Tips From an Irvine Test Prep Tutor: “AP Exams and the DBQ: How to Improve”

Many students have started studying for their DBQ essays that will appear on their AP exams in mid May. Many students struggle with the DBQ (document based question) essay because they have to combine both reading comprehension and writing skills while under a tight timeframe.


Most students can write a high quality DBQ essay if they are given any amount of time to finish (assuming they had an adequate amount of practice). However, when the clock is ticking on the actual exam day, many students simply don’t finish on time or they write a poor quality essay because they rushed. It’s critical that students don’t waste months of study because they needed more practice on one section of the exam (READ: “Ask a Nerd! Taking the AP Exam”).

1. Practice makes perfect

Students should never attempt to do their DBQ essay for the very first time on the day of the test. Some AP classroom teachers will have focused heavily on the DBQ while others will not. Regardless of the amount of time spent in the classroom, students absolutely have to practice on their own to make sure they can write an essay in the amount of time given. The first thing students should do is buy a reputable test prep book that has multiple practice tests. Students can also rely on their tutor to provide additional questions or even create a mock DBQ essay. Students can start by writing a high quality essay without worrying about time constraints and then learn ways to cut down on time with their tutor. Without having mastered the skill of writing a quality essay, cutting down on time is fruitless.

2. Learn about yourself

Each writer is different. No student will automatically fall into a category; it’s important that each AP student has an individualized study plan to put them on the right track. Some students will rush through an intro and conclusion thus making the entire essay of poor quality, while others will suffer from writer’s block and won’t even be able to get started. It’s critical for students to know about themselves as writers so they can talk with their tutor about an individualized academic plan.

3. Content over style

Before working on the style of the essay students need to master content. Part of mastering the content on a DBQ essay is learning how to find particular supports from each document. Students should highlight and underline as they go so they don’t have to search for this information a second time. Students who are practicing are encouraged to color code or use an organizational system that will help them separate one document from another (READ: “Last Minute AP Style Guide”).

4. Reading comprehension and speed reading

There’s a fine line between effective speed reading and simply scanning a paragraph without picking up the information. This is another situation where practice makes perfect; students taking AP exams this May should work on this technique for several weeks prior to the exam date. It’s crucial that students read the documents as quickly as they can while still maintaining a full comprehension of the information given. This is another example of the importance of individualized education and something students should work on with their Irvine test prep tutor. Organization and mental presence are the keys to success on this particular portion of the AP exam.

5. The visual DBQ

Many DBQ essays have a photograph or painting in addition to written documents. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most overlooked documents in the DBQ portion and many students are not able to adequately interpret the visual document or write about it. Students should learn the difference between making a reasonable inference and an assumption that goes too far. They will also need to be able to understand the time period of a photograph or painting and put it in context. For example, a photograph from 1910 will have a different connotation than a painting from 1730. This is another thing that students should discuss with their tutor. If need be, students can write a short summary about each visual document explaining what they were able to comprehend. Students can then show this to their tutor to see how accurate their interpretation was (READ: “AP Exams without the class?”).

In short

Although many students find the DBQ essays to be difficult and have trouble cutting down on their time, it’s possible to do so with enough practice and guidance. However, students tend to get into trouble if they leave their test preparation to the last minute. Start early and keep practicing.

Don’t wait too late to book your Orange County AP tutor!

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