How to Write a DBQ Essay: Know Your Enemy

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Writing a DBQ essay may seem a tough nut to crack, but it’s only on the surface. Remember, to get the full credit for the AP exam you need to know what you will face. It can seem that a DBQ essay is difficult, but more information about it will make you feel “I can do it.” Let’s explore what a DBQ essay is.

DBQ (document-based question) essay is a type of paper that is commonly used in the AP world, and European and US history exams. As it can be seen from the name, a DBQ essay is based on several documents that relate to a certain topic or period of time. The student’s aim will be working through the documents and finding out how these documents relate to each other, tendencies that can be seen through time, etc. Keep in mind that you won’t need to simply describe the events, as a DBQ essay is about analysis. Imagine that you are a historian that needs to analyze primary sources and determine cause and effect relationships between events.

This task differs from a free-response essay and students are frequently confused with it. But there is no reason to worry. Read our list of steps on how to write a document-based essay and be ready for writing any DBQ essay.

How to Write a Good DBQ Essay

There are only two main things that will help you write a better DBQ essay. Any timed essay depends on proper planning and using working methods to write a timed essay. If you wish to be more confident and increase your chances to write a great DBQ essay on your AP exam, you will need to practice. Use tips on how to write a DBQ essay below to improve your skills in writing timed essays.

Usually, the AP exam limits the DBQ essay with 55 minutes (but it may vary from one type of test to another). You will be given15 minutes for reading and 40 minutes for writing. In the first 15 minutes you will need to understand the question, brainstorm about the issue and process the documents. If you will be ready to start writing earlier than 15 minutes, we still recommend you to use the time for proper planning. Keep in mind that you will have other tasks along with the DBQ essay, so make sure you have planned your time wisely.

1. Read and understand the question. Point out the key words (location, time period, personality, etc.) that should be mentioned while reading and underline what you should do (e.g. you can be asked to compare and contrast). Come up with your point of view and think what outside information you can use for this question. Briefly write down your thoughts related to the question for two or three minutes. It will be a big mistake to read documents before brainstorming, as it will be hard to think about outside information with documents in your mind.

2. Work through the documents effectively. The number of the documents may vary from one exam to another, but you will need to analyze as many documents as possible. Also, consider that you will need to add your own evidence to support your arguments.

Be ready to face the following types of documents: articles, speeches, legislation excerpts, letters, diary entries, charts, maps and pictures. Some documents may be classic or well-known, but most of them will sound new for you.

First, read who has created the document and when. Then briefly write the main idea of the text and points. Then, answer the questions related to the document (if available). Take notes about the most important moments during the reading – you will use this information when you will be writing the essay. As soon as you will finish reading all the documents, think whether documents can be divided into groups and whether the documents may be biased.

3. Come up with the thesis statement. Create an outline for your future essay and think about what you already know about the topic and what documents you can use in your writing. Make sure that every paragraph refers to one certain idea.

4. Write an essay. Your main aim is to create a thought-out text with a good thesis, well-developed body paragraphs supported with examples that address the question and a conclusion.

  • Introduction. You may be puzzled with how to start a DBQ introduction, but it’s more like the introduction to any essay you have already written. Introduce the topic to your reader, get the reader to understand the historical context (Who? What? Where? When?), mention the points you are going to describe in the subsequent text and present a thesis. Don’t restate the question and tell more about the purpose of the essay.
  • Body section. Usually, the body paragraphs consist of two and more subparagraphs. Every subparagraph should cover only one idea. If you have sorted the documents into several groups, start analyzing the information from the first group beginning each paragraph with the topic sentence.
  • Try to include as much documentation as you can (at least more than a half). Start writing your own information that you have learned in class and support your thoughts with the documents. Don’t fall into a description of the documents – try to integrate them into your paper or make references when appropriate. Make sure that every point relates to the thesis statement and is supported with the right document or outside information.
    Conclusion. Begin with restating the purpose of this DBQ essay and summarize the points you have described in previous paragraphs. Answer the “Why it is important” question to show the impact of the issue on today’s world. If you will feel that you won’t have time for a long conclusion, write a concluding sentence – it’s better than leaving the essay incomplete.

5. Proofread. In a perfect world students proofread their DBQ essays after writing. Check whether you have correctly written the dates, names and documents.

Tips for Your DBQ Essay

  • Make sure that you have fully understood the question, as your credit depends on how well you have answered the question.
  • Avoid explaining the historical background (only if the assignment requires it).
    Don’t name documents like “document 1 states,” it’s better to mention the title of the document instead.
  • Different exams require or don’t require quotes. But sometimes it’s better to use a citation to make clear what document you are talking about (don’t forget to add the number of document after quote).
  • Make sure that all paragraphs are presented in logical order, as you can lose some points.
    Keep in mind that there is no right answer for a DBQ essay. While you have evidence, you can argue for any point of view.
  • Don’t forget to use outside information to get the most credit for your essay.
  • Don’t panic. Learn as much about the exam as you can and get prepared.
  • Remember that graders won’t have much time to read your essay, so they will be looking for the overall picture instead of a detailed review.
  • Keep in mind that you are writing a history essay, as many DBQ questions may refer to religion, science, art, or other disciplines.

And the main thing you should bear in mind – don’t panic! Many students that have prepared well for the exam receive a lower grade just because of anxiety they experience during the exam. Writing a DBQ essay may seem hard, but with some practice, you will gain more confidence. We hope our tips will help you on your exam, as it’s always a good idea to know your enemy.