U.S. History A.P.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE DBQ
The document-based question is the perfect teaching tool. In
order to respond successfully, you need to learn how to
construct an outline, analyze and correlate various sources,
formulate a thesis statement, and, of course, write an effective
essay. Its purpose is not merely to have you prove a thesis,
but primarily to see how you deal with a complex question with
evidence (documents) that may not entirely support your
When the dbq hits your desk...
1. DON'T PANIC. Many students look at the dbq as the
ultimate evil. It is not. RELAX. Panicking wonít help you.
Remember your steps to approaching the dbq.
2. FIGHT THE URGE. Your first urge will be to look through
the documents (probably because you'll want to see how bad
it gets). DON'T! DO NOT ENTER! Looking at the documents
will have (at least) two bad effects. First, what you know about
the time period in question will be tainted by the documents.
This is critical (see #4). Second, youíll waste time.
3. UNDERSTAND. Again and again I hear AP readers
complaining that their biggest headaches come from students
who write a great essay but misunderstand the question. This
could be the work of panic. You absolutely must understand
what you are being asked. Read the question over and over
again, underline key words, and think long and hard about
what you are being asked! Big mistake: the cocky student
who reads the question once, thinks he knows what they want,
writes the greatest paper ever...and winds up getting a one
because he answered a slightly different question.
4. WHAT DO YOU KNOW? The key to a nine on a dbq
is...OUTSIDE INFORMATION. That's what we AP teachers
call information that you already know about the time period.
Before AP readers sit and read dbq essays, theyíre given
detailed sheets separating what information one can get from
the documents from other pertinent information. It is this other
(outside) information that the readers will look for to see if you
really know this stuff or if youíre just pretending you do (i.e.
you got it from the documents).
We can call this "brainstorming". Look at the time period given
for the question - then start writing down all you know about
that period. Everything. Important people. Dates. Events.
Ideas. Whatever you can remember. Give yourself at least 5
minutes on this, even if you think you don't know anymore
after 2 minutes. While youíre doing this a thesis will probably
start forming in your mind... Let it form - itís a good thing.
Write down these thoughts as well.
5. ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS. Remember that the
purpose of a dbq is to see how you handle a complex question
in history. This isnít a cut and dry question. Historians have
many differing arguments. You need to make your own, but
don't hide from contradictory evidence. Just like a regular
essay, you must begin with an outline. (When you get really
good, you may be able to brainstorm and organize at the
same time.) This doesnít have to be a formal outline (time is
short). But it should be neat. Note that we haven't even
looked at the documents yet. Thatís right - we're pretending
this is just a regular essay. You probably have a thesis in
mind at this point - if so, write it down above the outline.
6. DOCUMENT TIME. Here is the kicker - the document-
based question does not require a document-based answer.
No, really. The documents exist to provide additional evidence
and support for arguments you were already considering (from
your brainstorming/outline). Get it? But you gotta go through
them - one at a time. Remember our class discussions on
analyzing documents? Follow it! What kind of document is
it? Who said it? When? Where? What was the intended
audience? Possible bias? What is the point of this document?
What is the meaning? This is the key. The AP exam asks you
to interpret documents, NOT to describe what you see!
Documents have a purpose. You have to find it. Why is this
document here? Does it support your argument? Does it
contradict your thesis? (Either way - you may use it in the
You can underline key words or phrases on the documents,
but most importantly write a note on the point the author is
making. When youíre finished with the document, go back
and plug the document letter into your outline. It may be
necessary to fix-up your outline - that is fine... it leads into step
7. CLEAN IT UP. You are nearly ready to write - and you
are probably over the reading limit (that is good - it is too short
anyway). Do not start writing until youíre completely clear on
what your argument (thesis) is going to be. Fix it up (if
necessary). Think about your opening. Don't panic - but the
opening is important. Cap that introductory paragraph with a
Ready to write...
INTRODUCTION. Given that the average reader takes 2-3
minutes to evaluate your essay, the way it begins will stick in
his/her mind. Like I wrote earlier, historians have differing
positions on this dbq question. Go your own way. Answer the
question by stating whatever position you truly believe to be a
valid argument (provided you can support it with evidence).
WRITE WITH YOUR OUTLINE. Use your outline as your
guide as you move through the essay. Flip to documents
when your outline indicates they contain good supporting
DOCUMENTS. Documentary evidence supports your
arguments. ANALYZE documents, don't describe them. The
AP Reader already knows what each document is about and
what information it gives. The meaning of the document,
however, is your call. Use that. Use the point of the
document to support an argument youíre making. Keep in
mind that a very brief reference in your essay to a small point
you think was made in one of the documents constitutes
sufficient usage of that document. Remember: DON'T
QUOTE - AP Readers will skip right over it. Using 6 of 9
documents (2/3rds) is considered sufficient.
ARGUE. Remember that youíre attempting to prove your
thesis, but thatís not all. Evidence will surface (probably in the
documents) that doesnít completely support your thesis. Don't
avoid it. Don't hide from. Identify those arguments/evidence
to the reader. Let the reader know why that argument/evidence isnít strong enough to refute your
argument. Explain it to the reader.
THAT IS IT! Writing a dbq is like writing any "normal" take-
home essay. You use information from the text and readings
to support your arguments. It's a regular essay.