You may not know what a DBQ is. For most of my life, neither did I. But in the high schools of this region and the rest of the country, it has become an important, and in some ways fearsome, term.
It haunts the dreams of 400,000 teenagers who will take the Advanced Placement exam in U.S. history Wednesday. It is part of a massive reform of the AP exam system that controls the schedules of most of the nation’s high schools every May.
DBQ is an acronym for “document-based question.” Multiple-choice questions make up 55 minutes of the 3-hour,
5-minute AP U.S. history exam, which has the second-largest number of AP test-takers, behind the English language and composition exam. The rest of the time is devoted to two essay questions and the DBQ, an essay based on roughly 10 short historical documents or quotes. The DBQ counts more than any other question on the exam. It draws by far the most attention, including pre-exam guessing of what it will be about.
Is DBQ mania good for our schools? Philip W. Engle Jr., a history teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, has been educating me on this. He has been an AP teacher for 20 years. He doesn’t think DBQs are bad.
They “require students to work with documents and use higher-level thinking skills to use this information to defend a thesis,” Engle said. “This is a great skill to have, especially when writing research papers.”
But to Engle, the DBQ seems at odds with the view of the College Board — and most universities — that AP U.S. history is a college-level course. The DBQ “is a unique writing task and one they will never do in college,” Engle said. “In my four years as a history major and in pursuing my master’s degree in history, never did I write a single DBQ essay. They are not college assignments.”
That may be changing. The Collegiate Learning Assessment, a key part of a movement to assess how much students learn in college, is essentially one long DBQ. Students receive letters, news clippings and government reports, then they are asked to do some real-world analysis, like telling a corporate board whether to buy a company plane.
John Williamson, a former Kentucky school district superintendent who is executive director for AP curriculum and content development, said Engle is correct that college professors don’t assign DBQs, but they seem to be requiring something similar. He did a search of college U.S. history course syllabi and found that in most cases, “students were asked to read multiple primary sources and then develop a thesis or respond to a question that required the synthesis of several primary sources.”
Engle has no problem with the growth of DBQs. But like many AP teachers, he thinks the mystery surrounding what will be on the DBQ and the rest of the history exam hurts learning.
“The AP test can ask anything from economic trends, political history, military history, religions, social and cultural history,” Engle said. Many teachers try to cover everything and have little time to assign research papers that develop students’ analytical skills.
Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president for AP and college readiness, said he shares Engle’s breadth of content concerns. As part of a gradual reform of all AP subjects, Packer said, teachers preparing for the redesigned U.S. history course and exam, scheduled to take effect in fall 2014, will be given “much greater clarity and specificity” about what to cover.
AP history director Lawrence Charap said key documents and specific topics have been identified. Teachers will have more time to go deep into favorite issues. Long research papers, a rarity in U.S. schools, might even be possible. Students must still face the DBQ, but they should be better prepared and less afraid.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
The dreaded DBQ, or “document-based question,” is an essay question type on the AP History exams (AP US History, AP European History, and AP World History). For the DBQ essay, you will be asked to analyze some historical issue or trend with the aid of the provided sources, or "documents," as evidence.
The DBQ is an unfamiliar type of in-class essay for many students, but it does not need to be a source of dread or panic. In this guide I'll go over the DBQ's purpose and format, what the documents are and how to use them, how this type of essay is scored, and how to prepare. I'll tell you everything you need to rock this unique type of essay!
Note: The rubric, guidelines, and skills tested for all of the History APs are identical; only the historical source material is different.
The DBQ Essay Explained
As a veteran of the DBQ, I'm here to answer all your questions. Why do the AP History exams even have a document-based question? What will it look like on the exam? What are these documents, anyways? Let's dive right in.
This baby is too young to be diving into the DBQ!
Why the DBQ?
The point of the document-based question is not to torment you but actually to put you in the historian’s shoes as an interpreter of historical material. Cool, right?
The DBQ is testing your ability to:
- create a strong thesis and support that thesis with the aid of the documents provided
- analyze sources for characteristics such as author’s point of view, the author's purpose, the audience, and context
- make connections between the documents
- bring in outside knowledge to strengthen the argument
This may sound like a tall order, but you probably already use all these skills all the time.
Here's an example:
Suppose your friend asks for your help in deciding whether to buy a particular new brand of soccer ball. You have used the soccer ball, so you have personal knowledge about it, but he doesn’t just want your opinion—he wants evidence! (Your friend takes buying soccer balls very seriously).
So first, you collect information (your “documents”). These could include:
- online reviews of the soccer ball
- your brother’s opinion
- the price at the store
- the cost of other soccer balls
- ads for the soccer ball
Next, you'll analyze these "documents" to make a decision about whether the ball is a good purchase for your friend or not. For that, you might:
- Assess bias (also known as the author’s point of view): Maybe the soccer ball ad isn’t the most objective measure of the ball’s quality. Maybe your brother hates soccer.
- Consider the author’s audience: Maybe that review of the soccer ball was written for professional soccer players, and you want to know how it is for casual players!
- Think about the context of your friend's decision: What time of year is it? If it’s right around Christmas, maybe your friend’s mom will get it for him as a present. What you already know about soccer is part of the context as well--you know your friend won’t want a ball that’s too bouncy, for example.
Buying the right soccer ball might have higher stakes than the AP exam.
If you were going to go back and write an essay for your friend about this after you've reviewed your "documents," your thesis might be something like one of these examples:
- “This soccer ball is a good purchase for my friend because it has all the elements of a good soccer ball at a great price point.”
- “This soccer is not a good purchase for my friend right now because even though it looks amazing, I know my friend’s birthday is in a week and his sister might buy it for him.”
Then you would use the “documents” and your outside knowledge (for example, your experience with the soccer ball and your knowledge about soccer) to support that claim.
That's a document-based question! In fact, I would assert that the DBQ is the easiest essay to score highly on in the AP History exams. As overwhelming as it might be now to think about all of that information getting thrown at you at once, think of it this way:
Instead of relying primarily on your knowledge, the DBQ gives you a bunch of sources to use in your analysis. This means you don’t have to be worried you’ll waste five minutes racking your brain trying to remember the name of that guy who did that thing. It’s important to bring in some outside information for a top score, but the main thing you need to do is analyze.
95% of the info you really need is there. You just have to learn how to use it.
Let's move on to test formatting so you know what to expect from document-based questions.
What Does the DBQ Format Look Like?
Each of the AP history tests has one DBQ, and it is always the first question in the test booklet for the writing section (Part II of the exam). When you open your booklet and turn to the DBQ, you will see the instructions, the prompt, and then the documents.
You will have a 15-minute reading period, with a recommended 40 minutes of writing time. The test has two essays, and you will have 90 minutes total to plan and write them. You won't be forced to move on from one essay to the other, so be sure to budget your time carefully.
You are not required to use the entire reading/planning period. You can begin writing whenever you wish. However, be sure you plan carefully because the writing will go much faster if you have a good outline.
That covers the general format, but no doubt you want to hear more about these mysterious documents. Stay tuned!
What's the Deal With These Documents?
You will receive up to seven sources. These could be primary or secondary, and they could take almost any form: letters, newspaper articles, maps, pictures, cartoons, charts, and so on.
You will need to use all or all but one of the documents in your essay. You should go further in-depth on at least four of the documents. (See the rubric breakdown section below for more details).
For US History, no DBQ will focus exclusively on the time period prior to 1607 or after 1980, although they may focus on a broader time period that includes one of those time periods.
Don't worry, they won't be original copies.
Now that we've discussed the purpose, format, and document protocol of the DBQ, we need to discuss scoring.
How Is the DBQ Scored?
How much is the DBQ worth on your exam? And how do those pesky AP graders even score it?
How Much Is the Document-Based Question Worth?
The DBQ is 25% of your total grade. The entire second section of exam is 50% of your grade, and there are two equally weighted essays.
What Does the Rubric Mean?
The rubric the graders use is freely available to you on the College Board website.
- Click here for the rubric.
Don't worry if these look like gibberish to you. I'll break it down briefly here, and go even more in-depth on my article about how to prepare for and write a DBQ.
DBQ Rubric Breakdown
There are four categories in this rubric: thesis, analysis of the document, using outside evidence, and synthesis. You can score up to seven points.
Thesis and Argument - 2 points
- One point for having a clear, historically plausible thesis that is located in the introduction or conclusion.
- You can get another point here for having a particularly good thesis that presents a nuanced relationship between historical factors, and doing a good job supporting that thesis in your essay.
Document Analysis - 2 points
- One point for using 6-7 of the documents in your essay. Easy-peasy.
- One point for doing further analysis on four of the documents. This further analysis could be on any of the following points:
- author’s point of view
- author’s purpose
- historical context
Just be sure to tie any further analysis back to your main argument!
Using Outside Evidence - 2 points
- One point is just for context - if you can locate the issue within its broader historical situation. You do need to write several sentences about it but the contextual information can be very general.
- One point is for being able to name an additional specific example relevant to your argument that is not mentioned in the documents. Don't stress if you freeze up and can't remember one on test day. This is only one point and it will not prevent you from getting a 5 on the exam.
Synthesis - 1 point
- All you need to do for synthesis is relate your argument about this specific time period to a different time period, geographical area, historical movement, etc.
- It is probably easiest to do this in the conclusion of the essay.
Still with me? Just remember: the most important thing is having a strong thesis that is supported by the information in the documents and whatever other related information you have around in your brain.
If you are an auditory learner, I recommend the following video, which breaks down all the components you need to get a seven.
Parting Thoughts on Scoring
If this seems like a lot to take in, don't worry. You don’t have to get a perfect score on the DBQ to get a five on the AP. Somewhere in the 5-6 range can definitely get you there. To get a 3 on the exam (which still gives you course credit at a lot of colleges), you only need a 3 on the DBQ. (See page eight of this document.)
Additionally, overall historical accuracy is important but not 100% necessary for every tiny detail of the essay. Anything that is in the documents should be correct, but when you start to bring in outside sources for your DBQ essay on unionization and working conditions and you can’t remember if the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was in 1911 or 1912, just pick one and don’t sweat it. If minor details are incorrect and don’t detract from the overall meaning of the essay, you won’t lose points.
Now that you understand the purpose, format, and rubric for document-based questions, I'll give you some tips on how to get the score you're aiming for.
How Can I Rock the DBQ?
Two things will help you crush the DBQ: prepping beforehand, and hitting all the right notes on test day!
Rock the DBQ like Jimi rocked the 1960s.
Preparing for the DBQAs you might expect, the most important thing you can do to prepare is to practice writing this type of essay.
Ask a trusted teacher or advisor to look over your practice drafts and/or outlines with the rubric and advise what you might be missing.
Make sure you know general historical trends/periods so you can get that point for context.
You can find more prep tips in my article on how to write a DBQ.
During the Test
- Read the question carefully. Make sure you know what is being asked before you start trying to answer.
- While you read the documents, take notes on what they mean, who is writing, etc.
- Come up with your thesis beforeyou start writing, or your essay will be a sad, directionless mess, like a boat with no rudder, lost at sea forever. If you aren’t sure of your thesis yet, brainstorm in your notes—not while you are writing.
- Once you have a thesis, stay on topic. If you’re writing about how Smaug wrecked the Forbidden Mountain, don’t start talking about how amazing and clever Bilbo is, even if it’s true.
- Make sure you use all the documents—doing so gets you easy points.
- However, don’t simply regurgitate sources with no analysis. If you find yourself doing a lot of “Source A says blah, and Source B says blah, and Source C says blah...” make sure you are using the documents to make a point, and not letting the documents use you.
- A great way to analyze the documents is to make connections between them! Who agrees? Who disagrees? Why?
- Don’t forget to provide context, one outside example, and a connection to another period/area/historical theme if you can! That’s three points right there.
And there you have it! You are ready to start prepping for success.
Abraham Lincoln believes in you!
I know I just threw a lot of information at you. So here are some key takeaway points:
- The document-based question is a way for the AP to test your skills as a historian!
- Don’t panic! It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, even though you are getting tons of information thrown at you in a short time.
- The DBQ is based on skills that you can learn and practice: writing a strong thesis, using given evidence to support an argument, making connections between different documents and pieces of evidence, placing specific information in a broader context, analyzing an author’s intent, bias, audience, etc.
Need more study resources for AP World History? See our Best AP World History Study Guide or get more practice tests from our complete list.
Need more resources for AP US History? Try this article on the best notes to use for studying from one of our experts. Also check out her review of the best AP US History textbooks!
Or just looking for general information about your upcoming APs? See here for instructions on how to register for AP exams, complete 2016 test dates, and information on how much AP tests cost (and how to get AP financial aid).
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