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How to Approach the Document-Based Question (DBQ) on the AP European History

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 22, 2011

Summary: Learn how to write a short history essay of high quality and how to adapt the process for the DBQ.

Key Ideas

  • There are three basic components to a short history essay of high quality.
  • Writing a short history essay of high quality can be done in five simple steps.
  • The DBQ requires you to write a short history essay about primary source documents.
  • The five-step process for writing a short history essay of high quality is easily adapted for the DBQ.

Introduction

In this article, we discuss the nature of the document-based question and develop strategies for doing well on that section of the exam. Your task is to write a short history essay of high quality. I have seen a lot of gibberish written about how to "crack" AP essay questions that dwells far too much on "what the graders are looking for" and gives misguided advice like "throw in a few big words." In this chapter, I do discuss the guidelines that are given to those who grade the AP European History exam essays, but only to get a sense of the purpose of the questions.

In reality, those who grade the AP essay exams are "looking for" the thing that all history instructors look for and, I dare say, hope for when they read student essays: a reasonably well written essay that answers the question, makes an argument, and supports the argument with evidence. In short, the key to "cracking" the AP essay questions is to know how to write a short history essay of high quality. Learn that skill now, and you will not only do well on the AP exam, but you will also do well in your history classes in college.

The Quality History Essay

There are three basic components to a short history essay of high quality:

  1. a clear thesis that answers the question
  2. three to five topic sentences that, taken together, add up logically to the thesis
  3. evidence that supports and illustrates each of the topic sentences

Thesis

In a short history essay, the thesis is a sentence that makes a clear assertion in response to the question. It is, therefore, also a statement of what your reader will believe if your essay is persuasive.

Topic Sentences

The topic sentences should appear at the beginning of clearly marked paragraphs. Each topic sentence makes a clear assertion that you will illustrate and support in the body of the paragraph. All of your topic sentences together should add up logically to your thesis. That is, if you were to successfully persuade your reader of the truth (or at least plausibility) of your topic sentences, they would have no choice but to admit the plausibility of your thesis.

Evidence

This is the part that makes your essay historical. In a history essay, the evidence is made up of specific examples, explained to support and illustrate your claim.

Five Steps to Outlining a Short History Essay

Before you begin writing a short history essay, you should always make an outline. You probably know that but, when you keep the three components of the high-quality, short history essay in mind, you can produce an outline quickly and efficiently by following a very simple five-step process.

Step 1: Find the Action Words in the Question and Determine What It Wants You to Do

Too many essays respond to the topic instead of the question. In order to answer a question, you must do what it asks. To determine, specifically, what a question is asking you to do, you must pay attention to the action words—the words that give you a specific task. Look at the following question; notice the action words and go to Step 2.

Compare and contrast the roles played by the various social classes in the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860s and 1870s.

Step 2: Compose a Thesis That Responds to the Question and Gives You Something Specific to Support and Illustrate

Compare the following two attempts at a thesis in response to our question:

  1. German and Italian unifications have a lot in common but also many differences.
  2. The unifications of both Italy and Germany were engineered by the aristocracy.

Alas, attempts at a thesis statement that resemble example A are all too common. Notice how example A merely makes a vague claim about the topic and gives the author nothing specific to do next. Example B, in contrast, makes a specific assertion about the role of a social class in the unifications of Italy and Germany; it is responding directly to the question. Moreover, example B is a thesis because it tells its readers what they will accept if the essay is persuasive. Finally, example B gives the author something specific to do, namely, build and support an argument that explains why we should conclude that the unifications of Italy and Germany were engineered by the aristocracy.

Step 3: Compose Your Topic Sentences and Make Sure That They Add Up Logically to Your Thesis

In response to our question, three good topic sentences might be:

  1. The architects of both Italian and German unification were conservative, northern, aristocrats.
  2. The middle classes played virtually no role in Italian unification and, in the south, initially opposed the unification of Germany.
  3. The working classes and peasantry followed the lead of the aristocracy in both the unification of Italy and that of Germany.

Notice how the topic sentences add up logically to the thesis, and how each gives you something specific to support in the body of the paragraph.

Step 4: Support and Illustrate Your Thesis with Specific Examples

The paragraphs that follow the topic sentences should present specific examples that illustrate and support its point. That means that each paragraph is made up of two things: factual information and your explanation of how that factual information supports the topic sentence. When making your outline, you can list the examples you want to use. For our question, the outline would look something like this:

Thesis: The unifications of both Italy and Germany were engineered by the aristocracy.

Topic sentence A: The architects of both Italian and German unification were conservative, northern, aristocrats.

Specific examples: Cavour, Conservative aristocrat from Piedmont; Bismarck, Conservative aristocrat from Prussia. Both took leadership roles and devised unification strategies.

Topic sentence B: The middle classes played virtually no role in Italian unification and, in the south, initially opposed the unification of Germany.

Specific examples: Italy—mid-century Risorgimento, a middle-class movement, failed, and played virtually no role in subsequent events. Germany—middle-class liberals in the Frankfort Parliament were ineffective; middle-class liberals in southern Germany were initially wary of Prussian domination; they rallied to the cause only when Bismarck engineered the Franco-Prussian War.

Topic sentence C: The working classes and peasantry followed the lead of the aristocracy in the unification of both Italy and Germany.

Specific examples: Italy—the working classes played no role in the north; the peasantry of the south followed Garibaldi, but shifted without resistance to support of Cavour and the king at the crucial moment. The working classes in Germany supported Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia; the socialists, supposedly a working-class party, rallied to the cause of war.

Step 5: If You Have Time, Compose a One-Paragraph Conclusion That Restates Your Thesis

A conclusion is not necessary and you will get little or no credit for one. If you have time remaining and you are happy with all the other aspects of your essay, then you can write a one-paragraph conclusion that restates your thesis.

Things to Avoid

There are some things that sabotage an otherwise promising essay and should be avoided. Follow these guidelines:

  • Avoid long sentences with multiple clauses. Your goal is to write the clearest sentence possible; most often the clearest sentence is a relatively short sentence.
  • Do not get caught up in digressions. No matter how fascinating or insightful you find some idea or fact, if it does not directly support or illustrate your thesis, do not put it in.
  • Skip the mystery. Do not ask a lot of rhetorical questions and do not go for a surprise ending. The readers are looking for your thesis, your argument, and your evidence; give it to them in a clear, straightforward manner.
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