3 Steps to an APUSH DBQ Essay That Works

3 Steps to an APUSH DBQ Essay That Works

A Document Based Question (DBQ) essay is the bread and butter of most advanced history classrooms; the APUSH exam is no different. For this exam, you will have to read and synthesize information provided to you in the documents the AP test provides.

But how do you do that? Follow these three steps and you will be well on your way to writing a DBQ essay that works.

First things first

So, I fudged a little. There are more than three steps required to write a DBQ essay; however, you should break down your approach to the essay into three sections. Those sections are:

  1. Before you read

  2. While you read

  3. After you read*

*#3 could also be titled “As you write” since, after you read, you will be putting together your essay.

The point of breaking down your time into these three sections is to make sure that you are thinking of your approach to the documents (before you read) and your reading of the documents (while you read) as a part of your writing process.

Before you read, you should organize your thoughts and what you know about the time period in question.

While you read, you should annotate the documents in order to: 1. Put the documents into groups, 2. Understand the bias of the document’s author, and 3. Activate background knowledge.

After you read, or as you write, you should have a clear thesis statement. Don’t shy away from complexity – AP scorers look at nuance as a sign of sophisticated thinking (read: better score!).

Want to know more about each step? Read our blog post about the APUSH DBQ essay!

How much time should I spend on each step?

There really is no one right amount of time to spend on each step. Some people, who are relatively fast readers, may spend less time reading the documents and more time writing. Others may need more time to understand what each document is saying and can then write a well-organized essay. The only way to know which person you are is to practice writing.

There is one important rule, though:


Too many students feel like they have to jump right into reading before they have organized their thoughts. DON’T BE ONE OF THOSE STUDENTS. Use your time wisely, but do not skip the before you read step.

Think of it as a trade-off: for every minute you continue to spend reading a document, that is less time you can spend writing about it. Make decisions about those trade-offs wisely.

What are some good examples of APUSH DBQ essays?

If I were to add a fourth step to my list, it would be this: read other students’ writing.

This allows you to understand what APUSH scorers are looking for in strong writing. In fact, I would suggest that you write a sample essay and then compare it to other students’ work.

Here is an example from the College Board – makers of the APUSH exam – for a DBQ, including scoring notes and student samples.

Yes, it’s long; drink a coffee before you read it. But if you are serious about doing well on the APUSH exam, you will look over it. After all, you wouldn’t start playing a game before you know the rules, right? Reading this document will help you know the rules.

In short, good DBQ essays have the following:

  1. A clear thesis statement.
  2. A cohesive and well developed argument (based on your thesis statement!).
  3. Reference the documents (seems self-explanatory but you would be amazed by how often students forget to do this!).
  4. Pay attention to the source of the document (this is about addressing points-of-view or bias).
  5. Contextualize the documents in a particular historical moment.
  6. Connect the documents to outside knowledge.
  7. Synthesize the documents by connecting them to another historical moment or connect to an AP course theme.

Yes, this sounds like a lot. But you can do it. Keep referencing the Magoosh blogs, and practice, practice, practice.

Happy studying!

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  • Allena Berry

    Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

One Response to 3 Steps to an APUSH DBQ Essay That Works

  1. Arashdeep May 3, 2020 at 10:12 pm #

    Do you believe that it is enough to have a continuity paragraph and change paragraph in a continuity and change question to earn the complexity point or would I have to do other additional things to get the point?

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