Tips for Writing DBQ Essays
AP US History
1. Don’t freak out over the documents: Confronted with excerpts from 8 to 10
documents it is easy become overwhelmed by them. Don’t get so swallowed up in
the documents that you loose sight of the question and your own knowledge of the
subject. A good DBQ essay relies both on the documents AND your knowledge of
the subject. Before you read the question, think through how you would answer it
without the documents, make a few notes and formulate a working thesis. Only
then look at the documents to find support for your thesis.
2. Read and think about the question: Read and think about the question BEFORE
you look at the documents. You are responding to a specific question using
documents as an aid. You ARE NOT writing a paper simply comparing and
contrasting documents. Stay focused on the task at hand.
3. Formulate a working thesis: Formulate a tentative thesis BEFORE you look at
the documents. See 1 and 2 above.
4. Don’t forget what you know: You MUST use outside information in your paper
in addition to the documents. Make a brief list of the facts that you believe should
be in an essay addressing the question before you look at the documents. See 1-3
5. Read the documents with a goal: When you have done the above, read the
documents looking for evidence that supports your thesis. But, keep an open mind.
If the documents suggest that you should modify your thesis, do so.
6. Try to get one good thing from each document: As you read each document, ask
yourself what facts, ideas, or concepts are expressed in the document. Try to get at
least one idea from it. If it doesn’t make sense to you, skip it and go back to it
later. Look for contradictions or tensions between documents and be prepared to
7. Don’t feel as if you have to use every document. A good DBQ essay will use
most of the documents, but don’t strain to mention every one of them. This isn’t
like a game of solitaire in which you can’t win unless you use all your cards.
8. Don’t over-use the documents: It is neither productive nor useful to quote long
passages from the documents. Reference them to support your argument, quote a
few words or a sentence if it directly supports your position, but generally it is
sufficient to identify the author of the document and to explain how the document
supports your thesis.
9. Healthy skepticism is a good thing: Be skeptical as you read. Be a detective.
Ask yourself whether the document is reliable, whether there is corroboration for it
and whether the source is biased. Jefferson’s characterization of Hamilton will be
affected by the fact that they are political rivals. Don’t accept everything in a
document on face value.
10. The documents are not presented in order of importance: Don’t over-
emphasize the first document: Students have a tendency to over-emphasize the first
document simply because it is first. Be careful of this.
11. How to cite the documents: In citing the documents, it is far better to mention the
author or subject of a document—for example, “Carter Woodson maintains” or “the
chart on illiteracy illustrates”—rather than referring to “Document I” or “Document
B”. It is acceptable to put “Doc.C” after a discussion as a footnote, but in a well-
written essay it is not necessary. The grader will know most references to
documents, even those that are made implicitly.
12. Don’t write a term paper: On the AP Test you will have only 45 minutes to write
the essay. That is about the same amount of time that you spent writing your first
in-class essay. Just because you have documents to deal with, don’t assume that
you have to write a term paper. Five to six paragraphs are all that you need to
13. Don’t forget the basics: Just because you have to interpret documents don’t forget
the basics. Start with a good solid thesis that identifies the position you will take
and the basis for that opinion. Support that thesis with good solid facts. Don’t treat
the issue as a simplistic, all-or-nothing, black-and-white proposition. Recognize
and refute potential opposing arguments. In other words, build on what you have
learned so far.