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How to Write a DBQ Essay

Writing a DBQ essay may seem a tough nut to crack, but it’s only on the surface. Remember, to get the full credit for the AP exam you need to know what you will face. It can seem that a DBQ essay is difficult, but more information about it will make you feel “I can do it.” Let’s explore what a DBQ essay is.

What is a DBQ?

DBQ (document-based question) essay is a type of paper that is commonly used in the AP world, and European and US history exams. As it can be seen from the name, a DBQ essay is based on several documents that relate to a certain topic or period of time. The student’s aim will be working through the documents and finding out how these documents relate to each other, tendencies that can be seen through time, etc. Keep in mind that you won’t need to simply describe the events, as a DBQ essay is about analysis. Imagine that you are a historian that needs to analyze primary sources and determine cause and effect relationships between events.

DBQ essay structure

This task differs from a free-response essay and students are frequently confused with it. But there is no reason to worry. Read our list of structure elements on how to write a document-based essay and be ready for writing any DBQ essay.

DBQ outline

It is not a secret that writing a DBQ essay may be difficult for those who are writing this paper for the first time. For this reason, we have specified the DBQ format for reference when preparing for the exam. It includes an introduction, thesis statement, main part, and conclusion.


– Hook your audience with the first sentence.
– Provide a background for the topic. For the time being, it may be helpful to use a source referring to a historical event or historical figure.


– Present the claims that you can support with solid evidence.
– Create a short piece of evidence described in the main paragraphs.
– Write a paragraph that describes how you will answer the DBQ question.

Main paragraph 1

– Add the strongest argument. It should be related to the thesis.
– Add the analysis of the references that belong to the strongest argument.
– Make a statement that completes the analysis from a different perspective. Add a link to the thesis statement.
– Write a transitional sentence to the following main paragraph.

Main paragraph 2

– Add a reasonable argument related to the first argument in the previous main paragraph.
– Add the analysis of the references that belong to the strongest argument.
– Make a statement that completes the analysis from a different perspective. Add a link to the thesis statement.
– Write a transitional sentence to the following main paragraph.

Main paragraph 3

– Add a reasonable argument that refers to the thesis statement and the second argument in the previous main paragraph.
– Add the analysis of the references that belong to the strongest argument.
– Make a statement that completes the analysis from a different perspective. Add a link to the thesis statement.
– Write a transitional sentence to the final part.


– Make a summary argument for the entire essay.
– Include highlights or essential information that you found.
– Create a closing sentence or question that challenges the view that opposes the opinions that you found.

How to write a good DBQ essay

There are only two main things that will help you write a better DBQ essay. Any timed essay depends on proper planning and using working methods to write a timed essay. If you wish to be more confident and increase your chances to write a great DBQ essay on your AP exam, you will need to practice. Use tips on how to write a DBQ essay below to improve your skills in writing timed essays.

Usually, the AP exam limits the DBQ essay with 55 minutes (but it may vary from one type of test to another). You will be given15 minutes for reading and 40 minutes for writing. In the first 15 minutes you will need to understand the question, brainstorm about the issue and process the documents. If you will be ready to start writing earlier than 15 minutes, we still recommend you to use the time for proper planning. Keep in mind that you will have other tasks along with the DBQ essay, so make sure you have planned your time wisely.

6 easy steps for writing a DBQ essay

1. Read and understand the question. Point out the key words (location, time period, personality, etc.) that should be mentioned while reading and underline what you should do (e.g. you can be asked to compare and contrast). Come up with your point of view and think what outside information you can use for this question. Briefly write down your thoughts related to the question for two or three minutes. It will be a big mistake to read documents before brainstorming, as it will be hard to think about outside information with documents in your mind.

2. Define the main idea. After understanding the document, you should identify the main idea and find the keywords in the provided prompt. Such keywords will help you determine what you need to do in your paper and the type of evidence to search for in the sources provided. For example, an essay prompt might ask you to:

  • Explain
  • Analyze
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate.

3. Work through the documents effectively. The number of the documents may vary from one exam to another, but you will need to analyze as many documents as possible. Also, consider that you will need to add your own evidence to support your arguments.

Be ready to face the following types of documents: articles, speeches, legislation excerpts, letters, diary entries, charts, maps and pictures. Some documents may be classic or well-known, but most of them will sound new for you.

First, read who has created the document and when. Then briefly write the main idea of the text and points. Then, answer the questions related to the document (if available). Take notes about the most important moments during the reading – you will use this information when you will be writing the essay. As soon as you will finish reading all the documents, think whether documents can be divided into groups and whether the documents may be biased.

4. Come up with the thesis statement. Create an outline for your future essay and think about what you already know about the topic and what documents you can use in your writing. Make sure that every paragraph refers to one certain idea.

5. Write an essay. Your main aim is to create a thought-out text with a good thesis, well-developed body paragraphs supported with examples that address the question and a conclusion.

  • Introduction. You may be puzzled with how to start a DBQ introduction, but it’s more like the introduction to any essay you have already written. Introduce the topic to your reader, get the reader to understand the historical context (Who? What? Where? When?), mention the points you are going to describe in the subsequent text and present a thesis. Don’t restate the question and tell more about the purpose of the essay.
  • Body section. Usually, the body paragraphs consist of two and more subparagraphs. Every subparagraph should cover only one idea. If you have sorted the documents into several groups, start analyzing the information from the first group beginning each paragraph with the topic sentence.
  • Try to include as much documentation as you can (at least more than a half). Start writing your own information that you have learned in class and support your thoughts with the documents. Don’t fall into a description of the documents – try to integrate them into your paper or make references when appropriate. Make sure that every point relates to the thesis statement and is supported with the right document or outside information.
    Conclusion. Begin with restating the purpose of this DBQ essay and summarize the points you have described in previous paragraphs. Answer the “Why it is important” question to show the impact of the issue on today’s world. If you will feel that you won’t have time for a long conclusion, write a concluding sentence – it’s better than leaving the essay incomplete.

5. Proofread. In a perfect world students proofread their DBQ essays after writing. Check whether you have correctly written the dates, names and documents.

Tips for your DBQ essay

  • Make sure that you have fully understood the question, as your credit depends on how well you have answered the question. It is critical to figure out what you are asked. No matter how well you write or know history, you are on the wrong path if you fail to answer the stated question. A good tip might be to write what it is about in your own words. As you read the question, keep an eye on what skills they are trying to test you for in the DBQ. Each DBQ seeks to test your skills in historical argumentation, proper use of historical evidence, synthesis and contextualization. These things are usually outlined in the rubric and are integral to every good DBQ essay.
  • Use the historical background but don’t explain it (only if the assignment requires it).
  • Don’t name documents like “document 1 states,” it’s better to mention the title of the document instead. Include contextualization, which is a brief statement that sets out the broader historical background relevant to the essay prompt. You provide your reader with information about what events have happened or are happening in history, which will help them understand the particular topic and argument you want to make.
  • Different exams require or don’t require quotes. But sometimes it’s better to use a citation to make clear what document you are talking about (don’t forget to add the number of document after quote).
  • Make sure that all paragraphs are presented in logical order, as you can lose some points.
    Keep in mind that there is no right answer for a DBQ essay. While you have evidence, you can argue for any point of view.
  • Don’t forget to use outside information to get the most credit for your essay.
  • Don’t panic. Learn as much about the exam as you can and get prepared.
  • Remember that graders won’t have much time to read your essay, so they will be looking for the overall picture instead of a detailed review.
  • Keep in mind that you are writing a history essay, as many DBQ questions may refer to religion, science, art, or other disciplines.

And the main thing you should bear in mind – don’t panic! Many students that have prepared well for the exam receive a lower grade just because of anxiety they experience during the exam. Writing a DBQ essay may seem hard, but with some practice, you will gain more confidence. We hope our tips will help you on your exam, as it’s always a good idea to know your enemy.

FAQ about DBQ essay writing

How do you prepare for APUSH DBQ?

Pay special attention to the US history lessons at AP. Take notes and discuss what you heard in class with classmates. A good option is passing mock DBQ exams. After that, ask your friends to rate them. You should not just take history seriously but also develop your writing skills. Your grade depends on them as well.

How many documents should I use in APUSH DBQ?

As a rule, students are provided with three types of documents, and they must also use additional sources. Five to seven sources will be enough.

What should be your timeline for studying DBQ rubrics?

If you ask how to manage your time on DBQ, spend 20% of your time reading documents, 10% should be spent on essay planning, about 50% — on essay writing, and another 20% should remain spent on editing and proofreading.

How can AP scores influence your college chances?

Remember that the chances of enrolling are not affected by your AP scores. Nevertheless, the AP course you take is more significant than the exam results, meaning that the AP scores impact is more negligible than you might think.

Instead, it will be more effective to pay attention to the AP classes in the transcript and the relevance of those classes to the future speciality. For a deeper understanding of the AP classes’ role in college admissions, you can use unique calculators that consider your standardized test scores, GPA, and more.

DBQ essay writing help from experts

Almost every student faces difficulties while writing a DBQ essay. The most frequent problem is that they don’t have enough time to complete their paper on time. If you get help on, you can save time. While our writer is working on your order, you can spend time on more pleasant things than writing boring papers. We can assure you that our professional writers will deliver high-quality DBQs on time and adhere to all the instructions.

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