What is a DBQ? An Essential Guide to Document-Based Questions

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Colleges of Distinction »

As you prepare for your upcoming AP tests, you’ll likely hear the term DBQ thrown around multiple times. DBQs are crucial to your overall AP test score and help demonstrate your skills, knowledge, and analytical abilities.

But what is a DBQ, and how can you use it to your advantage on the AP exams? This article will answer your questions about DBQs, from what they look like and how they’re scored to what the rubric means. We’ll also look at the purpose of the DBQ as well as which exams include a DBQ. Read on for more information about DBQs and how to use them to your advantage.

What is a DBQ?

Let’s start by answering the essential question: what is a DBQ? The document-based question, or DBQ, is an essay question included in many Advanced Placement (AP) exams. DBQs are worth a significant portion of your overall grade on the AP test and are meant to assess your ability to analyze primary sources.

Which Exams Include a DBQ?

DBQs are included in many Advanced Placement (AP) exams, including AP History, AP English Language and Composition, and AP World History. They are also included in some SAT subject tests, such as SAT II US History, SAT II World History, and SAT II Literature. To correctly answer a DBQ, you must analyze historical documents as evidence to answer a primary question regarding historical events or issues.

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What Does the DBQ Format Look Like?

Students can format a DBQ response in the same way they would with a standard analytical essay. Generally speaking, you should format your DBQ as follows:

  • Introduction: In the introduction, you should explain what the essay is about, introduce your argument, write your thesis statement, and describe the main points that you will be addressing in the essay.
  • Body: The essay’s body should consist of several paragraphs, each focusing on one central point you outlined in the introduction. Each paragraph should begin with a comprehensive topic sentence and be supported with evidence from the documents.
  • Conclusion: The conclusion should summarize the central points of your essay and restate your argument. It should also explain how your argument supports the prompt.

When writing your DBQ essay during an AP exam, you will be given 15 minutes to look over the documents provided for the essay. You will spend the remaining 45 minutes writing the essay following this period. Most DBQs provide numerous documents to consider when supporting your argument, so understanding each document is crucial.

AP exams usually include two DBQs. Students have 90 minutes to write their essays after reviewing the documents.

How is the DBQ Scored?

Your DBQ will be scored based on how thoroughly you answer the prompt, the strength of your argument, the quality of your evidence, and how effectively you use the source material. DBQs are the second-highest contributor to your final score. The DBQ rubric emphasizes your essay’s thesis, analysis, evidence, and synthesis. These essays are scored based on the following categories and points system:

  • Thesis (0-1 point)
  • Contextualization (0-1 point)
  • Evidence (0-3 points)
  • Analysis (0-2 points)

How Much is the Document-Based Question Worth?

The DBQ is worth a significant portion of your grade on the AP test. Typically, the DBQ will be worth 25% of your overall score.

What Does the Rubric Mean?

The DBQ rubric is a set of criteria used to evaluate essays. It is divided into the categories listed above. But what does the rubric mean, and what should you expect to be graded on for each category? Below is a breakdown of each category and how points are determined.

  • Thesis: You earn a point on your DBQ thesis if you successfully make a claim responding to the prompt and addressing all of your central points that will be argued in the body. The thesis statement should be no more than two sentences, though one is preferable.
  • Contextualization: The context of your essay is crucial to a comprehensive and highly graded DBQ response. This portion relates to whether your thesis and arguments are connected to broader historical contexts central to the question.
  • Evidence: Students will earn anywhere from one to three points based on how successfully they incorporate the document-based evidence. Two points are earned when a student’s response describes the document’s content. The third point is earned if students integrate a document’s evidence throughout the essay rather than taking large chunks and quotes from the documents without providing analysis.
  • Analysis: Finally, you can earn one point for your analysis if you can accurately depict the content from each document, including its purpose and perspective. Students earn two points for responses that display a nuanced understanding of historical events relating to the documents.

What’s the Purpose of a DBQ?

The purpose of a DBQ is to assess your ability to analyze primary historical sources. DBQs test your skills and whether you can comprehensively respond to each question with a detailed explanation of the documents. DBQs focus on your analytical skills, overall knowledge of the subject, and ability to understand and break down historical documents.

It tests your ability to identify critical points and analyze how the documents support them. Additionally, it tests your ability to write a strong argument and support it with evidence. DBQs also demonstrate your understanding of the political and cultural contexts behind historical documents and their related events.

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