Dbq writing tips

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8-Step Strategy

  1. Read the question three times. Do not move on until you fully understand it.

  2. Identify the task by circling the main words. (For example: assess the validity, compare and contrast, evaluate relative importance, analyze the significance, etc.)

  3. Ask yourself "what do I have to prove?" (E.g. Foreign policy is more important than domestic policy).

  4. Pay special attention to economic, political, social issues that need to be included.

  5. Make a list (outline) of outside information (as if you were writing a standard essay).

  6. Examine the documents, underlining any key words or phrases that you may use later in the essay. Reread the question again after reading the first three documents.

  7. Construct a thesis that is well-developed and clear. If the thesis is a mystery to the writer, it will be a mystery to the reader!

  8. Write your essay.

Some Key Points to Remember:

  • Start with outside information first & write it down; then read the documents; then construct a thesis.

  • Make your life easier by constructing a thesis that can reasonably include most/ all of the documents (even if you don't really believe your thesis). It is better to be "practical" than "right."

  • Use as many documents as you can as long as they fit your thesis.

  • Don't explain documents -- that is not your task! AP readers have a list and a summary for each document. Use documents to reinforce your main points and outside information.

  • Don't rewrite large portions of documents. Try to limit quotations to 1 sentence or less.

  • Reference author's you are citing (e.g. ..."In the letter by Abraham Lincoln")

  • Cite every document used, e.g., (Doc. A), (Doc. F)----Some teachers disagree with this

All fundamental AP writing principles you have learned regarding standard essays apply to DBQ essays


The purpose of the DBQ (Document Based Question) is to evaluate both your knowledge of the subject and your ability to practice the historian's craft. This essay requires you to work with a series of documents related to a question. Your goal is to answer the question using BOTH your factual knowledge of the time period/topic AND evidence from the documents.

The DBQ poses historical questions for which there are no specific right or wrong answers. The documents provided do not "give you the answer." In fact, the documents are intentionally designed to provide evidence for several possible interpretations of the historical question. Your job is to select relevant documentary and historical evidence to provide a reasonable and logical interpretation for the question posed. You will have approximately one hour to work on the DBQ – 15 minutes to read the documents and plan your answer, 45 minutes to write your essay.

To ensure the greatest success when writing your DBQ, use the following guide.

  1. Read the question carefully. Identify the tasks demanded, any terms that are unique to the question and may need to be defined, and the time period for the question.

  2. Brainstorm any relevant evidence that comes to mind.

  3. Read the documents carefully (and record any outside information that comes to mind as you read).

  • Examine the by-line – Who wrote the document? To whom was it written? When? Is anything significant here?

  • Is the author a knowledgeable and reliable source about the topic? Or, is there a significant bias to be addressed?

  • What is the author's main point? - Write a few words in the margin to summarize each document.

  • Do the documents "talk to each other" by addressing similar points and/or counterpoints for an argument?

  • Is there tension/contradiction with other documents? (People from the same place with differing views, foreigners critiquing a domestic policy, etc.)

  • Do views "change over time"? (The documents are presented in chronological order.)

4. How you use the documents is more important than the number of documents you use.

  • Do not simply "laundry list" the documents ("According to Document A ... Document B says . ..").

  • Do not quote extensively from the documents.

  • Group the documents into the categories established by your thesis statement.

  • Incorporate the documents into the argument you are making by linking them with outside evidence.

  • Use at least one more than half of the documents (50%+1) (there really is no set number, sophistication in use is how you are evaluated).

5. As you plan your answer, consider how you would answer the question if it were a normal Free Response Question. Outline the essay and outside evidence, and then add-in the documents (using at least one more than half of the documents (50%+1)).

  1. Write a thesis that covers all parts of the question and maps the body paragraphs of the essay.

  2. Write an introductory paragraph that ends with your thesis statement. (Avoid using documents in your introduction.)

  3. As with the Free Response Questions, the first sentences of a paragraph should define key terms and make a case for the point you are proving in the body paragraph.

  4. The next sentences should be specific factual and documentary evidence to prove your case. Here, the important thing is to link factual and documentary evidence so they work together to prove a main point.

  5. The final sentences should tie the body paragraph evidence back to the thesis.

  1. Due to the fact that 45 minutes are allotted for this essay, a conclusion is expected. Use the concluding sentences from each body paragraph to restate how the thesis has been proven in the essay. (Do not moralize or show the "life lesson" learned from the topic of the essay — stick to the topic at hand.

DBQs: The Past 25 Years in Chronological Order

1700: Colonial Life: New England and Chesapeake regions


Although New England and the Chesapeake region were both settled largely by people of English origin, by 1700  the regions had evolved into two distinct societies. Why did this difference in development occur?

1750: American Society in the mid-18th century


Was American society, as evidence by Wethersfield, Connecticut, becoming more "democratic" in the period from  1750's to the 1780's? Discuss with reference to property distribution, social structure, politics, and religion.

1760s-1770s: Pre-Revolutionary Identity


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

1780s: Articles of Confederation


"From 1781 to 1789 the Articles of Confederation provided the United States with an effective government." Using  the documents and your knowledge of the period, evaluate this statement.

1798: Alien & Sedition Acts


 The debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 revealed bitter controversies on a number of issues. Discuss  the issues involved and explain why these controversies developed.

1800s: Jeffersonians and Strict Constructionism


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? 

1830s: Indian Removal


"The Decision of the Jackson Administration to remove the Cherokee Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River  in the 1830's was more a reformulation of the national policy that had been in effect since the 1790's than a change  in that policy." Assess the validity of this generalization with reference to the moral, political, constitutional, and  practical concerns that shaped national Indian policy between 1789 and the mid-1830's.

1830s: Jacksonian Democracy


 Jacksonian Democrats view themselves as the guardians of the United States Constitution, political democracy,  individual liberty, and equality of economic opportunity. In light of the following documents and your knowledge of  the 1820's and 830's, to what extent do you agree with Jacksonian's view of themselves.

1850s: The Constitution and the Growing Split Between North and South


"By the 1850's the Constitution, originally framed as an instrument of national unity, had become a source of  sectional discord and tension and ultimately contributed to the failure of the union it had created." Using the  documents and your knowledge of the period 1850-1861, assess the validity of this statement.

1859: John Brown's Raid


John Brown's raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, involved only a handful of  abolitionists, freed no slaves, and was over in two days. Although many Northerners condemned the raid, by 1863  John Brown had become hero and martyr in the North. To what extent and in what ways do the views about John  Brown expressed in the documents illustrate changing North-South relations between 1859 and 1863? 

1861: Crittenden Compromise


To what extent was President-elect Abraham Lincoln responsible for the defeat of the Crittenden proposal on the  territorial expansion of slavery.

1870s: Constitutional and Social Development


In what ways and to what extent did constitutional and social development between 1860 and 1877 amount to a  revolution?

1870s: Trans-Mississippi West


To what extent did the natural environment shape the development of the West beyond the Mississippi and the lives  of those who lived and settled there? How important were other factors?

1876: Women's Lives


How and why did the lives and status of Northern middle-class women change between 1776 and 1876?

1865-1900: Laissez-faire Policies


To what extent and for what reasons did the policies of the federal government from 1865 to 1900 violate the  principles of laissez-faire, which advocated minimal government intervention in the economy? Consider with  specific reference to the following three areas of policy:railroad land grants, control of interstate commerce, and  antitrust activities.

1880-1900: Farmers' Issues


Documents A-H reveal some of the problems that many farmers in the late nineteenth century (1880-1900) saw as  threats to their way of life. Using the documents and your knowledge of the period, (a) explain the reasons for  agrarian discontent and (b) evaluate the validity of the farmers' complaints.

1899: Spanish-American War


Analyze the factors that influenced the Senate in ratifying the Treaty of Paris in 1899 and assess their relative  significance. Your analysis and assessment should take into account the complexities and/or contradictions  presented by the evidence.

1890s-1914: Expansionism and Imperialism


To what extent was late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century United States expansionism a continuation of  past United States expansionism and to what extent was it a departure? use the documents and your knowledge of  United States history to 1914 to construct your answer.

1877-1915: Washington and DuBois


Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois offered different strategies for dealing with the problems of poverty  and discrimination faced by Black Americans at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.  Using the documents and your knowledge of the period 1877-1915, assess the appropriateness of each of these  strategies in the historical context in which each was developed.

1890-1925: Women's Rights


To what extent did economic and political developments as well as assumptions about the nature of women affect  the position of American women during the period 1890-1925?

1917-1921: Wilson & Versailles


It was the strength of the opposition forces, both liberal and conservative, rather that the ineptitude and stubbornness  of President Wilson that led to the Senate defeat of the Treaty of Versailles. using the documents and your  knowledge of the period 1917-1921, assess the validity of this statement.

1919: Prohibition


 In the twentieth century prohibition spread by states' passing local option laws, which permitted a unit of local  government, such as a county, to prohibit the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages. After an intensive  campaign by the Anti-Saloon League and other prohibitionist organizations and reform groups, national prohibition  was achieved by the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution in 1919.

1920s: Traditional vs. Modern Values


The 1920's were a period of tension between new and changing attitudes on the one hand and traditional values and  nostalgia on the other. What led to the tension between old and new AND in what ways was the tension manifested?

1920s: Nativism


Relying on a critical evaluation of the accompanying documents, analyze the factors that probably influenced  Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1924.

1930s: Hoover and FDR


President Franklin D. Roosevelt is commonly thought of as a liberal and President Herbert C. Hoover as a  conservative. To what extent are these characteristics valid?

1945: Hiroshima and the Soviet Union


The United States decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a diplomatic measure calculated to intimidate  the Soviet Union in the post-Second-World-War era rather than a strictly military measure designed to force  Japan's unconditional surrender. Evaluate this statement using the documents and your knowledge of the military  and diplomatic history of the years 1939 through 1947.

1960's: Civil Rights


  Analyze the changes that occurred during the 1960's in the goals, strategies, and support of the movement for  African American civil rights.

Possible DBQ Topics for 2004 and Beyond

  • The Collision of Worlds: Europeans, Indians, and Africans

  • Tensions/Rebellions in Colonial Society in the 17th and/or 18th century(s)

  • Factors Leading To Rebellion Against England (1763-1776)

  • The Constitution: Compromises, Ratification, Impact

  • Washington's/Adam's/Jefferson's Political Legacies

  • Louisiana Purchase/Lewis and Clark

  • War of 1812: Causes, Impact, Significance

  • Re-emergence of the Two Party System

  • States Rights & Controversies in the Age of Jackson

  • The Market Revolution during the Antebellum Age

  • Mexican War and the Expansion of Slavery

  • The New South: Politics, the Economy, "Colonial Status"

  • Native Americans (some section of the Civil War-1970s)

  • Causes/Impact of Industry and Technology during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

  • Urbanization and City Life (1870s-1910s)

  • Intellectual and Cultural Movements (late 1800s-early 1900s)

  • The Rise of Conservationism and the Environmental Movement

  • WWI and/or WWII: Motives and/or Impacts [political, social, economic]; WWII Home Front

  • Foreign Policy Between the World Wars

  • Great Depression: Causes, Impact (social, economic, cultural)

  • 1950s Culture, Economics, and Politics by Itself or Compared to the 1920s

  • The Stormy Sixties/Seventies: Vietnam, Assassinations, Civil Rights, Hippies, Watergate

  • Political Compromises in Early US History: Constitution vs. Civil War

  • Civil Liberties During Wartime (quasi-war, Civil War, WWI, WWII)

  • Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement

  • Change in the role and office of the Presidency or the federal government (post WWII)

  • Change in 20th Century US foreign policy: imperialism to isolationism to interventionism

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