What Is a DBQ? Understanding DBQs and How to Excel in Writing One

23/05/202421 minute read
What Is a DBQ? Understanding DBQs and How to Excel in Writing One

Curious about what a DBQ is and how to excel in writing one? This blog post will demystify Document-Based Questions, explain how they are scored, and offer a step-by-step playbook filled with tested strategies. Whether you’re preparing for an AP History exam or seeking to boost your essay-writing skills, you’ll find the guidance you need right here.

If you’re considering or currently enrolled in an Advanced Placement (AP) course, you've likely heard the term "DBQ" mentioned either by your teacher or in test preparation materials. But what exactly is a DBQ? Understanding what a DBQ is and how it fits into AP testing is crucial for your success. This article explains what a DBQ is, their purpose and format, what's required in a DBQ response, how they're scored, and how to prepare.

Already enrolled in an AP class and wondering what it takes to write a DBQ essay? Don't worry, you'll also find a step-by-step method for writing your DBQ essay, with proven strategies from our Crimson experts.

What Is a DBQ?

DBQ stands for Document-Based Question. This type of essay question is on AP History Exams, such as AP United States History, AP European History, and AP World History.

The Key Features of a DBQ

  • A prompt presenting a critical thinking task about a historical period and topic
  • Several short primary source documents related to the prompt and historical topic for you to review, analyze, and use to make or support claims in your essay
  • The application of evidence-based reading and writing skills, including the application of your own knowledge (from your AP course) about the time period and topic presented in the prompt
  • Writing a response in the form of an essay that uses critical thinking and is guided by a thesis (a central claim or argument) that address the prompt and is defended with analysis and evidence.

The Purpose of a DBQ

The main purpose of a DBQ is to test your ability to apply your knowledge of history and think critically about history, in the ways historians do.

A DBQ is designed to assess what you've learned about the principles of historical research and analysis, as opposed to just testing your knowledge of rote facts, dates, and events.

A DBQ also tests your ability to assess and make defensible use of primary source documents in order to illustrate, interpret, and analyze historical periods, concepts, trends, or events.

  • Document analysis: in order to use primary source documents in a credible way, historians need to critically assess source documents in a historical context, taking into consideration the origin, meaning, and purpose of a document, its authorship, intended audience, and so forth, depending on what factors are most relevant to the document and to the research focus.
  • Making Sense of Sources: Historians need to think about how source documents can illuminate our understanding of history, such as how do various sources corroborate, qualify, or challenge existing views of historical events? This typically involves synthesizing historical knowledge and assessments of source documents and looking for patterns, factual evidence, or inconsistencies across different viewpoints and sources.
  • Making Interpretive Claims: Beyond multiple choice and short answer questions, a DBQ involves synthesizing and applying knowledge and sources. For example, we all know the US Civil War started in 1861, but we don't all agree on the primary vs. secondary causes of the war, or if the war could have been avoided or not, or if the Civil War period offers meaningful parallels or insights into contemporary US events. These kinds of interpretive skills require making claims and defending them with analysis and evidence; DBQs are formatted to test skills like these.

Principal Skills Tested

As a complex, critical thinking task, the DBQ tests a variety of course-related skills.

Background knowledge

DBQs test students' knowledge of important historical periods, concepts, developments, people, events, and trends studied in the AP course and aligned with learning objectives in the course syllabus.

Critical thinking and applied knowledge

Your DBQ response requires you to analyze and interpret historical sources using higher order thinking skills such as analysis, comparison, cause and effect, and synthesis. You also need to apply the knowledge you've studied in class along with academic principles of historical investigation in order to make and defend an interpretive thesis.

Expository writing skills

You need to create a clear and ordered essay that presents and supports a clear interpretive thesis. This tests your ability to write about historical events and topics using expository and argumentative writing skills.

Learn more about AP History Exams:

AP US History Exam: Everything You Need to Know

Navigating AP World History: A Comprehensive Guide

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Format of a DBQ

DBQs have a predictable format, with four key components:

  1. The Prompt: This sets the stage for your essay by providing a specific question or statement that you need to address. The prompt will guide your entire approach, so read it carefully. 
  2.  Historical Documents: You will be given a series of primary and secondary source documents, usually between 5 and 7. These documents can include textual sources, such as letters, speeches, and excerpts from historical books, as well as non-textual sources like photographs, maps, and charts.
  3. Essay Writing: To respond to the DBQ, you'll write a timed essay that addresses the kind of analysis task, the time period, and topic set forth in the prompt.
  4. Time Limits: The DBQ format provides a 15-minute period to review the prompt and historical documents and a 45-minute period for planning and writing your essay.

Examples of DBQ Prompts

 AP United States History (APUSH):

   Prompt: "Analyze the ways in which the Vietnam War heightened social, political, and economic tensions in the United States. Focus your answer on the period 1964 to 1975."

 AP European History:

   Prompt: "Evaluate the extent to which the religious policies of sixteenth-century monarchs contributed to the growth of Protestantism. Use specific examples from England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire."

AP World History:

   Prompt: "Analyze the economic and social effects of the Columbian Exchange on the Americas and Europe during the period from 1492 to 1750."

 AP World History: Modern:

   Prompt: "Evaluate the extent to which the political, economic, and social goals of movements for national unification in nineteenth-century Germany and Italy were realized by 1871."

What Makes a Good DBQ Essay?

One of the key concerns for students tackling a DBQ is understanding what differentiates a good DBQ essay from an average one. You’ll find a much more detailed guide on writing a strong DBQ in Part II below. For now, here are some crucial elements that typically make a DBQ essay stand out, followed by the official DBQ Scoring Rubric.

Clear Thesis Statement

A clear thesis responds directly to the key critical thinking task presented in the prompt (analysis, causation, change vs. continuity…) laying out your main argument and providing a clear roadmap for your essay. It must be specific and assertive, telling the reader the claim you’ll be discussing, analyzing, and supporting with historical knowledge and with evidence from the documents accompanying the prompt.

Effective Use of Documents

A good DBQ essay incorporates a majority, if not all, of the provided documents. Each document should be accurately interpreted and utilized to help support, illuminate, or explain your thesis. It’s important to apply the source documents thoughtfully, this typically includes considerations of the author and/or author’s perspective, the type of document and purpose of the document, and the document’s historical context.


A strong essay includes broader historical context to frame your argument. This means explaining the more relevant events, trends, or policies that are part of the historical backdrop for the period, prompt, and your arguments.

Coherent Structure and Organization

You’ll want it to have the essential elements of essay structure, logic, and flow, but you’ll probably want to use a fairly straightforward organization given the time constraints, similar to a standard 5-paragraph essay.

Pick three or four subtopics around which to group the key points, arguments, and evidence (body of the essay).

Write clear and purposeful paragraphs. Use topic sentences to introduce the main idea of each paragraph and ensure each paragraph transitions smoothly to the next.

Be sure your introduction paragraph provides some context, rephrases key elements in the prompt, and presents your thesis (overarching claim or argument).

Solid Evidence and Analysis

A good DBQ uses evidence-based reading and writing strategies and critical thinking to make clear and historically nuanced arguments. Use evidence thoughtfully to corroborate, qualify (limit), or modify your claims and interpretations.

Evidence should include meaningful references to contextual information from the time period and the historical documents provided with the DBQ prompt.

Include observations and analysis of a document’s purpose, point of view, historical context, authorship, and intended audience when relevant to the historical context, the DBQ topic, or your claims.

The DBQ Scoring Rubric

Now that you've seen the qualities of a strong DBQ essay, understanding the scoring rubric can also help you target your efforts effectively.

DBQ Scoring
Essay Component and SkillsPoint ValueScoring Criteria
1. Thesis/Claim0–1 PointYour thesis responds to the prompt and is historically defensible
2. Contextualization0–1 PointYou connect your argument to broader historical events, developments, or processes that are relevant to the question
3. Evidence0–3 Points- One point for using at least three documents to address the topic - One point for using at least six documents to support the argument - One point for incorporating relevant outside information beyond the provided documents
4. Analysis and Reasoning0–2 Points- One point for sourcing at least three documents — explaining the author’s point of view, purpose, audience, and context - One point for demonstrating a complex understanding of the topic — discussing nuances, recognizing limitations of the documents, and connecting the topic to other historical periods or areas

How to Prepare for a DBQ

Preparation for a DBQ is both an ongoing and intensive process. Here are some steps to help you get ready:

  1. Understand the Format: Familiarize yourself with the structure of DBQs by reviewing practice questions and sample responses. The College Board website and various AP study materials and prep books are excellent resources. Pro Tip: Pay attention to common types of analysis required by different prompts, such as comparison, causation, or change vs. continuity.
  2. Practice Writing: Regularly practice writing DBQ responses. Start with untimed practice to get a feel for the structure, then gradually work up to timed practice to simulate test conditions.
  3. Analyze Sample Essays: Review high-scoring sample essays to understand what makes them effective. Pay attention to how these essays integrate documents and historical information.
  4. Build Knowledge with Effective Study Habits: A strong background in the broader historical context will help you contextualize and support your DBQ claims and analysis, and should help you understand and integrate documents. Make use of timelines, summaries, and flashcards as study aids. Be sure to give yourself a long runway of consistent study time to build up mastery of your history curriculum.
  5. Develop Analytical Skills: Work on skills that are critical for analyzing documents, such as identifying the author's perspective, understanding the historical context, identifying and analyzing causation, identifying influential concepts and their origins, tracking trends or movements over time (and how they progress, evolve, change, or stay the same).
  6. If the AP history courses you want are not available at your school, or you need a more flexible option, the Crimson Global Academy has online AP courses across a wide range of subjects. Courses help you learn the required content and provide additional guidance, practice, and coaching for test items, including DBQs.
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PART II: How to Write a DBQ Essay


Writing a Document-Based Question (DBQ) response on the day of your AP History exam can be an intimidating task, but with a solid plan, you can tackle it confidently. Below are tips and strategies to help you navigate the entire exam-day writing process, from deconstructing the prompt, to developing a thesis, through writing and reviewing your essay.

1. Analyzing and Deconstructing the Prompt

Recommended Time Allocation: 5 minutes

Even if only takes 5 minutes, the first step in writing a strong DBQ response — thoroughly analyzing and deconstructing the prompt — is pivotal.

Before we show you exactly how to deconstruct a DBQ prompt, let's look at the most common types of DBQ prompts, reviewing the main types of analysis required by DBQs.

Common Prompts by Type of Analysis

  • Change and Continuity Over Time: Directs you to focus and analyze what has changed and what has remained the same across a specified time period in relation to a specified historical movement, trend, concept, or political or social policy.
  • Comparison: Asks you to compare different societies, events, processes, or policies to identify similarities or differences, or to rank them in terms of significance or impact.
  • Causation: Inquires about the causes and/or effects of a particular historical event or phenomenon.

Pro Tip

Watch out for miscues when reading a prompt.

For example, the prompt "Describe the causes of the Civil War" requires you to explore and discuss causation.

But another prompt may mention causation but not be about analyzing causation. For example, the prompt "Among different causes of the US Civil War during the period 1818 to 1861, which played a bigger role in putting the North and South on a path to conflict, economic differences between the North and South or evolving views on social reforms?" This prompt refers to "causes of the US Civil War" but directs students to make a comparison of the relative importance and impact of two different kinds of causes.

How to Analyze the Prompt

  • Read the Prompt Carefully: Look for keywords and phrases to understand exactly what is being asked.
  • Identify the Task: Determine what the essay requires you to address—change over time, comparison, causation, etc.
  • Look for Time Periods and Geographical Context: Note any specific time periods or regions mentioned in the prompt, as these will guide your research and outline.

Pro Tip

When deconstructing the prompt, write down the tasks and requirements. By writing them down, you’ll be super clear about them, can refer back, and won’t waste valuable brain cells as you proceed to tackle all the next steps of the essay!

Decoding DBQ Prompts
Prompt Type of AnalysisTime PeriodTasks
"Compare the political and economic effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Japan during the 19th century."Comparison19th century1. Identify the political effects in both Britain and Japan. 2. Identify the economic effects in both Britain and Japan. 3. Compare and contrast these effects in the two countries. 4. Provide contextual information about the Industrial Revolution and its broader impact.
"Explain the causes of the American Civil War from 1848 to 1861."Causation1848-18611. Identify significant causes leading to the American Civil War. 2. Discuss the social, economic, and political factors that contributed. 3. Analyze how these causes are interrelated and their impact over time. 4. Provide background information on pre-war conditions in the United States.
"Analyze the changes and continuities in women's roles in society in the United States from 1900 to 1970."Change and Continuity Over Time1900-19701. Identify and elaborate on significant changes in women's roles from 1900 to 1970. 2. Identify and elaborate on aspects of women's roles that remained continuous. 3. Discuss social, political, and economic factors that influenced these changes and continuities. 4. Provide contextual information about key events and movements related to women's roles.

This chart should help you effectively decode DBQ prompts, enabling you to identify the type of analysis and the specific tasks required in preparation for planning your response.

Remember, after reading the prompt, check your understanding by writing down the specific kinds of analysis the prompt is asking you to perform.

This may seem like unnecessary effort, but under the pressure of a timed exam, it's easier than you think to misinterpret a DBQ prompt, steering yourself down the wrong path!

2. Review and Analyze Documents

Suggested Time Allocation: 10 to 15 minutes

Efficiently reading and analyzing the documents provided is crucial. You need to think about how they relate to the prompt, and how they might shape and/or relate to your thesis.

Skim the Documents: Quickly skim the documents to get an overview and look for initial patterns and how each document might be most useful.

Annotate Key Points: While reading each document more carefully, underline or highlight key points, authorship information, and any relevant dates.

Make critical historical assessments of each document related to:

  • the author’s perspective, intentions, or bias
  • the purpose of the document
  • the intended audience
  • the historical context

Assess the evidence and formulate your thesis. Identify which documents corroborate or support your thesis and if any qualify or challenge your thesis, or indicate you need to adjust your thesis before proceeding.

Align the documents and evidence with key elements of your essay ahead of writing an outline. Group the documents into categories based on the topic, the analysis required, and the key supporting arguments for different points of your thesis.

3. Make an Outline

Suggested Time Allocation: 5 to 7 minutes

Planning your response before diving into writing is critical for a well-structured essay.

Create an Outline that includes the following:

  • An introduction that includes your thesis statement
  • Two to four body paragraphs presenting 2-3 main points or arguments
  • A conclusion that reiterates or adds nuance to your central claim and highlights any key insights or understanding you've uncovered

Incorporate and Align Evidence: Note where each document fits into your outline. Indicate where you’ll bring in outside information.

4. Write the Essay

Suggested Time Allocation: 25 to 30 minutes

When you're ready to write, follow your outline, keeping these tips in mind:

  • Style & Voice: Use your best academic diction, spelling, and punctuation possible; keep the voice and style formal.
  • Concision: Avoid unnecessary detail or digressions; focus on clarity and supporting each claim with evidence and analysis
  • Topic Sentences: Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the main idea of the paragraph and ties it back to your thesis.
  • Document Integration: Incorporate evidence from the documents in a way that supports your argument. Make sure to reference the documents appropriately (e.g., "Document A suggests...").
  • Outside Evidence: Include relevant historical facts, events, or processes that aren't covered in the documents but support your thesis.
  • Analysis: Go beyond just summarizing the documents. Discuss the significance of the evidence and what it shows. Analyze the point of view, purpose, historical context, and audience of the documents.
  • Sourcing: For at least three documents, include a discussion on the author's perspective, the document’s purpose, and its audience. Reflect on how these elements affect the document's reliability or viewpoint.
  • Introduction & Conclusion Paragraphs: Provide context in your introduction and present your thesis. Reiterate the conclusion and highlight key insights from the essay.

5. Checking Over Your Work

Suggested Time Allocation: 3 to 5 minutes

  • Review Thesis and Arguments: Ensure your thesis is clear and that all body paragraphs consistently support it.
  • Check for Completeness: Make sure you have used and appropriately cited all or most of the documents. Verify that you’ve incorporated outside information effectively.
  • Accuracy: Double-check facts and dates. Ensure all your information is historically accurate and relevant to the prompt.
  • Clarity and Coherence: Read through your essay to ensure it flows logically. Each paragraph should seamlessly transition to the next.
  • Grammar and Spelling: Quickly scan for any grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. Proper language use can make your argument more persuasive and easier to understand.

7. Managing Your Time

Time management on test day is vital. Here’s an efficient way to allocate your time:

  1. Deconstructing the Prompt: 5 minutes
  2. Reviewing and Analyzing Documents: 10-15 minutes
  3. Outlining the Response: 5-7 minutes
  4. Writing the Essay: 25-30 minutes
  5. Checking Over Your Work: 3-5 minutes

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Final Thoughts

Now that you know what a DBQ is, its format and purpose, how to prepare for DBQs, and how to approach a DBQ, and even exactly how to write a DBQ essay, you can use these insights to guide how you prepare for the DBQ and feel much more confident about your next steps.

If you want more support for high stakes tests, or for other university admissions challenges, Crimson Education Advisors can answer any questions you have. And, they'll be happy to explain our personalized approach and why Crimson students get amazing results. Finding out more is as easy as booking a free consultation. Hope to hear from you today!