What Is DBQ Format for AP US History?

apush dbq format

The AP US History Document-Based Question, or DBQ, can seem daunting to even the most experienced essay-writers. But never fear! The DBQ format differs from typical essays in only one way – the inclusion of historical documents. Otherwise it follows the same essay outline you have been turning in since middle school!
If the thought of completing a DBQ format essay still fills you with anxiety, try using our simple tips to make the DBQ format essay a bit more workable.

About the DBQ format for AP US History

The APUSH DBQ format is very similar to a traditional essay, with one exception – the inclusion of historical documents. Just like ordinary essays, every DBQ begins with a prompt of some kind. Unlike ordinary essays, you are also given a set of historical documents (usually 5-7) that function as your primary sources of information. Expect to read through each of the documents, then compose a clear, concise, well-written essay all under 60 minutes.

How to write an essay in DBQ format

The goal of a DBQ format essay is to use provided historical sources plus prior knowledge to show your overall understanding of historical themes and content. Essays that achieve a high score always write within the historical context – don’t just analyze the documents without explaining how and why they are important to US History.
With only 60 minutes to write an entire essay (and make it great), AP College Board recommends taking the first 10-15 minutes just to plan. No writing. Just planning. Although it may seem ridiculous to dedicate ¼ of your time to something other than writing, planning will actually save you time in the long run.

1. Figure out what the question prompt is asking you to do

Read the question prompt. Then read it again. Maybe even a third time. Make sure you understand what the prompt is actually asking you to write. No matter how great your essay, if you don’t answer the question, you aren’t getting a good score.
From there, find “action words” to help determine which direction your essay should take. Do you need to analyze source information? Compare and contrast? Evaluate or prove something? Always remember that no matter what the prompt is asking, your answer needs to revolve around the historical sources provided.

2. Review the historical documents

Each historical document is a potential information source. Before you even begin to write your DBW format essay, read through each document, noting any similarities and differences between them. Are they from the same time period? Do they reflect an event in US history? Look for main ideas and concepts that capture what each document is really about.

3. Make an outline

Sometimes it’s easiest to start your outline with a thesis statement. Take a look at the DBQ essay prompt one more time, and use that to formulate your introductory paragraph. Go for the 5-paragraph rule here: 1 opening paragraph, 3 body paragraphs and 1 closing paragraph. A quality essay requires at least 3 body paragraphs to persuasively support your point of view. You will almost definitely write more than 3, but never write less.
Make sure to include main ideas and supporting details/facts from your evidence. Taking a few moments here to figure out how best to incorporate the historical documents into your DBQ format essay will help keep your paper organized and concise.

4. Write!

Finally, you can start writing! As you write, use your outline to help maintain focus. Don’t get “lost” in your paper. Keep sight of the DBQ question prompt, making sure each paragraph you write connects back to the original question. As you write, be sure to include both specific examples from the historical documents, as well as outside thematic knowledge you learned in APUSH. This is the time to really show how well you understand US History!

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  • Beth Gonzales

    Beth is an educator and freelance creative designer who devises innovative and fun-loving solutions for clients. She works with families, students, teachers and small businesses to create and implement programs, campaigns and experiences that help support and maximize efforts to grow communities who critically think, engage and continue to learn.

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