Jump to page content Jump to navigation

College Board

AP Central

Print Page
Home > AP Courses and Exams > Course Home Pages > AP U.S. History: The DBQ

AP U.S. History: The DBQ

General Information on the DBQ
Preparing Students to Answer DBQs

General Information on the DBQ

The required DBQ differs from the standard essays in its emphasis on your ability to analyze and synthesize historical data and assess verbal, quantitative, or pictorial materials as historical evidence. Like the standard essays, however, the DBQ is judged on its thesis and argument.

Although confined to no single format, the documents are unlikely to be the familiar classics (such as the Emancipation Proclamation or the Declaration of Independence), but their authors may be major historical figures. The documents vary in length and are chosen to illustrate the interactions and complexities of the historical process. They may include charts, graphs, cartoons, and pictures, as well as written materials. The DBQ typically requires students to relate the documents to a historical period or theme and thus to focus on major periods and issues. For this reason, outside knowledge -- information gained from materials other than the documents -- is very important and must be incorporated into your essay if the highest scores are to be earned.

Information on DBQs since 1999 is posted on the AP United States History Exam Questions page.

• The AP United States History Exam

Preparing Students to Answer DBQs

Teach your students the process required in responding to document-based questions. Work through this entire process with your students on the first DBQ you assign them. You may wish to begin with the 1993 DBQ on colonial New England and the Chesapeake because it is user-friendly. The question is clearly stated, and the documents are easy to read and to understand. Major textbooks compare and contrast the development of society in the New England and Chesapeake areas, which can be used by students as outside information; that is, students will have information above and beyond that presented in the documents. Work through this process (up to writing the essay) with your students in one day. Impress upon them the importance of planning their essay. Ask them to come prepared to write the essay the next day in class. Writing the essay in class reinforces the time constraints that students will face during the exam.

Students may work as a class or in collaborative groups and follow these five steps:
  1. Read the question -- that is, the prompt -- three times. Remember that in this instance "AP" stands for "address prompt."
  2. Identify the task. State in your own words what you are being asked to write.
  3. Circle or underline the main words, especially words of direction, such as "analyze," "explain," "compare and contrast," "evaluate," and "to what extent."
  4. Briefly list the main events of the historical time period addressed. Use the acronym PERSIA to help you categorize the political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and artistic aspects of the period. This is outside information that may be included in the essay.
  5. Read each document, noting the source or the title. Briefly write the main point of each document. If the prompt requires you to take one position or another, group the documents on the basis of those positions. For example, in the 1999 DBQ you are asked to evaluate colonial identity AND unity. Note that documents A, C, E, and G are about unity, whereas documents B, D, F, and H deal with identity. Some documents may be used to support both unity and identity.
  6. Use the source or the title when referring to the information in the document. Do NOT use the word "document" in the narrative of your essay. (Writing "Document A says," "Document B says," and so on results in a laundry list of documents instead of an essay.) You may use the word "document" in parentheses as a reference to a specific document at the end of the information you have included from that document. These notes help you organize your use of the documents throughout your essay. Essential note to remember: Students write the essay; documents don't write the essay.
Student Exercise: Apply the five steps outlined above to the following AP United States DBQs:
With respect to the Federal Constitution, the Jeffersonian Republicans are usually characterized as strict constructionists who were opposed to the broad constructionism of the Federalists. To what extent was this characterization of the two parties accurate during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison?

In writing your answer, use the documents and your knowledge of the period from 1801 to 1817.

To what extent had the colonists developed a sense of their identity and unity as Americans by the eve of the Revolution?

Use the documents and your knowledge of the period from 1750 to 1776 to answer the question.

One approach is to write outside information beside each document, along with the main idea from that document.

Or, students may chart the information they intend to include by listing it under "Outside Information" or under "Document Information." Charting or listing the information as they go will remind students to include outside information that relates to the main point or goes beyond the information in the document. This list serves as the outline for their essay.

Back to top