Searching For The Elusive Complexity Point

John Srouji

“It doesn’t really have a clear criteria other than ‘be brilliant’.”

The DBQ. One of the most dreaded forms of assessment in the entire upper school, only second to the AmStud joint assessments of course. 

The DBQ (Document Based Question) seems easy enough at first glance. You are provided a prompt and seven documents to help you answer that prompt. But how a DBQ is graded is not based on how good of an essay you have written, it's based on the criteria of the College Board’s DBQ rubric, which consists of seven points. And it’s the last point--the complexity point--that’s the most difficult to get.

But first, let’s go through points one through six, the points most mortals have a shot at getting.

The first point is ‘Contextualization.’ Before getting into writing your response to the prompt, you must include context about what is going on in the world at the prompt’s given time period. 

The second point is the thesis point. For this point, you just need to respond to the prompt with a strong thesis. If the thesis responds to the prompt and is arguable, congrats, you get the point. If it’s not, then you don’t get it. Easy as that.

Points three, four, and five have to do with how you are using the provided documents to respond to the prompt. For point three, you need to make sure you have accurately described at least three of the seven documents. For point four, you must have used at least six of the documents to support your thesis. And then for point five, you need to explain the context of at least three documents. All of these points, while challenging, have clear criteria for what gets the point and what doesn’t.

And the sixth point is using a piece of outside evidence to help support your argument. 

After three years of writing DBQs, I feel as though I have mastered a few of these points. For points three, four, and five, I use the strategy of doing everything for every document, which takes up a lot of time, but I’ve found that it helps me get all three of those points each time. And for point six, I usually go into the test with a few terms in mind and just hope that the prompt relates to one of them. Usually it does, so I am able to use that term as my outside evidence. The thesis and contextualization points on the other hand have always been hit or miss for me. It's usually about 50-50 whether I get those points or not no matter how well I think I did.

But of course, there is one point I have yet to mention: the complexity point. In my three years of taking DBQs, I have never, NOT ONCE, earned this point. And I’m not alone in this. AP World teacher Ms. May-Beaver refers to the point as “the unicorn point” because of how rare it is to earn. 

So, how exactly do you earn the point? According to the DBQ rubric, you have to “demonstrate a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt.” Yeah, it’s not really as clear as the other points. 

Dr. Douglas, who also teaches AP World, talked to me about why it's so challenging to earn the point. “With every other point, there is a formula to follow. As long as you follow the formula, you get credit for it even if it is no good. For the complexity point, there is no formula or checklist because that’s not the way it is designed,” he told me. 

Ms. May-Beaver agreed, somewhat jokingly telling me that “it doesn’t really have a clear criteria other than ‘be brilliant’.”

Dr. Douglas explained to me that on the first DBQ of the year, no one got the point. But usually as the year goes on, more and more students begin to get it. Towards the end of the year, he tells me that around five to ten percent of students earn the point. 

“I think it’s like the equivalent of how English teachers rarely give 100s on essays,” Ms. May-Beaver said. “That’s what it is, it’s a recognition that you can do an amazing job and write an amazing paper, but you’re usually not going to get higher than a 94. It’s the same thing here, you can write an amazing DBQ, but you’re usually not going to get higher than a six out of seven.” 

So surely with how challenging it is to get the point, there has to be some sort of ultimate strategy to getting it. Well...not really. I asked Ms. May-Beaver what the ultimate strategy is, to which she laughed and responded “Read your whole life.”

Dr. Douglas provided a similar answer, saying that “there is no strategy, other than writing a really really really good essay.” (That’s three ‘really’s’!!). However if you are really (really, really) struggling to earn the point, one thing Dr. Douglas told me is that you should try to look at how the documents relate to one another and “bring the documents into conversation with each other. And don’t paint with too broad of a brush. Don’t say something like ‘Japan was very industrialized,’ because in some ways that is true, but in others it's not.”

I spoke with Sophomore Alec Cauwenberghs who is currently taking AP World. Alec was one of the three students in Ms. May-Beaver’s class who was able to achieve this point on the most recent test. “This was the only test this year that I really attempted to get the final point, and I feel like it was a pretty good attempt,” he told me. 

Alec also furthered the idea that it's really not practical to study for getting the point. He said that “I didn’t study for the point. I was just writing my essay and I suddenly had an idea that I thought might get me the point.” 

The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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