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How to Write a DBQ Essay for APUSH


The Document Based Question (DBQ) essay is a key feature of the APUSH exam. And at 25% of your total score, it’s an important feature! Keep reading and you will get some great tips on how to write a DBQ for the APUSH exam.

What is a DBQ essay?

As I stated in a previous post on what the APUSH exam is all about , the goal of the exam is to test your historical thinking skills. Historians write arguments based on documents, and for this exam, you will, too.

For a DBQ essay, you will receive several documents of varying length. You will be asked to respond to some historical prompt that will require you to use the documents as evidence in your response. The great thing about a DBQ is that a lot of information you need to answer the question is in the documents themselves – score! However, you do need to have some background knowledge to make sense of the documents (we will practice this later in the post). The documents could be tables, charts, personal letters, or any other source that the exam creators believe would help you answer the question. Generally speaking, the documents will represent multiple perspectives on one topic.

It will be your job to synthesize those various perspectives into a coherent response.

Let’s walk through a sample DBQ topic for the APUSH exam.

Before we get too far into this, it’s important that you note that College Board, the organization that writes the APUSH exam, has made some major changes starting in 2015. I will be taking you through the 2015 sample the College Board provided for students to practice, but, as you will see in a second, it’s important that you practice as much as possible in order to read the documents quickly. Just make a note that the format may be slightly different if you review an exam prior to 2015.

Let’s say that you come across this prompt for a DBQ question:

Compare and contrast views of United States overseas expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Evaluate how understandings of national identity, at the time, shaped these views.

Before you Read

You have 7 documents to read in the suggested time of 15 minutes. How is that even possible?!

Well, no one ever said it was going to be easy. But it is possible. When you get that prompt, or any other DBQ prompt like it, what you do before you read the documents will be just as important as what you end up writing. Before you even read the content of the documents, you should:

  • Recall what you know about the time period.
  • Read the source information for each document.
  • Recognize the possible opinions that could be compared and contrasted.

Let’s dig into each of those steps.

1. Recall what you know

This DBQ is interested in U.S. overseas expansion in the late 19th and early 20th century. What do you know about U.S. overseas expansion during that time period? Perhaps you remember something about the Spanish-American War of 1898, which falls into our time period. Perhaps you remember that the U.S. got some territory as a result of that war. Even if you can’t remember exactly what territory, this puts you in a much better position to get started.

2. Read the source information

Take these two documents below as an example.

Jane Addams speech for “Democracy or Militarism

Before I read the document, I see that Jane Addams titled her speech “Democracy or Militarism.” Based on the title alone, I can begin to make some inferences that this document is not likely to be positive about any overseas expansion that would most certainly require military force.

William Jennings Bryan campaign speech

Before I even read this document, I can see that William Jennings Bryan is campaigning for the presidency. However, I cannot recall there ever being a President Bryan, meaning that he was unsuccessful in his campaign. Perhaps what he was saying was not popular enough to get enough votes.

These inferences help me make sense of the document later on.

3. Recognize possible opinions

Again, before I read the documents closely, I recognize that this is a compare/contrast question. Before I even read this document, I’m going to make the following table so that I can group documents later on.

1,2,3,etc 1,2,3,etc 1,2,3,etc

This table will help me more easily write my essay.

I know that your instinct will be to see the clock and think, OH MY GOSH, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO BE DOING ALL THIS PREP WORK, MS. BERRY!!!!

Fight that instinct, because these steps will help you write a more coherent essay.

While you read

This part is tough. You have quite a few documents to make sense of in a short amount of time. But, as you are reading as fast as you can, you should be actively annotating the document for the following:

  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you place the document into a group that helps you answer the question .
  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you activate background knowledge .
  • Words, phrases, and/or visual cues that help you understand the document’s bias .

You will have to practice this multiple times to get good at it; there’s really no way around that. But you have a plan of attack. So work your plan to make your plan work!

As you write

When you are writing your DBQ, use the five paragraph essay to your advantage. I am sure you know lots of other things that could turn this answer into a novel, but the most important thing for this task is to make sure that you get enough of your ideas on the page so that your APUSH exam scorer knows that you know.

  • First paragraph: introduction with a thesis statement
  • Second paragraph: documents FOR expansion (As you write, make sure to mention who is for expansion and compare/contrast that with who is against it.)
  • Third paragraph: documents AGAINST expansion (As you write, make sure to mention who is against expansion and compare/contrast that with who is for it.)
  • Fourth paragraph: documents with ambiguity or complicated arguments (You should compare these documents to BOTH groups.)
  • Fifth paragraph: Conclusion that reiterates your argument

You may be thinking, why do I need that fourth paragraph? That seems needlessly complicated, to look for documents that are complicated.

Well, you are trying to score well on this DBQ, right? (Remember: it’s 25% of your overall score!)

You get a point for being able to do the following:

“Develop and support a cohesive argument that recognizes and accounts for historical complexity by explicitly illustrating relationships among historical evidence such as contradiction, corroboration, and/or qualification.” AP Scoring Guide

You will want that point!

I’ve given you a lot of information; but this information will become more like second nature the more you practice! For a summary, look at the table below.

And happy studying!

In summary: Strategies for writing the DBQ Essay

While you Read As you Write
what you know about the time period.

the source information for each document.

the possible opinions that could be compared and contrasted.

Allena Berry

Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master’s degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don’t bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.

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The Ultimate APUSH DBQ Guide: Rubric, Examples, and More!

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Advanced Placement (AP)


You’ve been working hard in your AP US History class, and now it’s time to start prepping for your APUSH exam. 

But there’s a lot you’ll need to know if you want to do well, especially on the APUSH DBQ section. For instance, you’ll need to understand the APUSH DBQ rubric so you know how you’ll be scored on your answers, and you’ll need to look at a few APUSH DBQ examples so you understand what it takes to 

Luckily for you, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about APUSH DBQs in one easy place. (That place is, uh, here. ) We’ll go over: 

  • An explanation of what APUSH DBQs are and why they’re important 
  • A walkthrough covering how APUSH DBQs work on the exam and what to expect
  • A six-step process for writing a great DBQ
  • Four tips for studying for and answering the APUSH DBQs

We’ll also give you an APUSH DBQ rubric and APUSH DBQ examples That’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get going!


The APUSH DBQ is an essay-based question, so you'll have to write quickly!

What Is an APUSH DBQ? 

A DBQ is a “document-based” question that you’ll have to answer on your AP exam. For these questions, you’ll be given seven “documents,” which are short readings that cover different, usually related aspects of US History. From there, you’ll be asked to answer each DBQ in essay form using information from the documents you’ve been provided! 

The good thing about APUSH DBQs is that they’re open-ended, meaning there are multiple correct ways to answer each question. The downside is that in order to answer the question and earn full credit, you’ll need to analyze and incorporate multiple documents as part of your argument. 

And did we mention you’ll only have a limited amount of time to answer the DBQ, and that it's worth 25% of your total test score? That’s why APUSH DBQs can be stressful for test-takers! 

How Do DBQs Work on the APUSH Exam?

The APUSH exam consists of 60 questions in total. Here’s how they break down across the test: 

Of the two free response questions, one is a long essay (worth 15%) and one is a DBQ. This means that the sole DBQ is, by itself, worth 25% of your total grade, making it the single most heavily-weighted question on the APUSH exam.  

The APUSH DBQ will consist of a single open-ended prompt . To answer it, you’ll have to create a persuasive argument that uses the documents you’ve been given on the exam itself. (More on that a bit later.) 

To give you a little more context, here are some actual APUSH DBQ examples from previous years’ APUSH exams:

  • “Evaluate the extent of change in ideas about American independence from 1763 to 1783.” ( 2017 ) 
  • “Evaluate the relative importance of different causes for the expanding role of the United States in the world in the period from 1865 to 1910.” ( 2018 )
  • “Evaluate the extent to which the Progressive movement fostered political change in the United States from 1890 to 1920.” ( 2019 )

APUSH Document Types 

To answer these questions well, you’ll also have to read, analyze, and incorporate information from seven documents you’ll be provided on test day. These documents will be a mixture of: 

  • Primary texts : texts that were actually written in the time period you’re being asked about
  • Secondary texts : texts written by later historians that explain the time period 
  • Images: these are typically either political cartoons or artworks from the time period

How many of each type of document you’ll see on your exam varies from year to year, so you’ll need to be equally comfortable using all three types of documents. 

You’ll have to read through all seven documents and understand them so you can use them to answer your DBQ question. The information in the documents will help you create a thesis, build your argument, and prove your point…so you can get a great APUSH DBQ score! Just remember: to earn full credit, you’ll also have to explain how at least six of the documents are relevant to your argument, using evidence to back those claims up. 

Using Outside Information 

Along with the provided documents, you’ll also be expected to use one piece of historical evidence that isn’t included in the documents , but you already know from your own reading. This is information that you’ll have studied in class (or read on your own!) that applies to the DBQ and supports your argument. 

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to bring any class notes with you on exam day. That means you’ll need to study ahead of time so you’ll be ready to incorporate outside information into your DBQ answer! 

Whew! That’s a lot! However, if it makes it any easier, the APUSH DBQ will only cover the period from 1754-1980 . That means you’ll only need to focus on studying–and remembering!--information from about 230 years. 


Understand the APUSH DBQ Rubric

First, you need to understand what the expectations are and how your answer will be graded. That means reading through and understanding the official APUSH DBQ rubric!

The good news is that the College Board has provided the APUSH DBQ rubric as part of their 2021 AP Exam Administration Scoring Guidelines - AP United States History document .  

Here’s how the rubric breaks down:

Thesis (1 point) 

First, you’ll need to create a thesis that “responds to the prompt with a historically defensible thesis/claim that establishes a line of reasoning.” In order to get this point you’ll need to make an arguable claim based on the documents that answers the question of the prompt.  

In other words, you’ll need to choose a position and then defend it with evidence from the documents and your knowledge base. 

Contextualization (1 point) 

In order to get a point for contextualization you’ll need to “accurately describe a context relevant” to the time period covered by the prompt. What this means is that you’ll have to describe the political, social, or economic events and trends that contributed to what your thesis is arguing. 

Some of this you’ll know from the provided documents, but some of it you will also be expected to know on your own based on what you’ve studied in AP US History. You’ll also need to relate your knowledge to “broader historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or continue after the time frame of the question.” That means you have to show how the events of this time period are relevant now or how they are similar to some other historical situation .

Evidence (3 points)

For this part of the rubric, you’ll earn one point just for incorporating specific evidence that does not come from the provided documents in a way that is relevant to your thesis! 

In order to earn the other two points, you must support your argument by using content from six of the seven documents . (If you don’t use six documents, but do use at least three of them, you’ll only earn one point.) 

You can’t just randomly throw information from the documents into your essay, though, you have to use it in a way that supports your argument and accurately represents what the documents are saying . 

Analysis and Reasoning (2 points)

For the analysis and reasoning section, you get one point for explaining “how or why the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument.” You’ll earn another point for “complexity,” showing that you understand the time period that the prompt covers and use evidence to prove your understanding and back up your argument . 

So to earn analysis and reasoning points, you have to prove how the documents are relevant to your argument, your argument has to demonstrate you understand the historical events of the time period, and you’ll have to create an argument that is well-reasoned and “complex.” 

You’ll need to show graders you understand there’s a variety of possible perspectives about the issue you’re writing about and that people in that era did not all agree or have the same experiences.


Step-By-Step Process for Tackling an APUSH DBQ

The APUSH DBQ is a complicated question that tests you over several different skills, so there isn’t any simple technique to ace it. However, if you master each of the individual skills it takes to do well on the DBQ examples, rocking your APUSH DBQ will be much easier! 

Here are five steps you can follow to build a foundation that’ll help you ace the DBQ. 

Step 1: Take a Practice DBQ

The best way to master APUSH DBQs is by practicing with real APUSH DBQ examples.

The College Board’s website has the actual prompts from 2015-2019 available to download. This means you can take at least five practice APUSH exams, as well as read APUSH DBQ example responses and APUSH DBQ rubrics, for free! 

This is excellent news because you can take several practice swings at answering APUSH DBQs before you have to tackle the real thing on test day. 

Before practicing DBQ responses, it’s a good idea to take at least one APUSH DBQ practice test so you know what your baseline is. That way, you’ll understand your strengths and weaknesses and can really zero in on your weakest areas! From there, you can work through the practice APUSH DBQ prompts on their own. 

However, the nature of a free response means that it won’t be easy for you to grade by yourself. To evaluate your DBQs, be sure to use the APUSH DBQ rubric we walked through above. Honestly try to assess whether or not you incorporated the information thoroughly and accurately. You can also ask a teacher, tutor, or even a family member to grade your APUSH DBQs for you as well! 

Later, after you practice the skills outlined in the steps below, take another practice DBQ and see if it seems easier for you. Compare your score to the baseline score from your first attempt. Then, re-read over your textbooks and take it again. Repeat the cycle a couple of times. The big benefit will be that you will eventually get so used to the APUSH DBQ that you will be more comfortable in the actual testing environment .

Step 2: Practice Writing a Thesis

Because your DBQ response will have to choose a position and defend it, you’ll need to work on writing strong thesis statements. A thesis statement is essentially your argument in a nutshell, and it sums up the purpose of your essay. 

The most important aspect of your APUSH DBQ thesis is that it has to make a claim that is both arguable (meaning you can use evidence to prove it) and is relevant to the prompt you’re given. However, you don’t want to just restate the prompt in your thesis! 

Here’s what we mean. Let’s say your APUSH DBQ prompt is: 

Evaluate the extent of change in ideas about American independence from 1763 to 1783.

You don’t want your thesis to be “Ideas about American independence changed a lot from 1763 to 1783. That’s just adding a few words to the prompt…and it’s not descriptive enough to cover the argument you’ll make later. Instead, make a specific claim about how and why ideas about American independence changed, and you’ll need to use the documents provided to prove it!

So for this example, a better thesis might be, “Between 1763 and 1783, American ideas about independence changed from being unsure about how the nation could survive without British rule to believing in (and fighting for) the nation’s independence.” 

Because APUSH DBQs are open-ended, there are actually many different thesis statements you could come up with that would let you write an amazing answer. Here are two APUSH DBQ examples that College Board considers acceptable theses for this prompt:

  • “The ideas about American independence changed greatly from 1763 to 1783. In the beginning, colonists only wanted representation and a say in the legislation of new laws, but by 1783 Americans wanted true freedom from British rule.” 
  • “From 1763–1783, ideas of American independence changed from the colonies blindly accepting the tyranny of the British by religious rights of divine kings to believing in natural rights of individuals against British rule.”

Let’s look at how these theses make specific claims: 

The first thesis argues that colonists originally only wanted representation, but by 1783 wanted freedom from British rule. These are two different mindsets that the author can then use the documents to illustrate and prove actually existed. 

The second example thesis addresses a more theoretical change in belief: one that changes from Americans of 1763 accepting the medieval notion of the king inheriting from God the right to govern, to one in which Americans of 1783 believed that individuals had the natural right of freedom from tyranny. The author can then use the documents as evidence that Americans in that time period had those beliefs, and can argue about what happened to change them.

By practicing thesis writing, you’ll be able to create a detailed–and defensible!--statement that will help you create a convincing DBQ argument. 


An outline will serve as a roadmap that'll help you write a great essay—and it'll help you manage your time, too. 

Step 3: Practice Creating an Outline

With only an hour to read the documents to write your essay, you probably won’t have time to revise. It’s very important that you make the best use of the limited time you will have available, so an outline will help you organize your thoughts and will keep you on track as you write. 

Just be careful that you don’t take too much time with your outline–you need to write a whole essay! Five minutes (or less!) is all you need to put together an outline that’ll help you write an awesome DBQ. 

With that said, let’s talk about what makes up a great outline.

Two important elements of a good outline are an introduction and conclusion ! Your intro will set up your thesis and your conclusion to restate your thesis while explaining why it’s relevant to the reader today. Because both of these sections center around your thesis statement, they’ll help you organize the rest of your argument…and your DBQ essay! 

Once you have those in place, you can start adding body paragraphs to your outline. Since you only have about 45 minutes to write this essay, you don’t want too many of them. Three or four body paragraphs will be enough to get the job done. 

The most important thing about your body paragraphs is that each of them makes a claim that a) supports your thesis and b) allows you to incorporate information from the documents as evidence. You may even want to make a note of which documents you want to use in each body paragraph! 

Here’s an outline template you can use as you practice your APUSH DBQs:

  • Set up your argument and include your thesis.
  • You can break down your thesis into several component steps, which will then become the body paragraphs as you expand upon them.
  • Tell the reader what they need to know about the historical situation. 
  • Include any information you might already know from outside the provided documents.
  • Make the first argumentative point you mentioned in your introduction/thesis.
  • Use information from two to three documents to illustrate and prove your point.
  • Make the second argumentative point you mentioned in your introduction/thesis.
  • Use two to three different documents to support this point. 
  • If you have a third argumentative point, you’ll need to make it here. 
  • Be sure to use at least one document to support your argumentative point. 
  • Restate your thesis and summarize the main points you’ve made.
  • Show how it’s relevant to the reader.

Again, this outline doesn’t need to be fancy! Jotting down a few words–or a short sentence–for each point will get you to where you need to go. 

Step 4: Practice Incorporating Quotes and References 

As you write your essay, you’ll need to use examples from the documents provided–and each time you do so, you need to explain documents you pulled the information from. You’ll do this whether you are quoting your source or just paraphrasing it. 

There are two ways to do this:

#1: Attribution

Attributing your information means you tell your reader in the sentence which document you’re quoting or paraphrasing from. Below are two attribution DBQ examples APUSH considers acceptable: 

"Charles Inglis uses reason to note that the colonies would be unable to sustain themselves without British support because the colonies don’t make enough money through agriculture and commerce.”

Notice that even though this APUSH DBQ example doesn’t quote Inglis outright, the author still lets the readers know which source they’re using to prove their point.

#2: Parenthetical

Using a parenthetical citation means that you put either the author of the source’s name or which document it’s from, in parentheses, at the end of the sentence. H ere’s an example of parenthetical citation that the College Board considers acceptable:

“He claimed only man himself can direct his own actions and decisions, not the rule of any legislative authority or man (Doc. 3).”

Since the sentence does not say who “he” is, the author of this essay has included this parenthetical citation (Doc. 3) that the reader can use to read the document in question and see if the argument the author is making is correctly represented from the source.

As you use these sources, you need to make sure that you are using the document accurately and not plagiarizing. Your goal is to show that you understand each document and know how to incorporate it into an argument. 

Step 5: Understand Time Management

One of the most important skills you can acquire by taking multiple attempts at the APUSH DBQ practice test will be time management . When you’re in the actual test environment, you won’t be able to use your phone to set a timer or alarm, so it can be difficult to keep track of how much time you’re spending on reading and re-reading the documents, brainstorming, and outlining. 

You want to leave yourself the majority of the time allowed (which will be one hour) for writing. College Board’s APUSH DBQ rubric recommends that you spend 15 minutes reading the documents and 45 minutes writing the essay . 

The best way to get your time management down is practice . Set timers during your APUSH DBQ practice test so you can get a feel for how much time it takes to put an answer together. That way you have a feel for the process and will have enough time to write your DBQ on test day. 


4 Tips for Mastering APUSH DBQs

Now that you’ve read our step-by-step process for tackling the APUSH DBQ and have seen several APUSH DBQ examples, here are some expert tips on doing well on the APUSH DBQ .  

Tip 1: Remember that Each Point Is Scored Separately

Go through the APUSH DBQ rubric and take note of each individual task since you’ll be scored on how well you complete each one . For each task, there are usually multiple points available. 

For example, you’ll earn one point for using at least three documents in your DBQ. But if you want to earn the full two points for that category, you’ll need to incorporate at least six documents into your answer.  

By understanding the rubric, you’ll be able to maximize how many points you earn on your DBQ. 

Tip 2: Your Essay Can Contain Errors 

Now, don’t misunderstand us: you can’t say an author makes one claim when they are clearly saying the opposite. You also can’t write something that is obviously wrong, like that America continues under British rule because the revolution was unsuccessful, and get full credit!  

But you can make minor errors that don’t detract from your argument as long as you are demonstrating a knowledge of the time period and the ability to incorporate evidence to make an argument. So for example, if you said that the First Continental Congress ended in November instead of October of 1774, you’ll still be able to earn full credit despite making a small error. 

Tip 3: Write For Clarity 

One thing to keep in mind is that you will be graded on how well you make and argue a thesis, and how well you incorporate the evidence from the documents to support that thesis– you don’t get graded on how beautifully or fluently you write ! So, while you’ll want to use correct grammar and write as clearly as you can, don’t spend too much time thinking about how best to phrase things as if you were writing for publication. Just focus on clearly explaining your ideas! 

You won’t have points taken away for grammatical errors unless they make it difficult for the graders to see how you’ve used the evidence to make an argument.

Tip 4: Connect the Dots 

Not only for the APUSH DBQ, but for everything you write, you need to ask yourself, why is this relevant? In the contextualization section, you are required to relate the information you’re conveying to other time periods or situations to earn full credit.

This is your chance to show that while the period you’re writing about may have been long in the past, the events are still relevant to us today ! This is why we read, write, and study history in the first place!


What’s Next? 

If you’re taking APUSH, you’re probably taking other AP classes as well! Here’s a general guide to preparing for AP tests that’ll help you get ready for any other AP exams you take. 

Like we mentioned earlier, taking practice tests is one of the best ways you can get ready for your actual AP exams. Here’s a guide that’ll help you find the best AP practice tests for each exam.

If you’re taking multiple AP tests, you’ll need to maximize your study time. One way to do this is to study for each test based on when you’ll have to take it! Our complete breakdown of the AP exam schedule will help you manage your study time efficiently and effectively. 

Looking for help studying for your AP exam? Our one-on-one online AP tutoring services can help you prepare for your AP exams. Get matched with a top tutor who got a high score on the exam you're studying for!

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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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AP®︎/College US History

Course: ap®︎/college us history   >   unit 10.

  • AP US History periods and themes
  • AP US History multiple choice example 1
  • AP US History multiple choice example 2
  • AP US History short answer example 1
  • AP US History short answer example 2

AP US History DBQ example 1

  • AP US History DBQ example 2
  • AP US History DBQ example 3
  • AP US History DBQ example 4
  • AP US History long essay example 1
  • AP US History long essay example 2
  • AP US History long essay example 3
  • Preparing for the AP US History Exam (5/4/2016)
  • AP US History Exam Prep Session (5/1/2017)

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apush 2005 dbq essay

Acing the Document Based Question on the AP US History Exam

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Taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) exams and accompanying coursework while you’re in high school is a great way to demonstrate your academic skill and prepare for college coursework. If you do well on your AP exams, those high scores will be valuable assets when it comes time for you to apply to college.

One of the most popular AP exams is AP United States History , which was taken by nearly half a million high school students in 2016. This exam consists of 55 multiple-choice questions, four short-answer questions, a longer essay with a choice of two prompts, and a special type of essay question: the Document Based Question, or DBQ.

The DBQ doesn’t have to be intimidating, but you may not be familiar with its expectations, so it pays to get well acquainted with its format beforehand. Read on to learn what to expect from the AP US History DBQ, as well as some advice for getting prepared for this type of question and formulating your plan of attack for test day.

AP US History: a brief introduction

As its title indicates, the AP US History exam and its accompanying course curriculum deal with the history of the now-United States, starting in the 1490s with the arrival of European colonists and extending until the present day. It covers not only events and people from this time and place, but also broader historical trends that have shaped US history.

In its role as an Advanced Placement course, AP US History exists not only to teach you historical facts, but to help you understand how to approach and analyze historical content in the way that college-level courses will eventually expect you to be able to do. The AP US History exam is intended to test your skill at this type of analysis, and the DBQ is an important part of this assessment.   

While many students take AP US History courses at their high schools in preparation for the exam, you can also study for the exam independently. Check out our blog posts Which AP Should I Self-Study? and The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams for more information about whether and how to self-study for this and other AP exams.  

Since AP US History is so popular, there’s no shortage of study guides and other preparatory materials for this exam on the market. However, you should be aware that in 2015, this exam was updated, and some significant changes were made in how it approaches historical material.

When you’re studying on your own, either instead of or in addition to taking an AP course at your high school, seek out materials specific to this most recent version of the test. Older study materials will no longer be accurate.

For CollegeVine’s overview of this exam, take a look at our Ultimate Guide to the US History AP Exam . You can also find a very detailed overview of the exam and curriculum in the official College Board AP United States History Course and Exam Description, available on the College Board’s website .

What is the Document Based Question?

The DBQ is the first of two essay questions you’ll face on the AP US History exam. Unlike the other essay question, in which you’ll choose between two essay prompts that rely heavily upon your memory of the course content, the DBQ asks you to answer a question with specific reference to a number of documents that are provided for you within the exam booklet.

You’ll be given 55 minutes to complete the DBQ. It’s recommended that you spend 15 minutes reading the documents and planning your essay, and the remaining 40 minutes writing. Your DBQ score will account for 25% of your overall score on the exam.

In requiring you to analyze primary and secondary sources on your own, the DBQ mimics the work that professional historians do in assessing historical documents. This is how the AP US History exam determines how well you’ve acquired not only historical facts, but methods of approaching the study of history.

The documents provided for the DBQ will vary a great deal from year to year and topic to topic. Most of them will be the type of written sources you’re used to seeing in history classes, such as letters, speech transcripts, newspaper articles, or passages from scholarly works.

However, the term “document” is used broadly here, and the documents you’re given could also include such diverse sources as song lyrics, graphs of data, maps, political cartoons, or photographs. You’ll have to be ready to tease meaning out of whatever type of source you’re given.

The DBQ’s documents will provide you with a lot of useful information, which can make writing your essay easier in certain ways—you won’t be coming into this essay trying to work from memory alone. On the other hand, the more complicated format and high expectations of the DBQ can present some unique challenges.

For one thing, you’ll still need to employ a great deal of the knowledge you accrued in your  AP US History course or self-studying experience. You’ll be expected to understand the various historical contexts in which your documents were created, the events and issues they reference, and the possible impact of authorial biases on their composition.

Practically speaking, writing a successful DBQ essay requires you to read, comprehend, and assimilate into your larger historical understanding a number of new and unfamiliar pieces of information within a very short period of time. This can be done, but it’s not an easy task.

Also, as we’ll go over in greater detail below, the DBQ has high expectations. While the question in the test booklet will come with a long list of specific, stated requirements in terms of what you need to address and how, you’ll also need to come into the test being already familiar with the goals and standards of the AP US History curriculum.

How is the DBQ evaluated?

The AP US History DBQ is always designed to test a certain set of skills that it considers essential to historical study. The readers will judge your essay upon how well it demonstrates solid argumentation, analysis of evidence, contextualization, and synthesis.

In addition to these skills, each year’s DBQ requires test-takers to demonstrate understanding of one additional theme from a set provided by the College Board. The DBQ you receive will focus either on historical causation, patterns of continuity and change over time, comparison, interpretation, or periodization.

Aside from these factors, a successful DBQ response will fully address the question that you’ve been asked, which can sometimes be complex or have multiple components. In composing your essay, you’ll need to follow the provided directions exactly as they’re given, and watch out to make sure answer all parts of a multi-part question.

A successful essay will also make full use of the documents you’ve been provided. You should do your best to address all the documents in your essay, though it’s acceptable to use all but one. Mentioning these documents isn’t enough—you’ll need to show that you really understand them, from the meaning of the text to the historical context of the authors’ identities and points of view.

It’s very important to remember that a high-scoring DBQ essay is an essay, not just a list of comments on your sources. It should have the same components as any other short essay, including a strong thesis statement and ample supporting evidence for this thesis. Most of all, it has to be coherent and make sense as an argument for your point.

For more specific details of how the DBQ is evaluated and scored, the rubric that’s used for all the AP history exams is available on the College Board website.

Preparing for the DBQ

When you’re studying for your DBQ, it’s important for you to keep in mind that the question and accompanying documents may come from any part of the AP US History curriculum. There’s no way of knowing what material your DBQ will involve, so it’s essential that you have a strong overall strategy for reviewing the full scope of what you’ve learned.

As we’ve mentioned, the purpose of the DBQ is to teach you how to approach historical data and documents in a way that’s similar to how a real historian would do it. You’ll be given specific details, but it’s up to you to place those details in their proper historical context and develop a well-supported interpretation of the materials you’re given.

It’s essential, then, that you build up your ability to interpret sources, making use of the concepts and skills you’ve learned through the AP US History curriculum. You can’t simply rely on memorizing your textbook’s explanations of historical events; you also have to develop this skill and make your understanding of the material your own.

On a more specific, practical level, when preparing for your AP US History exam, and specifically for the DBQ, completing practice test questions and full practice tests is always helpful. At the moment, practice test options are limited due to the recent exam updates, so if you do get to take a practice test, it’s especially important for you to take it seriously.

Whatever practice you’re able to accomplish, make sure you do it with correct timing and a testing environment that mimic the real exam. Time management in the silence and stress of the exam room is a difficult thing, and timed practice questions will help you get a better feel for how quickly you need to work to complete your essay on time.

Your test day plan of attack for the DBQ

Finally, it’s time for the moment of truth: test day. In the span of three hours and fifteen minutes, you’ll answer multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions that might address any topic in the broad-ranging AP US History curriculum. Sandwiched in the middle of this test will be, of course, the DBQ.

Studying the material that will appear on the test is important, but with a timed, standardized test, it’s also important to be prepared for the particular testing environment. Here are some tips for approaching the real AP US History exam in the moment, when stress levels are high and time is of the essence.

  • Read and re-read the question carefully. Make sure you understand exactly what you’re being asked to do—a misunderstanding can derail your entire essay.
  • Read the test’s list of requirements for your answer. You don’t need to guess at what to include in your response—the test will tell you exactly what the readers are looking for.
  • Read the documents carefully, keeping the question and requirements in mind. Take note of the author, the date, the location, and any other facts that frame the document, and think about how these may have affected its creation.
  • Plan wisely—it makes a difference. Taking a moment to plan ensures that your essay will contain all its required parts and makes the writing process go much more smoothly.
  • Make sure your planned answer is cohesive and analytical. It needs to be a coherent essay with depth and a strong thesis, not just a list of the sources.
  • Write quickly and stay focused. Follow the plan you’ve made, watch for mistakes that obscure your meaning, and make sure your handwriting is legible.
  • Save a few moments to review your essay briefly for errors. You can’t make any major changes at this point, of course, and minor spelling or grammar errors won’t count against you, but you’ll want to make sure that your essay makes sense.

For more information

Here at the CollegeVine blog , we’re no strangers to the demands of AP exams and courses. Take a look at our other blog posts about the AP program for more information about AP course offerings and how to prepare for your AP exams.

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AP U.S. History Notes

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Sample Essays

Use these sample AP U.S. History essays to get ideas for your own AP essays. These essays are examples of good AP-level writing.

1. The ‘50s and ‘60s: Decades of Prosperity and Protest (DBQ)

apush 2005 dbq essay

The 1950s were characterized as a prosperous and conformist decade for many reasons. The first and most widespread of these reasons was the development of the suburbs. As masses of Southern blacks migrated northward to the big cities, more rich and middle-class families left to live in the suburbs t...

2. American Foreign Policy: Isolationism to Interventionism (DBQ)

World War I had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans; many believed that the U.S. had been tricked into joining the war for the wrong reasons, and they were determined to avoid making the same mistake twice. After the Great War, Americans were disappointed to realize that the war was ...

3. American Identity and Unity

Throughout the 17 and 18 centuries Americans developed a unique system of government with revolutionary ideals – never seen anywhere else before. Americans adopted representative governments with democratic principles that allowed each person to have a voice in the decisions about their countr...

4. Urbanization in the 19th Century U.S.A.

Cities attracted a diverse population composed of hundreds of ethnicities from around the globe. German and Scandinavian immigrants poured into America during the late 19 century, attracted by extravagant stories of the wonderful American lifestyle: three meals a day, freedom, and social equality. S...

5. Flip-Flopper Thomas Jefferson: From State’s Rights to Federalism

Throughout his early political career, Thomas Jefferson had always been a strong supporter of states’ rights and a major critic of Federalist policies. However, after being elected as President in 1801, Jefferson altered his earlier philosophy of government. Documents A and B show Jefferson&r...

6. Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for Union and Emancipation (DBQ)

President Abraham Lincoln was faced with a monumental challenge during his two terms as Commander-in-chief of the United States: reuniting the shattered halves of the Union. This was his sole purpose in fighting the Civil War—nothing more, nothing less. However, Lincoln was flexible enough to ...

7. Roosevelt and the Revolutionary New Deal

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was the ultimate reform movement, providing bold reform without bloodshed or revolution. Although many Americans criticized President Roosevelt for his “try anything” approach and wasteful spending, Roosevelt saved the Americ...

8. Agrarian Discontent in the Late 19th Century

Midwest farmers expressed further discontent with the U.S. government on the issue of taxes. During the Civil War, the U.S. government had increased taxes to raise revenue for the relentless war machine, but had neglected to lower them back down after the conflict had concluded. The high taxes and t...

9. Post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South

Even before the Civil War had concluded, Northern politicians were busy making Reconstruction plans for the Confederate States. Reconstruction—the process by which seceded states were to re-enter back into the Union—was a difficult process for the United States for two reasons. Firstly, ...

10. Winners and Losers in the American Revolution

The American Revolution was an important event for the North American continent because it affected so many differing parties. As in all conflicts, the American Revolution resulted in “winners” and “losers”. The Patriots were the obvious winners in the Revolution; they gained...

11. The Transformation of Colonial Virginia (DBQ)

During the time period between 1606 and 1700 hundreds of settlers flocked to the Virginia colony seeking riches – only to find hardship, and no gold. However, after many years, and much effort, the Virginians managed to secure a solid social and economic system that would eventually make Virgi...

12. The United States: A Date with Manifest Destiny

Since the first Puritan settlement of America by the Massachusetts Bay Colony (“City on a Hill”) to the United States’ current involvement in the affairs of foreign countries, it is clear that Americans find a need to spread their democratic ideals abroad. The idea of Manifest Dest...

13. Challenges to American Democracy: Trends and Similarities

American democracy has faced numerous challenges from the 1700s to modern day. However, the American dream has never faltered for a moment; even in the face of sure failure, and sure destruction, the United States has triumphed. The years 1805, 1905, and 2005 were no exception to this tradition; tho...

14. "Duck Soup" and American Beliefs in the 1930s

The Marx Brothers’ film was first released in 1933. At first, many critics deemed the film to be a commercial failure because its popularity paled in comparison to other Marx Brothers’ productions like , , and . Furthermore, many sensitive American audiences were offended at the rampant...

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United States History Writing Study Skills

Frank Warren, a history professor at Queens College and a former Chief Faculty Consultant for AP U.S. History, offers the following suggestions for writing a good response to a document-based question (DBQ) or free-response essay question.

Write More Often

AP students need to write, and to write often. This practice is an excellent way to develop the skill of casting a thesis statement and marshalling evidence in support of a valid generalization.

Define Your Terms Where Necessary

Look especially at terms like liberal or conservative, radical or progressive. Be prepared to define other central terms, such as major change, that may appear to be obvious but can be ambiguous.

Start with a Clearly Stated Thesis

Some good essay writers begin with a thesis statement, back it up with supporting evidence from documents and outside knowledge, and, if time permits, restate the thesis at the end. Other writers analyze the material and build up logically to their thesis statement. On an AP Exam, you should use whichever method you feel most comfortable with. In any case, exam day is probably not a good time to experiment with a new, unfamiliar method of writing.

Organize Your Response Carefully

In addition to having a strong thesis, it is a good idea to have a guiding organizational principle—a stated agenda for making your point. Try to integrate your outside information into your response. Your exam shouldn’t read as if you threw in a few tidbits of outside information at the end.

Make Sure Thesis Matches Assessment and Knowledge

Many good essay writers demonstrate a sense of complexity in the documents, showing that most of the evidence may point in one direction but that part of the evidence points in a different direction. It is better, however, to support a clear, simple thesis than to create artificially a complexity that you can't support using the documents or outside knowledge. Almost every essay—including the DBQ—is designed to allow the student to agree or disagree with the statement. Your ultimate goal should be to present a well-argued and well-supported thesis, not merely to give the people scoring the essay what you think they want.

Build an Argument

The best essays—in terms of arguing their case—are those that marshal the positive arguments in favor of their position but that also refute or answer possible rival theses. Even if you think a statement is completely true, it is better to confront and negate the evidence that seems to refute it than to ignore the counterevidence completely.

Integrate the Documents and Your Analysis

Don’t merely explain what is stated in the documents. Rather, use the documents as part of an integrated essay in support of your thesis.

Don’t Quote Large Portions of the Documents

The readers of the essays are already familiar with the documents. You can quote a short passage or two if necessary, to make your point, but don’t waste time or space reciting them.

Choose Your Essays Wisely

Select the questions you are best prepared to answer. The questions that invite the easiest generalizations are not always the ones you should answer. As you read through the questions and make your choices, ask yourself for which of the questions are you best prepared to support your thesis.

apush 2005 dbq essay

AP History: Document-Based Questions (DBQs) Decoded

apush 2005 dbq essay

Document-Based Questions (DBQs) are a central component of Advanced Placement (AP) history exams, including AP United States History (APUSH), AP European History (APEH), and AP World History (APWH). DBQs assess students' ability to analyze historical documents, synthesize information, and construct coherent arguments supported by evidence. To excel in AP History DBQs, it's essential to understand the structure of the DBQ, the skills required, and effective strategies for approaching these questions. Here's a comprehensive guide to decoding AP History DBQs:

 1. Understanding the DBQ Prompt:

- Carefully read and analyze the DBQ prompt to understand the historical context, the main topic, and the specific tasks required. Identify key terms and directives such as "analyze," "evaluate," or "compare and contrast" to guide your response.

 2. Examining the Documents:

- Review the provided historical documents, including primary and secondary sources such as texts, maps, charts, photographs, and political cartoons. Pay attention to the authorship, context, purpose, and point of view of each document.

 3. Thesis Statement:

- Craft a clear and concise thesis statement that directly responds to the DBQ prompt. Your thesis should present an argument or claim that addresses the main topic and outlines the key points you will discuss in your essay.

 4. Document Analysis:

- Analyze each document individually and in relation to one another. Identify the main ideas, arguments, perspectives, and biases presented in the documents. Consider how each document supports or contradicts your thesis statement.

 5. Contextualization:

- Provide historical context by situating the topic of the DBQ within its broader historical period or theme. Explain relevant background information, events, and developments that help contextualize the documents and support your argument.

 6. Evidence and Support:

- Use evidence from the documents to support your argument and analysis. Quote directly from the documents and cite specific examples to illustrate your points. Incorporate outside knowledge where applicable to enhance your argument.

 7. Synthesis:

- Synthesize information from the documents and incorporate additional historical evidence or examples to strengthen your argument. Draw connections between the documents, historical events, themes, and broader historical trends.

 8. Counterargument and Complexity:

- Acknowledge alternative perspectives or counterarguments and address them in your essay. Demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of historical issues and interpretations by considering multiple viewpoints.

 9. Organization and Structure:

- Organize your essay logically and coherently, with a clear introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Use topic sentences to introduce each paragraph's main idea and transitions to connect ideas between paragraphs.

 10. Revision and Proofreading:

- Take time to revise and edit your essay for clarity, coherence, and accuracy. Check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Ensure that your writing is concise, precise, and effectively communicates your analysis.

 11. Practice, Practice, Practice:

- Practice writing DBQ essays under timed conditions to improve your speed and efficiency. Work on developing your analytical and writing skills by tackling practice prompts and seeking feedback from teachers or peers.

 12. Seek Additional Resources:

- Utilize review books, study guides, online resources, and AP prep courses to supplement your preparation and deepen your understanding of historical concepts, skills, and exam strategies.

By mastering the skills and strategies outlined above, you'll be well-equipped to decode AP History DBQs and excel on the AP history exams. Remember to approach DBQs with confidence, critical thinking, and a thorough understanding of historical content and analysis. Good luck!

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AP U.S. History Past Exam Questions

Free-response questions.

Below are free-response questions from AP U.S. History Exams administered before the course and exam were initially redesigned in 2014-15.

If you require an accessible version of any documents on this page, please email [email protected] . We will respond to your email within 3 business days.

Looking for free-response questions and scoring information from the 2015 exam and later? Visit The AP U.S. History Exam . See also: AP U.S. History Document-Based Questions, 1973-1999 (.pdf/32.2MB)

Note about "Form B" Exams

Prior to the May 2012 exam administration, for selected AP subjects, another version of the exam called "Form B" was administered outside of North, Central, and South America.

2024: Free-Response Questions

Questions Scoring Samples and Commentary







2023: Free-Response Questions

QuestionsScoringSamples and Commentary





2022: Free-Response Questions



Samples and Commentary

2021: Free-Response Questions

2021: Free-Response Questions



Samples and Commentary

2020: Free-Response Questions

The 2020 free-response questions are available in the  AP Classroom question bank .

2019: Free-Response Questions

2019: Free-Response Questions



Samples and Commentary

2018 :Free-Response Questions

2018: Free-Response Questions



Samples and Commentary

2017: Free-Response Questions

2017: Free-Response Questions



Samples and Commentary

2016: Free-Response Questions

2016: Free-Response Questions


Student Performance

Samples, Scoring Guidelines, and Commentary

2015: Free-Response Questions

The 2015 sample response PDFs (.pdf/32.8MB) were updated to reflect changes to the rubrics that took effect with the 2016 AP U.S. History Exam.

2015: Free-Response Questions


Student Performance

Samples, Scoring Guidelines, and Commentary

AP U.S. History Document-Based Questions, 1973-1999

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apush 2005 dbq essay


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    The 8-9 Essay Contains a clear, well-developed thesis that evaluates two areas (New England, the Middle Atlantic, the South) in depth or three areas more broadly.

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    Free-response questions from AP U.S. History Exams administered before the course and exam were redesigned in 2014-15.

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