How to Write an SAQ? (Step-by-Step)

Preparing for AP history exams — whether APUSH, AP World History, or AP European History — is unquestionably challenging, and the SAQ portion of these exams is one many students are especially intimidated by. Understanding what’s expected of you is half the battle! What do you need to know before you’re confronted with the SAQ portion of your AP History exams, so that you can tackle the task ahead of you confidently, and gain an excellent score?

Understanding a SAQ

“SAQ” stands for “short answer questions”. Short answer questions form an integral part of APUSH and other AP History exams, and fall into the free response section of the exam — which also includes DBQs (document based questions) and LEQs (long essay questions).

The SAQ portion of the exam consists of a series of questions, which the student is required to answer by completing a multi-step process. In APUSH, you will need to complete three short answer questions.  Because you will be offered four questions, you will be able to choose the three you feel you are best equipped to complete. You will have a total of 40 minutes to finish the entire section, which means that you can spend just over 10 minutes on each of the four SAQs you decide to tackle.

The points you get for the SAQ portion of the APUSH exam make up 20 percent of your total score.

Although the SAQ portion of the APUSH exam can be daunting, it becomes easier once you understand the point of this section of the exam:

  • The short answer questions you will be presented with are designed to assess your analytical and critical thinking skills. You will need to identify arguments and biases, trends, or correlations.
  • The SAQ also tests how well you understand the interaction between different themes you learned about in AP History, and demonstrating that your knowledge of cause and effect will help you gain points.
  • The SAQ will also call on you to compare and contrast different themes.

As your exam is being scored, graders will look for evidence that you have followed the instructions in the short answer questions you choose to complete, have understood the question, and have put your critical thinking skills to use.

SAQs are not an invitation to write an essay — each SAQ should be completed in three to four sentences, and providing longer answers cannot lead to gaining additional points. In a similar vein, your SAQ answers will not be assessed by looking at the beauty of your writing; while your answers should be free from grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, save your carefully-honed writing skills for the long essay question, instead, and simply get straight to the point when you are answering your SAQs.

What Do SAQs Look Like?

Your exam paper will contain four short answer questions. Students are required to complete the first two of these, which prompt you with a source that may be a primary document, image, map, or some other source.

The third and fourth questions, from which students choose one, do not include a source, and students therefore need to rely on the knowledge they gained in AP History classes to answer their chosen question.

The questions posed can fall into a number distinct categories, and you may be asked to:

  • Describe the claim made in the source you were given.
  • Describe a trend or pattern in a statistical document.
  • Describe how a claim made in a document you were provided with is supported by evidence.
  • Describe how the historical context of the document informs the claims being made.
  • Analyze how effective a claim is, based on evidence.

Are the APUSH SAQs Hard?

The short answer questions found in APUSH and other AP History exams can be extremely challenging for a number of reasons.

Students will have to force themselves to answer the questions they are faced with briefly — which means that it is crucial to decide precisely what you want to say in order to complete the tasks, and to ensure that you do not include any writing that is not directly relevant to the SAQ.

Furthermore, SAQ consist of a multi-step process — students will be told to answer the question briefly and clearly, and to cite a particular source which will serve as evidence to support the answer, and (in some cases) to further back your answer up with historical context or critical analysis.

In order to get full points, it is imperative that students tick all of these boxes. Reading the SAQs carefully to ensure that you have a good grasp on all the components you need to cover in your answer, which should be no longer than three to four complete sentences, is absolutely critical. Missing just one component will cause students to needlessly lose points.

How to Answer SAQs: A Step-by-Step Guide

You will not know the contents of the short answer questions ahead of time, but if you have aced AP US History, and you have mastered the format presented in the SAQs, you will be able to answer the questions in precisely the way that maximizes your score, in turn ensuring that this particular 20 percent of your AP History exam will not go to waste!

Many students find the “ACE” acronym helpful as they do this — ACE stands for “answer”, “cite”, and “expand” (or sometimes “explain”), and following this format guarantees that you will cover each component the grader is looking for.

When you have the short answer questions in front of you, you can make the best use of your time by following this step by step guide.

  1. Read All of SAQs

Start by skim-reading all of the SAQs you are presented with, and remember that you have plenty of time to complete this portion of the exam. It is usually helpful to start with the SAQ you feel most confident about answering, so that you will have more time to think about the ones you find harder.

  1. Carefully Analyze What You Are Being Asked to Do

SAQs will ask students to interpret an image, assess the validity of an argument, relate a cause to an effect, or to compare two different events or viewpoints. Read the question more carefully before you begin answering it, by identifying precisely what you need to answer.

  1. Answer the Question

Do this in your mind first. Do not waste time formulating your answer in colorful or beautiful language, as you will not get extra points for this, but do ensure that the answer you give answers the question fully. Write in a complete and grammatically-correct sentence, and do not use bullet points.

  1. Cite Evidence

Use the provided source material for the first two SAQs, and rely on your AP History courses for information for the third or fourth question (whichever you choose — and always go with the one you find easier!). Use language like “Because of this,” “As a result,” or “This indicates that” to make your claim.

  1. Expand and Analyze

Using your background knowledge from AP History, provide a brief explanation that ties the answer and evidence into a larger picture, making sure to demonstrate your analytical skills. Should your question ask you to write about an image of protesters taking part in the civil rights movement, for instance, you can use the opportunity to explain how the civil rights movement advanced American democracy, and why this matters today.

  1. Read Over Your Answer

Check that you have completed all the tasks — you should have answered the SAQ, cited evidence, and provided further analysis. You should have written no more than three sentences. If you have checked all these boxes, move onto the next SAQ.

How to Pass the APUSH SAQ Exam

Are you no less daunted by the prospect of being faced with the short answer questions on your AP History exam than you were before reading this? You can prepare yourself further by:

  • Systematically reviewing all the class notes you have taken to get a refresher course.
  • Looking up SAQs used during previous years. Without looking up answers other students gave, use these as mock SAQs. Once you have completed these mock SAQs, you can see how others answered the questions.
  • Keep calm and take a deep breath. Do not panic. You have been preparing for these SAQs, and now that you are familiar with the formula, you will be able to ACE them!
  • Make your life easier by answering the question you feel most confident about first. Do so fairly quickly, and give yourself more time on the SAQ you know you will struggle with.
  • Remember that you do not need to have all the answers; you only need to succinctly answer the SAQ. If you feel like you are missing an important piece of information, focus on what you do know instead.
  • Do not go above and beyond by answering questions that were never asked or citing multiple pieces of evidence when you were only asked to offer one. This robs you of the time you would otherwise have to complete other questions and will not lead to additional points.

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