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 and 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.