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Ap English Language Synthesis Essay Example 9

With the 2016 AP English Language and Composition exam approaching on Wednesday, May 11, it’s time to make sure that you’re familiar with all aspects of the exam. In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the test, do a deeper dive on each of the sections, discuss how the exam is scored, offer some strategies for studying, and finally wrap up with some essential exam day tips.

 

Exam Overview

The AP Language and Composition exam tests your rhetorical skills. Essentially, how do authors construct effective arguments in their writing? What tools do they use? How can you use those tools to craft effective writing yourself? That is the essence of rhetorical analysis.

The exam has two parts: the first section is an hour-long, 52-55 question multiple-choice section that asks you questions on the rhetorical construction and techniques of a series of nonfiction passages.

The second section is free response. It starts with a 15-minute reading period, and then you’ll have 120 minutes to write three analytical essays: one synthesizing several provided texts to create an argument, one analyzing a nonfiction passage for its rhetorical construction, and one creating an original argument in response to a prompt. You will have about 40 minutes to write each essay, but no one will prompt you to move from essay to essay—you can structure the 120 minutes as you wish.

In the next sections I’ll go over each section of the exam more closely—first multiple choice, and then free response.

 

The AP English Language and Composition Multiple-Choice

The multiple-choice section is primarily focused on how well you can read and understand nonfiction passages for their use of rhetorical devices and tools. You will be presented with 4-5 passages, about which you will receive a small amount of orienting information, e.g. “This passage is excerpted from a collection of essays on boating” or “This passage is excerpted from an essay written in 19th-century Haiti.” You will be asked somewhere from 10-15 questions per passage.

There are, in general, eight question types you can expect to encounter on the multiple-choice section of the exam. I’ve taken my examples from the sample questions in the “Course and Exam Description.” 

 

Magic eight-ball says there are eight types of multiple-choice questions!

 

Type 1: Reading Comprehension

These questions are focused on verifying that you understood what a certain part of the passage was saying on a concrete, literal level. You can identify these questions from phrases like “according to” “refers,” etc. The best way to succeed on these questions is to go back and re-read the part of the passage referred to very carefully.

Example:

 

Type 2: Implication

These questions take reading comprehension one step further—they are primarily focused on what the author is implying without directly coming out and saying it. These questions will have a correct answer, though, based on evidence from the passage. Which interpretation offered in the answers does the passage most support? You can identify questions like these from words like “best supported,” ‘“implies,” “suggests,” “inferred,” and so on.

Example:

 

Type 3: Overall Passage and Author Questions

These questions ask about overall elements of the passage or the author, such as the author’s attitude on the issue discussed, the purpose of the passage, the passage’s overarching style, the audience for the passage, and so on. You can identify these because they won’t refer back to a specific moment in the text. For these questions, you’ll need to think of the passage from a “bird’s-eye view” and consider what all of the small details together are combining to say.

Example:

 

Type 4: Relationships Between Parts of the Text

Some questions will ask you to describe the relationshipbetween two parts of the text, whether they are paragraphs or specific lines. You can identify these because they will usually explicitly ask about the relationship between two identified parts of the text, although sometimes they will instead ask about a relationship implicitly, by saying something like “compared to the rest of the passage.”

Example:

 

Type 5: Interpretation of Imagery/Figurative Language

These questions will ask you about the deeper meaning or implication of figurative language or imagery that is used in the text. Essentially, why did the author choose to use this simile or this metaphor? What is s/he trying to accomplish? You can generally identify questions like this because the question will specifically reference a moment of figurative language in the text. However, it might not be immediately apparent that the phrase being referenced is figurative, so you may need to go back and look at it in the passage to be sure of what kind of question you are facing.

Example:

 

Type 6: Purpose of Part of the Text

Still other questions will ask you to identify what purpose a particular part of the text serves in the author’s larger argument. What is the author trying to accomplish with the particular moment in the text identified in the question? You can identify these questions because they will generally explicitly ask what purpose a certain part of the text serves. You may also see words or phrases like “serves to” or “function.”

Example:

 

Type 7: Rhetorical Strategy

These questions will ask you to identify a rhetorical strategy used by the author. They will often specifically use the phrase “rhetorical strategy,” although sometimes you will be able to identify them instead through the answer choices, which offer different rhetorical strategies as possibilities. 

Example:

 

 

Type 8: Style and Effect

Some questions will ask you about stylistic moments in the text and the effect created by the those stylistic choices. What is the author evoking through their stylistic choices? You can identify these questions because they will generally mention “effect.”

Example:

Some very important stylish effects going on here.

 

The AP English Language and Composition Free Response

The free response section has a 15-minute reading period. After that time, you will have 120 minutes to write three essays that address three distinct tasks. Because the first essay involves reading sources, it is suggested that you use the entire 15-minute reading period to read the sources and plan the first essay. However, you may want to glance at the other questions during the reading period so that ideas can percolate in the back of your mind as you work on the first essay.


Essay One: Synthesis

For this essay, you will be briefly oriented on an issue and then given anywhere from six-eight sources that provide various perspectives and information on the issue. You will then need to write an argumentative essay with support from the documents. If this sounds a lot like a DBQ, as on the history AP exams, that’s because it is! However, this essay is much more argumentative in nature—your goal is to persuade, not merely interpret the documents.

Example (documents not included, see 2015 free response questions):

 

Essay Two: Rhetorical Analysis

In the second essay, you’ll be presented with an excerpt from a nonfiction piece that advances an argument and asked to write an essay analyzing the rhetorical strategies used to construct the passage’s argument. You will also be given some orienting information—where the passage was excerpted from, who wrote it, its approximate date, where it was published (if at all), and to whom it was directed.

Example (excerpt not included, see 2015 free response questions):

 

Essay Three: Argument

In the third essay, you will be presented with an issue and asked to write a persuasive essay taking a position on the issue. You will need to support your position with evidence from your “reading, experience, and observations.”

Example (from 2015 free response questions):

This doesn't look like a very well-constructed argument.

 

How The AP Language and Composition Exam Is Scored

The multiple-choice section of the exam is worth 45% of your score, and the free-response section is worth the other 55%. So each of the three free-response essays is worth about 18% of your score.

As on other APs, your raw score will be converted to a scaled score of 1-5. This exam has a relatively low 5 rate. Only 9.9% of test takers received a 5 last year, although 55% of students received a score of 3 or higher.

In terms of how the raw score is obtained, the multiple-choice section is similar to other AP multiple-choice sections: you receive a point for every question you answer correctly, and there is no penalty for guessing.

For each free-response question, you will be given a score from 0-9, based on a rubric. The rubrics all assess, in general, 3 major things: 

  1. How well you responded to the prompt: Did you completely and fully address all of the tasks presented in the prompt, without misunderstanding any of them?

  2. How convincing and well-supported your argument was: Do you take a clear position that is not overly basic, simplistic, or obvious? Can you comprehensively support your position with evidence? Is your evidence well-chosen and well-explained? Do you tie everything back to your main argument? Have you thought through the implications of your stated position?

  3. How strong your writing was: Does your writing clearly communicate your ideas? Are your sentences not just grammatically correct, but sophisticated? Do you have a consistent style and a strong vocabulary? Is your paper well-organized and logically arranged?

Each rubric broadly assesses these three factors. However, each task is also different in nature, so the rubrics do have some differences. I’ll go over each rubric—and what it really means—for you here.



Synthesis Essay Rubric

Score

What the Rubric Says

What This Means

9

Essays earning a score of 9 meet the criteria for the score of 8 and, in addition, are especially sophisticated in their argument, thorough in development, or impressive in their control of language.

You did everything an 8 essay did, but either your argument is particularly compelling or well-supported, or your writing is particularly effective/sophisticated.

8

Essays earning a score of 8 effectively address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by effectively synthesizing at least three of the sources. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and convincing. The prose demonstrates a consistent ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but is not necessarily flawless.

You thoroughly responded to the prompt, successfully using (and citing) at least three of the sources to support your argument. You supported your argument in a persuasive way.  Your writing is competent, although there may be some minor errors.

7

Essays earning a score of 7 meet the criteria for the score of 6 but provide more complete explanation, more thorough development, or a more mature prose style.

Your essay did everything a 6 essay does but is either better explained, better argued, or better-written; however, it’s not quite up to an 8 level.

6

Essays earning a score of 6 adequately address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by adequately synthesizing at least three of the sources. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and sufficient. The language may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but generally the prose is clear.

You responded to the prompt in a reasonable way. You used and cited at least 3 of the sources in creating your argument. You supported your argument in a reasonably persuasive way, although not as compellingly as an 8 essay. Your writing is generally understandable.

5

Essays earning a score of 5 address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by synthesizing at least three sources, but how they use and explain sources is somewhat uneven, inconsistent, or limited. The writer’s argument is generally clear, and the sources generally develop the writer’s position, but the links between the sources and the argument may be strained. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but it usually conveys the student’s ideas.

You did respond to the prompt. You used and cited at least 3 of the sources in creating your argument, but you did not use all of them particularly effectively. The connection between the documents and your argument is underdeveloped. Your writing is mostly understandable but may have errors.

4

Essays earning a score of 4 inadequately address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by synthesizing at least two sources, but the evidence or explanations used may be inappropriate, insufficient, or unconvincing. The sources may dominate the essay’s attempts at development, the link between the argument and the sources may be weak, or the student may misunderstand, misrepresent, or oversimplify the sources. The prose generally conveys the student’s ideas but may be inconsistent in controlling the elements of effective writing.

You did not adequately respond to the prompt. You used and cited at least two sources, but you did not effectively link them to your argument. Your essay may summarize sources instead of truly taking a position, or you may have misread the sources. Your writing is not consistently clear.

3

Essays earning a score of 3 meet the criteria for the score of 4 but demonstrate less success in addressing the task. They are less perceptive in their understanding of the sources, or their explanation or examples may be particularly limited or simplistic. The essays may show less maturity in their control of writing.

Your essay did not adequately respond to the prompt. Your interpretation of the sources is incorrect or your argument is overly simplistic. Your writing is overly basic or unclear.

2

Essays earning a score of demonstrate little success in addressing the task in the prompt. They may merely allude to knowledge gained from reading the sources rather than cite the sources themselves. These essays may misread the sources, fail to develop a position, or substitute a simpler task by merely summarizing or categorizing the sources or by merely responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation. Essays that score 2 often demonstrate consistent weaknesses in writing, such as grammatical problems, a lack of development or organization, or a lack of control.

You barely addressed the prompt. You may not cite any sources directly, misunderstand the sources, never take a position, or write things that are not relevant to the prompt. Writing is very weak, including grammatical issues.

1

Essays earning a score of 1 meet the criteria for the score of 2 but are undeveloped, especially simplistic in their explanation, weak in their control of writing, or do not allude to or cite even one source

Your writing barely addressed the prompt. Explanations are extremely simple, writing is incredibly weak, or sources are not used or cited at all.

0

Indicates an off-topic response, one that merely repeats the prompt, an entirely crossed-out response, a drawing, or a response in a language other than English.

You made no attempt to respond to the prompt.

-

Indicates an entirely blank response

You didn’t write anything!

 

Time to synthesize this dough into some cookies.



Rhetorical Analysis Essay Rubric

Score

What the Rubric Says

What This Means

9

Essays earning a score of 9 meet the criteria for the score of 8 and, in addition, are especially sophisticated in their argument, thorough in their development, or impressive in their control of language.

You achieved everything an 8 essay did, but the quality of either your argument or your writing is exceptional.

8

Essays earning a score of 8 effectively analyze the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. They develop their analysis with evidence and explanations that are appropriate and convincing, referring to the passage explicitly or implicitly. The prose demonstrates a consistent ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but is not necessarily flawless.

You successfully and persuasively analyzed the rhetoric of the excerpt in a way that is strongly supported by specific examples in the text. Your writing is versatile and strong.

7

Essays earning a score of 7 meet the criteria for the score of 6 but provide more complete explanation, more thorough development, or a more mature prose style.

You achieved everything a 6 essay did, but your argument was either better explained or supported or your writing was of a higher caliber.

6

Essays earning a score of 6 adequately analyze the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. They develop their analysis with evidence and explanations that are appropriate and sufficient, referring to the passage explicitly or implicitly. The essay may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but generally the prose is clear.

You successfully analyzed the rhetoric of the excerpt, using appropriate references to the text. Your writing was generally understandable.  

5

Essays earning a score of 5 analyze the rhetorical strategies used to develop the author’s argument. The evidence or explanations used may be uneven, inconsistent, or limited. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but it usually conveys the student’s ideas.

You analyzed the rhetoric of the excerpt, although evidence from the passage may have been poorly used or deployed. Your writing is mostly understandable but may have errors.

4

Essays earning a score of 4 inadequately analyze the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. These essays may misunderstand the passage, misrepresent the strategies the author uses, or may analyze these strategies insufficiently. The evidence or explanations used may be inappropriate, insufficient, or unconvincing. The prose generally conveys the student’s ideas but may be inconsistent in controlling the elements of effective writing.

You did not analyze the rhetoric in the passage in a reasonable way. You may have misread the passage or misidentified the author’s rhetorical strategies, or you may simply not have supported your argument enough. Textual evidence may not be appropriate to the task at hand. Your writing is not consistently clear.

3

Essays earning a score of 3 meet the criteria for the score of 4 but demonstrate less success in analyzing the rhetorical strategies the author uses to develop his/her argument. They are less perceptive in their understanding of the passage or the author’s strategies, or the explanations or examples may be particularly limited or simplistic. The essays may show less maturity in control of writing.

A 3 essay has similar weaknesses to a 4 essay, but displays less understanding of the passage or the author’s intent. The writing may also be even more inconsistent or basic.

2

Essays earning a score of 2 demonstrate little success in analyzing the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. These essays may misunderstand the prompt, misread the passage, fail to analyze the strategies used, or substitute a simpler task by responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation. The essays often demonstrate consistent weaknesses in writing, such as grammatical problems, a lack of development or organization, or a lack of control.

You barely analyzed the passage. You may have misunderstood the assigned task, seriously misread the passage or the author’s intent, or responded to something other than the prompt. Writing is consistently weak.

1

Essays earning a score of 1 meet the criteria for the score of 2 but are undeveloped, especially simplistic in their explanation, or weak in their control of language.

A 1 essay is has similar weaknesses to a 2 essay, but is even more poorly supported or poorly written.

0

Indicates an off-topic response, one that merely repeats the prompt, an entirely crossed-out response, a drawing, or a response in a language other than English.

You made no attempt to respond to the prompt.

-

Indicates an entirely blank response.

You didn’t write anything!

 

Examine your texts closely!

 


Argumentative Essay Rubric

Score

What the Rubric Says

What This Means

9

Essays earning a score of 9 meet the criteria for the score of 8 and, in addition, are especially sophisticated in their argument, thorough in their development, or particularly impressive in their control of language.

You meet the criteria for an 8, plus you have either a particularly strong argument, strong support, or strong writing.

8

Essays earning a score of 8 effectively develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and convincing, and the argument is especially coherent and well developed. The prose demonstrates a consistent ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but is not necessarily flawless.

You persuasively address the prompt, using strong evidence to support your argument. Your writing is strong but not necessarily perfect.

7

Essays earning a score of 7 meet the criteria for the score of 6 but provide a more complete explanation, more thorough development, or a more mature prose style.

A 7 essay meets the criteria for a 6 essay but is either better-argued, better-supported, or more well-written.

6

Essays earning a score of 6 adequately develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and sufficient, and the argument is coherent and adequately developed. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but generally the prose is clear.

You reasonably address the prompt, using reasonable evidence to support your argument. Your writing is generally good but may have some mistakes.

5

Essays earning a score of 5 develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence or explanations used may be uneven, inconsistent, or limited. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but it usually conveys the student’s ideas.

You do address the prompt, although the support for your argument may be sparse or not wholly convincing. Your writing is usually clear, but not always.

4

Essays earning a score of 4 inadequately develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence or explanations used may be inappropriate, insufficient, or unconvincing. The argument may have lapses in coherence or be inadequately developed. The prose generally conveys the student’s ideas but may be inconsistent in controlling the elements of effective writing.

You do not adequately address the prompt or form a strong argument. Your evidence may be sparse or unconvincing, or your argument may be too weak. Your writing is not consistently clear.

3

Essays earning a score of 3 meet the criteria for the score of 4 but demonstrate less success in developing a position on the issue. The essays may show less maturity in control of writing.

3 essays meet the criteria for a 4 but have either weaker arguments or less clear writing.

2

Essays earning a score of 2 demonstrate little success in developing a position on the issue. These essays may misunderstand the prompt, or substitute a simpler task by responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation. The prose often demonstrates consistent weaknesses in writing, such as grammatical problems, a lack of development or organization, or a lack of coherence and control.

You barely addressed the assigned task. Your essay may misunderstand the prompt. Your evidence may be irrelevant or inaccurate. Your writing is weak on multiple levels.

1

Essays earning a score of 1 meet the criteria for the score of 2 but are undeveloped, especially simplistic in their explanation and argument, weak in their control of language, or especially lacking in coherence.

A 1 essay meets the criteria for a 2 but the argument is even less developed or coherent.

0

Indicates an off-topic response, one that merely repeats the prompt, an entirely crossed-out response, a drawing, or a response in a language other than English.

You made no attempt to respond to the prompt.

-

Indicates an entirely blank response.

You didn’t write anything!


 As you can see, the synthesis rubric is focused on how you used sources, the analysis rubric is focused on how well you analyzed the text, and the argument rubric is focused on the strength of your argumentative writing without outside sources.

Achieving a high score on an AP Lang and Comp essay is no easy feat. The average scores on essays last year were all under 5, with the Synthesis essay at about a 4.7 and the other two at just over 4. So even getting a 7 out of 9 is very impressive!

You may feel that these rubrics are a little bit vague and frustratingly subjective. And, indeed, what separates a 6 from a 7, a 7 from an 8, an 8 from a 9 may not be entirely clear in every case, no matter the pains taken by the College Board to standardize AP essay grading. 

That said, the general principles behind the rubrics—respond to the prompt, build a strong argument, and write well—hold up. If you can write strong essays in the time allotted, you’ll be well on your way to a score of 5 even if your essays got 7s instead of 8s.

So what can you do to prepare yourself for the frenzy of AP English Lit activity?

 

The best kind of frenzy is a puppy frenzy!

 

AP English Language Prep Tips

Unlike its cousin, the AP English Literature and Composition exam, the AP Language and Composition exam (and course) have very little to do with fiction or poetry. So some students used to more traditional English classes may be somewhat at a loss as to what to do to prepare.

Luckily for you, I have a whole slate of preparation tips for you!

 

Read Nonfiction - In a Smart Way

A major thing you can do to prepare for the AP Lang and Comp exam is to read nonfiction—particularlynonfiction that argues a position, whether explicitly (like an op-ed) or implicitly (like many memoirs and personal essays). Read a variety of non-fiction genres and topics, and pay attention to the following:

  • What is the author’s argument?
  • What evidence do they use to support their position?
  • What rhetorical techniques and strategies do they use to build their argument?
  • Are they persuasive? What counterarguments can you identify? Do they address them?

Thinking about these questions with all the reading you do will help you hone your rhetorical analysis skills.

  

Learn Rhetorical Terms and Strategies

Of course, if you’re going to be analyzing the nonfiction works you read for their rhetorical techniques and strategies, you need to know what those are! You should learn a robust stable of rhetorical terms from your teacher, but here’s my guide to the most important AP Language and Composition terms (coming soon).

  • If you want to review, there are many resources you could consult:
  • Another great resource for learning about rhetorical analysis and how rhetorical devices are actually used is the YouTube Channel Teach Argument, which has videos rhetorically analyzing everything from Taylor Swift music videos to Super Bowl commercials. It’s a fun way to think about rhetorical devices and get familiar with argumentative structures.
  • Finally, a great book—which you might already use in your class—is “They Say, I Say.” This book provides an overview of rhetoric specifically for academic purposes, which will serve you well for AP preparation and beyond.

 

Write

You also need to practice argumentative and persuasive writing. In particular, you should practice the writing styles that will be tested on the exam: synthesizing your own argument based on multiple outside sources, rhetorically analyzing another piece of writing in-depth, and creating a completely original argument based on your own evidence and experience.

You should be doing lots of writing assignments in your AP class to prepare, but thoughtful, additional writing will help. You don’t necessarily need to turn all of the practice writing you do into polished pieces, either—just writing for yourself, while trying to address some of these tasks, will give you a low-pressure way to try out different rhetorical structures and argumentative moves, as well as practicing things like organization and developing your own writing style.

 

Not the most auspicious start to an argumentative essay.

  

Practice for the Exam

Finally, you’ll need to practice specifically for the exam format. There are sample multiple-choice questions in the “AP Course and Exam Description,” and old free-response questions on the College Board website.

Unfortunately, the College Board hasn’t officially released any complete exams from previous years for the AP English Language and Composition exam, but you might be able to find some that teachers have uploaded to school websites and so on by Googling “AP Language complete released exams.” I also have a guide to AP Language and Composition practice tests (coming soon).

Once you’re prepped and ready to go, how can you do your best on the test?

  

AP Language and Composition Test Day Tips

Here are four key tips for test-day success.

 

You are one hundred percent success!

 

Interact With the Text

When you are reading passages, both on the multiple-choice section and for the first two free-response questions, interact with the text! Mark it up for things that seem important, devices you notice, the author’s argument, and anything else that seems important to the rhetorical construction of the text. This will help you engage with the text and make it easier to answer questions or write an essay about the passage.

 

Think About Every Text’s Overarching Purpose and Argument

Similarly, with every passage you read, consider the author’s overarching purpose and argument. If you can confidently figure out what the author’s primary assertion is, it will be easier to trace how all of the other aspects of the text play into the author’s main point.

 

Plan Your Essays

The single most important thing you can do for yourself on the free-response section of the AP English Language exam is to spend a few minutes planning and outlining your essays before you start to write them. Unlike on some other exams, where the content is the most important aspect of the essay, on the AP Language Exam, organization, a well-developed argument, and strong evidence are all critical to strong essay scores. An outline will help you with all of these things. You’ll be able to make sure each part of your argument is logical, has sufficient evidence, and that your paragraphs are arranged in a way that is clear and flows well.

 

Anticipate and Address Counterarguments

Another thing you can do to give your free responses an extra boost is to identify counterarguments to your position and address them within your essay. This not only helps shore up your own position, but it's also a fairly sophisticated move in a timed essay that will win you kudos with AP graders.

Address counterarguments properly or they might get returned to sender!

 

Key Takeaways

The AP Language and Composition exam tests your rhetorical skills. The exam has two sections. The first section is an hour-long, 52-55 question multiple-choice test based on the rhetorical techniques and strategies deployed in nonfiction passages. The second section is a two-hour free-response section (with a 15-minute initial reading period) with three essay questions: one where you must synthesize given sources to make an original argument, one where you must rhetorically analyze a given passage, and one where you must create a wholly original argument about an issue with no outside sources given.

You’ll receive one point for every correct answer on the multiple-choice section of the exam, which is worth 45% of your score. The free-response section is worth 55% of your score. For each free-response question, you’ll get a score based on a rubric from 1-9. Your total raw score will be converted to a scaled score from 1-5.

Here are some test prep strategies for AP Lang:

  1. Read nonfiction with an eye for rhetoric
  2. Learn rhetorical strategies and techniques
  3. Practice writing to deploy rhetorical skills
  4. Practice for the exam!
Here are some test-day success tips:
  1. Interact with each passage you encounter!
  2. Consider every text’s overarching purpose and argument.
  3. Keep track of time
  4. Plan your essays
  5. Identify and address counterarguments in your essays.

With all of this knowledge, you’re ready to slay the AP English Language and Composition beast!

 

Noble knight, prepare to slay the AP dragon!

 

What's Next?

Taking the AP Literature exam? Check out our ultimate guide to the AP English Literature test and our list of AP Literature practice tests.

Taking other AP exams? See our Ultimate Guides to AP World History, AP US History, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP World History, and AP Human Geography. 

Need more AP prep guidance? Check out how to study for AP exams and how to find AP practice tests. 

 

The Advanced Placement (AP) English Language course aligns to an introductory college level rhetoric and writing curriculum. The AP English Free Response Questions (FRQ’s) are aimed to evaluate students’ ability to develop evidence-based analytic and argumentative essays that go through several stages, which is especially true of the synthesis FRQ.

The synthesis FRQ gives students six sources with which to form and argue for a position on a topic the test provides. In order to score an 8 on the synthesis FRQ question, students need to write an essay that effectively argues a position, synthesizes at least 3 of the sources, uses appropriate and convincing evidence, and showcases a wide range of the elements of writing. Essays that score a 9 do all of that and demonstrate sophistication in their argument.

So how do you write an essay that does all of that in just 40 minutes? First, take a deep breath. And remember, you don’t have to do it on the fly. Prepare yourself. You are given a 15-minute planning period, so make sure that you use it to read the documents, label them, and ask yourself questions about them. Then, while writing the essay, interact with the sources. Don’t just regurgitate them. Use them to support your arguments and question them.

Use these strategies to calm down, be prepared, and write an essay that will earn you a 9 on the AP English synthesis FRQ.

Read, Carefully, then Label Your Documents.

The AP English test gives you fifteen minutes to read over the documents. Make sure that you use them! Read over the documents carefully, don’t skim them. Fully comprehend them, and try to understand their meaning. A deeper understanding of the documents will help you much more than a few extra minutes of writing time.

It can seem overwhelming to try and carefully read six sources in fifteen minutes. But the creators of the AP English Language test don’t want to overwhelm you. Each source is roughly one page and one of the sources is visual–a graph, chart, or photograph. You have time to carefully read all of the documents that the AP Language synthesis FRQ provides.

After you read each document, it’s a good idea to take a moment to label the documents. Think of the annotations as notes to a friend.

If you had to text your friend right before a test and tell them what this document was about, what would you say? Just write down one sentence or less that explains what the author said. It will help cement your understanding of the source and will help you keep track of all of them.

Here’s an example of a source from the 2014 AP English synthesis FRQ.

As you are reading, circle and underline things that could be helpful to your later, like the words of the honor code in the first paragraph or the 157 students involved in the cheating scandal in the fourth.
But after you have finished reading, write a one-sentence summary near the top of the source. Think of this as your quick-label. For this source, a good example would be a sentence like: “Despite emphasis on not cheating, elite private school caught up in cheating scandal.” The label at the top will help you keep track of the documents. The labels within the documents will help you pull the best evidence to support your arguments. Reading the documents carefully helps you pull out the most important information.

Talk to Yourself. No, Really, it’s a Good Idea.

Before you start writing, craft a thesis. The thesis should be thoughtful and present an argument. One of the best ways to come up with a thesis for the synthesis FRQ, which asks students to formulate an argument, is to come up with several possible positions that you could take.

Then pick one. It can feel a little quick to be asked to form an opinion like that, and some students worry that the argument they come up with from this process won’t be good enough.

Don’t waffle on your opinion. The AP FRQ is designed to evaluate how well students can synthesize documents and use them to support an argument. In other words, there is no right or wrong answer. As long as you can support your opinion with a well-crafted argument, it’s a good opinion. If you find yourself questioning it in the middle of your essay, just remind yourself to not worry about it.

Your thesis needs to be direct and specific. It shouldn’t give the reader any question as to what opinion you have decided to argue for. It should encompass your entire essay in just one sentence.

The 2014 AP English synthesis FRQ asked students to synthesize information from six sources and “incorporate it into a coherent, well-developed argument for your own position on whether your school should establish, maintain, revise, or eliminate an honor code or honor system.” For this question:

Good thesis: My school should eliminate our current honor code because honor codes do not adequately prevent cheating and are often used in place of teaching students the ethical reasons for not cheating, as shown by recent scandals both in and out of school.

This thesis breaks down a chronological argument whose evidence can be drawn from the documents. Just reading the thesis tells you that this student’s essay will a) prove that honor codes do not prevent cheating, b) discuss the idea that honor codes promote repeat-after-me ethics over actual understanding and c) draw on examples of cheating in school and out of school (which will be drawn from the documents).

Bad thesis: My school should maintain their current honor code because I don’t cheat, but it should revise it for all the other students who do.

This is not a good thesis because it is not at all clear whether the student is going to argue that their school should maintain their honor code or revise their honor code. The student is waffling on their opinion and the reader will definitely have some questions. The thesis is not specific or direct.

Take your well-crafted thesis and try pretending, briefly, that you sent your thesis to the author of the sources. What would they say? Would they agree or disagree? What parts of their own sources would they bring up? Use that imaginary conversation to help write your outline.

Talking to yourself like this may feel odd, but in the context of writing an essay, it is the best way to organize your thoughts. It will help you to come up with several ideas, pick an opinion, craft a good thesis, and sketch out a good outline.

Resist the Urge to Summarize the Sources.

It is so tempting to summarize the sources, especially when you are in the middle of your synthesis essay and worried you are running out of time. Resist that temptation.

It is important to use the sources in front of your to inform your FRQ response. But the graders of the AP English test do not want you to simply summarize the sources. They’ve read them.

Try to take a deep breath and instead go for short quotations and paraphrasing. Go back to your notes and read what you underlined to see if it is helpful for quick quotations.

Look at another source from the 2014 AP English synthesis FRQ:

If a student wanted to use this source as support for eliminating honor codes on the basis that they do not work, here is an example of summarizing the source and analyzing the analysis for support.

Summary: Honor codes do not work because only 48% of survey respondents at a small public university believed the honor code was enforced fairly. Only 42% knew the range of sanctions that can occur and just 8% would report a fellow student for cheating. 65% of students say the honor system is discussed in class and on the syllabus and 40% of students have violated the honor code and not been caught. Clearly, honor codes do not work.

Instead of adding to the information from the source, the student just rewrote the information from the source. The student does not include information that the reader cannot get from reading the document.

Analysis: Honor codes are ineffective at preventing cheating. Often, the perception of the honor code varies from the intention of the honor code. It is written to sound as if it will be strictly enforced, but students do not perceive it to be. For example, when students from a small, public university were surveyed, 40% of them admitted to having violated the honor code and gotten away with it, and only 8% of them would report another student for having violated it. While the wording of the honor code was not provided, and so it is unclear how harsh the punishments it promises are, clearly students do not take it seriously. There’s a disconnect between intent and execution, where the school says the honor code is important, but student think it is enforced unfairly, often because they have violated it themselves or they know someone who has.

This paragraph uses the source to support a point. The student is trying to convey that the school appears to take honor codes seriously, but students do not perceive that they do so. The student does not summarize the entire source, but instead pulls two statistics from it and use them to support their argument.

Remember, even if you are running out of time, that quality is always better than quantity on the AP Language FRQ responses. Take the time to really support your arguments with good quotations instead of stuffing up the rest of your space with summary.

Question the Sources.

Don’t just accept the sources at face value. Pretend that, instead of encountering the sources on the AP English exam you found them on the Internet. Would you buy them? Why or why not?

The AP synthesis FRQ graders will appreciate that same type of thinking. Each source comes with a description, at the top, with the name, origin, and author of the source. Use that information to question the sources. Be cynical about the sources and be critical of the information they provide you, if it is appropriate.

Take this excerpt from Source B of the 2016 AP English synthesis FRQ.

The 2016 question had to do with the educational benefits of learning a foreign language. This David Thomas piece is one of the sources. Here’s a good way to question that source:

Look at the top–the little box at the top of the source contains a treasure trove of information. It says who wrote the article, when they wrote it, and who published the article.

In the case of this source, it was published by Mail Online, an online magazine. As students know, online magazines compete for page views and are interested in selling ads. Rehashing the same ideas does not attract viewers in the same way that being a little controversial does. So, in the case of David Thomas, this piece was written partially to say something different than the rest of the UK and to attract attention to an online magazine.

Questioning the sources does not mean dismissing them. The above analysis isn’t to suggest that David Thomas does not believe what he has written, or that he was simply trying to be contrarian; only that the purpose of an article written for an online opinion column is fundamentally different than an article written in an academic journal, for example. That purpose is reflected in the language and subject matter of the piece.

Treat the sources on the AP English test the way you would treat sources in the real world. If you wouldn’t believe it if someone shared it as a Facebook status, bringing that disbelief into your essay demonstrates your critical thinking abilities. Just make sure you can back it up and give good reasons for questioning your sources.

Plan to Address the Opposition.

Remember when you came up with several possible responses you could have made to the prompt? Addressing some of them increases the sophistication of your argument astronomically.

The AP English synthesis FRQ is largely about how well you can handle making an argument. A huge part of good argument involves thinking about the opposition. Take time to engage with the opposite opinion to the one you put forward.

To Sum up!

Following these five strategies will ensure a 9 on the AP English synthesis FRQ and, hopefully, a 5 on the AP English test. Prepare yourself by reading carefully and labeling the documents. Interact with the documents by explaining them to yourself, using them for support, and questioning them when necessary.

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