What is a DBQ? Writing Tips for The Document-Based Question Essay

Developing a clear statement is key to writing a powerful DBQ.
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A document-based question (DBQ), is an essay question that is typically two typed pages, assuming double spacing, or three handwritten pages in length. The paper itself generally contains at least six paragraphs, counting one for the introduction, one for the conclusion, and at least four body paragraphs composing the bulk of the paper. Understanding the purpose of the DBQ helps in writing a stronger paper. Therefore, keep in mind that the purpose is to show that everything can be open to questions. It is meant to help the student see that all documents should not be held up as fact but rather as opinion.

Many AP U.S. history exams, as well as AP European history exams, require that students write at least one DBQ essay. These questions will typically provide historical context that you will need to reference in your paper. Essay writing is already a challenge in itself, so an essay that requires you to utilize provided sources and any outside information you can brainstorm on the topic yourself can seem especially daunting. Advanced placement classes might prepare you for what you could find in a DBQ, but it’s never a bad idea to do extra preparation on your own. For example, the College Board website provides practice DBQs for students to work on in their own time.

Here are a few helpful writing tips for the Document-Based Question Essay.

1 Develop Your Thesis

A‌ ‌DBQ essay‌ ‌needs a‌ ‌strong thesis‌‌.

Read the question carefully to be sure you understand what is expected.‌ The question will contain keywords indicating whether you are addressing an attitude or reaction or whether you are discussing the topic in relation to political, economic or social aspects.

Read the documents to formulate a position for your answer.‌ In reading it, be sure to make an initial note of important quotes or events described, as these will shape your answer. Study any charts or graphs included with the documents. If given the option, it helps to underline any important information or key points you find in these documents.

Consider what you've read and gather the information into a single stand that will be the basis for your thesis.‌ Develop this into a single, clear statement. The statement should be solid and strong, as if you were stating an obvious fact. It is this "fact" that you will prove in the body of your argument and throughout the entire essay.

2 Preparing Your Notes

Organize the information from the provided documents by jotting notes.

Remember, you must use at least half of the documents provided, so try to use a solid majority of them. Also, remember you should use at least four points of view to show what people of different classes or social standing thought at the time. Note all relevant examples from the documents, even if you will not need them all in the final paper.

Write a rough outline using your notes.‌ Here, you choose which pieces of evidence are strongest for the main points you are going to make, while also making sure you use an appropriate number of documents.

3 Writing the Paper

Overall, the structure of your essay should be laid out as follows:

  • Introduction paragraph
  • Body paragraph 1
  • Body paragraph 2
  • Body paragraph 3
  • Body paragraph 4
  • Conclusion paragraph

Begin your paper with a thought-provoking sentence, something that will draw in the reader, something interesting.‌ Because the DBQ scorers know the historical background, you should not explain that aspect of the paper. Rather, explain what you are going to do in the paper and clearly state the thesis statement. This will be the basis of your opening or introductory paragraph.

Develop the body.‌ Each paragraph contains a set of related facts that support your thesis. Include the document number at the end of the reference in parenthesis. And in stating a point of view, give the person's name with a descriptor to indicate that person's profession or social rank. Exact quotations are not required and should be used sparingly. Paraphrase instead and include an analysis of what it means. If possible, analyze why you think the person who embodies your point of view would have said what he did. Remember that why people say and do things is often a result of their environment.

Note:‌ The first sentence of each body paragraph is the topic sentence, and this should be a sentence that states your first main point in an enticing, smooth manner. Good body paragraphs will have a transition sentence at the very end to lead into the following paragraph’s topic sentence.

Write a conclusion.‌ Consider the conclusion and introduction to be bookends around the paper. Each paragraph holds the topic together by stating the thesis. So, repeat your thesis statement, although you should not repeat it verbatim. Rephrase it, but make it clear it is still the same stand. Then, discuss the historical significance of the event in relation to the question, summarizing the key points made throughout your whole paper. Showing that you know the topic will likely impress the grader. If possible, discuss how the event impacted history.