APUSH Free Response Advice:

    After grading hundreds of DBQs and basic free response essays, I have noticed the same issue emerge time and again.  The following is a compilation of hopefully-helpful observations I have made over the years I have taught APUSH:



    For your introduction:


    ·        Not sure where to begin?  Try defining the time period:

    The Progressive Era was a time of great change in American history in which middle class and intellectual reformers sought to cure the ills of the Gilded Age.

    ·        Don’t begin with just copying the prompt.  Build to your thesis statement.  This is a good place to immediately demonstrate you know the time period and the topic.

    ·        (For DBQs) Don’t begin with a direct quote from a document.  This may strike the reader as a “cheap” use of a document, and it stands to harm rather than help you.

    ·        Make sure you HAVE an identifiable thesis statement.  Contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be a single sentence.  The more specific the better – the best indicating insight and evaluation (often both a positive and negative assessment of the prompt).  Consider the following theses regarding a prompt evaluating the effectiveness of Reconstruction:

    Bad, but is a thesis: Reconstruction was an overall failure.

    Better, but still weak: Reconstruction failed in the areas of politics, economics, and social issues.

    Competent: Overall, Reconstruction failed because of runaway corruption in the Carpetbagger governments, the economic impact of the Depression of 1873, and the failure of Northern whites to defend the civil rights of the freedmen.

    Best: Overall, the success of Reconstruction is a mixed.  Success was achieved in the rebuilding of the South in the areas of infrastructure and economy, but of even greater import was the ability to politically reunite the formerly seceded states with the national government.  In the area of protecting the civil rights of freedmen, however, the record of the time period is an abject failure.




    During the reading time (for DBQs):


    ·        Be sure to understand what the prompt is asking you to prove.  Keep this in mind throughout the process

    ·        Read actively – underline main ideas, take notes, etc.

    ·        Note DATES of docs – they might be important.

    ·        Create a list of everything you know on the topic before reading the documents.  After reading them, revisit the list.  Now you have a “word bank” of outside information to use in the essay proper.

    ·        Create an OUTLINE.  Know the point of each paragraph of your essay, and indicate which docs and what outside info will be used to support each point.  If you do so, you will not get off-track in the writing process.



    When using the documents (for DBQs, obviously):


    ·        Use a supermajority at least.  The best essays are ones that use all or almost all of the docs.  Remember, each serves a purpose – if you omit too many, you might miss a critical point of discussion

    ·        Do NOT use the documents in alphabetical order.  That smacks of translation, and you don’t want that.

    ·        Multiple use of documents is fine, just don’t rely on one as a crutch by using it ad nauseum.  

    ·        In addition, never quadruple/quintuple cite docs.  For example:

    Japanese-Americans were among a multitude of minorities who made a decisive impact during World War II (docs B, E, F, G, I).

    These docs clearly don’t all prove the same point, and this will impact the evaluation of the effectiveness of your doc use.

    ·        You may cite documents directly, but try to limit both the frequency in which you do so and the length of each individual quote.  Too much of this sounds like an essay of document translation.  Avoid huge chunks of doc text at all costs.

    ·        The documents should support YOUR assertions, not the other way around.  Cite them as you might an MLA-format research paper:

    Imperialists such as Albert Beveridge and Theodore Roosevelt believed it would be doing a disservice to the Filipinos to grant them independence, since they were clearly incapable of conducting their own affairs (Document C).

    ·        Don’t disagree with a document unless you are prepared to back up your point with strong data.  Use it or omit it.  Do not do the following:

    Although the numbers in document H show differently, the slave trade actually grew during the 1830s.




    When using outside information:


    ·        Make it count.  You need to demonstrate a mastery of the issues of the prompt, but don’t be a name-dropper: each piece of outside info used should be relevant. 

    ·        Make sure it is applicable to the time period covered by the subject.  Demonstrating you know about Betty Friedan is great, but in a discussion of the suffrage movement, she is an anachronism.  The only exception is in a demonstration that you KNOW she is outside the issue/ time period, but relevant nonetheless:

    Over the next few decades, the successful endeavors of such suffragists as Lucy Burns and Alice Paul would give  rise to the feminist movement of Betty Friedan and Carol Hanisch.




    Basic writing advice – all essays!


    ·        Keep the prompt in mind.  Part of what you will be graded on is your ability to prove your thesis.  Do so.  Don’t gallop off in irrelevant directions.

    ·        President Roosevelt is not “Teddy”, and Hitler is not “Adolph”.  They aren’t your uncles.  Be reasonably formal in your writing.

    ·        Along the same line, avoid idioms.  The Democratic-Republicans never attempted to “stick it to the Federalists”, and conservatism wasn’t “kicked to the curb” during the Great Society time period. 

    ·        The words/phrases things, stuff, etc. and especially and etc. are verboten.  Use more precise and meaningful vocabulary please.

    ·        First person stinks.  Never use the phrases “I believe”, “I think”, or “In my opinion”.  Each mitigates the persuasiveness of your writing.  Consider:

    It is my opinion that the British were responsible for starting the war of 1812.

    The British were responsible for starting the war of 1812.

    One is clearly more powerful than the other.

    ·        Avoid sweeping, unprovable statements such as:

    He was the most popular president ever.

    Nobody could have done a better job than FDR in dealing with the Depression and World War II.

    The law was the most critical ever passed.

    Each screams for exception.

    ·        Avoid controversial certitude in your writing – it is an APUSH essay, not your personal manifesto.  Consider the following real examples:

    1.     The idea that few men could hold all the wealth without distributing it is absurd.

    2.     Republican legislation both through the 1980s and now catered only to the wealthy.

    3.     [Progressives] succeeded in keeping America safe from socialism… well that’s not what the GOP would have us believe today.

    Remember, someone will be reading your essay.  Don’t irritate them. Stick to proving your thesis statement.

    ·        Make your conclusion count for something more than rewriting your thesis or prompt.  It is a great place to show your knowledge of the impact of the topic(s) covered in the essay – that is, to demonstrate insight.  Don’t “wave the flag” or finish with platitudes or drek.  Make your words count!


Last Modified on July 15, 2015