The dreaded DBQ, or “document-based question,” is an essay question type on the AP History exams (AP US History, AP European History, and AP World History). For the DBQ essay, you will be asked to analyze some historical issue or trend with the aid of the provided sources, or "documents," as evidence.
The DBQ is an unfamiliar type of in-class essay for many students, but it does not need to be a source of dread or panic. In this guide I'll go over the DBQ's purpose and format, what the documents are and how to use them, how this type of essay is scored, and how to prepare. I'll tell you everything you need to rock this unique type of essay!
Note: The rubric, guidelines, and skills tested for all of the History APs are identical; only the historical source material is different.
The DBQ Essay Explained
As a veteran of the DBQ, I'm here to answer all your questions. Why do the AP History exams even have a document-based question? What will it look like on the exam? What are these documents, anyways? Let's dive right in.
This baby is too young to be diving into the DBQ!
Why the DBQ?
The point of the document-based question is not to torment you but actually to put you in the historian’s shoes as an interpreter of historical material. Cool, right?
The DBQ is testing your ability to:
- create a strong thesis and support that thesis with the aid of the documents provided
- analyze sources for characteristics such as author’s point of view, the author's purpose, the audience, and context
- make connections between the documents
- bring in outside knowledge to strengthen the argument
This may sound like a tall order, but you probably already use all these skills all the time.
Here's an example:
Suppose your friend asks for your help in deciding whether to buy a particular new brand of soccer ball. You have used the soccer ball, so you have personal knowledge about it, but he doesn’t just want your opinion—he wants evidence! (Your friend takes buying soccer balls very seriously).
So first, you collect information (your “documents”). These could include:
- online reviews of the soccer ball
- your brother’s opinion
- the price at the store
- the cost of other soccer balls
- ads for the soccer ball
Next, you'll analyze these "documents" to make a decision about whether the ball is a good purchase for your friend or not. For that, you might:
- Assess bias (also known as the author’s point of view): Maybe the soccer ball ad isn’t the most objective measure of the ball’s quality. Maybe your brother hates soccer.
- Consider the author’s audience: Maybe that review of the soccer ball was written for professional soccer players, and you want to know how it is for casual players!
- Think about the context of your friend's decision: What time of year is it? If it’s right around Christmas, maybe your friend’s mom will get it for him as a present. What you already know about soccer is part of the context as well--you know your friend won’t want a ball that’s too bouncy, for example.
Buying the right soccer ball might have higher stakes than the AP exam.
If you were going to go back and write an essay for your friend about this after you've reviewed your "documents," your thesis might be something like one of these examples:
- “This soccer ball is a good purchase for my friend because it has all the elements of a good soccer ball at a great price point.”
- “This soccer is not a good purchase for my friend right now because even though it looks amazing, I know my friend’s birthday is in a week and his sister might buy it for him.”
Then you would use the “documents” and your outside knowledge (for example, your experience with the soccer ball and your knowledge about soccer) to support that claim.
That's a document-based question! In fact, I would assert that the DBQ is the easiest essay to score highly on in the AP History exams. As overwhelming as it might be now to think about all of that information getting thrown at you at once, think of it this way:
Instead of relying primarily on your knowledge, the DBQ gives you a bunch of sources to use in your analysis. This means you don’t have to be worried you’ll waste five minutes racking your brain trying to remember the name of that guy who did that thing. It’s important to bring in some outside information for a top score, but the main thing you need to do is analyze.
95% of the info you really need is there. You just have to learn how to use it.
Let's move on to test formatting so you know what to expect from document-based questions.
What Does the DBQ Format Look Like?
Each of the AP history tests has one DBQ, and it is always the first question in the test booklet for the writing section (Part II of the exam). When you open your booklet and turn to the DBQ, you will see the instructions, the prompt, and then the documents.
You will have a 15-minute reading period, with a recommended 40 minutes of writing time. The test has two essays, and you will have 90 minutes total to plan and write them. You won't be forced to move on from one essay to the other, so be sure to budget your time carefully.
You are not required to use the entire reading/planning period. You can begin writing whenever you wish. However, be sure you plan carefully because the writing will go much faster if you have a good outline.
That covers the general format, but no doubt you want to hear more about these mysterious documents. Stay tuned!
What's the Deal With These Documents?
You will receive up to seven sources. These could be primary or secondary, and they could take almost any form: letters, newspaper articles, maps, pictures, cartoons, charts, and so on.
You will need to use all or all but one of the documents in your essay. You should go further in-depth on at least four of the documents. (See the rubric breakdown section below for more details).
For US History, no DBQ will focus exclusively on the time period prior to 1607 or after 1980, although they may focus on a broader time period that includes one of those time periods.
Don't worry, they won't be original copies.
Now that we've discussed the purpose, format, and document protocol of the DBQ, we need to discuss scoring.
How Is the DBQ Scored?
How much is the DBQ worth on your exam? And how do those pesky AP graders even score it?
How Much Is the Document-Based Question Worth?
The DBQ is 25% of your total grade. The entire second section of exam is 50% of your grade, and there are two equally weighted essays.
What Does the Rubric Mean?
The rubric the graders use is freely available to you on the College Board website.
- Click here for the rubric.
Don't worry if these look like gibberish to you. I'll break it down briefly here, and go even more in-depth on my article about how to prepare for and write a DBQ.
DBQ Rubric Breakdown
There are four categories in this rubric: thesis, analysis of the document, using outside evidence, and synthesis. You can score up to seven points.
Thesis and Argument - 2 points
- One point for having a clear, historically plausible thesis that is located in the introduction or conclusion.
- You can get another point here for having a particularly good thesis that presents a nuanced relationship between historical factors, and doing a good job supporting that thesis in your essay.
Document Analysis - 2 points
- One point for using 6-7 of the documents in your essay. Easy-peasy.
- One point for doing further analysis on four of the documents. This further analysis could be on any of the following points:
- author’s point of view
- author’s purpose
- historical context
Just be sure to tie any further analysis back to your main argument!
Using Outside Evidence - 2 points
- One point is just for context - if you can locate the issue within its broader historical situation. You do need to write several sentences about it but the contextual information can be very general.
- One point is for being able to name an additional specific example relevant to your argument that is not mentioned in the documents. Don't stress if you freeze up and can't remember one on test day. This is only one point and it will not prevent you from getting a 5 on the exam.
Synthesis - 1 point
- All you need to do for synthesis is relate your argument about this specific time period to a different time period, geographical area, historical movement, etc.
- It is probably easiest to do this in the conclusion of the essay.
Still with me? Just remember: the most important thing is having a strong thesis that is supported by the information in the documents and whatever other related information you have around in your brain.
If you are an auditory learner, I recommend the following video, which breaks down all the components you need to get a seven.
Parting Thoughts on Scoring
If this seems like a lot to take in, don't worry. You don’t have to get a perfect score on the DBQ to get a five on the AP. Somewhere in the 5-6 range can definitely get you there. To get a 3 on the exam (which still gives you course credit at a lot of colleges), you only need a 3 on the DBQ. (See page eight of this document.)
Additionally, overall historical accuracy is important but not 100% necessary for every tiny detail of the essay. Anything that is in the documents should be correct, but when you start to bring in outside sources for your DBQ essay on unionization and working conditions and you can’t remember if the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was in 1911 or 1912, just pick one and don’t sweat it. If minor details are incorrect and don’t detract from the overall meaning of the essay, you won’t lose points.
Now that you understand the purpose, format, and rubric for document-based questions, I'll give you some tips on how to get the score you're aiming for.
How Can I Rock the DBQ?
Two things will help you crush the DBQ: prepping beforehand, and hitting all the right notes on test day!
Rock the DBQ like Jimi rocked the 1960s.
Preparing for the DBQAs you might expect, the most important thing you can do to prepare is to practice writing this type of essay.
Ask a trusted teacher or advisor to look over your practice drafts and/or outlines with the rubric and advise what you might be missing.
Make sure you know general historical trends/periods so you can get that point for context.
You can find more prep tips in my article on how to write a DBQ.
During the Test
- Read the question carefully. Make sure you know what is being asked before you start trying to answer.
- While you read the documents, take notes on what they mean, who is writing, etc.
- Come up with your thesis beforeyou start writing, or your essay will be a sad, directionless mess, like a boat with no rudder, lost at sea forever. If you aren’t sure of your thesis yet, brainstorm in your notes—not while you are writing.
- Once you have a thesis, stay on topic. If you’re writing about how Smaug wrecked the Forbidden Mountain, don’t start talking about how amazing and clever Bilbo is, even if it’s true.
- Make sure you use all the documents—doing so gets you easy points.
- However, don’t simply regurgitate sources with no analysis. If you find yourself doing a lot of “Source A says blah, and Source B says blah, and Source C says blah...” make sure you are using the documents to make a point, and not letting the documents use you.
- A great way to analyze the documents is to make connections between them! Who agrees? Who disagrees? Why?
- Don’t forget to provide context, one outside example, and a connection to another period/area/historical theme if you can! That’s three points right there.
And there you have it! You are ready to start prepping for success.
Abraham Lincoln believes in you!
I know I just threw a lot of information at you. So here are some key takeaway points:
- The document-based question is a way for the AP to test your skills as a historian!
- Don’t panic! It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, even though you are getting tons of information thrown at you in a short time.
- The DBQ is based on skills that you can learn and practice: writing a strong thesis, using given evidence to support an argument, making connections between different documents and pieces of evidence, placing specific information in a broader context, analyzing an author’s intent, bias, audience, etc.
Need more study resources for AP World History? See our Best AP World History Study Guide or get more practice tests from our complete list.
Need more resources for AP US History? Try this article on the best notes to use for studying from one of our experts. Also check out her review of the best AP US History textbooks!
Or just looking for general information about your upcoming APs? See here for instructions on how to register for AP exams, complete 2016 test dates, and information on how much AP tests cost (and how to get AP financial aid).
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Section II of the AP World History exam is divided into two parts: the document-based question (DBQ) and the long-essay question. The first part of Section II is the document-based question (DBQ). This essay asks you to think like a historian; it will ask a specific question and present 4 to 10 related documents. Essentially, you are the historian who will take these sources and draw conclusions based on your analytical skills. The DBQ evaluates historical understanding at its purest: the task is not to remember facts but to organize information in an analytical manner.
If the AP World History DBQ prompt and accompanying documents cover something well outside the mainstream, don’t panic! The exam writers do this on purpose. The other essay on the exam—the long essay question—will evaluate your knowledge of history, but the DBQ evaluates your ability to work with historical material, even material with which you’re less familiar. Writing the DBQ is a skill that can be learned much like any other skill, and these strategies will help you hone that skill.
The 100 minutes for Section II of the AP World History exam is divided into two parts: the first 15 minutes is the suggested reading and organizing time, and the last 85 minutes is the suggested essay writing time. The proctor will make timing announcements, and it is recommended that you spend 45 minutes writing the document-based question, and 40 minutes writing the long essay question. However, you will not be forced to move from reading to writing, or from the DBQ to the long essay, if you’re not yet ready.
You will want to spend the first 10 minutes of the suggested reading period on the DBQ since this essay requires the most preparation time. Use the remaining five minutes to read and prep for the long essay question.
- First, read the AP World History DBQ prompt. Underline the words that are most relevant to your task.
- Second, read the documents. Most of the first 10 minutes of the suggested reading period will be used to review the documents and organize them into groups for analysis. Each of the 4 to 10 documents will have a number above a box. Inside the box will be information about the source of the document, which is very important as you will see later, and the document itself.
Documents can be of many different sorts. They can be pictures, photographs, maps, charts, graphs, or text. Written documents are usually excerpts of much longer pieces that have been edited specifically for the exam. They could be from personal letters, private journals, official decrees, public speeches, or propaganda posters. Obviously, the nature of the source should guide you in how you analyze the document. Often, students have a harder time analyzing the visual and graphic sources than the written sources. Even so, use all of the documents in your essay, treating the non-written sources with the same attention as the written ones.
All of the essay questions on the AP World History exam will be presented in a booklet. Feel free to write notes in this booklet as you read the documents and to underline important words in both the source line and the document itself. Nothing in the booklet is read as part of the essay scoring. Use the generous margins for notes that will help you group the documents together and discuss their points of view.
Once you have finished reading and have made short notes of all of the documents, reread the question. Again, note what the question asks. If you have not done so already, mark which documents address the different issues that the question includes. Group the documents by their similarities. At this point, you should be able to draw enough conclusions to organize a strong, analytical thesis.
At the end of the 15 minutes, the proctor will announce that the time is up for the suggested reading period. If you have not yet finished reading and organizing your essays, take a few more minutes to finish up. A few students might be ready to write before the end of the reading period, but most find that the given time is just about right.
According to the College Board, a high-scoring AP World History DBQ response will:
- respond to the question with an evaluative thesis that makes a historically defensible claim. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place—either in the introduction or the conclusion. Neither the introduction nor the conclusion is necessarily limited to a single paragraph.
- describe a broader historical context immediately relevant to the question that relates the topic of the question to historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or after the time frame of the question. This description should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
- explain how at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence (beyond those found in the documents) relates to an argument about the question. This example must be different from the evidence used to earn credit for contextualization, and the explanation should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
- use historical reasoning to explain relationships among the pieces of evidence provided in the response and how they corroborate, qualify, or modify the argument made in the thesis. In addition, a good response should utilize the content of at least six documents to support an argument based on the question.
- explain how the documents’ point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to the argument for at least four of the documents.
To effectively prepare for the DBQ, it is important to understand what components are needed for a high-scoring response. The AP World History exam readers will be looking for proficiency in four reporting categories: Thesis/Claim, Contextualization, Evidence, and Analyzing and Reasoning. The readers use a rubric similar to the following to determine your raw score, which can range from 0-7.
|Reporting Category||Scoring Criteria||Decision Rules|
|Thesis/Claim (0-1 pt)||Responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the thesis must make a claim that responds to the prompt rather than restating or rephrasing the prompt. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion.|
|Contextualization (0-1 pt)||Describes a broader historical context relevant to the prompt. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the response must relate the topic of the prompt to broader historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or continue after the time frame of the question. This point is not awarded for merely a phrase or reference.|
|Evidence (0-3 pts)||Evidence from the Documents: Uses the content of at least three documents to address the topic of the prompt. (1 pt) OR Supports an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents. (2 pts)||To earn one point, the response must accurately describe—rather than simply quote—the content from at least three of the documents. To earn two points, the response must accurately describe—rather than simply quote—the content from at least six documents. In addition, the response must use the content of the documents to support an argument in response to the prompt.|
|Evidence cont’d||Evidence Beyond the Documents: Uses at least one additional piece of the specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the response must describe the evidence and must use more than a phrase or reference. This additional piece of evidence must be different from the evidence used to earn the point for contextualization.|
|Analysis and Reasoning (0-2 pts)||For at least three documents, explains how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument. (1 pt)||To earn this point, the response must explain how or why (rather than simply identifying) the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, or audience is relevant to an argument about the prompt for each of the three documents sourced.|
|Analysis and Reasoning cont’d||Demonstrates a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt, using evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the question. (1 pt)||A response may demonstrate a complex understanding in a variety of ways, such as:|
• Explaining nuance of an issue by analyzing multiple variables
• Explaining both similarity and difference, or explaining both continuity and change, or explaining multiple causes, or explaining both cause and effect
• Explaining relevant and insightful connections within and across periods
• Confirming the validity of an argument by corroborating multiple perspectives across themes
• Qualifying or modifying an argument by considering diverse or alternative views or evidence
This understanding must be part of the argument, not merely a phrase or reference.
Final Notes on How to Write the AP World History DBQ
- Take notes in the margins during the reading period relating to the background of the speaker and his/her possible point of view.
- Assume that each document provides only a snapshot of the topic—just one perspective.
- Look for connections between documents for grouping.
- In the documents booklet, mark off documents that you use so that you do not forget to mention them.
- As you are writing, refer to the authorship of the documents, not just the document numbers.
- Mention additional documents and the reasons why they would help further analyze the question.
- Mark off each part of the instructions for the essay as you accomplish them.
- Use visual and graphic information in documents that are not text-based.
- Repeat information from the historical background in your essay.
- Assume that the documents are universally valid rather than presenting a single perspective.
- Spend too much time on the AP World History DBQ rather than moving on to the other essay.
- Write the first paragraph before you have a clear idea of what your thesis will be.
- Ignore part of the question.
- Structure the essay with just one paragraph.
- Underline or highlight the thesis. (This may be done as an exercise for class, but it looks juvenile on the exam.)