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Top 6 Tips to Help You Write AP Essays and Document-Based Questions

Need help preparing for AP essays and DBQs? This student remembers all the tips and tricks she used to ace her exams and wants to share them with you!

Picture this: It’s a bright, sunny day in May and you’re sitting down to take your AP exam. The proctor starts the timer, you open the booklet, and you read the prompt for the written response. But then you realize you have absolutely no idea what to write about. The clock is ticking, your panic is rising, and you walk out of the test certain you’ve failed. No one wants this to be their testing experience. Luckily for all of us, there are plenty of ways to prepare for AP essays and document-based questions (DBQs). While studying for my own tests, I used a few different strategies that helped me ace the writing portions for multiple AP subjects. Most of these were either in English or History/Social Sciences, so some tips will be focused on those areas, but most will be relevant to every subject. Just be sure to double-check what your specific test entails with your teacher!

1. Know the prompt

Each AP test has a specific rubric that the College Board uses to grade the written responses. These include different categories with various points you can earn if you include them in your essay, such as thesis, contextualization, or complexity. Most can be earned in multiple ways. For example, a thesis can be in the introduction, the conclusion, or anywhere else in the essay as long as it makes an argument. Most prompts don’t ask you to summarize but to form your own opinion based on the material given and back it up in a way that shows you know the subject. You don’t have to agree with the argument you make—you just need to be able to write it. If you state this argument twice—once in the introduction and once in the conclusion—you have two chances to win the thesis point.

Much like the thesis, contextualization—aka the consideration of the prompt within a broader context—can take place at any point in your response. I usually started my essays with the context to get me started since it helped me write about material I already knew before I had to clearly state my argument. Using my first few sentences to explain what was happening before or after the time period of the prompt or why this specific prompt matters put me into the right mindset to write about that subject. This can help you gain the contextualization point as long as the context of the prompt is correct. When reading a prompt for the first time, underline or take notes to make sure you fully understand what it’s asking. Certain keywords will ask you to make different arguments. For example, a question asking you to “evaluate the extent” is just asking you, “How much?” Annotating the prompt will make you better prepared to answer it. 

2. Make a plan

Since you’re allowed to write in the test booklet, taking notes and sketching out a rough idea of what you want to write about before you start can be helpful. This saves you from realizing you want to change your argument after you’ve already written three paragraphs. Start by planning out your thesis, which will act as your road map. A simple three-point thesis, which expresses your claim and three pieces of evidence to support it, gives you a clear idea for your three body paragraphs and the evidence within each one. DBQs provide supporting documents, which most of your evidence should come from. After reading through all the documents and sometimes taking notes, I liked to group similar ones into sections. These sections can then be used for the three thesis points. 

Related: 9 Study Tips to Help You Conquer AP Tests

3. Use the right evidence

If you can, try to use all the given documents in some way during your essay. This gives you more opportunities to gain points for evidence, even if you get some of it wrong. But as long as it still fits the prompt, it doesn’t hurt to use outside evidence—especially when you can pick examples you know a lot about. Different subjects and types of written responses will require different types of evidence. And what about quoting evidence? This depends on the type of test, so be sure to ask your teacher what your class requires. You don’t want to waste precious time quoting if you don’t have to, or worse, lose points because you didn’t quote when you should have. If you need to quote, don’t forget to cite the source in the response. Just like quoting, evidence is looked at through a different lens depending on the subject. Be sure your interpretation of the material fits your specific test. For an English test, you’re more likely to analyze an author’s rhetorical strategies, while a History test might have you consider a document’s source. Thorough sourcing—looking at the historical context, purpose, point of view, or audience of a document—can also help you gain that magical complexity point. 

4. Add nuance

Many AP test rubrics also include a complexity point that’s given to essays that show a particularly developed use of nuance. Nuance can include the use of counterarguments, similarities, differences, biases, and more. Adding a paragraph that presents a counterargument to your thesis is a great way to both add complexity and use documents that don’t fit with the rest of your evidence. Another way to extend your argument is by comparing the similarities and differences of any example you give. These examples might also have flaws; addressing biases in the arguments of yourself or other authors shows a greater awareness of the subject and can earn you that point. The final way I’ve added nuance in the past is by bringing my argument into modern times. Especially for History classes, using your conclusion paragraph to both make your final point and explain why it matters now, in present times, can neatly wrap up your response. 

Related: Top Writing Tips for Every Situation Ever

5. Practice, practice, practice

Some of these strategies might seem overwhelming right now. But the only way to get better at them is to practice using them. The College Board website has both previous prompts and example essays for multiple years of each test. Reading these prompts and either planning or writing a response can be great practice. There are plenty of other free resources online where people go over essays and review what they did to get great scores as well. You can also do this yourself by reading past responses and analyzing what works and what doesn’t. The more you write—even if it isn’t for an AP class—the better you’ll get at writing anything, including AP essays. An instant way to improve the quality of your writing is to skip your transition words. Not only does this ensure each sentence leads directly into the next one, making it flow better, but it also saves time. This can be especially important for AP essays, which are timed. This leads us to the last tip… 

6. Manage your time well

If you don’t already know how long it takes you to read and write responses, practicing one and timing it can give you a good idea. This allows you to plan how you want to manage your time during the actual test. Since smartwatches aren’t allowed in the testing room, I recommend bringing along a basic watch in case the clocks in your testing area make it difficult to time yourself. The time it takes to complete different parts of the test is going to be different for each person, but a good rule of thumb is to read all the prompts before you start writing, then start with the one you’re most confident about. Not only will this help you get warmed up with something you’re comfortable writing, but it will ensure you have something written down in case you struggle later. This prevents you from wasting time trying to figure out a response to a question you’re stuck on. 

Related: The 5 Best Ways to Handle AP Exam Stress

Hopefully, some of these tips will keep you from getting overwhelmed on test day. But don’t worry—most AP tests don’t measure how well you know the subject, just how well you know the test. A little bit of practice and preparation can go a long way. And if you put in the work beforehand, stepping into that testing room becomes far less scary. You’ll open the booklet, read the prompt, and come up with a brilliant response to write, no problem. Just remember, you’ve got this. Good luck!

Worried about what colleges will think about your AP performance? Ease your mind with Advanced Placement Test Scores: How Will They Affect Your College Admission?

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