What is a DBQ and How to Write a DBQ?

You are currently viewing What is a DBQ and How to Write a DBQ?

To get college credit, you are expected to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses as many as you can manage. Most AP exam includes a document-based question, popularly known as DBQ. However, it is necessary to pass the AP exam before you can claim your hard-earned college credit.

Do you want to know what a DBQ is and how to write an essay that will earn you 6-7 points on your AP exam? If yes, this post will guide you properly.

What is a DBQ?

A DBQ is an assigned essay question on the AP History exams, which means you are required to write as many paragraphs in response. These DBQ essays require you to analyze some historical documents or trends to provide documents or sources as evidence. The documents in a DBQ can be photographs, charts, maps, writings from history, newspapers, etc.

What is the Purpose of a DBQ?

The purpose of a DBQ is to test your ability to:

  • Find the link between the documents.
  • Provide a strong thesis and support it with your analysis of the documents.
  • Apply your knowledge of the historical material to strengthen the argument.
  • Analyze the author’s purpose, context, point of view, and audience.

Which Exams Include a DBQ?

DBQ appear on the following AP exams only:

  • AP U.S. History
  • AP European History
  • AP World History exam

Each of the following AP History exams includes a DBQ or Document-based questions. And they all follow the same guidelines, skills, and rubric; only the source of historical material is different.

How many paragraphs is a DBQ?

There is no required format for your DBQ. You can use as many paragraphs as you need. Also, you don’t need a conclusion paragraph. This means that there is no self-format for the essay. So it will be best you write in whatever way that makes sense to you.

How is a DBQ Formatted?

The DBQ appears in Part II of the writing section of the AP exam. It contains historical documents and essay questions. However, each AP history exam has one long essay and one DBQ, with about 90 minutes to write your response. Every test taker is expected to use 15 minutes to read over the documents and then write the essay for 40 minutes. It is left for you to manage the time given and complete the two essay questions successfully.

How Do You Write a DBQ?

To answer a DBQ, you will have 60 minutes to read your documents and write your essay, and you will see a prompt followed by seven documents no more, no less. Your job is to use evidence from those seven documents to support an argument in response to the prompt. Let’s go through the steps of what you need to do to score well on the DBQ.

STEP 1: Read and Understand the Question

Read the question carefully and spend the time to do what may feel remedial for you. Mark it up thoroughly and understand it. What period are they asking you about? Remember that the 18th century, for example, equals 1700. So don’t get confused by the century. If you get confused by those things, write down the dates they’re asking you about so that you don’t get confused. Furthermore, what is the historical thinking skill in the question?

You need to write this down because that’s the kind of essay required to write. The prompt asks you to compare things to make sure your essay compares things. Sometimes the historical thinking skill won’t be obvious, but it is there. Sometimes it asks you a question, and you can decide whether you want to use causation or change over time or comparison. Ensure you understand what you’re doing.

Second, you need to note any categories that they’re giving you. Third, note the period they give you in this case. If it is 2000 to 2008, your essay needs to deal with issues within that period. 

STEP 2: Read through the documents quickly

I suggest you take 15 minutes to read through the documents, which will leave you 45 minutes for writing, and that 15 minutes you need to be looking at the following:

  • What is the source of the document?
  • Who is speaking and to whom?
  • Where in the timeline does this document sit?

Note those things because it will help later when it comes to sourcing.

Summarize the Main Idea of the document with reference to the prompt. Keep in mind that they’re giving you these documents as evidence because they think that these documents will help you answer the question.

Third, Group your documents into two to three groups with seven documents. Three groups will probably be the upper limit on what you can viably create. So if the prompt is asking you about the causes of imperialism, and you’re reading through the documents, and you see three of them mentioned religious reasons, and four have to do with economic reasons, then group them like that.

Pro Tips: Grouping your documents by category is a higher-level cognitive exercise that shows that you’ve made connections between the documents that set you on your way to a good score.

STEP 3: Get a 7 (5 Subsections)

Next is to walk through the DBQ rubric point by point and show you how to earn each one in turn. I’ll generally explain at this point and give basic guidelines.

How Are DBQs Scored?

Knowing how DBQ scores can help you put more energy and time into the right place. With the introduction of five (5) subsections for the DBQ, you will get to know how to earn each point. The overall score in the DBQ is seven points. See how to earn these points below according to College Board guidelines:

Point 1: Thesis 0-1 pt

A thesis is arguably one of the most important things you’re going to do in a DBQ essay because it will organize and anticipate everything else you’re going to write. You can earn zero to one point for this. So make sure you spend your time getting the thesis right now to earn this point.

The rubric says that you must write one or two sentences that are historically defensible and establish a line of reasoning. So you won’t get the point here from merely restating the prompt. Your thesis should be your argument in miniature, and the thesis needs to be explicitly added, which is to say you must mention specific historical evidence in your thesis.

 Formula to earn this point:

Despite [counter argument], because [evidence 1] and [evidence two], [my argument].

Point 2: Contextualization 0-1 pt

The second point is contextualization; you can earn between zero and one point for this. Contextualization is there to situate your argument in the larger historical context. And the rubric tells you that you can explain the historical context before or after the prompt period.

The most intuitive way to earn this point is by explaining the events that occurred before the period you were given. Name two to three specific vocabulary words that happened before the prompt, and then use two to three sentences defining those words and showing how they set the stage for your argument. And that second part is crucial; you have to draw the connection between your context and your argument.

Points 3-5: Evidence 0-3 pts

In the evidence section, you’re going to have seven documents to work with, and I’m going to give you the point breakdown first and then guide you on how you can earn a total of three points.

1 pt is awarded for successfully describing the contents of three of the documents in relation to the prompt.

2 pts are awarded for supporting your argument with at least six documents. It will be best to use all seven documents because if you get an interpretation wrong, you can still get all the points.

You can earn the remaining 1 pt by writing about evidence related to your prompt but which is not mentioned in the document. This is called Evidence Beyond The Documents, and if you do that successfully, one point.

Pro Tips: Don’t quote from the documents. The people reading and scoring your essay know these documents backward and forwards. So don’t waste your time quoting from them because it will earn you nothing and waste your time.

1 pt for Evidence Beyond The Documents. To earn this point, you need to connect a specific piece of evidence to the argument of your prompt. Also, it cannot be something that’s in the documents themselves. This requires you to name it, explain it, and then connect it back to your argument. Three things, Name it, Explain it, and Connect it.

People tend to lose this point because they can usually name a piece of evidence, but they forget to explain it and connect it. And there’s no specific place where you need to do this. Just stick it in wherever it’s relevant. There is no particular period given to you with respect to evidence beyond the documents.

When you’re using evidence to support an argument, it’ll probably come from roughly the same period you’re writing about AP US readers are far more strict about this than AP World or AP Euro readers. The safest thing to do with evidence beyond the documents is to use evidence within the same period you’re writing about.

Points 6-7: Analysis and Reasoning 0-2 pts

The last section of the rubric is for analysis and reasoning. In this section, you can earn up to two points. The first section is about sourcing documents, and you can earn one point there now.

Source a document means to show how that document’s historical situation, audience purpose, or point of view is relevant to the interpretation of the document.

 To source for a historical situation means that you place the document in its larger historical context. So if your document is Lincoln’s second inaugural address, then it might be important to know its historical situation. This means that it was given in the American Civil War as the source for the audience. You need to demonstrate why it’s essential for us to know to whom this was written.

Source for point of view

You need to answer the question; why do they say what they say in the way that they say it. The special source of point of view analysis comes from the end of that question in what he or she says. 

Now you only have to perform one of those sources skills for each document you try to source.

Point 7: Complexity “Unicorn” Point

And it’s the complexity point for this you can earn up to one point. To be sincere, only 2% of all students who write DBQ have earned this point. Here’s what this point is about. Is your essay nuanced? Does it analyze multiple variables? Does it explain the complexity of the topic with skill and beauty?

If so, you’ll earn this point. So if you’re writing an essay about changes over time, then maybe also include the continuity if you’re comparing things and talking about their similarities, then perhaps also talk about their differences.


DBQ is one of the most challenging essays that any student in any AP history will do. If you are overwhelmed by this, the only way to improve on it is to continue practicing repeatedly.


How do I cite documents in AP world?

AP world has a section called “document.citations”, which uses the same citation syntax as MLA. This allows you to include any citation format in the AP world.

How do I cite a visual in AP world?

In the AP world, it is common to use a visual (like a map or a picture) as evidence to support a claim that you make in your AP essay. To add a visual to the AP world, use the “visual.citations” section.

How do you use outside evidence in a DBQ?

It depends on the question, but you can use outside evidence to support an argument in an argumentative question, as long as you cite your source in your essay. Outside evidence can distinguish between two opposing sides in a debate or provide a different perspective.

The key to using outside evidence well is to find outside evidence that will support the thesis statement and link to one or more other outside sources.

The outside evidence must be related to the question. For example, if the question asks how an event or situation led to an outcome, you need to find outside evidence that shows how the event or situation helped lead to the outcome.

The outside evidence must be accurate. Things like statistics and dates can be wrong. It is important to read and check all your outside evidence carefully.

The outside evidence must support your answer.

What is the difference between an LEQ and a DBQ?

The LEQ is written around a topic that is provided in the question stem, and the DBQ is written around a quotation from a literary or historical source.

How to write a DBQ Heimler?

To write a DBQ, you must first correctly understand the historical contextualization question. A DBQ is embedded in the middle of the short answer section on the exam. You must take the historical contextualization question and use it to answer the essay question.

The question is what historical, economic, cultural, and or political events have contributed to this event. Then you use these events to answer the essay question.

Emmanuel Dominic

Emmanuel Dominic is the Founder and CEO of Examspot, a passionate educationist, avid reader, and data scientist. With a bachelor's degree in Economics and Development Studies, Emmanuel shares practical tips and strategies for excelling in exams such as WAEC, NECO, IJMB, JUPEB, and more. His well-researched blog posts provide valuable insights on exam techniques, study habits, and stress management, empowering students to achieve outstanding results.