The College Board recently announced that all AP exams will be taken from home and involve students answering document based questions (DBQs).  What exactly is a DBQ, you might ask?  Basically, students are given several documents (historical and analytical) and find textual evidence to write a response to one question, all within 45 minutes.  While traditional DBQs (read: before COVID-19) typically require students to review 7 historical documents, for this modified test, they will be required to review 5 historical documents.

To write an excellent DBQ essay, follow these 7 steps:

Step 1: Dissect the question prompt.  Determine how many tasks you will need to perform  

Step 2: Pre-group your documents according to how many tasks you need to perform

For example, if a question prompt asks you to consider the economic and political effects of the U.S. involvement in World War I, you can anticipate having a group of documents that illustrates economic effects and a group that illustrates political effects.  This means that of the five documents you will be provided with, there will be two groups of documents, with at least two documents per group.  

Step 3: Read, annotate, and organize your documents

Step 4: Generate a thesis statement that reflects how you organized your documents

Step 5: Write an introductory paragraph that…

  • Provides background information
  • Provides a historical context 
  • Gives your thesis statement 

Step 6: Write your body paragraphs. Each body paragraph needs to: 

  • Include a topic sentence that restates a portion of the thesis 
  • Explain how evidence contained in a specific document or group of documents helps to support the thesis; don’t summarize what the document says.  You don’t need to address all of the documents in each body paragraph; you only need to address those documents you placed in a specific group.  For example, if three of the documents illustrate political effects, and this is what your body paragraph is about, then you only need to address these three documents in this paragraph.  You’ll address the other documents in the following body paragraph(s).  
  • Address point of view for 1-2 documents.  A good rule of thumb is to do this for at least one document in each body paragraph.   
  • Provide 1-2 pieces of additional evidence from content not covered or addressed in the documents.  For this, you will have to draw from the knowledge you gained while studying the material from the course.

Step 7: Write a conclusion 

  • Summarize what you wrote.
  • Just like a detective finds pieces of evidence that help clarify a case, identify 1-2 additional documents and explain why or how they help to give a more complete picture. For this part, you will need to think about how each source of information you were provided falls short of totally supporting your thesis.

Keep in mind…

To score well, you’ll need to be able to use at least four documents to support your thesis and to demonstrate complex reasoning.  An example of complex reasoning is to discuss similarities and differences, not just focus on one versus the other.  If you are able to master this process, you will score well on the AP History exam this year.  Good luck!  

How Can Education Station Help?

Online programs are available everyday to support students during this hectic time! If you’d like to learn more about how Education Station can help you prepare for the AP exams, please contact us at support@educationstationhopkinton.com or call us at 617-823-5403 for more information.


By John Marderosian | John is the Director of Curriculum and Instructor Training for Education Station.  He has written and taught various AP courses in social studies.  He holds a professional teaching license as well as three administrative licenses.