Decoding the AP U.S. History Rubric

January 11, 2024

AP U.S. History is one of the most popular AP classes offered by the College Board. It also has a reputation for being one of the most difficult.

On one hand, the sheer volume of content students must be comfortable with is a challenge of its own, and beating that challenge really comes down to hard work and a consistent study schedule. On the other, the infamous Document-Based Question (DBQ) and Long Essay Question (LEQ) responses, which together account for 40% of the exam score, often prove equally intimidating.

The good news? The College Board has updated the rubric for the 2023-24 school year to make obtaining all 7 available DBQ points much easier than it used to be.

Even better, as with free-response questions (FRQs) on all AP exams, scoring follows a very clear rubric. If you know the points available and what they require, you can simply structure your responses to pick up each one.

In this article I’ll walk you through the APUSH FRQ rubric for both the DBQ and the LEQ, which is more or less the same for each one. I’ll also discuss in a bit more detail how to approach your argumentation in a way that will prove useful to you on APUSH and beyond!


The secret to an excellent FRQ response in APUSH is understanding how the different parts of the rubric relate to each other, because failing to pick up one point may mean other areas of the rubric are not sufficiently addressed as well. The blue text below explains these connections.

Thesis (1 point)

You must make a defensible claim that establishes a line of reasoning, which means:

1. Take a position mentioning at least two different interpretations of the question. Offer a judgment about which part of your argument is most significant. You will not get the second EVIDENCE point or the ANALYTICAL COMPLEXITY point without making a judgment that you can back up with evidence.

2. Explain how you will support that position. This will likely mean briefly summarizing what evidence you will use in your body.

Context (1 point)

You must connect your response to broader historical events, developments or processes (more on that below).

Your introduction should justify why you are making your argument. Explain what else was happening at the same time or what led to the development you will discuss. The HISTORICAL REASONING and ANALYTICAL COMPLEXITY points depend on demonstrating a strong understanding of context. Gaining those points will also secure this point.

Evidence (2 points)

Your evidence must support your argument. The DBQ requires use of 4 documents, and the LEQ requires as much evidence as it takes (likely 3-4 specific pieces of evidence). You will earn only 1 point if you use fewer than 4 documents or if you simply state evidence and do not explain how it supports your argument.

To support an argument you must explicitly write how your evidence relates to your claim. You will struggle to support an argument without a THESIS that contains a line of reasoning. In the DBQ, particular attention to the HISTORICAL REASONING point will secure the second EVIDENCE point.

Outside Evidence (1 point, DBQ only)

This point is straightforward. You must simply incorporate one historical event or development not mentioned in the documents.

Historical Reasoning (1 point)

The way you obtain this point differs between the DBQ and LEQ.

On the DBQ, explain how or why at least two documents’ points of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience are relevant to your argument. This is how you make your evidence actually support your argument and, thus, secure the second EVIDENCE point.

On the LEQ, frame your argument using comparison, causation, or continuity/change. Consciously focusing on CONTEXTUALIZATION will guarantee you do this.

Analytical Reasoning (1 point)

This point is the one that has gotten much easier to obtain with the recent update to the APUSH rubric. Broadly, there are now two ways:

  1. Demonstrate nuance. Your evidence should prove more than one point throughout the essay. This might mean highlighting contradictions, making connections across periods, explaining both cause and effect, etc.
  2. Do more! Use all seven documents to support your argument or complete the Historical Reasoning explanation for four documents instead of two and you will automatically receive the point.

Note: Although it might be tempting to rely heavily on the new second option, it is in your best interest to practice the “nuance” skill that has always been used for this point. Not only will it still help get you the 4 or 5 you’re shooting for, it will also make you a stronger writer as you head into college!

What is a historical development or process?

The AP History rubrics constantly reference developments and processes for a reason. Rarely are the important parts of history that you’ll be discussing in your DBQs and LEQs simply events.

An event is something that happens relatively quickly, and then is finished—think The Boston Tea Party or the secession of some Southern states. However, it is much more likely that you’ll be asked to analyze how a set of ideas, values, or philosophies came to dominate a historical period, or how a series of events led to a major development.

Developments and processes help us explain relationships.

Thus, The Boston Tea Party ends up being the result of the post-1763 process of Britain exerting increased control over its colonies in the America, while secession is one of many other events (including the end of the Mexican-American War, Bleeding Kansas, and Lincoln’s election) which led to the Civil War.

You should think about developments and processes as the effects and impacts of many events over a longer time period. Or, you can look at the developments and processes that led to a big event. Either way, only by explaining the way that events relate to each other can we really analyze history in an effective and argumentative way.

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