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How to Write a DBQ Essay

March 1, 2020
How to Write a DBQ Essay

The abbreviation stands for the “document-based-question.” It is a specific type of essay that students must compose during the Advanced Placement exams. The essence of this task is to give a detailed answer to a question and support it with well-grounded evidence from documents.

The scope of this essay is the History course (US History, European History, and World History courses). Hence, the topic of a DBQ essay is usually to explain some historical events. For example, “The grounds of the First Italian War of Independence.”

The grade that students earn with this essay makes a quarter of the final grade of all the exams. As you see, the importance of this work is great. If you need to pass the AP exam in History, you must know how to write a DBQ essay very well. Besides, colleges use this essay format in the social studies courses, meaning that you might get this assignment even more often.

It is a difficult task, as the course itself is complex and demanding. Thus, to help any student to get prepared for this test, we’ve created this article.

Why a DBQ Essay is so important

All essays are synthetic works requiring that students present their knowledge on the subject and skills on many levels. When we deal with a DBQ essay at the exams, professors want to evaluate the following aspects:

  • The ability to create a thesis statement, and the strength of those statements;
  • The ability to analyze the supporting documents – define the common and contrast things, draw parallels, etc.;
  • The ability to analyze the information via the prism of the writer’s personality and faiths;
  • The ability to define the goal of the study, the audience, and the historical, political, ad social context;
  • The ability to appeal to other sources of information and documents not included in the list for the exam.

The way the students present these aspects in their works show how well they absorbed and understood the contents of the course, and how well they understand the driving force, causes and consequences of historical events.

To pass this exam, students need a thorough knowledge of the specified periods, but the skills of analysis and synthesis are even more critical. A DBQ essay is an original research work that you must perform within a limited time. It is not just memorizing facts and dates.

How to Prepare to Write a DBQ essay at the exam?

Preparation is the key to successful passing any exams. But it is always more comfortable if you have a thorough knowledge of the subject. This ensures that you can get prepared better and find the necessary logical connections in the documents.

When you are at the exam, note that you will only have 1 hour for this essay. In most cases, you spend approximately 15 minutes reading and analysis the documents, and the rest 45 minutes are yours to write the entire essay.

In the DBQ essay, you must provide your thesis in the historical contexts, and prove your thesis with evidence from the six attached documents. Also, you must present one example of outside evidence (this is to illustrate your knowledge in general). Your point of view can be disputable, so you should provide strong evidence from no less than three of the source documents.

Examining the Prompt and Documents

The quarter of an hour you have is vital for your essay. The results of the work will depend on your preliminary studies of the attached documents. Take them all and examine very carefully:

  • Read the prompt of the task and ensure that you understand every detail of it;
  • Identify the keywords – these are the definitions that directly explain what you must do. Your reference points are action words like “analyze”, “define,” “compare,” “contrast”, and adjectives like “social”, “economic,”, and “political”. Such words point out what you must focus on;
  • After that, read the attached documents. Don’t skim the contents to get the general meaning – you need to understand every detail. Make notes of the most important factors you pinpoint in those documents;
  • Identify the author of each document – their background, opinion, their audience, and the goals of the texts they created. You also need to refer to the role of each personality in context: who influenced the author, and whom that writer guided later.
  • Sort your documents – you need to identify the relationship between each document and your task. For instance, some of them may be supporting, while others will present arguments contra;
  • Remember: the specificity of the DBQ essay is to use references as proof of your rightness. So, when you pick some historical facts or events – connect them to your claim. Make notes to organize the evidence, and mark the necessary pieces in the document.
  • An obligatory part is to appeal to at least one more source besides these documents. As you had to read and examine many references to prepare for this exam, it won’t be a problem for you. Think of the most appropriate examples and jot the key statements from them down.
  • Get back to the prompt again and check how the information from the documents matches the conditions. The thing is, when you research those sources, you can find a different angle, or some circumstances may become more prominent.
  • Compose a thesis statement. It must be grounded on the information you obtained from those sources and your own knowledge of the historical period. Note that you need to relate the thesis directly to the prompt, but it can’t be a pure restatement.

Creating an Outline

The first thing that you need to take into consideration is that the outline for a DBQ essay is specific. You can’t refer to the experience of making outlines for any other essay types.

As the core of your work is the document analysis, you should provide arguments and references from the recommended sources. The following aspects must be in focus:

  • The author’s claim in historical context;
  • The goal of the claim and its target audience;
  • The factors influencing the author’s opinion;
  • The “cause-and-effect” connection between historical events.

Note that you need to apply to a minimum of 3 of the sources for these details.

Your goal in this text is to show that you understand the topic and track the causes, the consequences, and connections between the events. 

When you draft the essay outline in paper, it should form a structure:

  1. The thesis statement;
  2. The historical context;
  3. The list of your claims. You may mark them by roman numbers of letters – choose the one best suited.
  4. Each entry of the outline under the numeral or letter must be a general claim with several bullet points.
  5. Each bullet point must be a separate argument in favor of your claim. Add citations from the documents there and mark the references in the MLA or APA format.
  6. Logical transitions must be present to lead the reader from one point to another.

Make sure that all pieces of evidence are relevant and clear, and that they work to support your thesis.

Writing the Essay

You have only 45 minutes to compose it, and you’d better try to complete it within 40 minutes to have time for revision and proofreading.

  • Formulate the thesis. It should be a short statement of a couple of sentences.
  • Add the clarification in regards to the historical context – it is an obligatory part, and your grade will be lower without it;
  • As you have minimal time, try to make everything laconic.
  • Compose the Body part. Work according to the outline to order your paragraphs logically and provide supporting arguments;
  • The standard is one paragraph for one claim from your thesis statement. Note that you need to open each of the paragraphs with its own mini-introduction, no more than one sentence. But that sentence should explain what the section is about and how it is connected to the other parts.
  • Pay all attention to using the information from the sources. It is not enough to take some fragment from a separate source and include it in your text. When you write, you must prove that you understand the “links” between the documents. In plain words, it is as if you draft a general plotline that unites all materials into the higher-level structure. And then you relate that structure to your essay.

It will also help you to illustrate your critical thinking, as you need to work with the meaning of words, not their form. Hence, you better understand the driving forces of events and historical changes.

Editing and Proofreading

Though you might be very short of time, you need to get yourself a couple of minutes to revise the text.

  • Check and correct grammar errors. Your writing skills are also essential, and you need to demonstrate them too. Misspelling and punctuation errors are unacceptable.
  • Check the formatting of the quotes. It can be critical, as using sources without proper credits is a mark of plagiarism that will ruin your work. You might get distracted and miss the citation, and it will turn into a big problem.
  • Check the contents of the citations – make sure to present the correct names and dates, and that those authors’ statements are appropriately cited.

Head for Examples of DBQ essays

Nothing can help more than having an excellent ready example of the essay. The best way is to use these examples with a detailed clarification of the prompt. In such a way, you can track the correct structure of the text. Also, you estimate what your professors expect to get in the essay.

Get several examples and examine them. Don’t go into detail; focus on the general contents and the logical order. You can use these texts to build a “draft outline” for your future work. Good luck!