How to Answer Document Based Questions for AP Tests

Document-based questions are often employed in various kinds of tests and examinations in the parts of the world where they apply to educational systems. DBQ questions, also known as data based questions, rely on authoritative texts and test the student's general ability to understand and evaluate source documents, and to craft a well-supported and coherent response. For students who may be facing these kinds of questions on the test, here are some of the top strategies to answer DBQ questions and score well on this portion of an academic exam.


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    Understand the context for DBQ questions. These questions briefly come up in AP exams and related high-level academic testing. Knowing when to anticipate these kinds of questions will help you deal with them as they arise.
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    Figure out how to use primary and secondary source documents. In some kinds of tests, only primary documents will be included for DBQ questions. Others may include the use of secondary source documents.
    • Ask questions in class and learn about how to use secondary source documents. When you have to prioritize sources, this task can often be confusing. Having some upfront knowledge about how to order various levels of source material can help you with more complex DBQ questions.
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    Use text and visuals. Some types of DBQ questions will rely not just on text, but also on some visuals included in the test packet. Having familiar knowledge of what will show up in source documents can also help you on test day.
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    Analyze source documents. DBQ questions measure specific skills that you will use later in life. Bring these skills to the table when dealing with these question formats.
    • Make good use of comparisons and analogies. In some kinds of academic tests, the goal is to employ good comparisons in addressing or responding to text cues. Look for effective analogies and draw lines between congruent ideas to score well.
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    Create and support a position as necessary. In some kinds of DBQ questions, another goal is to argue one side of a situation or support one point of view. Even though experts recommend seeing the source material from various points of view, you may be able to benefit from boiling down the material into one supportable stance.
    • Create a thesis statement. The thesis statement will effectively state your position for the response. This is the most important part because it provides a brief sentence(s) on what you are about to write. A strong essay will most likely have a strong thesis, and vice versa.
    • Support the thesis statement with well-ordered examples or ideas. Part of going beyond the basics with DBQ questions is being able to draw out supporting ideas for a general thesis statement from wherever they are within the text. Follow this strategy and employ it in either essay questions or a series of short-answer questions as the test develops them.
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    Provide insight on most of these documents. The AP essay readers are not looking for a summary of each documents. They want to know if you can use the information provided in the documents and use analysis with critical thinking, and tie it in with other documents.
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    Cite from the documents. Back up your details with document references. Make sure to include the document number at the end in parenthesis.
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    Include an additional document for the "missing voice." In other words, what point of view is missing from these documents? If all the documents are from high-class aristocrats, could the missing voice be the common people's perspective? If all the documents are written or said by men, the missing voice may be women's point of views. Explain why it would be beneficial to the reader. Something as simple as this will earn you a point.
    • Make the transition to the body of the essay by citing the additional document: "To better understand how these documents relate to each other, a document about x would be useful because..."
    • The rubric for this type of essay only asks for one additional document, but AP essay readers are really looking for TWO additional documents; the more the merrier. Simply include one more viewpoint.
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    Mention other historical information that's not on the documents.
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    If you know this event took place during World War II, include it! This will show the AP essay readers that you know your history background, which is a big plus for you.
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    Remember that your essay needs more outside evidence than inside evidence. For example if the document is about the Great Depression, you may want to include information on the TVA, Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration etc. Remember to analyze and not state facts.


  • The essay should be a minimum of 4 to 6 paragraphs: Opening (thesis), Body, Body, Body, Closing.
  • Write down notes and ideas, and make a brief outline. The more work you do before you write, the neater and more organized your essay will be.
  • Use transitional words and trigger words to highlight important points.
  • Analyze and group the documents in at least two (preferably three) ways. Do NOT simply summarize the documents individually.
  • A good opening can be like, "After reviewing these documents, it is clear that..."
  • Watch your time. Spending too much time on this essay (usually written first) could mean running out of time on the last essay.
  • Write neatly. An essay that cannot be read will not receive a good score.
  • Rephrase the question as an answer; include all key phrases.
  • Overall, determine how they relate to each other, what changes can be seen over time, how the author's background may have influenced the contents of the document, and so on.
  • Use ALL of the documents.


  • Avoid spelling mistakes and errors. Although grammar and spelling errors would not deduct points, poor spelling can cast a shadow on the rest of your essay. Instead, choose another word.

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Categories: Advanced Placement Courses and Exams