The document-based question, or DBQ, is a complex type of essay question that’s a big part of the AP World History, AP European History, and AP US History AP exams. The DBQ tests your ability to thoughtfully analyze and write about a variety of historical documents.
Writing a strong response to the DBQ isn’t rocket science, but I understand why many students struggle to write organized, effective essays within time constraints. If you’re taking an AP history class and are nervous about doing your best on the exam later this spring, check out these expert tips for writing your best DBQ essay.
1. Read, reread, and mark up the question.
This tip might seem a little bit silly, but it’s important for two reasons. First, you need to make sure you understand what the prompt is asking you to do. You can write the most eloquent, well-organized, brilliant essay ever, but if it doesn’t answer the prompt, the AP scorers won’t award it credit.
Because it's crucial that you write an essay that completes the task the prompt asks for, marking up the question and taking a few notes helps ensure you understand exactly what to do. As you can see in the example above, I even rewrote the prompt in my words. This is a good exercise because it forces you to pay close attention to each part of the prompt as you rewrite it. Putting it in words that make more sense to you also makes it less scary. 😊
The second reason is that when you’re actually being timed and are under pressure, you’re more likely to speed through, misread, or otherwise misunderstand the prompt. That’s just part of taking an important exam. Taking a tiny bit of extra time to mark up the question ensures you won’t miss anything.
2. Pay close attention to texts’ author (or source), title, and publication year.
Though this one may seem like a no-brainer, it may be tempting to blitz right past the source info and get to the meat of the text. Don’t do this! The source info is there for a reason.
If you’re familiar with the author, their name will allow you to pull background information from your own knowledge. Looking more closely at the title will help you predict what the focus of the text will be (in the example above, I know the author will be concerned about some sort of “crisis” he finds important). Taking note of the date is crucial in placing the text in a specific historical context. Don't let these important pieces of info slip past you, because writing a great DBQ essay means putting as much material as possible to good use.
3. Mark up and take notes on all the texts.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that annotating texts helps you read more carefully and retain more information, but consider this your reminder!
As you can see in the example above, I ended the text with a brief note summarizing its main idea. I recommend doing this for each text right after reading while it’s still fresh in your mind. This tiny summary doesn’t have to be in “perfect English,” but even a quick note with simple wording will help you crystallize the text’s important points and give you a great note to go back to when you actually start writing the essay.
4. OUTLINE BEFORE WRITING!!!
This tip might be the most important of all. If you don’t think you have time to outline before you start writing, consider any time that you’ve tried to do a timed write without planning and then lost your focus, realized you forgot some information, or realized in the middle that you should have organized everything differently. Sound familiar? Outlining prevents all of these little crises.
Even if you don’t structure it with any fancy Roman numerals or elaborate numbering systems, creating an outline of some kind will still help SO much with organizing your ideas and making sure your focus stays on the all-important thesis. Trust me - the time it takes will be worth it and actually writing the essay will become so much easier.
5. Always use all the sources, just to be safe.
The DBQ rubric typically asks you to link only 6 out of 7 sources to your argument, so I know this tip is asking extra of you. However, there’s always the possibility that you may misinterpret a source or that its link to your argument just isn’t as strong as those of your other sources. Using all the sources in your essay can leave you a little bit of extra wiggle room when it comes to earning all possible points.
I’d like to conclude this post with the reminder that no amount of tips and how-to articles will allow you to just start writing the perfect DBQ response overnight. Getting better at writing them is a process that requires lots of practice and revision. With that being said, I hope these tips help you along the way as you develop more organized, efficient ways to answer these challenging essay questions.
If you’re anxious about preparing for the AP exams this year, I encourage you to check out ThinquePrep’s edition of our annual AP review classes, taking place this April.
If you’d like a little more in-depth academic support, take a look at our academic coaching services, too.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
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