What if I told you that you had to write a research paper but that you didn’t actually have to do any of the research? Pretty sweet deal, right?
A document-based question (DBQ) essay is sort of like that. You have to write an essay using a variety of sources, but someone else provides the sources for you.
When you look at it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But just in case you’re still freaking out (even just a little bit), here are some tips to help you write a DBQ essay the easy way.
What Is a DBQ Essay?
If you’re slightly stressed about writing a DBQ essay, you probably already know that it’s a timed essay required for various AP History exams. The goal of the essay is to test your analytical skills and your historical thinking skills.
In a DBQ essay, you’re given a variety of documents, usually six or seven, that might include articles, letters, charts, images, or other sources. You’re asked to read and synthesize the documents, then write an essay that answers a given prompt.
In most cases, it’s suggested that you use about 15 minutes to read the documents and plan the essay and then about 40 minutes to actually write the essay.
How to Write a DBQ Essay the Easy Way
Let’s say it’s test day. In front of you, you have an essay prompt, six documents, and the dreaded blank page. Your first thought might be, “I have absolutely no idea where to begin or even how to plan this type of paper. There’s no way I can write this in the time allotted.”
I know it seems like an impossible task, but it’s completely doable because you already have the skills.
Remember all those times your English teachers stressed that you read the assignment guidelines before actually starting the assignment? And what about all those times they made you annotate, prewrite, outline, and take notes?
They’re important skills to have when writing any essay and will be just as important when you write a DBQ essay. So let’s put those skills to use.
Step 1: Understand the essay prompt
Before you do anything else, read and understand the essay prompt.
Understanding the goal of the essay is crucial. If you write a historical overview of the Vietnam War when you’re supposed to be comparing causes of the Vietnam War to causes of WWII, you’re aren’t going to earn any points.
Once you know what you’re supposed to be writing about, review the collection of documents.
Step 2: Review the documents
Start viewing the collection of documents with a purpose. Know what you’re looking for, and take notes as you read.
I know, it always seems like it takes too much time to take any meaningful notes, but think about it this way. If you just start reading, you don’t have an end goal. You won’t have any idea what types of information will be useful or relevant to your essay.
It’s like shopping online. If you type in “shopping,” your search results might include anything from air fresheners to zero-turn lawnmowers. What’s the point of scrolling through zillions of products if you’re really only looking for a chew toy for your new puppy?
What should you look for when you read? Look for anything relevant to the assigned essay.
Let’s say you have letters from WWI soldiers to their families and letters from WWII soldiers to their families.
If the essay prompt asks you to compare soldiers’ attitudes toward the war, you can probably skip over the parts of the letters that ask about Aunt Harriet’s health or that ask if the garden is doing well this year. Those parts aren’t relevant to your essay.
Instead, focus on soldiers’ comments about whether they believe in the war or their comments about the government, fellow soldiers, or those they’re fighting against.
As you locate details to include in your essay, write notes in the margins to help you remember their significance and to help you locate the information later.
Keep in mind that, while it’s important to take notes, it’s quite possibly even more important to keep track of time.
Don’t get lost in analyzing every detail, though. Look for key points, and move on. After all, you’ll need to incorporate all of the given documents into your paper, so you need to be able to review them relatively quickly.
Step 3: Draft a quick outline
The goal of outlining is to get the main ideas (including a clear, specific thesis statement) in some sort of order. This will keep you focused as you work and will keep your essay on track.
If you’re not a fan of traditional outlines, don’t worry. You can create your own graphic organizer to outline ideas or just simply list key points. Do whatever works best for you–but make it quick.
Assuming the same topic above about solders’ letters, an outline for your DBQ essay might be as basic as the one below.
Though there are slight differences in soldiers’ opinions of war, it appears that they share three common feelings: fear, loneliness, and boredom.
WWI soldiers didn’t seem as bored as they seemed to be busier with daily activities (source 2, par. 3).
What they have in common:
Fear: Both groups feared for their own lives (sources 1, 3, 6). They also feared for their loved ones if they didn’t return (sources 2, 3, 5–pg. 2).
Loneliness: Both groups spent a lot of time away from their families and missed daily interactions (sources 1, 6).
Boredom: Both groups were bored at some point during the war (source 3, par. 3, and source 2). Some soldiers expressed more boredom with down times than others. Some felt happy to be bored as they felt safer. Others wanted to be in combat to not only have something to do but also achieve their mission. (Sources 2, 4, 5).
Opinions on war:
No clear correlation between soldiers who were for or against the war effort. Opinions were mixed in both groups. (Source 2, par. 4 and source 6, par. 3).
Other ideas to include:
Possibly relate to Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried and Grandpa’s stories of the war.
Remember, outline in a way that helps you stay organized. If you don’t like the list format of this outline, create a table to organize topics and sources that support your main ideas.
Making connections to the larger world
Note that the outline above also includes ideas about how to make connections to the larger world. These might be personal connections, connections to arts or literature, or connections to current events.
Making connections is an important strategy. It demonstrates your ability to not only use the documents provided but also see how they apply to the larger context. (The people grading your exam will be looking for these types of connections, so make sure to include them.)
Step 4: Draft the essay
You’ve written lots of different types of essays, and the DBQ essay is no different when it comes to standard essay format. You need a clear introduction, a focused thesis, several body paragraphs to develop your main points, and a strong conclusion to wrap up your ideas.
Remember to use your notes and follow your outline as you draft. As tempting as it can be to try to add in a few more ideas or move in a new direction, try to avoid it. Doing so can throw your entire paper off track.
Because you’re on a strict time limit, straying from your outline could also mean that you’ll run out of time to complete your essay.
The only exception to this, of course, is if you realize that you completely blew your outline, and it’s not going to work for the essay. If that’s the case, then you’ll have to recreate an outline or work without one.
Step 5: Revise and edit
You might not have a lot of time for revision and editing, but try to save at least a couple of minutes for this step.
Here are a few things to look for:
- A clear thesis that matches your main points. If you list three main ideas in your thesis, make sure they all appear in your paper and that they appear in the same order in both your thesis and your paper.
- Specific topic sentences. Each of your paragraphs should have a topic sentence that explains the focus of the paragraph.
- Inclusion of all documents. Make a note each time you incorporate documents into your draft to make sure they all get used. (A big “X” at the top of a document can be a quick visual reference.)
- Use of citations. In most DBQ essays, you’re only required to include a parenthetical citation containing the source number, such as (Source 1).
- Grammar errors. Grammar errors can make your writing look sloppy, so do your best to make sure you’ve got all those commas in place!
Feeling a Little Worn Out?
I know, it can be pretty stressful to have to read, outline, draft, and revise all in less than an hour. It can leave you more than a little worn out.
How do you alleviate the stress? Practice before you take the exam. That way, when you’re staring at an essay prompt, you won’t feel so overwhelmed.
One way to prepare is to brush up on tips for writing about history. Having a few writing strategies in your back pocket can only help, so take a look at these posts:
- How to Start a History Essay Without Boring Your Reader to Death
- How to Write a History Paper That Will Go Down in History
To practice outlining, you might examine example essays (reverse outline. Try it on one of the following essays:
- The Effects of the Deindustrialization of Sparrows Point
- The History of the Crusades During the Medieval Period
- The Contributions of Canadians During WWII
The reverse outlining process will also help you identify essay components and see how the writer developed his/her ideas.
You might also try a few practice sessions. If you don’t have access to a practice test, grab a few sources you’ve used to write previous research papers. Then complete the entire process of note-taking, outlining, and essay writing.
Run your essay past a Kibin editor for expert feedback on what you did well and what could be improved.
If you don’t want to complete the entire process of writing the essay, just work on your note-taking skills:
- Take a few minutes to scan documents.
- Try writing in the margins, underlining, and/or highlighting.
- Find a system that works, and you’ll be able to speed up the process and work more quickly on test day.
Finally, when you’re faced with a stack of documents and a blank page, don’t panic. Take a few deep breaths, relax, and remember, you’ve got this. You’re totally prepared to write an awesome DBQ essay.