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What is a DBQ? How to master the document-based question

Even before you signed up for an AP history course at your school, you probably heard students talking about DBQs and how challenging they are. There might even be some students who avoid taking AP US History, AP European History, or AP World History exams just because they know they will have a hard time nailing these questions.

While DBQs, or document-based questions, are not the easiest questions to answer, they are far from daunting if you know the right way to approach them on test day.

What are DBQs?

You can’t know the best way to answer document-based questions without understanding what a DBQ is in the first place.

A DBQ is an essay question that requires students to analyze a historical trend using historical documents. After looking at the essay prompt, you will need to use the five-seven primary and/or secondary documents provided to write a several-paragraph long essay.

To do well, you will need to be able to understand the meaning and historical context of the documents provided, identify intersection points between the documents, and apply your background knowledge about a historical trend to make a strong claim to answer the question. You will then need to support your claim using evidence and analysis from the historical documents.

DBQs will only show up on history related AP exams, and students only have to answer one DBQ per exam. So if you sign up to take the AP US History, AP European History, or AP World History exams, you will encounter one of these questions.

Fortunately, because you know that a DBQ is guaranteed to be on each of these exams, you can spend time preparing to answer these questions and learning helpful tips about answering DBQs before you take any of these tests.

Tips for DBQs

Although DBQs can be difficult to answer, you can do well on these questions if you keep these tips in mind:

Read the question twice

The last thing you want to do is spend all of your time writing a claim and analysis that doesn’t actually answer the question at hand.

Read the question carefully and then read it again so that you can be 100% certain of what it is asking before you begin writing.

Find an intersection point between the historical documents

As you read through the documents carefully, look for points of intersection between the various texts. In what ways does one document complicate, support, or oppose another?

Consider the authors’ points of view, the time period, historical themes, and other information provided in the documents. Then see how you can put these documents in conversation with one another to craft and support a claim.

It will most likely prove helpful for you to take notes on each of your sources as you read them so that you can start planning how you will connect them in your analysis.

Use all of the documents

If you only include two documents in your response, you are not going to get a high score for your DBQ, even if you analyze them in depth. 

One of the easiest ways to get a good score on a document-based question is to incorporate as many of the sources as you can (make sure you are providing analysis and not just summarizing these documents when you mention them!)

Make an outline

Some of the points for your DBQ response come from having a strong thesis statement, strong supporting evidence, and strong analysis.

Take the time to plan out your essay so that you can make sure you are including all necessary elements and presenting a well-organized response.

For DBQs, not only will you need to include analysis about the historical documents provided, but you will also need at least one piece of supporting evidence that comes from an outside source. Making an outline will decrease the chances that you will forget to include this critical piece of evidence, and it will help you make sure that your essay doesn’t move away from your thesis.

Preparing for DBQs

Like any other skill, when it comes to doing well on DBQs, practice makes perfect.

Here are a few ways for you to practice and prepare for document-based questions:

  • Write thesis statements. When you read articles for school or for fun, practice writing thesis statements that make arguments about the author’s main claim. You can also try writing thesis statements for the free-response questions provided as a study tool on the College Board website. This will help you sharpen your thesis-writing skills.
  • Stay up to date with current events. Reading articles about current events will help you practice identifying historical trends and issues, which is a skill you’ll need to use when you answer DBQs.
  • Practice supporting your claims with evidence. Whenever you write a thesis statement for class or for DBQ practice, make sure that you also take the time to find evidence that backs up your claim. Getting in the habit of doing this will make it easier for you to support your thesis statement when you answer a document-based question on an AP exam.
  • Try taking practice DBQs. The History and Social Sciences section of the College Board AP Exam website will have old DBQs from previous years that you can use to practice for your exam. Try answering these questions and reviewing your answers with a teacher or a tutor.
  • Understand your time limits. You will have 15 minutes to read and 45 minutes to write when you are answering DBQs. Take practice tests under these time restrictions so that you can get used to the pressure you will face when you take your AP exams.
  • Talk to your social studies and English teachers. Your social studies and English teachers will be great resources when it comes to answering DBQs.Your social studies teacher can help you with understanding how analyze historical trends as well as primary and secondary sources, and your English teacher can help you strengthen your essay writing skills.

Even with practice, mastering the document-based question can be difficult for many students. That’s where Prep Expert steps in. If you find yourself dreading the document-based questions you will encounter on your AP exams, we can help.

Prep Expert offers private tutoring for over one hundred academic subjects and tests, including AP exams. Our tutors are experts who received a score of 5 on their own AP exams in high school and have experience helping other students do just as well on their exams.

When you work with one of our private tutors, you will receive individualized instruction tailored to your personal strengths and weaknesses. If you struggle with tackling document-based questions they will teach you key strategies and tips that will help you master these questions in no time.

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