5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 3 Develop Strategies for Success
7 The Document-Based Question (DBQ)


Summary: The AP European History Exam contains an essay question called the “document-based question” (DBQ), which involves using historical documents of various types. In this chapter you’ll find out what to expect and develop a strategy to do well on this task.


Key Idea:

Image The key to doing well on the DBQ is being able to write a history essay of high quality that follows the rubric—one that answers the question, makes an argument, and supports the argument with evidence.



Your task for both the document-based question (DBQ) and the long-essay question (see Chapter 8) is to write a history essay of high quality in an allotted amount of time. In reality, those who grade the AP essay exams are “looking for” the thing that all history instructors look for when they read student essays: a reasonably well-written essay that answers the question, makes an argument, and supports the argument with evidence. In short, the key to “cracking” the AP essay questions is to know how to write a short history essay of high quality. In this chapter I will discuss the guidelines that are given to those who grade the AP European History Exam essays, so you can get a sense of the purpose of the questions and an understanding of how they are scored.

The High-Quality History Essay

There are four basic components to a short history essay of high quality:

• A clear thesis that answers the question by making a historically defensible claim

• A context provided for the events that surround the topic of the prompt

• Three topic sentences that, taken together, add up logically to support the thesis

• Evidence that supports and illustrates each of the topic sentences

The Thesis

The thesis should be a sentence that answers the prompt by making a clear and historically defensible claim. It should not be something made-up, which cannot be supported with historical evidence and reasoning.

The Context

In the introduction paragraph you will also need to include context for your argument. This will come before your thesis. It is the background information that leads up to what you will be discussing from the prompt.

Topic Sentences

Topic sentences should appear at the beginning of clearly marked paragraphs. Each topic sentence makes a clear assertion that you will illustrate and support in the body of the paragraph. All of your topic sentences together should add up logically to your thesis.


This is the part that makes your essay historical. In a history essay, the evidence is made up of specific examples, explained to support and illustrate your claim. You will also use this evidence to support your argument in the topic sentence for the correlating paragraph. This will ensure that you keep the prompt at the center of your response.

Five Steps for Creating an Outline for Your Essay


Before you begin writing a history essay, you should always make an outline. If you keep the four components of the high-quality history essay in mind, you can produce an outline quickly and efficiently by following a very simple five-step process:

Step 1. Find the Action Words in the Question and Determine What the Question Wants You to Do

Too many essays respond to the topic instead of the question. In order to answer a question, you must do what it asks. To determine, specifically, what a question is asking you to do, you must pay attention to the action words—the words that give you a specific task. Look at the following question, notice the action words, and go to Step 2.

Sample Question: Evaluate the significant similarities between the roles played by the various social classes in the unification of Italy and Germany in the 1860s and 1870s.

Step 2. Compose a Thesis That Responds to the Question and Gives You Something Specific to Support and Illustrate

Compare the following two attempts at a thesis in response to the question:

A. The German and Italian unifications have a lot in common but also many differences.

B. Although the middle class made attempts to partake in the unification of Italy and Germany, ultimately the aristocracy engineered the unification in both locations and helped lead the peasantry in the process.

Alas, attempts at a thesis statement that resemble example A are all too common. Notice how example A merely makes a vague claim about the topic and gives the author nothing specific to do next. Example B, in contrast, makes a specific assertion about the role of a social class in the unifications of Italy and Germany; it is responding directly to the question. Moreover, example B is a thesis because it makes a historically defensible claim. This is something a student can build an argument around and support with evidence.

Step 3. Compose Your Topic Sentences and Make Sure That They Add Up Logically to Support Your Thesis

In response to the sample question, three good topic sentences might be the following:

A. The middle classes played virtually no role in Italian unification, and in the south of Germany, the middle classes initially opposed the unification of Germany.

B. The architects of both Italian and German unification were conservative, northern aristocrats.

C. The working classes and the peasantry followed the lead of the aristocracy in the unification of both Italy and Germany.

Notice how the topic sentences add up logically to the thesis. Also notice how each gives you something specific to support in the body of the paragraph.

Step 4. Support and Illustrate Your Topic Sentences with Specific Examples

The sentences that follow a topic sentence should present specific examples that illustrate and support its point. That means that each paragraph is made up of two things: factual information and your explanation of how that factual information supports the topic sentence. When making your outline, you can list the examples you want to use. For our question, the outline would look something like this:

Thesis: Although the middle class made attempts to partake in the unification of Italy and Germany, ultimately the aristocracy engineered the unification in both locations and helped lead the peasantry in the process.

Topic Sentence A: The architects of both Italian and German unification were conservative, northern aristocrats.

Specific Examples: Cavour, conservative aristocrat from Piedmont; Bismarck, conservative aristocrat from Prussia. Both took leadership roles and devised unification strategies.

Topic Sentence B: The middle classes played virtually no role in Italian unification, and in the south of Germany, the middle classes initially opposed the unification of Germany.

Specific Examples: Italy: mid-century Risorgimento, a middle-class movement, failed and played virtually no role in subsequent events. Germany: middle-class liberals in the Frankfurt Parliament were ineffective. Middle-class liberals in southern Germany were initially wary of Prussian domination; they rallied to the cause only when Bismarck engineered the Franco-Prussian War.

Topic Sentence C: The working classes and the peasantry followed the lead of the aristocracy in the unification of both Italy and Germany.

Specific Examples: In Italy, the working classes played no role in the north. The peasantry of the south followed Garibaldi but shifted without resistance to support Cavour and the king at the crucial moment. The working classes in Germany supported Bismarck and Kaiser William I of Prussia. The socialists, supposedly a working-class party, rallied to the cause of war.

Step 5. If You Have Time, Compose a One-Paragraph Conclusion That Restates Your Thesis

A conclusion is not necessary, and you will get little or no credit for one. If you have time remaining, and you are happy with all the other aspects of your essay, then you can write a one-paragraph conclusion that supports or places your thesis in a broader context. Contextualizing forward to create larger connections can help to earn the complexity point on the DBQ rubric.

Pitfalls to Avoid


There are some things that sabotage an otherwise promising essay and should be avoided. They include the following:

Avoid long sentences with multiple clauses. Your goal is to write the clearest sentence possible; most often the clearest sentence is a relatively short sentence.

Do not get caught up in digressions. No matter how fascinating or insightful you find some idea or fact, if it doesn’t directly support or illustrate your thesis, don’t put it in.

Skip the mystery. Do not ask a lot of rhetorical questions, and do not go for a surprise ending. The readers are looking for your thesis, your argument, and your evidence; give it to them in a clear, straightforward manner.

Characteristics of the Document-Based Question (DBQ)


The document-based question (DBQ) is simply an essay question about primary sources. It asks you to respond to a question by interpreting a set of seven excerpts from primary-source documents that were written in a particular historical period. The DBQ is the third section of the AP European History Exam. It is administered after the short break that follows the multiple-choice and short-answer sections of the exam. Because the DBQ involves reading and organizing short excerpts from documents, it begins with a 15-minute reading period. Following the reading period, you will have 45 minutes to write your essay.

In their present form, the directions you will encounter are lengthy and complex. Don’t let that worry you.

Directions: The following question is based on the accompanying Documents 1—7. (The documents have been slightly edited for use with this exercise.) The purpose of this question is to assess how well you are able to apply several historical thinking skills simultaneously. These skills include the ability to understand and use arguments based on historical interpretation, the ability to assess and use evidence from history, the ability to understand historical context, and the ability to synthesize historical knowledge. In writing your response, base your ideas on your analysis of the documents and on whatever outside knowledge of the topic you may have. Your essay should do the following:

• Present a thesis that addresses all parts of the question.

• Support that thesis with evidence from all of the documents (or all but one of them) AND your own knowledge of European history.

• Analyze and interpret the documents in terms of their intended audience, the author’s purpose and point of view, any limitations in the author’s perspective, and the historical context within which the document was created.

• Place your thesis within the context of broader national, regional, or global historical trends.


That is a lot of instructions, but the good news is that, basically, it boils down to writing a quality essay and being conscious of demonstrating your knowledge and skill. The only instruction not automatically taken care of by writing a quality essay is to make sure that you use all or all but one of the documents.

Applying the Principles of the High-Quality History Essay to the Document-Based Question (DBQ)


Keeping in mind the need to use all, or all but one, of the sources, the five steps to outlining a history essay explained above can easily be modified for the DBQ. Here are the five steps adapted for the DBQ:

Step 1. As you read the documents, determine what they have in common and how you can group them. When you group, you are looking for documents that can be utilized to help give evidence for the same argument in a body paragraph. Remember though, documents must be addressed individually to earn credit.

Step 2. Compose a thesis that explains how these documents are linked in the way you have chosen and plan topics for context.

Step 3. Compose your topic sentences, and make sure that they add up logically to your thesis.

Step 4. Support and illustrate your thesis with specific examples that contextualize the documents.

Step 5. If you have time, compose a one-paragraph conclusion that supports your thesis.

A Sample DBQ

Let’s look at a question similar to the one you might see on the AP European History Exam and see how you could approach it.

Question: Evaluate the extent to which attitudes changed regarding the natural world between 1550 and 1700.

Document 1

Source: Giambattista della Porta, Natural Magick, 1584.

“There are two sorts of Magick, the one is infamous, and unhappy, because it has to do with foul spirits and consists of incantations and wicked curiosity; and this is called sorcery. . . . The other Magick is natural; which all excellent, wise men do admit and embrace, and worship with great applause; neither is there anything more highly esteemed, or better thought of, by men of learning. . . . Others have named it the practical part of natural philosophy, which produces her effects by the mutual and fit application of one natural thing to another. Magick is nothing else but the survey of the whole course of nature.”

Document 2

Source: Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany,” 1615.

“[Copernicus] stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions, and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily on sense experiences and very exact observations. . . . I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations. . . . Nature . . . is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.”

Document 3

Source: Robert Bellarmine, “Letter on Galileo’s Theories,” 1615.

“For to say that, assuming the earth moves and the sun stands still, all the appearances are saved better than with eccentrics and epicycles, is to speak well; there is no danger in this, and it is sufficient for mathematicians. But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens . . . is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scripture false.”

Document 4

Source: Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620.

“There are two ways, and can only be two, of seeking and finding truth. The one, from sense and reason, takes a flight to the most general axioms, and from these principles and their truth, settled once for all, invents and judges of all intermediate axioms. The other method collects axioms from sense and particulars, ascending continuously and by degrees so that in the end it arrives at the most general axioms. This latter is the only true one, but never hitherto tried.”

Document 5

Source: William Harvey, On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, 1628.

“The heart, it is vulgarly said, is the fountain and workshop of the vital spirits, the centre from which life is dispensed to the several parts of the body. Yet it is denied that the right ventricle makes spirits, which is rather held to supply the nourishment to the lungs . . . . Why, I ask, when we see that the structure of both ventricles is almost identical, there being the same apparatus of fibres, and braces, and valves, and vessels, and auricles, and both in the same way in our dissections are found to be filled up with blood similarly black in colour, and coagulated—why, I say, should their uses be imagined to be different, when the action, motion, and pulse of both are the same?”

Document 6

Source: Johannes Agricola, Treatise on Gold, 1638.

“All true chymists and philosophers write that common corporeal gold is of not much use in man’s body if it is only ingested as such, for no metallic body can be of use if it is not previously dissolved and reduced to the prima materia. We have an example in corals. The virtue of corals is not in the stone or the body but in their red color. If the corals are to release their power, a separation must first occur through a dissolution, and the redness must be separated from the body. . . . Consequently, whoever wants to do something useful in medicine must see to it that he first dissolve and open his metallic body, then extract its soul and essence, and the work will then not result in no fruit.”

Document 7

Source: Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica, 1687.

“Rule I. We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.

“Rule II. Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.

“Rule III. The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intension nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed as universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.”

Getting Started

Remember the first step to a history essay of high quality adapted to the DBQ:

Step 1. As you read the documents, determine what they have in common and how you can group them.

For this question, the documents display a wide array of positions, so a good strategy would be to try to identify a central dividing issue. In these documents, you can notice that some seem to take some sort of position on the senses and observation; some believe that all knowledge of nature must start with direct sense experience, whereas others argue that starting with sense experience is a mistake. Focus your essay on that central divide and then see if you can form a few groups based on the similarities and differences between the approaches used in these pieces.

Creating the Outline for the DBQ

Recall that the next steps in creating your essay in response to the DBQ include the following:

Step 2. Compose a thesis that explains how these documents are linked in the way you have chosen and plan topics for context.

Step 3. Compose your topic sentences and make sure that they add up logically to your thesis.

Step 4. Support and illustrate your thesis with specific examples that contextualize the documents.

An outline for your essay in response to this DBQ could look like this:

Context: Reformation, questioning institutions of power like the church, Scientific Revolution.

Thesis: Although the churches’ views on the natural world during 1550—1700 experienced consistency, ultimately attitudes changed immensely as the reliability of sense experience was deeply altered.

Topic Sentence A: Documents 1 and 6 illustrate the faith in direct, trial-and-error experience that developed in the “alchemy” and “natural magic” traditions.

Specific Examples: della Porta places emphasis on “practical application”; Agricola places emphasis emphasis on handling the materials, making “dissolutions” and “combinations,” and recording results carefully

Topic Sentence B: Documents 4 and 5 illustrate the emphasis on observation as the correct starting place for knowledge of the natural world.

Specific Examples: Bacon outlines two approaches and argues for the superiority of the one that begins with observed particulars; Harvey illustrates how the method should work.

Topic Sentence C: Documents 2 and 7 refine the process to include the goal of finding general laws.

Specific Examples: Galileo discusses sense experiences and very exact observations. Begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense experiences and necessary demonstrations. Nature never transgresses the laws imposed upon her. Newton codifies the approach into “rules.”

Topic Sentence D: Document 3 dissents from the view that sense experience is a valid foundation for knowledge of the natural world.

Specific Examples: Bellarmine discusses the dangers of contradicting scholastic and church authority.

Notice that document 3 is an outlier, but can be used to establish that there was both change and continuity in attitudes at the time. Remember if you run short on time, you need a minimum of six documents, which may mean that you choose to cut the paragraph where you would address this part of the argument. Now you are ready to write your essay based on this outline. If you have time, you can go on to step 5, but remember a conclusion isn’t actually necessary. Here’s a sample topic sentence for a short concluding paragraph:

Conclusion: The variety of attitudes and positions regarding knowledge about the natural world depended upon the amount of faith one put in the reliability of sense experience.

Scoring the Document-Based Question (DBQ)

The scoring of the DBQ is done using a seven-point analytical rubric. This means that you must successfully complete distinct aspects of a response for the correlating point. This is important to keep in mind, as you can write an essay that is technically sound, but leaves out important points that need to be acquired to score well on the DBQ. Below I will discuss the different categories of the rubric. It is important to keep in mind that the readers will not give partial points on the exam and therefore you will either receive the point or not. So you will want to keep an eye on the requirements that the analytical rubric outlines for the DBQ.

The Rubric

Thesis (1 point): The thesis must be a historically defensible claim that answers the prompt provided.

Contextualization (1 point): The context must provide a broader historical background relevant to the question that is being asked.

Evidence from Documents (0—2 points): You can earn one point for the successful use of content from THREE of the documents to address the topic of the prompt.

You can earn a second point for supporting your argument in response to the prompt by using a minimum of SIX of the documents.

Evidence Beyond the Documents (1 point): Use a minimum of ONE additional piece of historical evidence that is relevant to an argument about the prompt. This must be something not provided to you in the documents and cannot be something that you addressed when doing contextualization.

Analysis and Reasoning (0—2 points): One point can be earned for explaining how at least THREE documents’ point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to an argument. This point must be earned outside of points from evidence. You will also need to make sure you go beyond merely identifying the above and explain how or why it is relevant to your argument.

Complexity: The final point is earned by demonstrating that the writer, that’s you, has a nuanced understanding of the historical events and how they connect. You will need to understand that history lives in the gray; for example, when the prompt asks for similarities, it is valid to mention differences additionally as both were likely present. Your job is to determine which was more significant so you still make a defensible claim.

These are the seven points that can be earned on the DBQ. You will want an idea of what these are as you write so you can ensure that you have attempted them throughout your essay. Use your outline to determine where you can fit in the additional points required of you on the rubric.

Further Practice for the Document-Based Question (DBQ)

To practice creating an outline and writing a response to a DBQ question, you can use the Practice Exams provided in Step 5 of this book. Give yourself 60 minutes to create your essay for the DBQ. Then compare your work to the answer and explanation provided. To gain more practice responding to a DBQ, go to the College Board website (www.collegeboard.org).