Interpreting primary sources, formulating an argument, and utilizing primary sources to support an argument are crucial skills in AP World History and AP European History. Students need to become comfortable and confident in their interpretation of primary sources and their utilization of those documents in essay writing. Below are tips and pointers to assist WHAP and APEURO students in writing a DBQ essay.
Plan Long! Write Fast!
Every DBQ prompt will have you write to one of the following historical thinking skills: Comparison and Contrast (C/C), Causation (C/E), or Change and Continuity Over Time (CCOT), or Periodization (PD).
Try dissecting the following prompts for key terms and the historical thinking skill:
1. Using the given documents, analyze the reasons why students struggle and succeed in Advanced Placement World History. (C/E)
2. Using the given documents, analyze similarities and differences in industrialization between Russia and Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (C/C)
3. Using the given documents, analyze continuities and changes in labor systems in the Americas between 1500 and 1900. (CCOT)
Once you've dissected the prompt you now know what to look for in each of the given sources. Each given source is like a treasure box with a lot of gems, diamonds, rubies, gold nuggets, and silver bars. Extract the precious stone or metal that you're looking for! If your gold nugget is "similarities in industrialization between Russia and Japan" then extract it. If your diamond is "reasons why the Great Depression went global" then extract it.
Set up your plan sheet according to the historical thinking skill in the prompt, but remember to include the documents in your plan sheet. For a C/E DBQ essay try using a multi-flow or partial multi-flow thinking map. For a C/C DBQ essay try using a Venn Diagram or a double-bubble thinking map. And for a CCOT DBQ essay try using a partial multi-flow thinking map. Keep in mind that a successful plan sheet enables you to write a successful essay.
The Magnificent Seven - Each of your DBQ essays will be assessed for the following seven historical thinking and writing skills: I have written my commentary on each essay point in indigo!
#1 Thesis: Responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning. An example of an historically defensible claim would be any of the reasons that students struggle or succeed in AP World History, any of the similarities or differences in industrialization between Japan and Russia, and any of the continuities and changes in labor systems in the given time period. This is why I am teaching you to plan your DBQ based on the historical thinking skill established in the DBQ Essay prompt. Additionally, "establishing a line of reasoning" means that you give more than just a list of historical claims. You suggest an explanation, or an answer to "why," within your thesis. For example, "One similarity between industrialization in Russia and Japan was the high level of government influence in industry due to both nations altering and reforming their respective governments."
#2 Contextualization: Describes a broader historical context relevant to the prompt. You'll hear me refer to this as "Big C." You can attempt this in any paragraph of the essay, but it best fits in the introductory paragraph prior to the thesis. So, if you're writing an essay about the American and French Revolutions, and you contextualize these revolutions with information regarding the Age of Enlightenment, new political theories, limited governments, natural rights, etc. then you will be providing broader historical developments/processes surrounding the American and French Revolutions. Think "zoom out," and "why are we answering this question?" Consider the beginning of a Star Wars movie. The scroll is an example of "Big C" contextualization.
#3 Use of the Documents: Uses the content of at least three documents to address the topic of the prompt. In essence, you are expected to extrapolate or lift evidence from the given documents in the body paragraphs of your DBQ essay. However, I instruct you to use all seven given documents. Using three documents is not good enough for a DBQ essay, as you will lose points in other parts of the rubric.
#4 Use of the Documents: Supports an argument in response to the prompt using at least six documents. This is a high bar point that demands that you utilize the documents to support an argument. This goes beyond just lifting evidence or summarizing the documents. You must demonstrate exactly how the evidence from the document supports your argument/thesis.
#5 Outside Evidence: Uses at least one additional piece of the specific historical evidence (beyond that found in the documents) relevant to an argument about the prompt. This is your opportunity to show what you know outside of the given documents. You are expected to provide an additional piece of specific evidence beyond the given documents that will qualify your argument. So for example, if you're writing about reasons why the Allied Powers were successful in World War II and you have the following sources: A. a statistical chart of the number of deployed Allied troops in the European and Pacific Theaters, B. a photo of RAF counter strikes against German pilots in the Battle of Britain, and C. a source from Joseph Stalin describing the success of the Red Army at the Battle of Stalingrad, then you could corroborate your claim by writing about something specific that is outside of the documents, such as the use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II.
#6 Sourcing the Documents: For at least three documents, explains how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument.. For author's point of view consider the author's relationship to the subject (e.g. a feminist speaking about women's suffrage, a Cavs fan watching the NBA Finals against the Warriors, a slave's memoir of plantation slavery, etc.). For author's purpose consider the intent behind the speech, document, photograph, painting, etc. (e.g. A letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella requesting additional financing for his voyages to the Caribbean, a television commercial for a "must-have" product motivating consumers to make a purchase, a piece of propaganda encouraging men to join the army during World War I, etc.). Historical context as it relates to sourcing the documents - you will hear me refer this as "Little C." Consider the historical time period, historical setting, historical events, historical trends surrounding the author and the document (e.g. Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto published in 1848 during the Industrial Revolution in Europe that was characterized by worker strikes and discontent for the poor conditions and wages established by business owners through the practice of industrial capitalism). Lastly, consider the author's intended audience by whom was expected to read/see/hear the document (e.g. a personal diary only to be read by the author, a newspaper article for an entire community to read, a speech by a feminist to Parliament, a text message to your best friend, etc.). Think about it, you're attempting to answer WHY the author wrote/spoke what they wrote/spoke in as many ways as you possibly can. Think H.I.P.P. (Historical context, Intended audience, Point of view, Purpose of the author).
Check out the Four Sourcemen Cheat Sheet Here!
#7 Argument Development: Demonstrates a complex understanding of the historical development that is the focus of the prompt, using evidence to corroborate, qualify, or modify an argument that addresses the question. By complex argument it is expected that your essay will develop an argument that is thoroughly supported by given sources and your own knowledge of World or European history throughout the entirety of the DBQ essay. A claim or thesis is empty, but an argument is full. Full of what? An argument is full of evidence - be it evidence from given documents or evidence based on your own knowledge of world or European history and its relationship to the given essay prompt. This is also an opportunity for you to utilize your document grouping/bucketing from your plan sheet. Group documents that relate to each other by contradiction (e.g. a Japanese survivor's testimony and an American G.I.'s testimony on the use of the atomic bomb). Group documents that relate to each other by corroboration (e.g. a Nazi Party member's testimony and a Nazi soldier's testimony of the Holocaust). Group documents by qualification/modification (any like/similar documents that "qualifies" your thesis). However, this point isn't awarded for grouping/bucketing, but for your ability to develop and support a complex argument throughout the essay. Topical statements, specific vocabulary, tying your paragraphs back to the thesis are things to keep in mind while developing your historical argument. This point can also be earned by explaining relevant and insightful connections across and within time periods. What you may recall as the "synthesis point" from years past can also be used to earn this point.
Organize your essay in the following manner:
Introduction (Thesis) Paragraph
-Set the "Big C" or context for your essay in the beginning of the introductory paragraph; aka zoom out.
-Zoom in to establish the thesis (your historically defensible claims).
-Open your writing up, so as not to cram too many claims or points into a single sentence.
-Include a statement(s) of explanation within the sentences that make up your thesis.
Body Paragraphs (2 or more body paragraphs)
-Topical Statement must be present to explicitly state the claim or point (the label on the lid of the jar)
-Documents need to be referenced (minimum of two per body paragraph, ideally three)
-Use attribution (e.g. Siddhartha Guatama stated in his sermon on the Four Noble Truths... BAD e.g. Document 5 preached the Four Noble Truths)
-Cite documents in parentheses e.g. (doc. #2) or (2)
-Extrapolate (or lift) historical evidence from the primary source
-Direct quotation, but keep quotes short
-Discuss the historical evidence and relate it to the topical statement
-Source the documents via H.I.P.P.O. (see above)
-Suggest outside evidence (see above)
-Utilize transitions to show how documents are related to each other.
Conclusion w/Restatement of Thesis and Synthesis
-Restate the thesis
-Extend your argument by connecting/synthesizing it with a different event, situation, trend, time period, theme, discipline, etc. (see above)
AP EUROPEAN HISTORY INTRODUCTORY DBQ DOCUMENTS
The dreaded DBQ, or “document-based question,” is an essay question type on the AP History exams (AP US History, AP European History, and AP World History). For the DBQ essay, you will be asked to analyze some historical issue or trend with the aid of the provided sources, or "documents," as evidence.
The DBQ is an unfamiliar type of in-class essay for many students, but it does not need to be a source of dread or panic. In this guide I'll go over the DBQ's purpose and format, what the documents are and how to use them, how this type of essay is scored, and how to prepare. I'll tell you everything you need to rock this unique type of essay!
Note: The rubric, guidelines, and skills tested for all of the History APs are identical; only the historical source material is different.
The DBQ Essay Explained
As a veteran of the DBQ, I'm here to answer all your questions. Why do the AP History exams even have a document-based question? What will it look like on the exam? What are these documents, anyways? Let's dive right in.
This baby is too young to be diving into the DBQ!
Why the DBQ?
The point of the document-based question is not to torment you but actually to put you in the historian’s shoes as an interpreter of historical material. Cool, right?
The DBQ is testing your ability to:
- create a strong thesis and support that thesis with the aid of the documents provided
- analyze sources for characteristics such as author’s point of view, the author's purpose, the audience, and context
- make connections between the documents
- bring in outside knowledge to strengthen the argument
This may sound like a tall order, but you probably already use all these skills all the time.
Here's an example:
Suppose your friend asks for your help in deciding whether to buy a particular new brand of soccer ball. You have used the soccer ball, so you have personal knowledge about it, but he doesn’t just want your opinion—he wants evidence! (Your friend takes buying soccer balls very seriously).
So first, you collect information (your “documents”). These could include:
- online reviews of the soccer ball
- your brother’s opinion
- the price at the store
- the cost of other soccer balls
- ads for the soccer ball
Next, you'll analyze these "documents" to make a decision about whether the ball is a good purchase for your friend or not. For that, you might:
- Assess bias (also known as the author’s point of view): Maybe the soccer ball ad isn’t the most objective measure of the ball’s quality. Maybe your brother hates soccer.
- Consider the author’s audience: Maybe that review of the soccer ball was written for professional soccer players, and you want to know how it is for casual players!
- Think about the context of your friend's decision: What time of year is it? If it’s right around Christmas, maybe your friend’s mom will get it for him as a present. What you already know about soccer is part of the context as well--you know your friend won’t want a ball that’s too bouncy, for example.
Buying the right soccer ball might have higher stakes than the AP exam.
If you were going to go back and write an essay for your friend about this after you've reviewed your "documents," your thesis might be something like one of these examples:
- “This soccer ball is a good purchase for my friend because it has all the elements of a good soccer ball at a great price point.”
- “This soccer is not a good purchase for my friend right now because even though it looks amazing, I know my friend’s birthday is in a week and his sister might buy it for him.”
Then you would use the “documents” and your outside knowledge (for example, your experience with the soccer ball and your knowledge about soccer) to support that claim.
That's a document-based question! In fact, I would assert that the DBQ is the easiest essay to score highly on in the AP History exams. As overwhelming as it might be now to think about all of that information getting thrown at you at once, think of it this way:
Instead of relying primarily on your knowledge, the DBQ gives you a bunch of sources to use in your analysis. This means you don’t have to be worried you’ll waste five minutes racking your brain trying to remember the name of that guy who did that thing. It’s important to bring in some outside information for a top score, but the main thing you need to do is analyze.
95% of the info you really need is there. You just have to learn how to use it.
Let's move on to test formatting so you know what to expect from document-based questions.
What Does the DBQ Format Look Like?
Each of the AP history tests has one DBQ, and it is always the first question in the test booklet for the writing section (Part II of the exam). When you open your booklet and turn to the DBQ, you will see the instructions, the prompt, and then the documents.
You will have a 15-minute reading period, with a recommended 40 minutes of writing time. The test has two essays, and you will have 90 minutes total to plan and write them. You won't be forced to move on from one essay to the other, so be sure to budget your time carefully.
You are not required to use the entire reading/planning period. You can begin writing whenever you wish. However, be sure you plan carefully because the writing will go much faster if you have a good outline.
That covers the general format, but no doubt you want to hear more about these mysterious documents. Stay tuned!
What's the Deal With These Documents?
You will receive up to seven sources. These could be primary or secondary, and they could take almost any form: letters, newspaper articles, maps, pictures, cartoons, charts, and so on.
You will need to use all or all but one of the documents in your essay. You should go further in-depth on at least four of the documents. (See the rubric breakdown section below for more details).
For US History, no DBQ will focus exclusively on the time period prior to 1607 or after 1980, although they may focus on a broader time period that includes one of those time periods.
Don't worry, they won't be original copies.
Now that we've discussed the purpose, format, and document protocol of the DBQ, we need to discuss scoring.
How Is the DBQ Scored?
How much is the DBQ worth on your exam? And how do those pesky AP graders even score it?
How Much Is the Document-Based Question Worth?
The DBQ is 25% of your total grade. The entire second section of exam is 50% of your grade, and there are two equally weighted essays.
What Does the Rubric Mean?
The rubric the graders use is freely available to you on the College Board website.
- Click here for the rubric.
Don't worry if these look like gibberish to you. I'll break it down briefly here, and go even more in-depth on my article about how to prepare for and write a DBQ.
DBQ Rubric Breakdown
There are four categories in this rubric: thesis, analysis of the document, using outside evidence, and synthesis. You can score up to seven points.
Thesis and Argument - 2 points
- One point for having a clear, historically plausible thesis that is located in the introduction or conclusion.
- You can get another point here for having a particularly good thesis that presents a nuanced relationship between historical factors, and doing a good job supporting that thesis in your essay.
Document Analysis - 2 points
- One point for using 6-7 of the documents in your essay. Easy-peasy.
- One point for doing further analysis on four of the documents. This further analysis could be on any of the following points:
- author’s point of view
- author’s purpose
- historical context
Just be sure to tie any further analysis back to your main argument!
Using Outside Evidence - 2 points
- One point is just for context - if you can locate the issue within its broader historical situation. You do need to write several sentences about it but the contextual information can be very general.
- One point is for being able to name an additional specific example relevant to your argument that is not mentioned in the documents. Don't stress if you freeze up and can't remember one on test day. This is only one point and it will not prevent you from getting a 5 on the exam.
Synthesis - 1 point
- All you need to do for synthesis is relate your argument about this specific time period to a different time period, geographical area, historical movement, etc.
- It is probably easiest to do this in the conclusion of the essay.
Still with me? Just remember: the most important thing is having a strong thesis that is supported by the information in the documents and whatever other related information you have around in your brain.
If you are an auditory learner, I recommend the following video, which breaks down all the components you need to get a seven.
Parting Thoughts on Scoring
If this seems like a lot to take in, don't worry. You don’t have to get a perfect score on the DBQ to get a five on the AP. Somewhere in the 5-6 range can definitely get you there. To get a 3 on the exam (which still gives you course credit at a lot of colleges), you only need a 3 on the DBQ. (See page eight of this document.)
Additionally, overall historical accuracy is important but not 100% necessary for every tiny detail of the essay. Anything that is in the documents should be correct, but when you start to bring in outside sources for your DBQ essay on unionization and working conditions and you can’t remember if the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was in 1911 or 1912, just pick one and don’t sweat it. If minor details are incorrect and don’t detract from the overall meaning of the essay, you won’t lose points.
Now that you understand the purpose, format, and rubric for document-based questions, I'll give you some tips on how to get the score you're aiming for.
How Can I Rock the DBQ?
Two things will help you crush the DBQ: prepping beforehand, and hitting all the right notes on test day!
Rock the DBQ like Jimi rocked the 1960s.
Preparing for the DBQAs you might expect, the most important thing you can do to prepare is to practice writing this type of essay.
Ask a trusted teacher or advisor to look over your practice drafts and/or outlines with the rubric and advise what you might be missing.
Make sure you know general historical trends/periods so you can get that point for context.
You can find more prep tips in my article on how to write a DBQ.
During the Test
- Read the question carefully. Make sure you know what is being asked before you start trying to answer.
- While you read the documents, take notes on what they mean, who is writing, etc.
- Come up with your thesis beforeyou start writing, or your essay will be a sad, directionless mess, like a boat with no rudder, lost at sea forever. If you aren’t sure of your thesis yet, brainstorm in your notes—not while you are writing.
- Once you have a thesis, stay on topic. If you’re writing about how Smaug wrecked the Forbidden Mountain, don’t start talking about how amazing and clever Bilbo is, even if it’s true.
- Make sure you use all the documents—doing so gets you easy points.
- However, don’t simply regurgitate sources with no analysis. If you find yourself doing a lot of “Source A says blah, and Source B says blah, and Source C says blah...” make sure you are using the documents to make a point, and not letting the documents use you.
- A great way to analyze the documents is to make connections between them! Who agrees? Who disagrees? Why?
- Don’t forget to provide context, one outside example, and a connection to another period/area/historical theme if you can! That’s three points right there.
And there you have it! You are ready to start prepping for success.
Abraham Lincoln believes in you!
I know I just threw a lot of information at you. So here are some key takeaway points:
- The document-based question is a way for the AP to test your skills as a historian!
- Don’t panic! It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, even though you are getting tons of information thrown at you in a short time.
- The DBQ is based on skills that you can learn and practice: writing a strong thesis, using given evidence to support an argument, making connections between different documents and pieces of evidence, placing specific information in a broader context, analyzing an author’s intent, bias, audience, etc.
Need more study resources for AP World History? See our Best AP World History Study Guide or get more practice tests from our complete list.
Need more resources for AP US History? Try this article on the best notes to use for studying from one of our experts. Also check out her review of the best AP US History textbooks!
Or just looking for general information about your upcoming APs? See here for instructions on how to register for AP exams, complete 2016 test dates, and information on how much AP tests cost (and how to get AP financial aid).
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