How to Prepare and Write a DBQ
The DBQ is probably the most dreaded task required in an AP History and/or Humanities course. Honors students' older friends are harbingers of doom, bringing word of the almost unspeakable terror that is a Document-Based Question. I have seen many friends panic during their first experience with this "grade destroyer." Unfortunately, to burst everyone's bubble I must say: DON'T PANIC. DBQs are easily mastered by the new AP student, all it takes is some practice and a dose of common sense.
Preparing for the DBQ
(note: Chances are, you will have to write DBQs throughout your AP career, not just on the AP test that ends the course. This advice is mainly for DBQs on normal tests, though it's easy to modify it to fit the AP test: just allot yourself more time and realize that you won't have the topic beforehand.)
The night before the DBQ, review the material being tested. It's a good idea to have a "history-buddy" in your class with whom you can prepare the essay with. If the topic isn't given, think of possible questions that could be asked. After all, there are only so many things that happened during the Civil War! Questions are also usually Ap-ified; they usually ask the writer to "analyze the significance of" or tell "to what extent" a statement is true and are aimed at qualified responses. Saying that something is almost true is better than saying that something is true in all instances. Also prepare conflicting evidence to your thesis and decide how to incorporate it into your essay.
When You Get the Essay
First, before you do anything, read the question in its entirety; don't jump ahead and think you know the question. Decide what type of response the question warrants; is a comparison more useful than a change-over-time analysis? Furthermore, take note of the time period given. Focus your answer on the time period, addressing events before and after the given timeframe only serves to waste you time and lose you points.
Reading Through the Documents
Now, to add the "D" to the DBQ. Carefully read through all of the documents. Take note of the tags accompanying each document; they tell the time and source of it and are critical in change-over-time essays. Jot down a couple of notes about each document and its significance to the topic. At this point, you should begin to develop and solidify an idea for your thesis. This whole process should take about 15 minutes (note: on the AP test, this time is blocked in and mandated for all test takers).
Formulating a Thesis
Using your outside knowledge of the subject combined with information you gleaned from the documents, begin writing a thesis. Like I mentioned before, qualified is better than absolute; see the gray, not just the black and white. Conflicting evidence is also extremely important. Pick a valid objection to your thesis and address it in your essay with an explanation of why that argument is inferior to yours.
Writing the Essay
Now, it's time to put together all of the steps so far and create the finished product. The key here is weaving the information the documents provide with the information you already know into one seamless and whole. Try to utilize at least 5 out of the 8 documents in your essay. Another key is analysis. It's not enough to retell what occurred in the time period given; the people grading the test know their material! Instead, refer to the relevant events and spend most of your time analyzing them and their significance. Analytical skills are one of the things the DBQ is meant to test.
Several final hints. First, don't directly quote from the documents that you use or cite them in any way. Your audience is familiar with the documents and doesn't need you to read them back. Plus, it allows the grader to draw his/her own conclusions about the documents you utilized; he/she may very well think that you used documents that you didn't intentionally incorparate in. Along the same vein, outside knowledge is incredibly important when writing a DBQ. Chances are, if you know your material well enough, you will cover the themes presented in all of the documents in the natural course of analyzing your outside knowledge. Finally, relax! Don't sweat writing this relatively easy essay. With a little preparation and forethought, you'll do fine!