Document-Based Questions

Document-based questions are one of three different types of essays you will need to be able to write on the AP exam, and in class.  The document-based question is sometimes better understood as an evidence-based question: you will be given a question on an historical topic, and then provided with a series of documents, charts, maps, photographs, paintings, and other sources as evidence you will use to formulate your answer.

Because the document-based question (DBQ) is a skills-based essay rather than a content-based question, it has a lot of moving parts.  This can make the DBQ seem very difficult to students who have not yet developed the analytical and writing skills used in this type of essay– but those skills can be developed with time and practice.  And the DBQ has one great advantage: students are not expected to have any background knowledge on the topic prior to writing the essay itself, which means everything you need to succeed in the DBQ is provided in the associated documents.

I repeat: you don’t have to know anything on this essay.  You just have to have the skills.

So what does a DBQ ask you to do? Per the instructions given in the College Board exam, your DBQ should:

  • Have a relevant thesis and support that thesis with evidence from the documents.
  • Use all of the documents.
  • Analyze the documents b grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible.  Do not simply summarize the documents individually.
  • Take into account the sources of the documents and analyze the authors’ points of view.
  • Identify and explain the need for at least one additional type of document.

All AP World History essays are timed, and the DBQ is no different.  However, you will have a ten-minute reading period prior to writing your essay.  During that reading period, you need to:

  • Read for content and analysis
  • Annotate the HECK out of your documents
  • Think about how to group your documents
  • Write a thesis, if you’ve got time

Don’t worry if you don’t finish reading all of the documents in ten minutes– you can continue reading until you’re done, but you’ll be taking time away from your writing time.  At the end of the reading period, you will be instructed to open your  Section II free response booklet, which is where you will write ALL of your essays.  You can choose to write the essays in any order you like, but I suggest that you tackle the DBQ first, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, you’ll have just finished reading the documents, and it only makes sense to write while the documents are fresh in your mind.  Also, because the DBQ is skill’s based and not content-based, if you know how to write a good DBQ, you can really put your time and effort into your DBQ in the hopes of a high score, and spend a little less time on the Comparative and CCOT essays, where you may or may not have a solid answer the the prompt.

Your essay should take you about 40 minutes to write (that’s all you’re getting in class from me), but it’s okay if you go over a little on the test.  Remember, you’re just taking time away from writing the Comparative or CCOT essay.

There are a ton of videos, activities, and resources out there to help you learn to write a good DBQ– some of which we’ll use in class, and some we won’t.  I’ve chosen to include some here that I think might be useful, but honestly, a good Google search can probably lead you to some new resources as well.

Again, the best thing you can do in preparation for the DBQ is to fully know and understand the rubric for this essay.