Write a DBQ Essay

You're in an AP History class and you have a DBQ essay coming up. Don't panic! As long as you've been (mostly) paying attention in class and read these steps, you'll do just fine.


Prewriting for your DBQ Essay

  1. Know that you will be given 15 minutes to read the prompt, analyze the documents, and do any pre-writing. When those 15 minutes are up, it is time to begin writing. This section covers those 15 minutes.
  2. Read the prompt. Determine what sort of evidence you will have to find in the documents based on the prompt question. Always circle or underline the specific society (or societies) being asked about, the time period, and the key concepts (like economic or cultural problems) that are mentioned in the prompt. DBQ essays will ask you to do one of the following:
    • Prompt 1: Analyze the extent to which a historical stereotype is true for a given period or concept. Example: Analyze the extent to which the Suffragettes were depicted as manly, uncivilized women during the 1890’s to the 1920’s.
    • Prompt 2: Analyze multiple reasons that cause a particular movement to develop. Example: Analyze the reasons that the Progressive Movement gained momentum during the 1890’s to the 1920’s in the United States.
    • Prompt 3: Compare and contrast differing attitudes toward a concept or policy. Example: Compare and contrast the differing attitudes towards women’s rights in America from 1890 to 1920.
    • Prompt 4: Analyze the degree of truth in a particular statement. Take a stance on the statement. Example: Analyze the degree of truth in the statement: Women’s rights were a major part of the Progressive Era in America from the 1890’s to the 1920’s.
    • Prompt 5: Analyze the impact of an event or concept on some part of American society. Example: Analyze the impact of the Progressive era on American society in the 1890’s to the 1920’s.
    • Prompt 6: Analyze the relative importance of a specific factor or factors on an event or concept. Example: Analyze the importance of women’s roles in WWI to the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
  3. Think about what outside information about the societies, time period, or theme, come to mind. This should be information you learned in class or read about in your textbook. This outside information will make up most of your essay. You should use the documents provided to support this outside information. Outside information can be events in history, themes you have studied about the specific time period you are writing about, movements, people, etc. List the relevant outside information on a piece of scratch paper.
    • Example for any of the prompts listed above: Think about the major goals of the Progressive era (such as increased health and safety codes in factories, limiting child labor etc.), the political and economic climate of the era (such as WWI, the rise of unions, and the monopoly of major men such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.)
  4. Determine your opinion or perspective on the prompt. Is there a specific answer that jumps out at you?
    • Example: What stands out about the Progressive era? What do you think about woman’s fight for suffrage?
  5. Formulate a tentative thesis before you look at the documents. By doing this, you will more quickly be able to determine how each document will fit into your essay. Here are example theses for each prompt listed above:
    • Prompt 1: Suffragettes were seen as unpatriotic, unfeminine women by those who opposed the idea of women having the right to vote during the 1890’s to 1920 in the United States.
    • Prompt 2: The Progressive movement gained momentum in the 1890’s to 1920’s because many American citizens were appalled by the living conditions of the poor and the economic climate in which trusts dominated the major sources of income in America.
    • Prompt 3: During the 1890’s to the 1920’s in the United States, some women joined the suffragettes in their fight for the right to vote, while other women, particularly those of the elite class, looked down at the suffragettes because they believed that women were meant to stay in the home.
    • Prompt 4: The Women’s Rights movement was a major part of the Progressive era from the years 1890 to 1920 in the United States.
    • Prompt 5: The Progressive era majorly impacted American society economically, politically, and culturally during the 1890’s to the 1920’s.
    • Prompt 6: Women were able to gain the right to vote, in part because of the fact that they made up most of the workforce during WWI.
  6. Look at and analyze the documents. Documents can include historical writings or publications (such as quotations, diary entries, letters, book excerpts etc.), charts, maps, photographs, illustrations, pictures of artifacts or cartoons. What is the main idea of each document? How does a document fit into the prompt? How does the document fit your tentative thesis? Jot down notes next to each document. Pay attention to the chronology of the documents. Look for change over time (or for LACK of change over time). Analyze it!
  7. Determine what logical categories the documents can be placed in to best address the topic question. For instance, what documents could you use to compare and contrast (if your prompt asks you to do so)? You must use all documents except one in your essay.
    • Example: A letter about the methods used to obtain the right to vote sent from one suffragette to another could be contrasted with an article in a newspaper depicting suffragettes as unpatriotic women who hoped to sabotage WWI for the United States.
  8. Keep in mind that you must discuss the point of view (POV) of an author at least in your essay. You should discuss the points of view of authors that support your thesis. When reading through the documents, note who the author of the document is, what his/her point of view is, and why you think his/her point of view is the way it is.
    • Example One of the documents is a suffragette’s diary entry in which she writes about her passion for the Women’s Rights Movement. The author is the suffragette, her POV would be that she strongly believes in the Women’s Rights Movement (you would list specific details) and the reason behind her POV is that many women, and some men, thought it was wrong for women to not have the right to vote and believed something needed to be done.
  9. Group the documents into proper groups. Grouping historical documents must be done at least twice in your essay. The groups you make must support your thesis and make sense logically. The two (or more) groups must make sense and present two or more sides to your argument. You can group them as main groups, groups within groups, or in cross groupings.
    • Main Group Example: Documents 1, 3, 4, and 6 support the ideas and methods of the suffragettes in the Women’s Rights Movement. Documents 2, 5, and 7 support the ideas of the men and women of society who did not think women should have the right to vote.
    • Groups Within Groups: (Within the main group of 1, 3, 4, and 6): Documents 3 and 6 support the methods of the suffragettes at the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement.
    • Cross Groupings Documents 1 and 5 support some of the shared views about society that both suffragettes and men and women against women’s suffrage had.
  10. Keep in mind that an additional historical document must be discussed at least once within your essay. This is a document that is not provided in the essay question. This additional document could be any historical document and can be made up. You must identify a document that would be helpful to you in proving your point, and explain why it would be helpful. This document could be a government document, a treaty between nations, ship logs, a letter to a king or queen, etc.
    • Example of a real additional document for an essay about women’s suffrage: The Bill of Rights. The Women’s Rights movement resulted in the establishment of the 19th Amendment.
    • Example of a made up additional document for an essay about women’s suffrage: A list made by suffragettes at a meeting about their strategies for getting the right to vote.
  11. Solidify your thesis. Go back and make sure that you can support your thesis with the documents you have been given. Make it clear and concise.

Writing your Essay

  1. Know that you will have a set amount of time to write the essay. Plan your time so that you can cover each topic you wish to discuss and analyze each document.
  2. Write a sentence or two of historical context about the time period you are writing about. This should be the first sentence(s) of your introduction. Do not make this introductory sentence too long.
    • Example of introductory sentence: The Progressive Era, which took place roughly from 1890 to 1920, was a time of political, economic, and cultural reform in the United States. The Women’s Rights Movement was one of the movements that gained momentum during this time.
  3. Write your thesis statement. Follow your thesis statement with a brief sentence that addresses the topics that will be covered in each following body paragraph.
    • Example of thesis statement and following sentence: During the 1890’s to the 1920’s in the United States, some women joined the suffragettes in their fight for the right to vote, while other women, particularly those of the elite class, looked down at the suffragettes because they believed that women were meant to stay in the home. In the following paragraphs, these two differing reactions to suffragettes will be compared and contrasted.
  4. Write your body paragraphs. Your body paragraphs should be placed in a logical order. When referring to documents, use the title of the documents rather than calling them ‘document 1’ etc. Each body paragraph must have a topic sentence. A topic sentence explains what the body paragraph is going to be about. Write as many body paragraphs as makes sense for your prompt. For instance, if it is a compare and contrast essay, you might only need two body paragraphs.
    • The content of body paragraphs may vary depending on which type of AP History you are in. AP United States history (APUSH) requires that you cite information from a majority of the documents, but the majority of information must be outside evidence, meaning, what is not in the documents provided. On the other hand, AP European History requires that most information is from the documents.
    • Do not just list the documents as they are presented in the DBQ. You must have some kind of analysis involved with them.
    • If you decide to quote one of the documents directly do it in a meaningful way. This usually means quote sparingly (quote only part of the document, and only do this method with one or two documents).
    • Example of a topic sentence and following sentence: Many women who did not consider themselves suffragettes still supported the Women’s Rights Movement. In a letter entitled, “Regarding Suffrage”, a woman discusses her support of women’s suffrage. She states, “Even though I cannot be out there picketing like those other girls, I want to show my support in some other way.”
  5. Make sure to show how each body paragraph connects to your thesis. Points will be taken away from you if you do not logically show how the documents, your chosen POVs, and your additional document support your thesis. Make sure that all of your outside information is also relevant. Also make sure that you demonstrate your knowledge about how important the era or event you are writing about was.
  6. Add citations. Whenever you mention a document or information within a document, you must add parentheses and the number of the document at the end of the sentence.
    • Example Women who were not suffragettes but still supported the movement wrote letters discussing their desire to help (doc 2).
    • Explain why three of the articles might be biased in your body paragraphs. This could also be in a separate paragraph. Doing this will get you an extra point when your essay is scored.
    • Example: A letter that states that everyone who is against women's rights is an idiot has a bias that is pro-suffragette.
  7. Write your conclusion. It is very important to write a conclusion that restates your thesis and summarizes what you have just proved in your essay. Judges reading your essay can choose to grade off of the thesis you state in your conclusion if they think it more adequately states what you have written in your essay. 

Finalizing your Essay

  1. Reread your essay and confirm that you have everything you need. You should:
    • Have one thesis statement.
    • Group the documents in two or more ways, depending on the question.
    • Explain how each document supports your thesis.
    • Discuss two authors’ points of view.
    • Identify and explain one additional document not provided in the document selection.
  2. Add anything that you are missing as long there is still time to do so. DBQ essays are timed so try to leave some time for revision at the end if possible.
  3. Double check to make sure that you have written all names correctly. You should also double check dates and places by looking at the documents and making sure that what you have written down matches the information with the documents.


  • Make sure to list out ideas (this can be in outline form) during your prewriting stage.
  • For students who get timed, try to practice at home by timing yourself.
  • Don't just summarize each document. Tie them all together.
  • Follow your outline, but beef up the main points in the essay.
  • Be very specific to the point you want to make, don't go off track.


  • Remember to answer the question completely.
  • Do not just laundry-list facts. Be sure to explain their importance to the paragraph and the thesis.
  • Make sure what you write is relevant to the topic. If not, don't write it.
  • Don't use a first person point of view.

Related Articles

You may like