AP World Document-Based Question (DBQ) Overview

19 min readnovember 18, 2021

Melissa Longnecker

Melissa Longnecker

AP World History: Modern 🌍

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Overview of the Document-Based Question (DBQ)

The one thing you need to know about this question:
Answer the prompt and support your answer with evidence; use the documents to do this.
Section II of the AP Exam includes the one required Document-Based Question (DBQ.) Unlike the other free-response sections (SAQ and LEQ), there isn’t any choice in what you write about for this essay.
You will be given a prompt and a set of seven documents to help you respond to the prompt. The documents will represent various perspectives relating to the prompt, and they will always include a mixture of primary source text documents and primary or secondary source visuals. Your task is to use these documents, and your knowledge of history, to answer the prompt.
💡 For 2020 Only
The DBQ will only include five documents, rather than seven. The overall task remains the same: use the documents and your knowledge of history to answer the prompt!
The DBQ is designed to test your knowledge of history, your ability to analyze a variety of sources, and your skill in crafting and supporting a clear and complex argument. It is the single most complicated task on the exam; however, it is very doable with practice and preparation.
Your answer should include the following:
  • A valid thesis
  • A discussion of relevant historical context
  • Use of evidence from the documents (all) and evidence not found in the documents to support your thesis
  • A discussion of relevant factors that affect the document
  • Complex understanding of the topic of the prompt.
We will break down each of these aspects in the next section. For now, the gist is that you need to write an essay that answers the prompt, using the documents and your knowledge as evidence. You will also need to discuss some additional factors that impact your use of the documents.
Many of the skills you need to write a successful DBQ essay are the same skills you will use on the LEQ. In fact, some of the rubric points are identical, so you can use a lot of the same strategies on both writing tasks!
The topic of your DBQ will come from the following time periods, depending on your course:
  • AP World History: Modern - 1200-1900
  • AP US History - 1754-1980
  • AP European History - 1600-2001
💡 For 2020 Only
For this year's exam, the AP World History DBQ prompt will come from Units 1-6. For AP US History, the prompt will be derived from Units 3-7, with the option of using evidence from Units 1 and 2 for context. For AP European History, the DBQ will come from Units 1-7.
The writing time on the AP Exam includes both the DBQ and the Long Essay Question (LEQ), but it is suggested that you spend 60 minutes completing the DBQ. You will need to read and analyze the documents and write your essay in that time.
A good breakdown would be: 15 min. (reading & analysis) + 45 min. (writing) = 60 min.
💡 For 2020 Only
Since the DBQ is the entire exam, the timing is a little different. You will have 45 minutes total to analyze documents and write your essay, and 5 minutes to upload your response. A good breakdown would be
15 min. (reading & analysis) + 30 min. (writing) = 45 min. + 5 min. (upload)
The DBQ is scored on a rubric out of seven points and is weighted at 25% of your overall exam score. We’ll break down the rubric next.
💡 For 2020 Only
The DBQ will be scored on a rubric out of ten points and is weighted at 100% of your overall exam score. The DBQ Rubric
The DBQ is scored on a seven-point rubric, and each point can be earned independently. That means you can miss a point on something and still earn other points with the great parts of your essay.
Let’s break down each rubric component...


💡 For 2020 Only
There are no changes to the expectations or scoring for the thesis on the 2020 DBQ-only exam. Keep doing what you’ve been doing to create a solid claim!
The thesis is a brief statement that introduces your argument or claim and can be supported with evidence and analysis. This is where you answer the prompt.
This is the only element in the essay that has a required location. The thesis needs to be in your introduction or conclusion of your essay. It can be more than one sentence, but all of the sentences that make up your thesis must be consecutive in order to count.
The most important part of your thesis is the claim, which is your answer to the prompt. The description the College-Board gives is that it should be “historically defensible,” which really means that your evidence must be plausible. On the DBQ, your thesis needs to be related to information from the documents, as well as connected to the topic of the prompt.
Your thesis should also establish your line of reasoning. Translation: address why or how something happened - think of this as the “because” to the implied “how/why” of the prompt. This sets up the framework for the body of your essay since you can use the reasoning from your thesis to structure your body paragraph topics later.
The claim and reasoning are the required elements of the thesis. And if that’s all you can do, it will earn you the point.
Going above-and-beyond to create a more complex thesis can help you in the long run, so it’s worth your time to try. One way to build in complexity to your thesis is to think about a counter-claim or alternate viewpoint that is relevant to your response. If you are thinking about using one of the course reasoning processes to structure your essay (and you should!) think about using that framework for your thesis too.
  • In a causation essay, a complex argument addresses causes and effects.
  • In a comparison essay, a complex argument addresses similarities and differences.
  • In a continuity and change over time essay, a complex argument addresses change and continuity.
This counterclaim or alternate viewpoint can look like an “although” or “however” phrase in your thesis.
Complex Thesis = Claim + Because + However
Sample complex thesis: While some cultural traditions and belief systems, such as Confucianism, actively warned against the accumulation of wealth through trade, other societies reliant on trade used their belief systems to rationalize the behavior of merchants despite moral concerns. Still, others used religion as a means to promote trade and the activities of merchants.


💡 For 2020 Only
There are no changes to the expectations or scoring of contextualization on the 2020 DBQ-only exam. Keep doing good work here to set the context of your ideas!
Contextualization is a brief statement that lays out the broader historical background relevant to the prompt.
There are a lot of good metaphors out there for contextualization, including the “previously on…” at the beginning of some TV shows, or the famous text crawl at the beginning of the Star Wars movies.
Both of these examples serve the same function: they give important information about what has happened off-screen that the audience needs to know to understand what is about to happen on-screen.
In your essay, contextualization is the same. You give your reader information about what else has happened, or is happening, in history that will help them understand the specific topic and argument you are about to make.
There is no specific requirement for where contextualization must appear in your essay. The easiest place to include it, however, is in your introduction. Use context to get your reader acquainted with the time, place, and theme of your essay, then transition into your thesis.
Good contextualization doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to go into a ton of detail, but it does need to do a few very specific things.
Your contextualization needs to refer to events, developments and/or processes outside the time and place of the prompt. It could address something that occurred in an earlier era in the same region as the topic of the prompt, or it could address something happening at the same time as the prompt, but in a different place. Briefly describe this outside information.
Then, connect it to your thesis/argument. The language from the College Board is that contextualization must be “relevant to the prompt,” and in practical terms; this means you have to show the connection. A transition sentence or phrase is useful here (plus, this is why contextualization makes the most sense in the introduction!).
Also, contextualization needs to be multiple consecutive sentences, so it’s all one argument (not sprinkled around in a paragraph). The introduction is the best place for contextualization, but not the only place. 
Basically, choose a connected topic that “sets the stage” for your thesis, and briefly describe it in a couple of sentences. Then, make a clear connection to the argument of your thesis from that outside information.
Sample contextualization: The period 1200-1600 saw the growth of centralized empires such as the Song in China or the Ottoman Empire. These empires promoted trade and growth as state policy, and this economic growth created new economic elites. In response to this change, religious leaders, thinkers, and scholars weighed in to promote, criticize, or simply comment on the moral aspects of trade and economic growth. 


💡 For 2020 Only
There are some important changes to the evidence section of the rubric for 2020. Basically, there are more points available for the various ways you may be using evidence in your writing:
  • You can earn 1 point for accurately describing content from at least 2 documents.
  • You can earn 1 point (NEW!!) for using content from at least 2 documents to support an argument.
  • You can earn 1 point for using content from at least 4 documents to support an argument.
  • You can earn up to 2 points for outside evidence used to support an argument (NEW - 1 point for each piece, up to 2 pieces of outside evidence.)
Check the sample rubric to see all the changes in one place.
Evidence is the historical detail, the specific facts, and examples that prove your argument. In the DBQ, your evidence comes from two places: the documents themselves, and your outside knowledge of history. You should plan to use all seven documents as evidence AND bring in your knowledge on top of that.
Having evidence is important, and one of the rubric points on the DBQ is just about having evidence. Of course, it’s not enough just to know the facts. You also need to use those facts to support your argument/claim/thesis, and the other two possible rubric points for evidence on the DBQ are about using the evidence you have to support what you’re trying to say.
Evidence goes in your body paragraphs. In fact, the bulk of your body paragraphs will be made up of evidence and supporting analysis or commentary that connects that evidence to other evidence and/or to the argument you are making.
Good evidence is specific, accurate, and relevant to the prompt.
Don’t simply summarize the documents. Use a specific idea or argument from the document as your evidence.
Evidence from the documents should come directly from part or all of a document, ideally without quoting.
Paraphrasing allows you to transition directly into your argument without all the work of embedding a quote like you might for an English essay. Take a specific idea from the document, phrase it in your own words, and use it in support of your argument.
You earn a point of using evidence from at least three of the documents. There’s an additional point up for grabs for using evidence from at least six documents and supporting your argument with that evidence, which means you should always link your evidence back to your topic sentence or thesis.
Example: Ibn Khaldun observed that trade benefitted merchants at the expense of their customers, and he feared that participating in trade, though legal under Islamic law, would weaken the moral integrity of merchants.
Do I have to use all seven documents?
Technically, no. But you should. If you misinterpret a document, or one of your examples doesn’t connect well to your thesis, using all seven documents will leave you eligible for both document evidence points.
💡 For 2020 Only
There will only be five documents in your DBQ. You should plan to use all of them. If you misinterpret a document, or one example doesn’t connect well to your thesis, using all five documents will leave you eligible for all three document evidence points!
Evidence from your outside knowledge is much the same, except that you won’t have a document to structure it for you. Describe a specific example of something you know that is relevant to the prompt, and use it to support your argument. Using course-specific vocabulary is a great strategy here to know that you are writing specific evidence.
Example: Muhammad himself was a merchant before becoming the Prophet of Islam, which accounts for the support of merchants and trade by Muslim societies.
Contextualization vs. outside evidence?
Contextualization is outside knowledge that is beyond the topic of the prompt (usually 2-3 sentences). Outside evidence is a specific fact or detail that is relevant to the prompt but not contained in any of the documents (usually ~1 sentence.)
💡 For 2020 Only
The rules and expectations for outside evidence are much the same as in the past, but there is an additional point available here. If you use more outside evidence effectively, you can earn an additional point. So it’s in your best interest to include outside information when you know it.

Analysis and Reasoning: Sourcing

💡 For 2020 Only
The overall expectations around sourcing are the same as in the past, but the number of points and documents has changed. Instead of one point available for effective sourcing analysis on three documents, you can earn two sourcing points. One point will be awarded for EACH effective sourcing analysis on your first two sourced documents. If you feel confident in your sourcing analysis, you should continue to write it for three or more documents to help ensure that you will earn both of these points!
What is it? For at least three of the documents, you need to analyze the source of the document as well as the content. There are four acceptable categories of sourcing analysis:
  1. Historical situation - this is like a miniature version of contextualization. Ask: when/where was this document created? How does that historical situation influence what the document is or what it says?
  2. Intended audience - every document was created with an audience in mind. A document created for a king will likely be very different from a document created for a lover. Ask: for whom was this document created? How would that person have understood it? What did they know or understand that the creator could leave unsaid? What did they need to be explained?
  3. Point of view - every document was created by someone, and that person has specific knowledge, opinions, and limitations that impact what they create. Ask: who created this document? How well did they understand the topic of the document? What would limit their understanding or reliability on this topic? What characteristics might influence them (race, gender, age, religion, status, etc.)
  4. Purpose - all documents were created for a reason. Figure out the reason and understand why a document says or shows what it does. Ask: why was this document created, and how does that impact what it is?
Any of these characteristics will have an impact on how you use a document to support your argument. Sometimes a characteristic will weaken a document’s reliability. Sometimes a characteristic will strengthen a document’s usefulness. In addition to describing the relevant characteristic of a document, you should also explain how or why it impacts your argument.
Where do I write it? You should connect sourcing directly to your discussion of evidence from a particular document. This will occur throughout your body paragraphs.
How do I know if mine is good? Your sourcing should describe a relevant characteristic of the document and explain why/how that characteristic is relevant to your argument.
Sample sourcing statement: As a Muslim scholar, Ibn Khaldun would have had a deep understanding of religious laws, but perhaps limited knowledge of common trade practices in his day and culture. This could factor into his low view of the morality of merchants, whom he saw as less moral than someone devoting their life to their faith.
🛑 Stop & Think: The word “biased” is less-than-helpful in a sourcing argument. All documents are biased. A better question is “how does knowing X characteristic of this document impact my argument?”

Analysis and Reasoning: Complexity

💡 For 2020 Only
There are no changes to the expectations or scoring for complexity on the DBQ-only exam. Keep doing good work to create complex arguments throughout your essay!
The second part of the Analysis and Reasoning scoring category is complexity. This is by far the most challenging part of the DBQ, and the point earned by the fewest students. It isn’t impossible, just difficult. Part of the difficulty comes in that it is the least concrete skill to teach and practice.
If you’re already feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the DBQ, don’t stress about complexity. Focus on writing the best essay you can that answers the prompt. Plenty of students earn 5’s without the complexity point.
If you are ready to tackle this challenge, keep reading!
The College Board awards this point for essays that “demonstrate a complex understanding” of the topic of the prompt.
Complexity cannot be earned with a single sentence or phrase. It must show up throughout the essay. 
A complex argument starts with a complex thesis. A complex thesis must address the topic of the prompt in more than one way. Including a counter-claim or alternate viewpoint in the thesis is a good way to set up a complex argument because it builds in room within the structure of your essay to address more than one idea (provided your body paragraphs follow the structure of your thesis!)
A complex argument may include corroboration - evidence that supports or confirms the premise of the argument. A clear explanation that connects each piece of evidence to the thesis will help do this. In the DBQ, documents may also corroborate or support one another, so you could also include evidence that shows how documents relate to one another.
A complex argument may also include qualification - evidence that limits or counters an initial claim. This isn’t the same as undoing or undermining your claim. Qualifying a claim shows that it isn’t universal. An example of this might be including continuity in an essay that is primarily about change.
A final way to introduce complexity to your argument is through modification - using evidence to change your claim or argument as it develops. Modification isn’t quite as extreme as qualification, but it shows that the initial claim may be too simple to encompass the reality of history.
Corroborate = “this because...”
Qualify = “yeah but…”
Modify = “this and also…”
Since no single sentence can demonstrate complexity on its own, it’s difficult to show examples of complex arguments. Fully discussing your claim and its line of reasoning, and fairly addressing your counterclaim or alternate view is the strongest structure to aim for a complexity point!

Understanding the Process of Writing a DBQ

💡 For 2020 Only
There are fewer documents and more points available, but the writing process is largely unchanged for the modified DBQ. Analyze the prompt, analyze the documents, then write your best essay.

Before you start writing...

Because the DBQ has so many different components, your prep work before writing is critical. Don’t feel like you have to start writing right away. You are allotted a 15 min. “reading period” as part of your DBQ time - you should use it!
💡 For 2020 Only
There is no specified reading period for this modified DBQ. You have just 45 min. to complete your whole essay.
It is still a good idea to set aside some time to plan your writing. You will need to interpret the prompt and analyze the documents in order to use them most effectively. Because many of you will be typing your essays, your “writing” time will also go more quickly. You can afford to spend 10-15 min. analyzing and planning, and it will help the overall quality of your essay if you do.
The very first thing you should do with any prompt is to be sure you understand the question. Misunderstanding the time period, topic, or geographic region of a prompt can kill a thoughtful and well-argued essay. When you’re practicing early in the year, go ahead and rewrite the prompt as a question. Later on, you can re-phrase it mentally without all the work.
As you think about the question, start thinking about which reasoning skill might apply best for this prompt: causation, comparison, or continuity and change over time. You don’t necessarily have to choose one of these skills to organize your writing, but it’s a good starting place if you’re feeling stuck.
Original prompt: Evaluate the extent to which cultural traditions or belief systems affected attitudes toward merchants and trade in the period 1200-1600.
Revised: How much did religion and culture impact attitudes about merchants/trade 1200-1600?
Once you know what to write about, take one minute to brainstorm what you already know about this time period and topic. This will help you start thinking about contextualization and outside knowledge as you read the documents.
ContextualizationOutside Knowledge
1) state expansion; 2) growth/intensification of exchange networks (Silk Roads, Indian Ocean, Trans-Sahara); 3) Class conflicts as cities grew1) Religion spread through exchange networks; 2) Historical Chinese distrust of merchants (Confucianism); 3) Muhammad was a merchant (Islam)

Analyzing the documents

Now it’s time to read the documents. As you read, pay attention to the source line that introduces the author, date, etc. about each document. It should contain information that will help you with your sourcing analysis. Mark this info with a symbol that is relevant for you, such as H for the historical situation, I for the intended audience, etc. 
If the source line doesn’t give you much, it’s ok to skip sourcing for some of the documents. Try to analyze each one though, since you have to choose at least three to write about sourcing in your essay.
Read the document for content next. Think about what the document is saying or showing. Summarize it briefly in the margin or in your head and note how it connects to the prompt and to other documents in the set.
Example (download modified DBQ prompts here):
Documents that reject merchants on moral grounds: 2, 3, (4?)
Confucianism = mistrust of merchants: 2, 7
Documents that permit trade, despite dishonesty of merchants: 4, 6 Documents that see wealth a religious blessing: 1, 5
Islam = support of trade as a custom: 4, 6
Rationalizing/compromising morals in areas that rely on trade: 1, 4, 5, 6
Note: you wouldn’t use all of these groupings in one essay. This list shows a sample of different ways the documents might connect to build a thesis and structure an essay. The three bolded notations here correspond to the topics selected for the sample thesis.
After reading all of the documents, take a minute to organize your thinking and plan your thesis. Decide which documents fit best to support the topics of your body paragraphs and choose your three or more documents for sourcing analysis.
Once you have a plan you like, start writing!

How to Write The DBQ

TL;DR - Introduce your essay with contextualization, then link that to your complex thesis. Follow that with a body paragraph that is organized using one of the course reasoning skills, and use evidence from the documents and your brain to develop your topic sentence. Continue with the analysis that relates to a specific document or elaborates on your argument overall. Repeat, as needed, until you use all of the documents and fully answer the prompt.
Your introduction should include your contextualization and thesis. Start with a statement that establishes your time and place in history, and follow that with a brief description of the historical situation. Connect that broader context to the theme
and topic of the prompt. Then, make a claim that answers the prompt, with an overview of your reasoning and any counterclaim you plan to address.
Body paragraphs will vary in length, depending on how many documents or other pieces of evidence you include, but should follow a consistent structure. Start with a topic sentence that introduces the specific aspect of the prompt that paragraph will address. There aren’t specific points for topic sentences, but they will help you stay focused.
Follow your topic sentence with a piece of evidence from one of the documents. This should be paraphrased in your own words, and you should explain how that evidence specifically supports your argument. 
After 1-2 sentences of evidence, make an argument about sourcing. This is where you explain the specific characteristic and how it impacts your argument (“because...” or “in order to…” are good phrases here.)
Follow the sourcing with additional pieces of evidence, sourcing, and explanation. Ideally, you would do this with 2-3 documents relating to one topic sentence per paragraph. Somewhere in your body paragraph, you should also introduce a piece of outside evidence and connect it back to your topic sentence as well.
Each body paragraph will follow this general format, and there are no set number of paragraphs for the DBQ (minimum or maximum.) Write as many paragraphs as you need to both use all seven documents and fully answer the prompt by developing the argument (and counter-argument if applicable) from your thesis.
If you have time, you may choose to write a conclusion. It isn’t necessary, so you can drop it if you’re rushed. BUT, the conclusion is the only place where you can earn the thesis point outside the introduction, so it’s not a bad idea. You could re-state your thesis with different words, or give any final thoughts in terms of analysis about your topic. You might solidify your complexity point in the conclusion if written well.
💡 For 2020 Only
Use this structure, or another structure you’re comfortable with, to write your DBQ essay. It may be slightly shorter than ones you’ve written in practice because you’re only working with five documents. That’s ok. Do your best work with those documents. Answer the prompt. Include evidence from each document and from your outside knowledge. Write sourcing arguments and analysis. End your essay well.
Since the DBQ is the whole AP Exam this year in the Histories, once you’ve finished your essay, you’re done!
When you finish, it’s time to write the Long Essay Question (if you haven’t already), so turn the page in your prompt booklet and keep going!

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