How to Write an Effective DBQ

Emma Quinn
Published on
May 18, 2021

One of the most important parts of the Advanced Placement exams are the essays, specifically the DBQs. Most history tests include a Document Based Question near the final part of the exam. In this post, we’ll go over some tips and tricks to get the highest amount of points possible, and hopefully, score a five on the test.

1. Construct a thesis.

Think about what stance you want to take on the argument and look for specific clues that will help you prove it as you go through the sources.

2. Study beforehand.

You can’t rely only on the documents to get all of the points. Students are required to include historical context in their introductory paragraph. This means that you will need to memorize certain facts that will allow you to set a scene for your thesis. The conclusion also requires you to relate your topic to one in another time or region. This means that you should study the main themes and prepare to bring them up in your essay.

3. Thoroughly look over the documents.

The tests give you fifteen minutes to look over seven separate documents (for the 2020 exams it was 5, so this number could vary depending on what AP exams will look like in 2021). These could range from speeches to pictures.

Highlight key quotes, write down notes in the margins. If you have outside information, jot down facts that relate to the source. Keep the question at the back of your mind, and look for specific economic, political, and social details to back you up.

4. Look at the source.

It can provide you some key details about the time and place of the event, as well as the speaker and audience. Keep in mind the other parts of a HAPPY analysis – historical context, audience, purpose, point of view, and why.

5. Think about the formatting of your essay.

Think about the multiple points you want to bring up and determine how you want to split it into the body of your paragraphs. Your essay should have an intro with historical context and a thesis, two or three body paragraphs where you will analyze the documents, and a conclusion where you will compare the situation to one in another region or period.

6. Look at the rubric!

It’s important to know where your points will be coming from. It changes every year, but you usually get one point for a thesis, one point for historical context, three points for evidence, and two points for analysis. It is also important to know how many documents you need to include in your essay because you don’t need to know all five to get full credit.

7. Take practice DBQs.

One of the biggest aspects that cause students to mess up is not finishing in time. Time yourself, and try to get your essay done under the 55-minute mark. Try to find points where you took too much time the first time and think about how you can shorten it moving forward. Here are examples of DBQ questions.

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