Frank Warren, a history professor at Queens College and a former Chief Faculty Consultant for AP U.S. History, offers the following suggestions for writing a good response to a document-based question (DBQ) or free-response essay question.
Write More Often
AP students need to write, and to write often. This practice is an excellent way to develop the skill of casting a thesis statement and marshalling evidence in support of a valid generalization.
Define Your Terms Where Necessary
Look especially at terms like liberal or conservative, radical or progressive. Be prepared to define other central terms, such as major change, that may appear to be obvious but can be ambiguous.
Start with a Clearly Stated Thesis
Some good essay writers begin with a thesis statement, back it up with supporting evidence from documents and outside knowledge, and, if time permits, restate the thesis at the end. Other writers analyze the material and build up logically to their thesis statement. On an AP Exam, you should use whichever method you feel most comfortable with. In any case, exam day is probably not a good time to experiment with a new, unfamiliar method of writing.
Organize Your Response Carefully
In addition to having a strong thesis, it is a good idea to have a guiding organizational principle — a stated agenda for making your point. Try to integrate your outside information into your response. Your exam shouldn't read as if you threw in a few tidbits of outside information at the end.
Make Sure Thesis Matches Assessment & Knowledge
Many good essay writers demonstrate a sense of complexity in the documents, showing that most of the evidence may point in one direction but that part of the evidence points in a different direction. It is better, however, to support a clear, simple thesis than to create artificially a complexity that you can't support using the documents or outside knowledge. Almost every essay — including the DBQ — is designed to allow the student to agree or disagree with the statement. Your ultimate goal should be to present a well-argued and well-supported thesis, not merely to give the people scoring the essay what you think they want.
Build an Argument
The best essays — in terms of arguing their case — are those that marshal the positive arguments in favor of their position but that also refute or answer possible rival theses. Even if you think a statement is completely true, it is better to confront and negate the evidence that seems to refute it than to ignore the counterevidence completely.
Integrate the Documents and Your Analysis
Don't merely explain what is stated in the documents. Rather, use the documents as part of an integrated essay in support of your thesis.
Don't Quote Large Portions of the Documents
The readers of the essays are already familiar with the documents. You can quote a short passage or two if necessary, to make your point, but don't waste time or space reciting them.
Choose Your Essays Wisely
Select the questions you are best prepared to answer. The questions that invite the easiest generalizations are not always the ones you should answer. As you read through the questions and make your choices, ask yourself for which of the questions are you best prepared to support your thesis.
The APUSH long essay is worth 15% of your entire score. To get the coveted 5 on the exam, you’re going to need to write a solid APUSH long essay. Start by reading through the two prompt options, and choose the one you feel more confident in writing about. The prompts fall into 4 categories:
- Patterns of connectivity (argue whether history changed or remained the same)
- Compare and contrast
No matter which type of essay you face, here are 4 steps to help you write a good APUSH long essay.
Focus on Writing a Solid Thesis
Your thesis is the most important part. It’s going to set up the entire essay. It’s also the first thing that the grader is going to see, so start with a strong thesis!
Your introductory paragraph should be about 2-5 sentences in length. Start with a hook before including your thesis. Your thesis should be original. Don’t just copy the question prompt!
Make sure that your thesis contains the following three things:
- Your stance (or answer) to the prompt
- A counterargument to address
- The 3 strongest supporting points for your thesis
Describe and Explain Your Supporting Points
To support your thesis, you need three specific examples. If you’re having a hard time coming up with examples, think about PERSIA: political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and artistic.
Describe each example as much as possible. Then, don’t forget to reflect back to the thesis. This is the most important part, so spend plenty of time circling back to the thesis for each point.
When writing the body paragraphs, try to connect to events from different time periods, geographical areas, and themes whenever possible. Making connections is especially important when it comes to the rebuttal for your argument.
Synthesis across history is important to show that you have a deep understanding of U.S. history and that you’ve developed the historical thinking skills you need.
Don’t Forget the Conclusion
Some people skip over the conclusion. With only 35 minutes to write a polished essay, they would rather spend time developing the introductory and body paragraphs.
However, if you’ve practiced your timing for the APUSH long essay, you should have a few extra minutes for a conclusion. The conclusion should restate your thesis and strongest points in different words.
You’ve spent the entire school year preparing for your APUSH long essay. You’ve studied the concepts and themes. You have the information that you need to write a 6-worthy essay. Follow these tips as you practice writing APUSH long essays, so you can practice crafting these essays within the 35-minute time period. The more you practice, the better prepared you’ll be to write your essay on exam day.
About Jamie Goodwin
Jamie graduated from Brigham Young University- Idaho with a degree in English Education. She spent several years teaching and tutoring students at the elementary, high school, and college level. She currently works as a contract writer and curriculum developer for online education courses. In her free time, she enjoys running and spending time with her boys!
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