The dreaded AP US History Document Based Question. For years it has struck fear in the hearts of many, turned boys into men and rookie students into old, weathered veterans. Rumor has it that little Jimmy Walker once took the AP US History exam and when he got to the DBQ section, proceeded to spontaneously combust. Okay, so maybe that is a little dramatic. But the DBQ can be a really intimidating process that stands in the way of success for many students. Lucky for you, with this comprehensive guide, it can be relatively painless, and you will be well on your way to academic success and glory.
To start with, it is a good idea to figure out what exactly you are trying to accomplish on the DBQ. The quickest way to a high score is to know what the test scorers are looking for, and then do it! The rubric for grading the AP US History DBQ can be found here. Also lucky for you, we broke down the rubric to make it easy to understand. Before you continue through the rest of this how-to guide, be sure to go check out the DBQ rubric guide here.
All right, so now you know what they are looking for and what you are trying to accomplish. Let’s get started.
The DBQ Layout:
Okay, so here’s how it works. Basically, you will be given an essay prompt, a set of primary source documents (never more than 7), and only 60 minutes to come up with a well written, clear and coherent essay response. The general rule of thumb, recommended by the good people at CollegeBoard, is to dedicate about 15 of those precious minutes to planning and the last 45 to writing. That may seem a little overwhelming, but it is totally doable! Especially with these 6 easy steps!
1. Read the Question.
Then figure out what the question is asking you. I can’t stress this enough, figuring out what the prompt is asking you is critical. No matter how good of a writer you are, or how much history you may know, if you don’t answer the question, you are sunk. A neat tip might be to write out in your own words what the question is asking.
As you are reading the question, be on the lookout for which skills they are trying to test you on. Every DBQ is looking to test your skills of historical argumentation, use of historical evidence, contextualization, and synthesis. These things are outlined in the rubric and are consistent parts of every good DBQ. In addition to these critical skills, a DBQ will be looking to analyze one of a number of certain skills. These include: causation, change/continuity over time, comparison, interpretation, or periodization. Don’t waste too much time trying to figure this out, and don’t get so caught up in it that you forget to answer the actual question, just be sure to keep it in mind as you plan out your answer.
That probably seems like an insanely long first step, but all of that will really only take a couple of minutes and set you up to breeze through the rest of the process. Once you have thoroughly read and interpreted the question, you are ready for step number 2!
2. Dig into the Sources
While you want to make sure that you read each document, don’t waste your time on too focused of a reading. Underline or highlight things that stand out, and make notes out to the side. One suggestion is to write a quick sentence or two that summarizes the main idea of each document. And again, this is all just part of the 15-minute planning period; so don’t get too caught up on any document. You are just looking for main ideas and details that really stand out. To take this one step further, you can organize the documents into groups based on their main point. (For highest score possibilities, make sure to use either all or all but one of the primary source documents).
3. Make an Outline.
First decide on a thesis, and from there think about how you want to use your primary source documents to support that thesis. Think about what kinds of outside information you might want to bring in to further support your argument, and where it will fit into your essay as a whole. Once more, don’t get stuck mapping out every single thing that you are going to say, but be sure that you include documents where they fit in the response. This will make it much easier to incorporate them into your answer. Hopefully it has only been 15 minutes or less at this point and you are now ready to write!
4. Start Writing!
Most of your highly intensive, critical thinking type stuff should already have happened and now it is just all about putting those thoughts into words. If you played your cards right and made good use of the first 15 minutes, this part of the process should be pretty straightforward. Start with a brief introduction that gives a little context to the subject matter and shows that you know some of the details surrounding the subject matter. Introduce your thesis,then a few of your main ideas that support your thesis. This part of your paper is not much different than a regular essay response.
5. Keep Writing!
As you get going on some longer paragraphs and stringing together lots of sophisticated and smart sounding sentences, it can be easy to lose sight of the main points of your paper. I have said it a couple times already, but it is absolutely essential that you answer the question!
A few key things to keep in mind as you write your body:
1. Use specific references from your documents, and always show where you are getting the information. At the same time, don’t just use huge block quotes to take up a bunch of space. Use what you need to answer the question.
2. Make sure you use some outside knowledge to support your argument, along with your documents. Specific examples that aren’t on the documents are super helpful in making your argument stronger, and just showing that you know what you are talking about.
3. Don’t forget to contextualize. Things that happen in history are not isolated events, and the circumstances surrounding things matter. Don’t forget to address that.
6. Wrap it up with a ballin’ conclusion.
Don’t draw it out and don’t introduce new ideas in the conclusion. Make it short and to the point. Summarize what your main thesis and arguments were and leave it at that. Don’t try to be too clever or witty or trite and you actually don’t have to use the term “In conclusion” every time you write a conclusion. (Mind blown, I know).
If you follow these 6 easy steps and ANSWER THE QUESTION, you will demolish the DBQ section of the AP US History exam. (That’s a good thing). And at the very least, you will make it out better than poor Jimmy Walker.
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The Document Based Question (DBQ) essay is a key feature of the APUSH exam. And at 25% of your total score, it’s an important feature! Keep reading and you will get some great tips on how to write a DBQ for the APUSH exam.
What is a DBQ essay?
As I stated in a previous post on what the APUSH exam is all about, the goal of the exam is to test your historical thinking skills. Historians write arguments based on documents, and for this exam, you will, too.
For a DBQ essay, you will receive several documents of varying length. You will be asked to respond to some historical prompt that will require you to use the documents as evidence in your response. The great thing about a DBQ is that a lot of information you need to answer the question is in the documents themselves – score! However, you do need to have some background knowledge to make sense of the documents (we will practice this later in the post). The documents could be tables, charts, personal letters, or any other source that the exam creators believe would help you answer the question. Generally speaking, the documents will represent multiple perspectives on one topic.
It will be your job to synthesize those various perspectives into a coherent response.
Let’s walk through a sample DBQ topic for the APUSH exam.
Before we get too far into this, it’s important that you note that College Board, the organization that writes the APUSH exam, has made some major changes starting in 2015. I will be taking you through the 2015 sample the College Board provided for students to practice, but, as you will see in a second, it’s important that you practice as much as possible in order to read the documents quickly. Just make a note that the format may be slightly different if you review an exam prior to 2015.
Let’s say that you come across this prompt for a DBQ question:
Compare and contrast views of United States overseas expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Evaluate how understandings of national identity, at the time, shaped these views.
Before you Read
You have 7 documents to read in the suggested time of 15 minutes. How is that even possible?!
Well, no one ever said it was going to be easy. But it is possible. When you get that prompt, or any other DBQ prompt like it, what you do before you read the documents will be just as important as what you end up writing. Before you even read the content of the documents, you should:
- Recall what you know about the time period.
- Read the source information for each document.
- Recognize the possible opinions that could be compared and contrasted.
Let’s dig into each of those steps.
1. Recall what you know
This DBQ is interested in U.S. overseas expansion in the late 19th and early 20th century. What do you know about U.S. overseas expansion during that time period? Perhaps you remember something about the Spanish-American War of 1898, which falls into our time period. Perhaps you remember that the U.S. got some territory as a result of that war. Even if you can’t remember exactly what territory, this puts you in a much better position to get started.
2. Read the source information
Take these two documents below as an example.
From APUSH Sample Exam
Before I read the document, I see that Jane Addams titled her speech “Democracy or Militarism.” Based on the title alone, I can begin to make some inferences that this document is not likely to be positive about any overseas expansion that would most certainly require military force.
From APUSH Sample Exam
Before I even read this document, I can see that William Jennings Bryan is campaigning for the presidency. However, I cannot recall there ever being a President Bryan, meaning that he was unsuccessful in his campaign. Perhaps what he was saying was not popular enough to get enough votes.
These inferences help me make sense of the document later on.
3. Recognize possible opinions
Again, before I read the documents closely, I recognize that this is a compare/contrast question. Before I even read this document, I’m going to make the following table so that I can group documents later on.
|Documents FOR expansion||Documents AGAINST expansion||Documents with a complicated view|
This table will help me more easily write my essay.
I know that your instinct will be to see the clock and think, OH MY GOSH, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO BE DOING ALL THIS PREP WORK, MS. BERRY!!!!
Fight that instinct, because these steps will help you write a more coherent essay.
While you read
This part is tough. You have quite a few documents to make sense of in a short amount of time. But, as you are reading as fast as you can, you should be actively annotating the document for the following:
- Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you place the document into a group that helps you answer the question.
- Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you activate background knowledge.
- Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you understand the document’s bias.
You will have to practice this multiple times to get good at it; there’s really no way around that. But you have a plan of attack. So work your plan to make your plan work!
As you write
When you are writing your DBQ, usethe five paragraph essay to your advantage. I am sure you know lots of other things that could turn this answer into a novel, but the most important thing for this task is to make sure that you get enough of your ideas on the page so that your APUSH exam scorer knows that you know.
- First paragraph: introduction with a thesis statement
- Second paragraph: documents FOR expansion (As you write, make sure to mention who is for expansion and compare/contrast that with who is against it.)
- Third paragraph: documents AGAINST expansion (As you write, make sure to mention who is against expansion and compare/contrast that with who is for it.)
- Fourth paragraph: documents with ambiguity or complicated arguments (You should compare these documents to BOTH groups.)
- Fifth paragraph: Conclusion that reiterates your argument
You may be thinking, why do I need that fourth paragraph? That seems needlessly complicated, to look for documents that are complicated.
Well, you are trying to score well on this DBQ, right? (Remember: it’s 25% of your overall score!)
You get a point for being able to do the following:
“Develop and support a cohesive argument that recognizes and accounts for historical complexity by explicitly illustrating relationships among historical evidence such as contradiction, corroboration, and/or qualification.” AP Scoring Guide
You will want that point!
I’ve given you a lot of information; but this information will become more like second nature the more you practice! For a summary, look at the table below.
And happy studying!
In summary: Strategies for writing the DBQ Essay
|Before you Read||While you Read||As you Write|
About Allena Berry
Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.
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