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How to Write a DBQ Essay: Winning Strategies for your APUSH Exam

How to Write a DBQ Essay: Effective APUSH Exam Strategies

If you’re wondering how to write a DBQ essay, you’re probably anxious to get a high enough grade on your APUSH without wasting too much time on preparation. We’re here today to answer all your questions and share successful strategies for preparation and taking the exam. Our academic experts developed these prep and writing tips that served hundreds of high schoolers we’ve coached.

What Is a DBQ Essay?

The document-based question is part of a timed AP History exam that requires you to craft a DBQ essay based on the sources you receive. 

DBQ Essentials

To answer “What is DBQ essay?” in full, let’s consider the unique characteristics that set it apart from other writing tasks:

    • Sources. You will receive seven pieces of historical evidence, such as letters, maps, pictures, etc., and you’ll need to use six of them to score a point. They may be primary and secondary sources, and you can mark up your copies as you analyze them.
    • Time frame. The exam includes a 15-minute preparation section and a 40-minute writing window for each of the two essays you’ll need to write. Overall, you’ll have around 1 hour and 50 minutes to complete the task. 
  • Word count. As a timed assignment, a DBQ essay usually does not come with a word count limit, but it should be a finished piece with an introduction, body, and conclusion. A basic five-paragraph setup is well-suited to this task, unlike a research paper format.

For more useful resources and writing tips, check out the DBQ Project website.

DBQ Rubric Overview

 Understanding these key requirements and implementing their development into your preparation will increase the likelihood of getting a high score. The DBQ essay rubric includes four sections that can earn you seven points:

  • Thesis and argument development (2 points) demonstrate your ability to formulate a valid thesis statement and your ability to build a strong argument that accounts for different parts of the prompt question.
  • Document analysis (2 points) awards one point for using at least six sources to support your argument and another point for analyzing the author’s purpose, point of view, audience, or historical context for at least four sources.
  • Using evidence beyond the documents (2 points) highlights your knowledge of the relevant issue, as well as your ability to infer additional information from the sources provided. 
  • Synthesis (1 point) showcases your ability to build connections between the primary issue of the paper and another discipline, historical approach, or time period. 

Create a Thorough DBQ Essay Outline

As we’ve mentioned, a standard five-paragraph structure works well for a DBQ essay, but you need to account for the format of the assignment to make the most of it.

Craft an Impactful Introduction

A thesis statement is the critical part of the introduction, as without it, you’ll lose a point. Here are a few critical things to know about the thesis:

  • It’s a statement, not a question.
  • It addresses all parts of the prompt question.
  • It is controversial but defensible.
  • It is free of subjective opinions.
  • It can be adjusted after your essay is done.

So, if you don’t know how to start a DBQ essay, don’t waste time thinking of an impressive hook. Instead, introduce the topic directly and state your thesis. You can add some context or background information before diving straight into the body paragraphs. 

Develop the Argument Through the Body Paragraphs

The secret of how to write a good DBQ lies in carefully crafting each paragraph and organizing them logically. You can go with the easiest and fastest tactic of devoting each passage to a single aspect of the prompt question (and your thesis). A good body paragraph:

  • Starts with a topic sentence that clearly defines the point
  • Includes a transition connecting it with the previous or the following passage
  • Incorporates evidence from at least two sources and outside information
  • Holds analysis and synthesis instead of summaries or paraphrases of the sources
  • Clearly connects to the thesis statement and supports your claim

You can order your DBQ essay from the weakest argument to the strongest or the other way around, but try to avoid repetitions and redundancies, as they will waste your time and lose you points.

Wrap up with a Memorable Conclusion

If you’re running out of time, the conclusion is the most likely section of the DBQ essay outline you can sacrifice. You can merely restate your thesis and leave it at that. But if you have the option, try to include a brief overview of the main points and formulate the relevance of the issue in the modern world.

How to Write a DBQ Essay: Winning Strategies

As there’s no way to predict the topic and the prompt of your DBQ essay, we cannot guide you through the writing process. But we can share universal strategies that will prepare you to tackle this task. Our list includes everything from basic time management tips to incorporating “yes-but” strategies for contextualizing your writing. The more of these winning practices you use, the higher score you’ll likely receive on your APUSH.

Master DBQ Time-Management

One of the biggest challenges of writing a successful DBQ essay is meeting the time limit. With under an hour to analyze the sources, outline, write, and proofread the paper, you’ll have no time to spare for anxiety and indecision. To ensure you make the most of the limited time, consider these strategies:

    • Practice timed writing before taking the APUSH. First, just time your progress, noting how much time it takes you to look over the sources and complete other steps of the process. Then, come up with ways to speed things up. For instance, instead of taking notes on a separate piece of paper, use copies of the sources to mark important points, summarize, etc.
    • Set limits for each stage of the writing process. To stay on track, break up the task into smaller sections and check the time regularly. For instance, the reading and planning stage is only 15 minutes, so writing an introduction should take you no longer than five minutes, and you’ll need five more for a conclusion. With five to ten minutes for editing and proofreading, that leaves you 20 to 25 minutes for writing body paragraphs (7 to 8 minutes per each of the three body passages).
  • Prepare for the worst-case scenario. Think of coping strategies in case something goes wrong, and you lose five or ten minutes of writing time. Review the rubric and decide which aspects of the paper you can sacrifice while losing the least number of points. For instance, if you include a thesis statement in the introduction, you may limit your conclusion to a single sentence or skip it altogether.

Remember that time management is an essential skill that takes practice and preparation, so the more you work on it, the better you’ll become. 

Analyze the Documents

Making the most of the documents you receive is the key to how to write a DBQ essay like a pro. You cannot afford to waste a single source, as your grade will reflect your ability to use them effectively. To that end, you should consider each document carefully and look for evidence you can use to respond to the prompt and support your argument. 

Organize the Sources

As you skim through the sources for your DBQ essay, start categorizing them. You’ll notice some of the authors share the same views, so they can go into the same pile. You can also categorize them by time period, context, and other parameters. Ideally, you should have at least two sources to use for each of the three major points you make to support your thesis. However, some of the documents may qualify for different categories and can be used across multiple paragraphs. If that’s the case, take note of that and remember it when you start writing.

Build Your Argument around the Sources

Although you likely have a good enough grasp of History to formulate a thesis for a DBQ essay before reading the documents, that’s rarely a good idea. As the name of the task implies, you need to base your response to the prompt on the materials you receive. Therefore, even if you do not share the authors’ opinions on the issue, you should focus on the sources you have and supplement them with outside knowledge that at least partially aligns with them. Otherwise, you won’t be able to use the materials provided and lose one or two points out of seven. 

Learn How to Write DBQ Essay Theses

Like with any other assignment, a thesis statement is an integral part of a DBQ essay. If the assessment board finds it missing from your paper, you will lose points. Moreover, without the guiding element of a thesis, your essay will likely look like a mess of disjointed ideas. Therefore, mastering the art of crafting strong theses is critical for your writing success.

Study Effective Thesis Statement Examples

If you’re at the beginning of your journey of learning how to write a DBQ essay, start by analyzing winning examples. Note that theses without the corresponding papers will likely be meaningless, as you won’t be able to evaluate their effectiveness. Instead, read a handful of essays and seek out theses and topic sentences. Consider how each topic sentence is connected to the thesis and search for ways to make that relationship even more powerful. It also pays to consider the prompts before you study thesis statements, as analyzing them in tandem will give you a better idea of how to address your APUSH prompts. 

Contextualize Your Argument

The DBQ essay rubric clearly states that providing some form of context for your essay can earn you an additional point, so you mustn’t ignore this chance to boost your score.

Incorporate Outside Knowledge to Provide Context

In most cases, the sources you receive will not include enough material to provide cultural, economical, or other context for you to use. For that reason, you’ll need to review your existing knowledge of the time period to provide the context for your DBQ essay. Ideally, you should think of it before formulating your thesis statement to ensure the whole paper supports your argument. For instance, if you have an in-depth understanding of the financial struggles faced by the landowners in the South, you may consider the precursors to the Civil War through an economic lens.

Cite Evidence Correctly

Although you don’t have to search for sources like you would for other writing assignments, a DBQ essay should still include proper in-line citations.

Cite the Provided Sources

Considering you’ll need to use at least six sources, you must reference them in your DBQ essay to let the assessment board know which materials you used and how. There are two common ways to address in-text citations:

  1. Cite the author or name of the document. Incorporate them in the sentence before paraphrasing or summarizing the relevant data. 
  2. Specify the document in parentheses. It’s a less favorable approach, but it works best when you include lengthy quotes directly from the sources. 

Incorporate Outside Evidence

Many guides discussing how to write a DBQ essay forget to mention that you cannot solely rely on the sources provided with the prompt. Instead, you must include outside information based on your historical knowledge or inferred from the data provided by the sources. To implement this practice, jot down the facts and figures you remember about the subject before studying the sources you get, and take note of anything else you remember while reading the materials provided.

Demonstrate Understanding of Complex Historical Issues

One of the key success factors of how to write a good DBQ is demonstrating your comprehension of how various economic, political, cultural, and social factors affect the issue you’re discussing. The easiest way to achieve this goal is by implementing “yes-but” argumentation in your writing.

Incorporate Yes-But Reasoning 

This strategy requires you to analyze the source material, considering both sides of the argument. For example, you may find that two sources support your thesis statement, but another one contradicts your take. By addressing both sides, you will demonstrate your understanding of the complexity of historical processes and make your DBQ essay well-rounded and balanced. 

How to Write a Good DBQ: Summary

There’s no secret trick for how to write a good DBQ. It comes down to intense preparation and practice. The more you work on your time management, document analysis, and contextualization skills, the better you’ll be prepared for your APUSH. But if you’re still unsure where to start, you can pay us to write an essay sample for you and see for yourself how our experts put these strategies to use. Analyzing a winning essay should help you wrap your head around formulating a thesis and building a strong argument. So don’t put off your APUSH prep; get all the help you need ASAP.

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