DBQ: The Ultimate Guide

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DBQ stands for “document-based question.” DBQs appear on the Advanced Placement tests for all high school-level history courses. 

Unlike standard essays that you might be more accustomed to, the DBQ requires you to work with primary and secondary sources to create a defensible thesis. The emphasis here is on testing your ability to use source material to connect with the information that you have already learned in history class. 

If you are planning to take AP European History, AP U.S. History, or AP World History, you will need to practice and master how to write a DBQ. 

Remember, this is a document-based question! Do not approach it like a traditional essay; your focus should always be on what the documents allow you to argue. 

With that said, let us examine the history, purpose, and how-to’s of the DBQ. 

Why are DBQs important? What is the purpose of a DBQ?

On a purely practical level, DBQs are important because they represent a substantial portion of the grade you will receive for taking an AP history test. 

On the AP US History test, the DBQ accounts for 25% of the total score you can receive. If you want to get a 4 or a 5 on the Advanced Placement history tests, you will need to score highly on the DBQ. 

  • On a more holistic level, however, the purpose of document-based questions is to prepare students for the rigors of college-level history courses. The DBQ was first introduced into AP US History tests in the 1970s.
  • The committee that added DBQs felt that American high school students were inadequately prepared to study history when they arrived at college. 

In particular, they felt that students performed very poorly on free-response sections. The committee argued that students “parroted factual information with little historical analysis or argument.” To try and remedy this, they proposed adding primary source-based essays to the AP tests. Their intention was to ensure that students are able to tackle the in-depth analysis required to be a historian. 

  • When you are preparing for the DBQ, it is important to keep its stated purpose in mind. You are being tested on whether you are prepared to study history at a more advanced level. In particular, you should keep the words of the committee in mind.

They do not want you to “parrot factual information.” They want you to make an argument, using historical analysis and synthesizing various pieces of information – both from the documents and from your outside learning. Do not forget the essence of your task. It is not to let the reader know how much information you recall about the topic. 

It is to make a coherent argument that is drawn primarily from the source material. 

How is a DBQ formatted?

The DBQ will appear at the beginning of the second section of the AP test. 

  • It will be the first of two essays you will need to write. 
  • You are given 60 minutes to write the essay, including a recommended 15 minutes of preparation time. 
  • You will only be given the choice of one document-based question (unlike the free-response section, where you will usually be given a choice between multiple essay prompts). 

You will be given a specific prompt, related to an often-debated historical issue (ex. “Based on the Compromise of 1850 and the tenets of Manifest Destiny, was the Civil War inevitable?).

  • There will also be a total of seven documents. 

They will all relate directly to the prompt – some may support the prompt while others refute it.

Generally, the sources will include a variety of perspectives. The documents may include speeches, political cartoons, excerpts from debates, maps, and published writings. Your task is to use these sources to make a coherent argument.

How should I answer and format my DBQ response?

As previously mentioned, on the Advanced Placement tests, you will be given 60 minutes to prepare for and write the DBQ. 

Ultimately, how you apportion this time is up to you and your personal writing preferences. 

But, having said that, there are some overall guidelines that are worth considering – particularly if you feel lost about how to plan your DBQ writing. 

  • First, you should read and make sure you thoroughly understand the prompt. Circle any keywords like “evaluate” or “contrast” so you know exactly what is being asked of you. 
  • Additionally, jot down any initial ideas that come to mind. Maybe something springs out immediately as an obvious response or relevant piece of information. Get it down on paper. It will motivate you and give you the confidence to move forward. 

You may already have a thesis, or you may need to examine the documents first to see what they can be used to support. You should spend no more than one or two minutes on this first step. 

  • Second, read the documents. 
  • Make a note of who the author of each document is and the context surrounding each one. Make sure you understand, to the best of your ability, the meaning, and importance of each document. 
  • You may need to read some of them two or three times. You will also want to consider which of the documents you can assess the validity or biases of. 
  • You have to use at least six of the seven documents and critically assess four of the seven documents in order to achieve a perfect score. 
  • You should allow five to ten minutes for this part of your preparation.

Next, plan and outline your essay. 

  • This is a skill you will likely be quite accustomed to from your high school classes. 
  • This is where you construct your opening statement, thesis, evidence, topic sentences, and conclusion. 
  • For the DBQ you should additionally try to group or categorize the documents. Perhaps the first and third documents can be used to support one argument, while the second, fifth, and sixth can be used to support another. 
  • If you group them while creating your outline, you will be able to incorporate them efficiently when writing your essay. 
  • This portion of your preparation should take no more than ten minutes. 

Finally, write the essay! 

  • Armed with your notes and outline, you can now tackle the task of actually writing. 
  • If you have prepared efficiently, you should begin with about 40-45 minutes remaining. 
  • Even if you have a little less time, don’t panic. The more time you spend outlining, the quicker your writing should ultimately be. 

A lot of students feel uncomfortable referencing the source material when they are writing their DBQ responses. You know that you need to include the documents, but most students do not know how to cite them appropriately. 

  • An acceptable way to reference the documents would be as follows – “As Document 1 shows, the intensity of feeling in the North made civil war inevitable.” 
  • An awesome way to reference the documents would be – “William Lloyd Garrison, writing for The Liberator, in Document 1, demonstrates the ferocity of abolitionist feeling when he says . . . “ 

Notice the differences between the two. 

  • The first example does not actually reference the author of the document at all, it takes the document outside of context. 
  • Whereas the second example references the author, the publication, and provides greater detail about how the document informs the argument. 

You should structure your essay according to the general rules of formal essay writing.

  •  An introductory paragraph, 3-5 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. 
  • Your introduction should contain a strong thesis that the rest of the argument consistently refers back to. 

The fundamental difference between a standard free-response essay and a DBQ is, obviously, the documents. 

Make sure that every one of your body paragraphs includes evidence provided by the documents and some kind of critical analysis of the documents. 

Additionally, you should be sure to also include outside context and synthesis with material you have learned elsewhere in history class or school in general. 

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How is the DBQ Scored?

On all Advanced Placement tests, the scoring system is the same. There are four distinct categories, and there are a total of seven points available. 

  • Two points are apportioned for a strong thesis and argument development. The first point is primarily awarded according to the strength of the thesis. 
  • You need to have a thesis in either your introduction or conclusion – ideally, in your introduction – as that is most likely what you have already learned in high school. 

Additionally, your thesis needs to be a “historically defensible claim” that responds to “all parts of the question.” The thesis does not need to be limited to one sentence, but if there are multiple sentences, they need to be “consecutive.” 

The second point is awarded for developing a strong and cohesive argument. 

  • Essentially, your argument throughout your essay has to be consistent and relevant to your thesis. Though you will want to bring in some wider implications within your essay, it is best to keep your arguments tightly focused on your thesis. 

Additionally, you are graded according to whether you include “contradiction, corroboration, or qualification.” You do not need to include all three of these in your essay (indeed, in some essays it will be quite illogical to do so), but you do need to include at least one. 

Let’s briefly examine what these terms mean. 

  • First, “contradiction” means “do you consider opposite perspectives?” In essence, “what would the person arguing contrary to you say?” This is always a strong thing to include in any persuasive essay and can be easily included in a conclusion to bolster the strength of your writing. 
  • Second, “corroboration” means “do you provide evidence to support your point?” Really this should come naturally from the manner in which you use the documents to support your argument. 

But, you should always consider the importance of supporting evidence. 

In a persuasive essay, you should never make a claim that you do not also support with relevant evidence. In a DBQ, that evidence should be drawn primarily from the documents and your analysis of those documents.

  •  Finally, “qualification” means “do you consider any biases or additional details that modify or add context to your claims?” 

This is probably the most challenging and vague of the three categories to fulfill. 

  • Basically, you are being asked to comment on any factors that you consider relevant to your thesis but that are not your primary argument. It is a way of anticipating a possible refutation of your thesis and acknowledging the relevance of that information, while nonetheless insisting upon the overall strength of your position. 

It shows the reader that you deeply understand the issue. This is an opportunity for you to really explore the issues surrounding your thesis. 

Another two of the seven points are awarded according to the strength of your document analysis. 

This is the part of the DBQ scoring that primarily concerns the documents themselves. 

  • The first point is awarded if you use the content of at least six of the documents to accurately support your thesis or develop your argument. Notice that you only need to use six of the seven documents. 

But, that does not mean you shouldn’t try to use all seven sources! 

  • Essentially, according to the way the scoring works, you can get the point if you get six of the documents “right” and one of the documents “wrong.” You’re allowed  to make a mistake, which can be a relief if you don’t completely understand the language or meaning of one of the documents. 

It is strongly recommended that you try to use all seven documents. The scoring is forgiving. As long as you understand the document and have a coherent thesis, it is hard to use the documents incorrectly. 

The second of these points is given to students to demonstrate an understanding of authorial bias. You have to be able to show that you understand that the documents themselves are not necessarily reliable. 

They were written or drawn by human beings who had motivations and perspectives of their own. This is an incredibly important aspect of the historical discipline and something that the DBQ is designed to test you on.

When you are analyzing the documents, you should consider what the author of that document would have thought:

  • Who were they? What was their point of view? Were they rich or poor; male or female; a soldier or a politician? 
  • What were their motivations? What was the purpose for writing it? 
  • Who was the intended audience for the document? Was it written to appeal to the common man or the wealthy?
  • What was the historical context of the document? Was it written during a war or a depression; during a presidential election or religious upheaval? 

You need to do this for at least four of the documents in order to be awarded the point. But, there is really no purpose in limiting yourself. 

Try to analyze all the documents as critically as you can in the time given. The more documents you provide context for, the better your overall essay will be. 

An additional two points are given for using evidence beyond the documents. This means relying on the information you have learned in history class or in your outside studies to contextualize the source material appropriately.

  • The first of these two points is specifically awarded for the strength of your contextualization. You are marked according to whether you can situate the debate correctly in the broader historical narrative and whether you understand the events, developments, and processes immediately relevant to the prompt. 

The DBQ rubric specifically notes that “contextualization requires using knowledge not found in the documents.” It is important that you include considerable context when writing a DBQ, but there is no reason to panic.

A strong essay will always include context as a way of introducing or developing points and this is your opportunity to show off everything you have learned in history class or through your own personal readings. 

The second of these points is awarded for “using evidence beyond the documents.” 

  • Essentially, this means using evidence to support your contextualization that is not drawn specifically from the documents but, rather, is taken from outside knowledge. 
  • Put simply, it is important to contextualize and provide evidence from both the documents and the stuff you have learned elsewhere in history class. 

It may seem daunting, but you really just have to remember not to focus exclusively on the documents or your personal knowledge – the best DBQ, one that scores a 7 out of 7, always includes a healthy mix of both. 

The final of the seven points available is awarded for “synthesis.”

 This means that you need to connect the central idea of your essay to another time period, place, event, historical concept, or another discipline outside of history. 

  • As an example, if you are talking about the formation of the United Nations, it might be relevant to briefly consider the League of Nations, the European Union, and other international organizations. 

If you are writing about the conflict between European settlers and Native Americans in California, it might be relevant to compare it briefly to an earlier example of cultural exchange.

 You have a lot of options here but most students are too focused on narrowly addressing the prompt that they omit a proper synthesis. 

It is often easiest to include your synthesizing thoughts in your conclusion, but you could reasonably include them anywhere in your essay where it is appropriate. 

The most important thing to remember is that you must connect your thesis to something from another time or place that provides context to strengthen your argument. 

How can I prepare for a DBQ?

The best way to prepare for a DBQ is to find practice prompts and respond to them. 

At first, you might want to simply sit down with a few prompts and practice analyzing the documents. Try to find as many biases as you can, or consider how many different arguments the source material could be used to support. 

  • Next, you might want to practice creating theses and grouping evidence according to how it supports your argument.
  • Eventually, you will want to take a full 60-minute practice DBQ, recreating test conditions as realistically as you can, to see how you do under timed pressure. 

The College Board provides practice tests from previous years, and you can easily access dozens of practice prompts online. If you are learning independently, it is best to start practicing for the DBQ at least a few months before the date of the test. If you are taking the test in May or June, as most students will be, it is best to begin studying in January of that same year. 

  • If you are taking an Advanced Placement course in high school, it is likely that you will practice DBQs a few times throughout the year.
  • But, if not, you can practice independently or with a tutor. Ask your tutor to help you understand the basics of the historical discipline – how to assess the validity of arguments and recognize authorial bias. 

Make sure, at the very least, you spend a considerable amount of time preparing for the DBQ. It is unlike any of the other challenges you will have so far undertaken in high school, and the skills you acquire practicing for the DBQ will be useful to you if you ever decide to pursue history at an undergraduate level. 

DBQ Examples

Manifest Destiny, the Compromise of 1850, and the events of the 1850s made the Civil War inevitable. Assess the validity of this statement using the documents and your knowledge of the time period 1830 to 1860.

The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson did more to expand the power of the executive branch than any other presidency in the early republic or antebellum era. 

The Thirty Years’ War was primarily fought for political reasons. Evaluate the validity of the preceding statement. 

To what extent was the U.S.’ longstanding conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War a consequence of specific actions taken by either country during the Second World War?

The Presidency of George Washington established several vital precedents that are still considered sacrosanct in the United States’ political process. Using the documents and your knowledge of the history of America since the beginning of Washington’s presidency, assess the accuracy of the preceding statement.