Guide on How to Write a DBQ Essay with Ease

Writing a DBQ essay is sometimes a daunting task for students as DBQ’s can often require high levels of academic ability as well as the ability to think ‘outside the box’. But do not fear, we at Edubirdie can help you master DBQ’s with our easy-to-follow guide! Read on to find out how write and format a DBQ and discover useful DBQ strategies and tips. Learn how to do a DBQ from professionals!

So, What Exactly is a DBQ essay?

Firstly, let’s get a clear idea of DBQ meaning and definition.

The DBQ (Document-Based Question) can be defined as a special combination that takes up to eight short answers for an essay based on the scaffolding of the documents. Each DBQ task will provide specific information, like your essay's subject and the historical background, before you start scaffolding or identifying things.

The 2021 Document Based Question will relate to historical development from 1754-1980 and it is worth 25% of the final score.

A DBQ needs a thesis and aims to prove a point whilst bearing in mind the historical context. It is assigned to test student’s knowledge, analyzation and understanding of a particular topic. Students are normally required to study several documents provided by the course instructor relating to an important point in history or historical figure. So, whilst working through the documents, you are seeking to identify patterns or how the information in the documents is associated. A good way to start is to create a DBQ plan or outline.

Create a DBQ Outline

As a general guide, a DBQ essay outline will include:

  1. An introduction which begins with an interesting or exciting ‘hook’ for the reader and includes the historical context e.g., ‘The Great Depression in the USA was a time of desperation that quickly spread worldwide’.
  2. A thesis statement that directly answers the question (describe your claims made in the essay which you will support with evidence from the historical texts) e.g., ‘By far the most significant cause of The Great Depression was bank failures’.
  3. Around 4 main body paragraphs (that give the reader one main idea within each paragraph):
  • Start with your topic sentence (linked to your thesis statement) e.g., ‘Firstly, banks decreased international lending resulted in…’
  • Then provide some outside information backed up by around three different sources of evidence in the documents e.g., ‘We see evidence of the problems caused by banks decreased international lending in Document A.’ 

  • End with a transition sentence to lead into the next paragraph e.g., ‘Decreased international lending was not the only bank failure. There were others.’
  • A conclusion that:

- Paraphrases your thesis e.g., ‘Bank failures were the principal cause of The Great Depression’

- Summarizes your main arguments from each body paragraph and the historical significance of the arguments. 

- Ends with a sentence that challenges the evidence provided by the documents.

How to Format a DBQ Essay Properly

The APUSH exam is normally around 3 hours and 15 minutes of which the DBQ section is allocated 60 minutes (15 minutes for planning and 45 minutes for writing). Roughly, 5 or 6 paragraphs are normally expected (one for the introduction and thesis, 3 or 4 for the main body and one for the conclusion) but there is no limit to the number of paragraphs. Most DBQ’s are around 2-3 handwritten pages. The length is not so important for DBQ’s as other essays. It is more important that your argument is concise, and you use evidence from the documents provided by the instructor as well as your outside knowledge. The number of documents can greatly vary (between 3-16 approximately) but often they are quite short.

If word processing your DBQ, you will need to double line space and use a clear, readable font such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri in font size 12. You will also need to follow your educational establishments chosen citation style e.g., MLA, Harvard, APA, Chicago, etc. in regard to borders, use of indents, page numbers, etc. 

Interpreting the Documents or Data

Every document provided in the DBQ exam is a form of evidence to help you understand a past event or historical figure. You will be expected to interpret the documents and see patterns or connections between them – much like a detective! To get started, ask yourself some analytical questions about each document. Some example question are below: 


  • What exactly is the document e.g., letter, advertisement, book extract, public notice, newspaper article, legal record, annotated photograph, map, speech, quote, drawing, etc.?
  • What was its purpose e.g., to persuade, to entertain, to record information?
  • Is it a formal or informal document?
  • Is it a political or religious document?
  • Is it credible? 
  • What is its connection to the other documents? 
  • What events were happening at this point in history? 
  • What was life like for people at this time in history e.g., unsettled, prosperous, poverty-stricken, exciting? 
  • What people and objects can you see in the images? 
  • What can you spot in the backgrounds? 
  • What outside information do you recall that can help you interpret this document?


  • Where was this document written or a photograph taken? 
  • In which state? 
  • Was the document written or photograph taken in a home, a bedroom, a study, an office, a workplace, on a ship, train, in a rural or urban location, etc.? 
  • Where was the document or image found or stored? 
  • Where was it published?
  • Can you piece together or sequence a timeline of events from your documents? 


  • When was this document written approximately? How do you know? 
  • Is a date included? You may need to check a very small print or look hard for it. 
  • Are historical events mentioned? 
  • Was it written before or after the events in the other documents your instructor has provided? 
  • Can you tell when the image was taken from the clothes, buildings, background, signs, billboards, notices, etc.? 


  • Who was the intended audience for this document? 
  • Who wrote it/took the photograph/drew the image? 
  • Is it signed? You may have to look very closely. 
  • Who does the document mention? 
  • Can you make any inferences about the writer?
  • Who or what event does the document refer to? 
  • Who published it? 
  • Who discovered it? 
  • Was the writer likely paid to write it?
  • Who can you see in the photograph? Can you infer anything about their personality, age, status, work or lives from the photograph? 


  • Why was the document written or a photo taken? 
  • What was the writer or photographer trying to convey? 
  • Could the writer have been biased? Why? How may this affect your interpretation of the document? 
  • Could the image or photograph be staged? Photographs can be deceptive and fake back drops can be used. 
  • Is it a reliable source of evidence? Are there any reasons why bias may have occurred in the document? 


  • How was the document received or viewed at the time e.g., skeptically, with outrage, welcomed, with respect, with sensation? 
  • How many people have interpreted it in the past? Think about the social norms, major influencers and what was happening around people in this place and at that time. 
  • How is it connected to the other documents? Was it written at the same time, in the same place, about the same historical figure?
  • How are the people in the image portrayed poor, wealthy, healthy, sick, stern, etc.? 
  • How did the people in the photograph want to be perceived? Does this contrast with how the photographer or person who requested the photograph wanted them to be perceived? 
  • How do the objects, buildings and surroundings appear e.g., run down, overcrowded, luxurious, elaborate, grand, etc.?

In short, the documents provided are forms of evidence and evidence must be questioned. Try to remain objective, fair, balanced and read between the lines.

6 Easy Steps to DBQ Essay Writing!

Follow the simple steps below for DBQ success: 

1. The Planning Stage (around 15 minutes)

Study the documents provided by your instructor and identify important or key points. Write your key points under the subtitles they fit best with. So, ask yourself which key points would fit well within your introduction? Thesis? Main body of your text?

2. Introduction (around 5-10 minutes)

The introduction needs to be a short summary of your essay. The first sentence should ideally be followed by a few sentences that give details about the topic being covered. Do not give the reader an answer to the question yet.

3. Thesis (around 5 minutes)

A DBQ thesis usually includes:

  • The claims you are making in the essay that you can support with evidence from the documents your instructor has provided. 
  • A description of your essay. 
  • An explanation of how you will answer the question.

4. The Main Body (around 20-30 minutes)

Every paragraph needs to link to your thesis. Within each paragraph make one point only with an answer to the question including evidence from your documents to back up your points or answers. Try to ‘read between the lines’ of your evidence texts and not just concentrate on the obvious.

5. Conclusion (around 5-10 minutes)

Begin by summarizing the whole essay and link your conclusion to your thesis. Then, answer the question. Remember, the conclusion involves persuading your audience (which in most cases is your instructor).

6. Proofreading (around 5 minutes)

Don’t skip this part, however tempting it is and worn out you are! You can lose marks for the simplest of spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors which could mean a lower grade. Also, check that your main body answers the question and link to your thesis.

Edubirdie’s Top Tips on How to Write a DBQ Essay!

  1. As revision, grab a drink, get comfy, and chill while you read over a few DBQ example papers and then time yourself on a few practice runs! 
  2. Ensure you have read and understood all the documents before beginning writing.
  3. Find the key points from the sources to include in your essay. Use a highlighter to help you. 
  4. Remember, to look for what may be implied in the documents as well as the obvious key points.
  5. Write a temporary DBQ thesis in your rough notes to refer to throughout your writing. This helps you keep on track. 
  6. Present your opinion in the thesis. 
  7. Demonstrate an understanding of the writer’s opinion.
  8. Use the correct document title when referring to it in your writing e.g., ‘Document A provides evidence of a capitalist attitude as it states…’. 
  9. Keep in mind why this topic mattered to people at this point in history! 
  10. As a DBQ is a formal piece of academic writing, ensure to keep your writing formal. Avoid slang, colloquialisms, contractions e.g., ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’. Instead use ‘do not’, ‘cannot’, etc.
  11. It may sound strange, but it is often easier to write the introduction last. Try it out!

What does the examiner want? 

The examiner is seeking:

  • An essay that shows the student has accurately interpreted the documents and incorporated outside information that relates to them.
  • Points that are supported by facts and examples.
  • Consideration of the importance, reliability and validity of the documents shown in your essay.
  • Conflicting points of view analyzed and various evidence from documents interwoven throughout the main body of the essay. 
  • A strong introduction, thesis, and conclusion.

Note: You will likely lose marks if you did not demonstrate that you recognized the reliability, validity, or points of view of the texts. Avoid reiteration of the documents or only describing the documents, and ensure you include an introduction, thesis statement and conclusion.

Final Thoughts…

Understanding how to write a DBQ and learning the DBQ format APUSH is key to success. However, as with most things in life, practice makes perfect! Do not ignore your time management skills and have as many practice runs as you can. This will help you sail effortlessly through the DBQ exam. Don’t be afraid to ask your instructor for good DBQ example essays and a grading rubric or assessment guide. Reading successful past examples will help you get a real ‘feel’ of DBQ essay structure and wording, the grading rubric/assessment guide will help you understand exactly what the examiner is seeking in your essay. Good luck!

Note: The advice in this article is generalized and exact requirements should be checked with your instructor or educational establishment.

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