How to Write a DBQ (APUSH) Essay?

If you were to believe the Urban Dictionary, you'd think a DBQ essay is a "torture mechanism" that "lasts a whole school year" but "feels like a century". You're better than that; you can master this! Here's how you can rock your APUSH DBQ.

What Is a DBQ Essay?

A DBQ — "Document-Based Question" — is a type of essay question or prompt commonly used for AP History exams. That includes AP European History and AP World History, but DBQ essays have become most notorious in the context of APUSH — AP US History.

Challenging as it may be, the DBQ format serves a clear purpose:

  • To acclimatize students to analyzing historical documents for elements such as author opinion, bias, purpose, intended audience, and context.
  • To help students craft a strong thesis.
  • To help students gain broader insights by observing the connection between diverse documents.
  • To teach students to rely on primary sources to craft an essay, making it more objective.
  • To force students to take a stand and use their brains — there is no right or wrong answer, and scoring teachers will want to see evidence of analytical thought, instead.

Is the APUSH DBQ Hard?

If you love US history and writing, you will sail through it. If you struggle with either of these or are generally easily overwhelmed by unfamiliar formats, you may find the APUSH DBQ extremely challenging. Because the DBQ is worth 25 percent of your total grade, you will want to study hard to prepare.

The DBQ prompt itself consists of a single sentence, such as (in 1028) "“Evaluate the relative importance of different causes for the expanding role of the United States in the world in the period from 1865 to 1910.”

Students will be provided with:

  • Primary documents, written during the relevant time period.
  • Secondary documents, written about the time period after the fact.
  • Relevant images.

You will also use at least one other source from your previous study to support your thesis.

There is no hard and fast rule about the number of paragraphs included. Some students will opt for a traditional five-paragraph structure, but the APUSH DBQ can work better with six:

  • One for the thesis.
  • Four for the body of the essay — meaning one for each type of source you are discussing.
  • One for the conclusion.

You can also divide the documents into sections, such as political and economic, and shorten your essay.

How to Format an APUSH DBQ

Looking for a beginner's guide to writing an APUSH DBQ that gets a good grade? You won't go wrong by following this tried and tested formula:

  • Start with a strong introduction that gets the reader interested in your essay — this can be a quote, relevant statistics, or even a shocking question. It should not be more than a few sentences long.
  • Introduce your thesis statement. It should appear immediately after the introduction, and summarize your main claim and argument for the DBQ. The thesis serves as a compass that allows the person grading the essay to know through which lens you will tackle the remaining material.
  • The body of your APUSH DBQ essay. Rely heavily on the provided supporting documents, which shows you have paid attention to them and can use them competently to argue in favor of your own stance. Using logic and rhetoric, explain how the supporting documents — as well as sources you have explored outside of those provided in the DBQ — uphold your thesis. This will be the longest part of your essay, and may take up as many paragraphs as needed.
  • Your conclusion should coherently demonstrate why your thesis is a strong one. The person grading the DBQ essay does not have to agree with you, but they must absolutely be able to see how you arrived at your conclusion. They should ideally be impressed by both your writing skills and your analytical reasoning skills.

Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a DBQ Essay

If you are reading this, you are currently preparing for your APUSH DBQ essay — and the best way to study for it is to get plenty of practice in. Try these techniques, which take you on a step-by-step path to a strong BDQ essay for APUSH, on mock prompts. It is best to use actual APUSH DBQ prompts from previous years for this purpose.

  1. Plan ahead. You will have to read and analyze the documents provided, decide on a thesis, write the essay, and edit and proofread the DBQ essay. Doing mock DBQs will allow you to find your own personal winning formula in terms of dividing your time between these elements.
  2. Skim the documents. Underline important details you want to use later.
  3. Consider other sources from your previous study that you may want to call on.
  4. Decide on the opinion or angle you are going to take. Mentally formulate your thesis statement. Take some time to think of a strong introduction.
  5. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself you can do it, because you can.
  6. Get writing. Write the introduction and keep in mind that your thesis should be an entire paragraph long. Use the documents to support any claim you make. Ensure that each paragraph supports the thesis in a key manner, and that they flow coherently and logically.
  7. In your conclusion, emphasize why the thesis holds merit and leave the person grading the DBQ with a good final impression.
  8. Proofread and edit. There will be mistakes. Find them.

You're done. Pat yourself on the back and relax. It's all out of your hands now.

How to Pass the DBQ APUSH Exam

Beyond obvious "strategies" like paying attention in class and studying hard, both of which will prepare you for your APUSH DBQ, you have a better chance of acing your DQQ APUSH exam if you:

  • Practice DBQs by using previous years' prompts.
  • Read strong DBQs written by others.
  • Take your time to really understand the prompt and what it wants from you.
  • Read the documents carefully, find points you want to tackle, and underline them. Use your full cognitive power; you don't just want to look an explicitly-stated details, but also at tone and things that remain unsaid.
  • Brainstorm your response and approach before you commit any words to paper.
  • Make an outline — if not a physical one, then at least a mental one.
  • Do the best you can.
  • Proofread your DBQ when you are done.


How does the point system work? If you're wondering, you're not alone. The structure of the AP US History exam is as follows:

  • Section I, Part A: Answer 55 multiple choice questions (40 percent of your total grade).
  • Section I, Part B: Answer three questions with short answer (20 percent of your total grade).
  • Section II, Part A: The DBQ essay (25 percent of your total grade).
  • Section II, Part B: The long essay question. You will get a choice to answer one of three questions, and this portion makes up 15 percent of your total grade.

Where to Find Examples of DBQ Essays

AP US History is, for many students, easily among the most challenging courses they will take. The APUSH exam represents the end of a time period marked by intense study and intellectual development. You have tried your best, and of course you would like to earn an excellent grade on your APUSH exam. Because the APUSH DBQ represents a full quarter of your total grade, it is only natural that you want perform well.

How? You may think that the answer lies in analyzing examples of DBQ essays and seeing what made them worthy of a good grade. You would be right, but there is an important caveat. If you turn to your friendly neighborhood search engine and look for examples of DBQ exams, at least half of the sample DBQ essays you get will be written by people who have no skin in the game — trust us, we've looked.

You want DBQ essay samples written by actual students like you, and you want to understand what made them so good. To do this, you can look at the AP US History Official College Board Examples. Analyzing these — and due to the fact that the APUSH exam was redesigned recently there aren't that many — will help you study for your DBQ essay.

Examples of DBQ essays, with explanations as to why they meet the criteria the college board is looking for, can be found on the AP College Board's website:


How do you study for APUSH DBQ?

Pay close attention in AP US History classes. Take notes and discuss the material with classmates. Take mock DBQ exams, and ask your friends to grade them. Don't just take studying history seriously; develop your writing skills, too.

How many documents do you need to use in an APUSH DBQ?

You will be given three types of documents and should use at least one additional source. Generally, six to seven sources works well.

What should your DBQ rubrics study timeline be?

If you are asking how to organize the time you spend on the DBQ, devote 20 percent of your time to reading the documents, 10 percent to planning your essay, around 50 percent of it to writing the essay, and a further 20 percent to editing and proofreading it.

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