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3 Ways to Tackle AP European History DBQs | 2

3 Ways to Tackle AP European History DBQs

Every AP European History student struggles with the DBQ section of the exam. This is a simple reality of the AP coursework. Despite this, the DBQ section of the exam is not impossible to conquer.

If you are feeling a little anxious about your DBQ skills, don’t worry. There have been scores of students that came before you, and many of them have succeeded in acing their exams. That’s why we’ve created this AP Euro review—to let you in on the best 3 Ways to Tackle the AP European History DBQ.

These three methods to approaching the most daunting section of the AP Euro exam have been used by AP students throughout the years and they are the most successful techniques around.

Let’s get started!

What is the AP Euro DBQ?

The DBQ has been seen as the bane of the AP Euro student’s existence. The more you work on it, however, the less mystical the whole DBQ section of the exam seems. So, make sure you allot serious study time out of your day just for the DBQ section of the exam.

Before we go straight into the 3 Ways to Tackle the AP Euro DBQ, we wanted to get the nuts and bolts out of the way.

Like we stated above, the DBQ, which stands for Document-Based Question, is arguably the most difficult part of the AP Europe Exam. You will have 55 minutes to answer a single question. Your answer is going to revolve around 6 to 7 primary-source documents that range between photographs, letters, legal cases, etc.

Unlike the multiple-choice section of the exam, however, the answer you provide is going to have to be in a concise essay format with a thesis that covers nearly every single document. The point of the DBQ is for you to show that you understand the complexities of the historical narrative being discussed. That means structure and argumentation matter nearly as much as the evidence you use.

The first thing you’ll need to do is look through the CollegeBoard Website and the AP European History Course and Exam Description for information on how the DBQ is structured and the expectations that the CollegeBoard has for students taking the AP Euro exam.

Once you’ve gotten a good feel for how this part of the exam works, read over the CollegeBoard’s DBQ rubric. You’ll notice that the DBQ is broken down into these four sections:

Thesis and Argument Development

1 Point. Presents a thesis that makes a historically defensible claim and responds to all parts of the question. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion.

1 Point. Develops and supports a cohesive argument that recognizes and accounts for historical complexity by explicitly illustrating relationships among historical evidence such as contradiction, corroboration, and/or qualification. 

Document Analysis

1 Point. Utilizes the content of at least six of the documents to support the stated thesis or a relevant argument.

1 Point. Explains the significance of the author’s point of view, author’s purpose, historical context, and/or audience for at least four of the documents

Using Evidence Beyond the Documents

1 Point. (Contextualization)

Situates the argument by explaining the broader historical events, developments, or processes immediately relevant to the questions.

1 Point. (Evidence beyond the Documents)

Provides an example or additional piece of specific evidence beyond those found in the documents to support or qualify the argument.


1 Point. Extends the argument by explaining the connections between the argument and ONE of the following:

A) A development in a different historical period, situation, era, or geographical area.

B) A course theme and/or approach to history that is not the focus of the essay (such as political, economic, social, cultural, or intellectual history).

C) A different discipline or field of inquiry (such as economics, government and politics, art history, or anthropology).

No matter how you decide to tackle the DBQ section of the exam, you will need to make sure that you nail each of these requirements in order to ace this section of the exam.

Each of our 3 Ways to Tackle the AP European History DBQ takes these requirements into consideration, providing you with the best routes to achieving that perfect score. Try all of these ways to approach the DBQ out when you study, but use whichever method that works best for you when it comes to exam time. They are all tried and true techniques and each will definitely work with whatever learning style you prefer.

3 Ways to Tackle the AP European History DBQ

1. The Standard 5

At this point in your intellectual endeavors, you’ve probably come across the standard five-paragraph essay. This is the true blue method of essay writing that primary school teachers typically use when first introducing students to essay writing. However, there’s some magic in its simplicity.

Five Paragraph essays are easy to follow, they tend to flow logically while staying on point, and they are the perfect tool for timed essays like the AP exam.

According to the five-paragraph format, essays should be broken down according to this structure:

1. Introduction

2. Supporting Evidence 1

3. Supporting Evidence 2

4. Supporting Evidence 3

5. Conclusion

First, the introductory paragraph. This paragraph does so much more than introduce the topic. This is where the crux of your argument lies, i.e. your thesis. Your thesis is what holds the entire essay together. But it is also where you show off your understanding of historical complexity and knowledge of the topic. Think of the thesis as the glue that holds your entire essay together; without it, your ideas begin to unravel.

The middle three paragraphs contain all of the supporting information that backs up the claims you make in your thesis. In other words, this is where you discuss the documents.

The difficulty of the five-paragraph format can be found in these paragraphs. Since the DBQ section of the AP exam typically asks you to analyze 6 to 7 primary-source documents, you are going to have to lump them into three categories. Lucky for you, history is commonly broken into categories.

For these overarching categories, you need to think along the lines of the course themes that you read about in the AP European History Course and Exam Description. For example, you could have a paragraph that discusses the role of economics (Theme 4), one that centers on a discussion of class (Theme 2), etc.

No matter what categories you choose, you need to make sure that each paragraph connects directly with your overarching thesis. The conclusion also acts as a perfect spot for you to reiterate the ways that your three themes in your body paragraphs fully support that argument that you’ve made in the thesis.

2. The Grouping Plan

Another tried and true method of AP European DBQ success centers on grouping the documents together before you write out the essay.

Unlike the process that takes place during the five-paragraph essay outlining, the grouping plan places the center of attention on the documents. Once you’ve figured out how to put the documents into a relationship with one another, you create a thesis around those groupings.

Let’s take a look at the DBQ prompt from the 2016 AP Euro Exam:

“Evaluate whether the policies of Otto von Bismarck’s government represented traditional conservatism or a new kind of conservatism in nineteenth-century Europe.”

As with any AP DBQ, once you’ve read over the requirements you’ll want to read through the documents. When reading the documents, take notes on their qualities.

You’ll notice, for example, that Document 7 represents a criticism of von Bismarck for being too leftist (i.e., socialist) in his policies. Similarly, Document 2 was written by a socialist who thought that von Bismarck was too conservative. Document 5 also shows how von Bismarck’s negotiated the demands of socialists with those of conservatives by emphasizing the ways that working-class benefits were used to help get anti-socialist laws passed in the legislature.

With these perspectives in mind, these three documents could be grouped together as representations of the ways that von Bismarck used his ideas about Realpolitik to create a new form of conservatism: one that combined socialist policies but remained politically conservative.

Some documents overlap in theme as well. Document 5, for example, represents both socialism and legal reform in von Bismarck’s political career. Because of this, Document 5 can be used alongside Documents 1 and 6 under the subject of legal reform ad freedoms.

Once you’ve grouped your documents together according to their similarities and/or differences, a thesis can be constructed.

According to the CollegeBoard, an appropriate thesis for this DBQ would be,

“Essentially, von Bismarck’s government policies represented a new kind of conservatism in nineteenth-century Europe in which he valued traditional ways but also pushed for open-minded, idealistic reforms that were aligned with socialism and helped the nation as a whole.”

A thesis such as this can be constructed perfectly through the grouping plan that we have just covered. Once the thesis has been hammered out, you can commence writing the rest of the essay with your argument, paragraph groupings, etc. ready and well-thought out

3. The Time Traveler

The final example of the 3 Ways to Tackle the AP Europe History DBQ is the most straightforward one: go in chronological order.

Some DBQs will ask you to think about a time period that extends over a century, perhaps even longer. This DBQ from the 2012 AP Euro Exam represents this type of question perfectly:

“Analyze various arguments that emerged over the course of the nineteenth century about how to improve the lives of European workers.”

Note: This DBQ was written before changes in the AP European History course became effective for the 2016 exam. When you are using previous exam questions in your studies, make sure that you are all caught up on the rules and expectations for this year’s exam by reading the AP European History Course and Exam Description.

If you’re lucky, the documents will even follow in chronological order just like the 2012 DBQ. The way to best approach this method would be to think about how each document represents change over time.

The 2012 DBQ documents begin with the words of an English economist, who argued that social class has no relationship with government. By Document 6, however, we see the words of Karl Marx who argued that politics, economics, and historical change were all interrelated. By the last document, we see evidence that socialism became a viable political party in France by the end of the 19th century.

Your job as the essay writer would be to use the evidence provided in these document to explain how and why these shifts occurred over time.

No matter your thesis, there is a clear historical narrative here about the changing views of economics, politics, history, and social change over a period of about 100 years. This type of chronological historical narrative may not be the perfect fit for every type of DBQ asked, but if you come across one that’s similar to the 2012 exam you can’t go wrong with this essay style.

Don’t Limit Yourself!

Our final piece of advice would be to not limit yourself in your AP Euro studies. You’re going to want to practice all three of these essay-writing methods and become proficient in each one. That way, you’ve got an arsenal of essay-writing styles to use to your advantage when it comes to test day.

We have covered 3 Ways to Tackle the AP European History DBQ in this AP Euro review. Each are tried and true approaches to the AP Euro DBQs.

Which ways to tackle the AP Euro DBQ have worked best for you?

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Let’s put everything into practice. Try this AP European History practice question:

Bismarck-AP European History Practice Question

Looking for more AP European History practice?

Check out our other articles on AP European History.

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