APUSH DBQ Breakdown

APUSH DBQ Breakdown 2018-01-09T18:57:03+00:00

APUSH® DBQ Expert Breakdown (New 2018 Rubric)

By Scott Rozell: Last Updated Sep 1, 2017
13 Min read | 3211 Words

Students who score a 5 on the APUSH® exam do two things very well.

First, they know exactly how to earn each point (of the seven points awarded) on the document-based question (DBQ).

Second, they practice DBQs, point-by-point.

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Well, we’ve made it easy for you.

We sat down with AP® US History Question Leaders Chris Averill and Paul Faeh to ask them how to succeed on the APUSH exam. Then we summarized their suggestions.

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Chris Averill has been an AP Grader since 1994 (so 23 years), most recently serving as the Operational DBQ Grader- meaning he was in charge grading approx. 380,000 essays for the 2017 exam. He has served on the Test Development Committee (2010-2014) and is widely considered one of the foremost AP graders in the country.

Paul Faeh has been an AP Grader since 2001 (17 years), most recently serving as the Alternate DBQ Grader- meaning he was in charge of grading the alternate DBQ for the 2017 exam. In the summer of 2017, Paul served as the head DBQ grader for the redesign of the DBQ rubric. Paul is an expert in AP US History teaching and exam grading.

So now all you need to do is to download the sample prompts and essays.

DBQ Sample Prompt
DBQ Sample Essay Response
BONUS: We can send you the infographic so you can share it with students in class.

The Thesis Breakdown

The 3 Big Thesis Takeaways:

  • Established a historical defensible/accurate claim
  • Create a line of reasoning
  • Evaluate the prompt

The thesis requirement according to the AP US History Rubric:

Responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning.

Historically, the thesis is the biggest struggle for students.

Yet the thesis is the most important part of the DBQ. Why is the thesis the most important part?

The thesis sets the tone for the whole essay and clearly outlines the arguments the essay will defend.

Simply put, without a strong thesis, you cannot have a strong essay.

How do you create a strong thesis?

Follow these three steps.

1) Establish a historically defensible claim

A historical defensible claim simply means is the argument you present in the thesis historical accurate.

For the thesis, you must make a claim or an argument. This claim/argument is what you will be supporting and defending throughout the essay.

So if your claim/argument is not historical accurate, or historical defensible, then you will not be able to support it with historical evidence.

2) Establish a line of reasoning

A line of reasoning is simply the reasons you present to support your argument/claim.

Any good thesis will make a historical defensible claim/argument.

A line of reasoning is- what are your reasons for making this historical defensible claim/argument.

Typically, each of the reasons you provide in your thesis will each be addressed in a body paragraph.

So the line of reasoning lets the exam reader know what your body paragraphs will be about.

3) Evaluates the prompt

The prompt will ask you to evaluate the extent of a historical development.

Your thesis must clearly state your evaluation of the extent of the historical development.

One way to think about it: To what degree did the development influence the time period provided in the prompt.

For some examples, look at the “Grader’s Perspective” below.

BONUS) Practice writing a thesis

Yes, it is ok to practice writing a thesis.

In fact, Chris and Paul HIGHLY recommend you practice writing a thesis.

Practice writing a thesis.


Go find to the College Board website and get the released essay questions and practice writing a good thesis for the essays.

Important AP US History TipOne last thing.

And make sure to read this part.

The thesis should be 2-3 sentences long.


Prompt: Evaluate the relative importance of different factors that caused the movement for American Independence between 1754 and 1776.  In your response, consider both the underlying forces and specific events that contributed to the growing support for independence.

Practice: Write a practice thesis for the prompt above.

When you are done, click the toggles below.

There were many reasons for the American Revolution. The colonists were angry at the British and wanted to revolt. There were also many events that led to the Revolution between 1754 and 1776.

There were a number of factors that caused Americans to revolt during the twenty years prior to the Revolution.  The British did not let the colonies have their own trade.  They also violated a number of individual rights. Events that showed these violations were acts such as the Stamp Act and Intolerable Acts. Probably, the most important reason was the violation of natural rights for without these there is no freedom.

In short, though the Enlightenment principles of Locke’s social contract and the belief in inalienable rights were a strong foundation for the revolution, the fact was that the colonists would not tolerate a perceived stifling of their economic rights.  Excessive taxation and denial of economic self-sufficiency for well over a century were the true causes of this revolution.  Enjoying the fruits of their own labor and economic liberty were prizes too big not to revolt.

Which of these theses is most likely to get the thesis point?

Another way to ask this question is which thesis clearly outlines the student’s position on the topic, and states exactly what the student will defend in the essay? Let’s look at the three thesis examples again.

Thesis #1: The student does not establish a line of reasoning for their essay. Stating the colonists were angry does not indicate the factors that caused this anger. The introduction sentences also do not introduce the relative importance of any factors.

Thesis #2: The thesis is found in the introduction paragraph. It states that British violated economic and natural rights and states the relative importance by elevating natural rights by stating that there is no liberty without protections of natural rights.  Though the thesis is simplistic, it gets over the bar by making a claim it will try to substantiate.

Thesis #3: The student correctly identifies the underlying forces for the revolution as economic discrimination against the colonists and violations of enlightenment principles by the Crown. The student also maintains that the economic reasons for revolting were more significant thus pointing directly to the relative importance of the two factors.

AP US History Study Tip

READER TIP: If the prompt asks the student to “evaluate” or state “how much”, the thesis must state to what extent. If you do not specifically evaluate to this extent, you will not get the point.

Where should you put the thesis?

Ideally, the thesis should be placed in the introduction.

However, the thesis can be in the conclusion.

Why is the introduction better?

Because if the thesis is the first thing you write, it will then be in the introduction and it will give you direction and clarity on what to write for the remainder of the essay.

The Contextualization Breakdown

The Thing to Know about Contextualization

Contextualizing helps sets the scene for the prompt. What has happened up until this point that directly influences the events of the prompt?

Contextualization is taking the events of the prompt and connecting them to important historical themes/developments, which directly influenced the events of the prompt.

The Contextualization point according to the AP US History Rubric:

Describes a broader historical context relevant to the prompt.

In other words, you situate the development into the time period.

To be clear:

Contextualization is not background information.

Background information are specific events that happened.

Contextualization will focus on the big themes/ideas/developments that have influenced the question.

A logical place for contextualization is in the first or second paragraph, right after the thesis. This will set up the entire essay for the reader. They know your arguments and how you see the development situated in the time period.

AP US History Study TipReader Tip: What big trends are happening during the prompt? Start your contextualization there.

BONUS) Contextualization should be a minimum of two sentences.

Now it’s practice time. How would you contextualization the following prompts?

Contextualization Example

Example Prompt: Evaluate the relative importance of different factors that caused the movement for American Independence between 1754 and 1776.  In your response, consider both the underlying forces and specific events that contributed to the growing support for independence.

There were many reasons for the American Revolution. The colonists were angry at the British and wanted to revolt. There were also many events that led to the Revolution between 1754 and 1776.

In Document 1, the snake shows disunity in the colonies. The colonists were probably angry over how the king was trying to divide them.  In the Virginia Resolves, Document 2, the colonists said that they had the right to tax themselves.  Taxes seemed to make them very angry. This was in response to the Intolerable Acts and other taxes. George Washington also did not like these taxes and said that manufacturers would help American industry. (3)

Enlightenment ideas were ideas about liberty and individual rights. They began in the 18th century. The colonists thought that their rights were being taken away. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine states that hereditary rights of kings could not be the basis of a good government. (6) Other rights taken away were stated in the Declaration of Independence in an attempt to convince the colonies to unify to revolt against the British monarchy. The Declaration included John Locke’s idea of a social contract. (7) Even Tories brought up enlightenment principles. In 1775, a Tory wrote that colonists enjoyed the natural right of petitions and that the Crown and Parliament were listening to colonial concerns. (5) If not for enlightened ideas there wouldn’t have been a revolution.

Fundamentally, the colonists had always thought of themselves as economically independent.  Since the day the English landed at Jamestown and became economically viable with tobacco they were in many ways independent from England.  England, like other European monarchies of the 18th century, had created the mercantile system of trade between the colonies and the mother country whereby they sold manufactured goods to the colonists in exchange for colonial agricultural goods and raw materials. Though both sides benefited to some degree, the colonists beginning in the early 18th century, began to skirt the very laws that England had emplaced to control this trade. They discovered that they could smuggle goods to the Spanish and French West Indies and make much larger profits than they could by only trading with the British West Indies. The mercantile system forced them to be paid less for their goods so that English middlemen could then sell their valuable goods (such as tobacco) to the Spanish and French.  When the British caught on to colonial smuggling they began to crack down on smugglers with the Sugar Act of 1764. They took away trial by jury in the new Vice-Admiralty courts created. Unbeknownst to the King, they had now taken the first steps towards creating the Revolution.

Contextualization #1: There is no attempt at contextualization.

Contextualization #2: The attempt at the beginning the paragraph to establish a contextualization point with the discussion of Enlightenment ideas does not get over the bar for the point. The discussion needs more elaboration as to what the individual rights and Enlightened principles were and how they were a fundamental force causing the revolution.

Contextualization #3: In the paragraph, the student thoroughly explains the system of mercantilism that existed in the 18th century as the trade development that preceded and continued during the period of the question. This context directly establishes the fundamental economic trend and why its monopolistic tendencies were a cause of the revolution. This is an extremely healthy explanation and points would have been awarded even if it was half this length.

The Document Use Breakdown

Document Use “Need to Know”

For each document, you need to use the content of the document to support your point. Ask yourself this question for each document: “How can the idea of this document support my argument?” If you answer that question, you are on the right track.

There are two points with Document Use:

1st Point

Uses the content of at least three documents to address the topic of the prompt.

2nd Point

Supports an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents.

To get the 1st point, you simply must state the content of the document and relate it to the prompt. It’s a straightforward point.

The second point is a trickier. So lets talk about that.

To get the second point, you must use the content of at least six documents to support your argument.

How can you tell if your getting the point?

Have you taken the idea of the document to advance your argument?  If so, you will probably get credit for that document

If you simply quote a document, you won’t get the point.

If you don’t use the content of the document to support your argument, you won’t get the point.

The test creators gave you each of the seven documents for a reason. Each document will show a different development aspect of the prompt.

Use the idea of the document to support your argument.

AP US History Study TipReader Tip: Use 7 documents. That way if you misuse one document, you still get the point.

Bonus Tip! Connect the ideas of documents (transition words help with this). This will help tie the essay together and will help you earn the Reasoning point.

Examples of Document Use

*Try to grade the examples yourself and see if they should receive the point.

Unity was another issue arising during this time.  The 1754 “join or die” cartoon was an attempt to unite the colonies. The point of view of the cartoon is that of a Rebel.  (1) George Washington also attempted to bring the colonies together to support British manufacturing in order to reduce taxes. (3) Though not all agreed with revolting, many did. By 1776, the reasons to revolt were too great and the Revolution began.

In response to this tax, the Virginia Assembly stated that they were the only legitimately elected legislature that had the “exclusive right and power to levy taxes” (2)  In addition to taxes, The economic right to private property was directly infringed upon when British troops would search anywhere and anytime with their writs of assistance.  Sam Adams thought this extremely tyrannical for the British were violating “personal security, personal liberty, and private property.” (4)

Document Use #1: The reference to the content of Doc. 1 is very unclear and thus doesn’t get credit. Over what issue is the cartoon attempting to unite them? The student must clarify the reason. The cartoon itself was an attempt to unite the colonies to fight the Native-Americans during the French and Indian War and support the Albany Plan for Union and is unrelated to the American Revolution 22 years later as the student implies with its qualifying sentence.

Document Use #2: The student correctly utilizes the content of all 7 documents. Docs 1 and 3 are used in par. 3. Docs 2 and 4 are used in paragraph 4. Docs 7, 5 and 6 are used in paragraph 5. Pay particular attention to how the student only uses “power quotes” to finish thoughts. The student takes the main idea/perspective/opinion of the document and ties it directly to its larger issue presented.

The Outside Evidence Breakdown

Outside Evidence 2-Step

Step 1: What historical evidence do you know on your own?

Step 2: How does that historical evidence advance your argument?

You must present the evidence and use it to advance your argument to get the Outside Evidence point.

The Outside Evidence points states:

Uses at least one additional piece of the specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt.

The key to getting the point is to use your outside evidence to advance your argument.

You cannot simply state your outside evidence and move on.

Outside evidence does not have to be a specific event, it can be a trend/development during the time period.

Important AP US History TipThree things to know about Outside Evidence:

1) It must fall within the time period of the prompt. Do NOT go outside the time period.

2) You cannot double dip points. Contextualization is different than Outside Evidence.

3) Try to use 2-3 pieces of Outside Evidence, just to be sure you can get the point.

Examples of Outside Evidence

Economic issues were also a big topic that caused the Revolution.  The British had taxed the colonists for two decades. The Sugar Act and Townshend Acts were two taxes that caused the colonists anger because the Crown was taxing them internally.  The Stamp Act caused the largest outcry for it taxed many items and was a direct tax. The House of Burgesses opposed these with their Virginia Resolves. They stated that only colonial legislatures had the power to tax within the colonies (2) Sam Adams, the leader of the Sons of Liberty who tried to bring about revolution, stated that the colonists enjoined all the rights of Englishmen, including protection of their property rights. (4) These taxes violated those property rights

British taxation policies on the colonists were one of the most visible and atrocious acts perceived by the colonists. For over a century, the colonists had accepted the parliamentary taxes on foreign goods entering the colony (external taxes) for purposes of payment for British naval protection.  However, with the taxing of British West Indies sugar into the 13 mainland colonies under the 1764 Sugar Act Parliament had begun taxing goods traded between colonies and not just foreign goods.  Never before had the Parliament taxed colonial goods traded within and between colonies (internal taxation).

Outside Evidence #1: Though not very elaborate, the discussion at the beginning of paragraph 3 concerning taxation gets over the threshold to receive the point. There is enough elaboration of what the taxes were and why they were offensive to the colonists to warrant the point.

Outside Evidence #2: In this paragraph, the student received the point for its clear and extensive discussion of taxation issues. It correctly brings forth the colonial distinctions between internal and external taxes and gives specific laws that illustrated it. Note that the student brings in quite a bit of outside evidence throughout. However, to get the point a student needs to only bring forth a single issue/trend/development or piece of outside information and directly tie it to the argument made. A simple phrase or mention will not get the point

The Analysis Breakdown

Analysis: Big Takeaway

How does the background of the document influence what is said in the document?

You must analyze sources to better understand how to interpret the content of the document. This analysis is what the Analysis point is all about.

The Analysis point:

For at least three documents, explains how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument.

There are four ways you can analyze a document on the exam. To help you remember, use the acronym H.I.P.P.

Historical Context– What is the context of the document that might be influencing the document? Or, what caused the document to be created. Historical Context is not contextualization; it only applies to the individual document.

Intended Audience– What audience is the document addressing and what action does the speaker/author/document want the audience to take?

Purpose– What action or result is the document hoping to achieve?

Point-of-View– What is the larger group represented by the document, and what is the goal of that group. Point-of-view goes beyond just the individual author of a document, but the group that author represents.

To get the point, you must do two things:

  • You must correctly identify the correct H.I.P.P.
  • You must state how that H.I.P.P. influences the document

You must go beyond just what the historical context, intended audience, purpose, or point-of-view and you must state how that influences the document.

AP US History Study TipReader Tip! Typically, it is easier to identify the historical context, then the intended audience/purpose of a document. Try to get those two first, and if you cannot, then try to establish the point of view.

Remember: You must analyze three documents to get the point.

Examples of Analysis

The Albany Plan proposed by Ben Franklin and others would have created an inter-colonial assembly that would have power over inter-colonial trade.  Franklin attempted to get them to join with his famous veiled threat that if they didn’t join in this effort they would all die a divided death. (1)

Other rights taken away were stated in the Declaration of Independence in an attempt to convince the colonies to unify to revolt against the British monarchy. The Declaration included John Locke’s idea of a social contract. (7)

They stated that only colonial legislatures had the power to tax within the colonies (2) Sam Adams, the leader of the Sons of Liberty who tried to bring about revolution, stated that the colonists enjoined all the rights of Englishmen, including protection of their property rights.

Historical Context: The student established the historical context for Doc. 1 with the discussion of the Albany Plan for Union and proposed inter-colonial assembly that would control trade.

Intended Audience/Purpose: The student establishes the purpose of the Declaration of Independence when it states that it was attempting to join the colonies together to fight the British.

Point-of-View: The point of view for document 4 is given with the discussion of the significance of the Sons of Liberty in connection with Sam Adams.

The Reasoning Breakdown

The Reasoning Point is a holistic point. That means the reader (the grader) will evaluate if the essay, as a whole, demonstrated a nuanced, complex understanding of the topic.

Overall, the Reasoning point is a reflection of the strength of the argument overall.

The Reasoning point:

Demonstrates a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt, using evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the question.

A few notes on the Reasoning point.

Complex understanding refers to how many perspectives of the prompt do you understand, and can you evaluate those perspectives. Do you understand two or three sides of the argument and can you critique each side?

To demonstrate a complex understanding, try to highlight contradictions or ironies throughout the essay. The more you show-off your knowledge, the better chance you have to earn the Reasoning point.

Qualifying, modifying, or corroborating your argument simply means using the evidence available to you- both the documents and outside evidence- to build an argument.

But the key point is- the more your evidence works together and is connected, the stronger the qualification, modification, or corroboration.

So how can you make sure you earn the point?

Ask yourself this question:

How well does  the evidence used in your essay to defend your thesis?

The stronger your use of evidence, the greater the chance of earning the point.

AP test grader Chris Averill finds that highlighting contradictions can really add depth to your essay and demonstrate that the student understands in a meaningful way their arguments.

AP US History Study TipContradiction Example:

During the Reagan Revolution in the 1980’s, Republicans cut spending on social programs to reduce government. However, in the name of fiscal responsibility, they increased defense spending.

Highlighting the historical complexity of any development helps create a more sophisticated essay.

Because the Reasoning point is a holistic point, download the entire sample essays (at the top of the page) to get a better idea of how to earn the reasoning point.

More Videos to Come!

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