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Sarah Bradstreet

Contextualization: APUSH Skills You Need to Master

Contextualization APUSH Skills You Need to Master

Contextualization is one of the nine historical thinking skills that you need to master for the AP US History exam. Contextualization APUSH questions span all parts of the exam. Expect to use this skill on multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. So just what is contextualization? Read on to learn more about this vital skill.

What is Contextualization?

Contextualization falls under the “Making Historical Connections” category of APUSH historical thinking skills. In a nutshell, contextualization is the ability to place historical events within a larger context. This means connecting a historical event to the bigger picture— what else was happening at the same time in different places, how this fits in with events that came before and after it, and what larger processes are at play.

How Do I Demonstrate Contextualization Skills?

You’ll be asked to use this skill a lot on the APUSH exam. Many multiple choice and short answer questions will require contextualization. It is a 100% guarantee that your DBQ will require this skill. Contextualization is worth one out of the seven points on the DBQ rubric.

Remember the old “5 Ws” (who, what, where, when, why) that you’ve probably used since elementary school? Those are exactly what you need for contextualization. When you’re analyzing a document or thinking about a historical event, ask yourself questions based around the 5 Ws to help you see the larger context.


  • Who wrote the document? or Who was involved in the event?
  • What group(s) were they a part of? (Think broadly on this one: gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, occupation, membership in an organization, etc., can all be important to placing the person and their ideas in historical context.)


  • What happened? or What does the document say?
  • What larger events or processes was this a part of?


  • Where did the event take place? or Where was this document created?
  • Where is this place geographically? What region or state is it in?
  • What are the characteristics of that place? (Think demographics, political leanings, social classes, religious affiliations, major industries, geographic features)
  • How does what happened in X place relate to what was happening in the rest of the region/state/nation/world?


  • When did this event take place? or When was this document written?
  • What else was going on at the same time? (locally, regionally, nationally, globally)
  • How does this event relate to what happened before and/or after it in history?


  • What caused this event? (long- and short-term)
  • Why did the author write this document? What was going on that would motivate the author to create it?
  • Why does this document/event matter in the long-run? What impact did it have on history? Why does it matter today?

For more on contextualization and the other eight historical thinking skills, check out this guide from CollegeBoard.

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About Sarah Bradstreet

Sarah is an educator and writer with a Master’s degree in education from Syracuse University who has helped students succeed on standardized tests since 2008. She loves reading, theater, and chasing around her two kids.

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