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What is a DBQ? An Introduction to Document Based Questions

document based question

The document based question or DBQ is the timed essay portion of the AP history exams. The AP US History (or APUSH), AP World History and AP European History exams all have a 90 minute DBQ section.

I am already a DBQ veteran so I can tell you that being prepared when you sit down to write the essay is crucial. When I would practice document based questions for World History, I would sit down and analyze the entire question and all the documents. It is always better to know how the exam is structured and graded than to figure everything out the day of the exam.

Many students want to know the specific layout and grading rubric of the DBQ section of the exam, and how they can break it down into smaller digestible pieces. I know that DBQ’s can be intimidating, but by understanding the rubric and knowing what you’re up against, you’ve already taken the first step to conquering an AP History exam.

By the end of this article, you will hopefully understand the educational objective of the DBQ, how it is scored, and what you can do to prepare for it.

What is the point of a DBQ?

A document based question gives the scorer an in-depth perspective of the writer's historical interpretation of the material they’ve been presented. The purpose of the essay is to see how well the writer can make connections between the documents while adding outside information from their individual knowledge. The DBQ’s educational objective is to test the student’s historical writing ability in 4 categories.

Here are the 4 categories the DBQ tests:

  1. The ability to build a strong argument around your document backed thesis statement.
  2. The ability to draw parallels between the documents.
  3. The ability to recall outside historical information to support your points.
  4. The ability to review documents for features including main idea, purpose, audience’s perspective, historical context and author’s opinion.

The abilities listed above are key to writing a strong DBQ essay with all the components necessary to succeed.

What does a DBQ teach you to do and why is it important?

This essay is meant to teach while also examining your own personal historical recall. Document based questions teach valuable document analysis skills that will help you succeed in the future because it forces you to look critically at the information presented to you and draw your own conclusions based on both new information and your existing knowledge. These skills will be applied in college and also your professional career.

What is the format of a DBQ?

Each document-based question is allocated a grand total of 90 minutes. The first 15 minutes of the DBQ are dedicated to reading the documents and analyzing the material. The remaining time is to be divided between 2 essay questions.

The time should be used strategically between the 2 questions, as there is no reminder to begin the second essay. The writer ultimately dictates the way they use their time during the planning period. Dividing the time creatively will give you more time to plan and structure the essay. When an essay has a solid outline and plan it tends to be much easier to put on paper.

Every AP History exam has one DBQ in part II of the exam. The prompt is given in the first page of the booklet and the supporting documents follow. Be sure to read the specific instructions at the top of the first page to be thorough.

hand written dbq The best way to understand the formatting is to view the question itself. Luckily, Collegeboard® released DBQ samples from 2015 that were graded with the new rubric. The content and format are likely to change every few years. Most recently Collegeboard® created a new AP world history rubric that features some interesting updates.

How is the DBQ scored?

You may find it helpful to review the online rubric by College Board®.

The DBQ portion of the exam is made of 2 equally weighted essays that count for 25 percent of the total grade. The question is graded by the rubric, which dictates how the writer will be judged using the 4 categories mentioned previously.

Thesis and Argument Development – 2pts

Document Analysis- 2pts

Using Evidence outside the Documents- 2pts

Synthesis- 1pt

This means there are a total of 7 points up for grabs. Remember to have a well-rounded essay that uses all of the techniques in order to maximize your chances of getting a high score. Having a strong argument with a well-supported thesis is just as important as analyzing the key historical and literary elements. Having a firm understanding of the format and purpose of the DBQ makes it easier to strategize ways to ace it.

8 Quick Tips for Writing an Awesome DBQ

Here is a list of useful tips to make your essay better:

-Read the instructions

-Thoroughly analyze the documents

-Re-Read the question

-Develop a thesis statement

-Organize your essay

-Begin with a memorable introduction

-Use good support and references in your body paragraphs

-Conclude with a re-cap of your argument and your main points

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