted permanent status in the Armed Forces, 1948
- Longstanding cultural prescriptions of women as homemakers, responsible for the domestic sphere; social and cultural pressure for women to return to being homemakers and relinquish jobs for returning wartime veterans during the 1950s
- Rise of suburban communities, isolated women in suburban homes with nuclear family, 1950s
Notice that each one of these are broad but correct statements about general patterns in U.S. History. If you contextualize your thesis in one of these ways, you will receive a point for “Contextualization” in the rubric.
It can be tough to practice the “Contextualization” point since you will not know the prompt ahead of time. However, the CollegeBoard will not ask any questions that focus exclusively on events before 1607 or after 1980 (see here). So, if you study the remaining seven major periods the AP U.S. History Exam focuses on, you should be able to write a sentence or two about the broad trends from any one of these periods. For the DBQ, it will then be easier for you to address how your thesis fits into these broad trends you’ve studied.
You will not receive a point for this section if you talk about historical trends, which are not immediately relevant to the question, however. For example, one student argued that (see here):
“The treatment of women in an inferior matter is only a part of a string of discriminations that had developed in the 1900’s. During the United States’ involvement in Vietnam during a period of anti- communist sentiment, the common people were in discontent with the foreign affairs as seen with young people protesting against the war in a third world country, having no effect on their well-being, but still having to participate in the draft. This grew into a string of revolutions, one of which was the counterculture; another was the Native American Revolution for proper treatment.”
While the information could be used to add context, it never explains how it is directly relevant to the women’s rights movement. They might have mentioned, for instance, what about the Civil Rights and Counterculture movements inspired the women’s rights movement. Thus, even though this test-taker correctly identified trends, they did not receive a point for “Contextualization”.
6. Provide a Piece of Evidence Beyond the Documents
Be sure to include an additional piece of evidence to support your thesis beyond the documents. To to be awarded the “Outside Evidence” point on the rubric, graders want you to discuss the material you have studied about the period. Let us take a look at what good and bad examples of additional evidence might be for the 2016 DBQ.
For instance, some of the people, terms, and events the CollegeBoard looked for in the 2016 DBQ were as follows (see here for the full list):
- Bella Abzug
- Affirmative Action policies, 1960–1970’s
- American Women Report, 1963
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949
- Birth control pill, 1961
- Shirley Chisholm
- Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII
- Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), 1969
- Eagle Forum
To get credit for your knowledge of these people, terms, and events, you should explicitly state how your outside knowledge supports your overall thesis. For instance, one student wrote (see here):
“Another influence on the rise of women’s rights movement in the 1960’s was the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961. The pill allowed women absolute control over birth control in a way no other contraceptive ever had. This contributed to the growing push for women to be allowed greater say in all aspects of their lives, as freedom from unexpected pregnancy meant freedom to pursue a career and plan for the future as freely as men could.”
The student uses their knowledge of the birth control pill as a key piece of evidence in what spawned greater freedom for women and ultimately the women’s rights movement. In this way, the student’s outside knowledge neatly supports and enhances their main thesis for the rise of the women’s rights movement.
On the other hand, if you do not mention any evidence outside of the included documents, you will not receive a point for “Outside Evidence”.
Additionally, naming outside evidence is not enough to receive a point. For instance, this student argues (see here):
“Socially, women have received the short straw. In the U.S., many women are very frustrated with their current role in society. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique highlighted this frustration and gave birth to the movement.”
However, the student does not engage with Friedan’s work; they only mention it. To receive credit for the “Outside Evidence” point, the student would need to additionally mention how The Feminine Mystique played a role in spawning the women’s rights movement.
7. Show how Your Argument Corresponds to Larger Historical Themes or Developments in other Historical Periods
The CollegeBoard devotes one “Synthesis” point in the US History DBQ rubric to how well you extend your argument and show how it corresponds to larger historical themes or developments in other historical periods. Let us take a look at a couple of good and bad ways test-takers extended their arguments in the 2016 exam.
One way of extending your argument to earn the “Synthesis” point is to connect the argument to a development in a different historical period, situation, era, or geographical area (see here). For instance, this student compares the conditions that helped cause the emergence of women’s rights movements in the 20th century with those in the women’s rights movements of the 19th century (see here):
“The conditions that helped cause the rise of the women’s rights movement in the 20th century were similar to those that helped cause the rise of a movement for greater women’s rights in the 1840’s. In both periods, calls for greater rights for African Americans led women to demand more of a voice in social and political reforms.”
Other successful syntheses for the 2005 DBQ prompt might include comparing the rise of the women’s rights movement to any of the following (for more ideas, see the CollegeBoard’s here):
- Calls for women’s rights and writings on women’s rights in the period of the American Revolution and Atlantic World
- Exploration of women’s rights movement in the United States after 1975, including opposition and setbacks during the 1980s; recognition of sexual harassment
- Rise of the Third Wave of feminism in the 1990’s; recognition of the glass ceiling in the 1990’s
- Anita Hill accusations and hearings against Clarence Thomas, 1991
- Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, 2009
- Dismissal of women’s job discrimination claims in class action cases such as Walmart v. Dukes, 2011
If you extend your argument using any of these comparisons, you will earn a point for the “Synthesis” component of the DBQ rubric.
You will not earn a “Synthesis” point, however, if you do not accurately connect your argument to a historical development or theme. For instance, this 2016 test taker mentions a related historical development, but does not explain the way that the events from the two periods correspond (see here):
“The Seneca Falls convention also served to help inspire women around the world to gain equal rights. The speech given clearly stated the way things were being conducted was unconstitutional and women should not be socially inferior to men.”
The Seneca Falls Convention was indeed an essential milestone in the history of women’s rights in the 19th century and would provide a good comparison to the period we are focusing on in the prompt: 1940-1975. However, the prompt asks for the causes of the women’s rights movement.
Thus, to earn credit for this comparison, the student would need to bring up how the forces that drove the Seneca Falls Convention were also at play in the women’s rights movement of 1940 through 1975. Without clearly connecting the two historical periods, this test taker would not receive a “Synthesis” point.
Now that we have walked through the steps to get all seven points on the 2016 U.S. History DBQ, it is your turn to practice!
It is one thing to read about writing responses. To truly prepare for the AP U.S. History DBQ, though, you need to practice writing DBQ responses. Now that you know exactly what test-makers are looking for in the 2016 response, why don’t you try your hand at reading the documents and writing your own response to the same prompt?
Focus on including all seven points we have talked about here. Try to mimic the good test-takers from 2016 in earning each DBQ point. If you practice taking enough DBQs, it will become automatic for you to write a DBQ essay and it will be a breeze when you take the exam.
Practice makes perfect!
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