What is a DBQ?

Student on laptop
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/22

As you prepare for your AP exams, you might be wondering: What is a DBQ, and what does it mean? This article provides information on what exactly DBQs are and answers some DBQ-related questions you may be asking.

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. 

If you are considering taking AP classes, it is recommended that you consider taking an AP History course. AP History classes are versatile credits, as they are helpful for those who are going into post-secondary Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM programs. 

If you’re taking–or considering taking AP history classes, you might have heard the acronym ‘DBQ’ thrown around. You might wonder what a DBQ is or what the DBQ means for you as an AP student. 

The DBQ is an essay you’ll have to write as a requirement for all AP History exams. So, what exactly is a DBQ essay?

What is a DBQ Essay?

DBQ stands for Document-Based Questions essay. While this essay is a crucial part of AP History exams, you’ll also find multiple choice questions, short answers, and a long essay section on this exam. 

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

The DBQ requires the individual writing the exam to analyze the provided documents and develop a thesis statement that answers the essay question. The exam will require you to then write an analytical essay outlining your findings. 

For your DBQ, you will be provided with five to seven historical documents such as: 

  • Maps
  • Letters
  • Pictures
  • Public Records
  • Newspapers

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purpose of a DBQ essay is to test the individual’s ability to identify and analyze patterns, issues, and trends from historical documents.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.

DBQ Format

The DBQ is formatted like most analytical essays, with an introduction, a thesis statement, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. 

During your AP exam, you will have fifteen minutes to read over and familiarize yourself with the documents provided. You will have forty-five minutes to write the essay. 

For the DBQ portion of your exam, you will find an essay question or prompt and five to seven historical documents to guide your writing. Your goal is to utilize the information you pull from the documents to respond to the easy prompt and form your argument.

How to Write a DBQ

Before you begin to write, you should have a thorough understanding of the essay question, the accompanying documents, and the argument you are going to present. 

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.

How is a DBQ Scored?

The DBQ portion of your exam is worth 25% of the overall exam grade. It is the second highest weighted portion of the exam, after the multiple choice questions portion. 

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:

DBQ essay rubric
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.

FAQs: What is a DBQ?

Now that we have answered the question “What is a DBQ?,” 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?

You should approach writing the DBQ like other persuasive essays you have written for your history courses. An important piece of writing the DBQ is ensuring that you understand what is being asked of you and making sure you directly address the essay question in your argument. 

There are no right or wrong answers. Think of the DBQ essay as a chance to demonstrate your analytical and critical thinking skills and present your argument in a logical order. 

You will also want to ensure that your essay is well-written with proper grammar. While the content of your essay is important, being able to present your argument in a cohesive, digestible, and intelligible manner can also greatly impact your score. 

2. What is the Purpose of a DBQ?

The purpose of a DBQ is to test your skills as a practicing historian. The essay tests your analytical skills, ability to parse historical documents, and historical knowledge.

Throughout your history classes, you will gain knowledge and skills essential to the historical approach–the DBQ evaluates your ability to apply these skills. 

Essentially, the essay evaluates how well you can parse and analyze historical documents while keeping their respective historical, political, and cultural contexts in mind. 

3. How Long is a DBQ Essay?

There is no word limit to the essay, but there is a time limit. You have forty-five minutes to write the DBQ essay. With the time limit in mind, you should aim to write five to six paragraphs for the essay. 

These paragraphs should include an introduction with your thesis statement, body paragraphs to support your thesis, and a conclusion paragraph. Your thesis statement should only be one or two sentences maximum, and each paragraph should be between five to seven sentences. 

It may be tempting to write as much as possible within the short time frame. However, the key to acing your DBQ essay is to prioritize quality over quantity. 

You can write a strong, effective essay in five or six concise paragraphs, so remember to focus on presenting your argument clearly and concisely.

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 have 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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