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Allena Berry

How to Write a DBQ Essay for APUSH

DBQ Essay APUSH

The Document Based Question (DBQ) essay is a key feature of the APUSH exam. And at 25% of your total score, it’s an important feature! Keep reading and you will get some great tips on how to write a DBQ for the APUSH exam.

What is a DBQ essay?

As I stated in a previous post on what the APUSH exam is all about, the goal of the exam is to test your historical thinking skills. Historians write arguments based on documents, and for this exam, you will, too.

For a DBQ essay, you will receive several documents of varying length. You will be asked to respond to some historical prompt that will require you to use the documents as evidence in your response. The great thing about a DBQ is that a lot of information you need to answer the question is in the documents themselves – score! However, you do need to have some background knowledge to make sense of the documents (we will practice this later in the post). The documents could be tables, charts, personal letters, or any other source that the exam creators believe would help you answer the question. Generally speaking, the documents will represent multiple perspectives on one topic.

It will be your job to synthesize those various perspectives into a coherent response.

Let’s walk through a sample DBQ topic for the APUSH exam.

Before we get too far into this, it’s important that you note that College Board, the organization that writes the APUSH exam, has made some major changes starting in 2015. I will be taking you through the 2015 sample the College Board provided for students to practice, but, as you will see in a second, it’s important that you practice as much as possible in order to read the documents quickly. Just make a note that the format may be slightly different if you review an exam prior to 2015.

Let’s say that you come across this prompt for a DBQ question:

Compare and contrast views of United States overseas expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Evaluate how understandings of national identity, at the time, shaped these views.

Before you Read

You have 7 documents to read in the suggested time of 15 minutes. How is that even possible?!

Well, no one ever said it was going to be easy. But it is possible. When you get that prompt, or any other DBQ prompt like it, what you do before you read the documents will be just as important as what you end up writing. Before you even read the content of the documents, you should:

  1. Recall what you know about the time period.
  2. Read the source information for each document.
  3. Recognize the possible opinions that could be compared and contrasted.

Let’s dig into each of those steps.

1. Recall what you know

This DBQ is interested in U.S. overseas expansion in the late 19th and early 20th century. What do you know about U.S. overseas expansion during that time period? Perhaps you remember something about the Spanish-American War of 1898, which falls into our time period. Perhaps you remember that the U.S. got some territory as a result of that war. Even if you can’t remember exactly what territory, this puts you in a much better position to get started.

2. Read the source information

Take these two documents below as an example.


From APUSH Sample Exam

Before I read the document, I see that Jane Addams titled her speech “Democracy or Militarism.” Based on the title alone, I can begin to make some inferences that this document is not likely to be positive about any overseas expansion that would most certainly require military force.


From APUSH Sample Exam

Before I even read this document, I can see that William Jennings Bryan is campaigning for the presidency. However, I cannot recall there ever being a President Bryan, meaning that he was unsuccessful in his campaign. Perhaps what he was saying was not popular enough to get enough votes.

These inferences help me make sense of the document later on.

3. Recognize possible opinions

Again, before I read the documents closely, I recognize that this is a compare/contrast question. Before I even read this document, I’m going to make the following table so that I can group documents later on.

Documents FOR expansionDocuments AGAINST expansionDocuments with a complicated view
1,2,3,etc1,2,3,etc1,2,3,etc

This table will help me more easily write my essay.

I know that your instinct will be to see the clock and think, OH MY GOSH, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO BE DOING ALL THIS PREP WORK, MS. BERRY!!!!

Fight that instinct, because these steps will help you write a more coherent essay.

While you read

This part is tough. You have quite a few documents to make sense of in a short amount of time. But, as you are reading as fast as you can, you should be actively annotating the document for the following:

  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you place the document into a group that helps you answer the question.
  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you activate background knowledge.
  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you understand the document’s bias.

You will have to practice this multiple times to get good at it; there’s really no way around that. But you have a plan of attack. So work your plan to make your plan work!

As you write

When you are writing your DBQ, usethe five paragraph essay to your advantage. I am sure you know lots of other things that could turn this answer into a novel, but the most important thing for this task is to make sure that you get enough of your ideas on the page so that your APUSH exam scorer knows that you know.

  1. First paragraph: introduction with a thesis statement
  2. Second paragraph: documents FOR expansion (As you write, make sure to mention who is for expansion and compare/contrast that with who is against it.)
  3. Third paragraph: documents AGAINST expansion (As you write, make sure to mention who is against expansion and compare/contrast that with who is for it.)
  4. Fourth paragraph: documents with ambiguity or complicated arguments (You should compare these documents to BOTH groups.)
  5. Fifth paragraph: Conclusion that reiterates your argument

You may be thinking, why do I need that fourth paragraph? That seems needlessly complicated, to look for documents that are complicated.

Well, you are trying to score well on this DBQ, right? (Remember: it’s 25% of your overall score!)

You get a point for being able to do the following:

“Develop and support a cohesive argument that recognizes and accounts for historical complexity by explicitly illustrating relationships among historical evidence such as contradiction, corroboration, and/or qualification.” AP Scoring Guide

You will want that point!

I’ve given you a lot of information; but this information will become more like second nature the more you practice! For a summary, look at the table below.

And happy studying!

In summary: Strategies for writing the DBQ Essay

Before you ReadWhile you ReadAs you Write
  1. Recall what you know about the time period.

  2. Read the source information for each document.

  3. Recognize the possible opinions that could be compared and contrasted.
Annotate:
  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you place the document into a group that helps you answer the question

  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you activate background knowledge.

  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you understand the document’s bias.
    1. Have a clear thesis statement

    2. Group documents and compare the groups

    3. Don’t shy away from complexity!

    ACE your APUSH exam! Start here.
    About 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.


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