What is a DBQ? - What You Need to Know

Document-based questions
April 23, 2024
4 min read
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Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 2/12/24

As you prepare for your AP exams, you might be wondering about the meaning of a Document-Based Question. This article provides you with everything you need to know about this topic.

As high school students think about applying for colleges, some take as many Advanced Placement (AP) courses as possible to increase their chances of getting into the college they want. While AP classes are not necessary for getting admitted into college, these classes do help your chances of being accepted. 

The Document-Based Question is an essay you’ll have to write as a requirement for all AP History exams. In the sections below, we’ll cover how to answer this essay in detail.

What is a DBQ Essay?

DBQ stands for Document-Based Question in a timed essay used in AP History exams. Students are provided with 7-12 historical documents and must use their content to write a thesis-driven essay that answers a prompt. 

DBQ essays test skills like document analysis, evidence usage, contextualization, complex understanding, and historical argumentation. Students have 15 minutes to review the documents and 45 minutes to write the essay response citing at least 6 documents. 

Strong DBQ essays have a clearly stated thesis, strong organization, multi-faceted analysis, and integrate both the provided evidence and outside knowledge.

If you are taking multiple AP history courses, you may have to write multiple DBQ essays for each exam.

Here are key details about the historical documents provided on the DBQ:

  1. The DBQ will include 7 documents offering different perspectives related to the prompt's historical topic or theme. The documents are a mix of primary source texts, images, graphs, maps, etc. from the time period.
  2. The documents will represent a variety of viewpoints and purposes. Students need to analyze potential biases, the author's perspective, the audience, etc. when using them as evidence.
  3. The topics and time periods covered align with the curriculum. For AP US History that's units 3-7 (1754-1980). For AP World History it's units 1-6 (1200-1900).
  4. The types of documents are not pre-determined and can vary from exam to exam. Students should practice analyzing all formats - written texts, images, quantitative data, maps, etc.
  5. While the documents provide critical evidence, students also need to bring in outside information and historical context to earn the highest scores. The documents alone are not enough to answer the prompt.
  6. Authentic published DBQ questions and documents from past exams are available on the College Board website for practice. Teachers also create unofficial questions with the documents they select.

The purpose of a DBQ essay is to test the individual’s ability to identify and analyze patterns, issues, and trends from historical documents. The essay tests you on what you have learned and the skills you have gained throughout your AP History courses. 

A DBQ medical assessment is completely different from a Document-Based Question as it stands for Disability Benefits Questionnaire. These are medical evaluation forms used to document a veteran's disability, so don’t mix the two up!

DBQ Format

The DBQ format is similar to other essays, with an emphasis on extensive analysis of documents. A good DBQ essay will follow this format:


  • Hook and background context
  • Clear thesis statement answering the prompt

Body Paragraphs

  • Each paragraph supports part of the thesis with evidence from the documents and outside information
  • Documents are analyzed, not just quoted
  • Documents are properly cited using [document #]


  • Restates thesis
  • Summarizes overall argument with closing thoughts

Key aspects of the format include:

  • Having at least 3 body paragraphs citing 6+ documents
  • Balancing evidence from provided docs and outside info
  • Explaining how outside historical factors affect the issue
  • Analyzing the documents rather than just describing them

Following the standard DBQ format, analyzing the prompt, planning effective body paragraphs, and managing time are all critical skills for success.

During your AP exam, you will have 15 minutes to read over and familiarize yourself with the documents provided. You will have 45 minutes to write the essay. 

female student working on computer while petting dog

How to Write a DBQ

To craft a compelling Document-Based Question, start by thoroughly understanding the prompt and documents. Next, devise a thesis that addresses the prompt and organize body paragraphs to cite at least 6 documents for evidence, incorporating external context.

Begin with an introductory paragraph that sets the stage and presents your thesis. In the body, analyze, rather than merely describe, the documents, linking evidence back to your thesis. Conclude by reaffirming your argument and offering final insights.

Make sure your argument directly responds to the essay question. You will need to provide strong evidence from the documents to support your observations throughout your essay. Like other essays, you must build a persuasive case for your argument. 

Here is a breakdown of the writing process for the DBQ:

1. Read Over Your Materials 

Read and familiarize yourself with the essay question before looking at the documents so you know what you are looking for. 

2. Begin Your Analysis of the Documents

Read over the documents and identify patterns (or lack of), rhetoric, and other relevant information that relates to the essay question. 

3. Present Your Thesis Statement

Once you have collected evidence and have an argument, write your thesis statement. 

4. Plan What You Will Write, and in What Order

Ensure that you create an outline for your essay before you begin writing. This will help you organize your thoughts and make writing easier.

5. Start Writing! 

Some people find it easier to write their body paragraphs first (with the thesis statement in mind) and then write their introductory and concluding paragraphs after, but write in the way that best suits you. 

6. Finish With a Strong Conclusion

Your concluding paragraph will be the last piece of your essay that the markers read. Remember to avoid introducing any new ideas or arguments in the final paragraph. 

7. Proofread and Edit

If you have time, proofread and edit your essay. The clearer your writing is, the easier it will be for the reader to get through your essay. Clear and concise writing will reflect in your final mark. 

Keep in mind the time limit while you are writing. You only have forty-five minutes to write the essay, so you want to make sure you are using your time effectively. 

Document-Based Question Examples

Here is an example of a Document-Based Question from the AP US History exam:

Analyze the responses of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to the problems of the Great Depression. How effective were the responses? Use the documents and your knowledge of the period 1929-1941 to construct your response.

In this DBQ, the main topic or subject is the responses of FDR's administration to the Great Depression during the period from 1929-1941. The key aspects examined are:

  • The types of responses from FDR's administration - programs and policies such as the New Deal agencies and reforms
  • The effectiveness of these responses in addressing the economic problems caused by the Great Depression

To write a successful Document-Based Question response, you would need to:

  • Provide background context on the Great Depression
  • Present and analyze the evidence provided in the documents about the responses from FDR's administration
  • Include outside information about other relevant programs and policies
  • Make an argument about how effective FDR's responses were in dealing with the Great Depression

Some examples of outside information you could provide:

  • Background on the economic situation before the Great Depression
  • Details about the impact of events like the Dust Bowl
  • Information on the opposition FDR faced to his New Deal programs

Types of DBQ Prompts

There are three main types of prompts in a Document-Based Question. These questions test skills like analyzing evidence, making comparisons, explaining causation, and assessing change and continuity over time in relation to historical events, periods, geographical regions, social issues, and cultural trends.

  1. Continuity and change over time - e.g. analyze changes and continuities in the women's rights movement from 1848 to 1920
  2. Causation - e.g. analyze the causes of the rise of the New Conservatism movement in the 1960s and 1970s
  3. Comparison - e.g. compare and contrast the responses of Hoover's administration and FDR's administration to the Great Depression

Outside of these main types, the topics of DBQ prompts can vary widely, covering different time periods, geographical regions, events, movements, etc. But they tend to have some common themes like imperialism, revolutions, cultural trends, economic developments, demographic changes, etc.

How is a DBQ Scored?

The DBQ is worth 25% of the total exam score. Students have a 15-minute reading period to review the documents, followed by 45 minutes to write their responses. The DBQ is scored out of 7 possible points based on criteria such as thesis, context, evidence, analysis, reasoning, sourcing, and complexity.

Colleges consider your AP exam scores during the admissions process, so performing as best as you can on your AP exams does matter.

The DBQ essay is marked based on the following categories: 

  • Thesis statement (0-1 point)
  • Contextualization (0-1 point)
  • Evidence (0-3 points)
  • Analysis and reasoning (0-2 points)

Here is an overview of the rubric for the DBQ essay: 

Reporting Category Scoring Criteria Decision Rules
Thesis/Claim 1 pt. One point is earned if thesis makes a claim that responds to the prompt and is written in one or two sentences
Contextualization 1 pt. Student will receive one point if the thesis and responses relates to broader historical contexts
Evidence 0 - 3pt. Up to two points are earned if the response accurately describes content from the documents, another point is earned from integrating evidence from documents throughout the response rather than using quotes
Analysis and Reasoning 0 - 2 pt. One point is earned if the response explains documents’ purpose, perspective, and audience; another point is earned if response demonstrates a nuanced, complex understanding of the historical context and issues at hand

Source: NEISD

The entire essay is worth seven points, each category carrying a different number of points. Keep the points system in mind when writing. It will help you strategize how much time to spend on each piece of the essay. Doing this will allow you to better manage your time and put in extra work on the factors that matter most. 


You may still have other questions about the specifics of the essay. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the DBQ essay. 

1. How Do You Write a DBQ?

Approach writing the DBQ like you would other persuasive history essays. Understand the question, address it directly, and use it as an opportunity to showcase your analytical and critical thinking skills. Also, prioritize well-written, grammatically correct content to enhance your essay's impact on your score.

2. What is the Purpose of a DBQ?

A DBQ tests your historian skills by checking how well you can analyze historical documents while considering their historical context. It's a way to see if you can apply what you've learned in your history classes.

3. How Long is a DBQ Essay?

You have 45 minutes for the DBQ essay, so aim for 5-6 paragraphs: an intro with your thesis, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Keep your thesis short, and each paragraph 5-7 sentences. Quality is more important than quantity; focus on a clear and concise argument.

Final Thoughts

If AP classes are a good fit for you, you should consider taking as many as you can in areas that interest you. Top schools such as Yale, Cornell, Columbia, and Harvard take AP classes seriously when considering applicants and sometimes even give students credit for their AP classes. 

Ultimately, the DBQ is similar to other essays you will find on exams but has a larger focus on the application of knowledge and skills. If you study and prepare before taking the exam, there is nothing to worry about.

While taking the exam, be aware of your time and use it wisely, develop a strong thesis statement, and create an outline for your essay. If you take all the right steps, writing your essay should be easier than you thought!

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