There were once two neighbors who lived in a small town on the edge of a roaring river. Their houses were set on piles of brick as a precaution for when the river would flood. The bricks had worked for a while, but they began to wear away over the years, and it had left the houses unstable.
One of the neighbors was always conscious of the fact that there could be another flood, so he spent countless hours building and fortifying the foundation of his house. He would get up early on the weekends and go to sleep late on the weeknights to rebuild his home the right way. While he was busy working, his neighbor would sleep in and go out at night, always commenting to his hard-working neighbor that there would be time for work later.
The hours he spent working resulted in a much stronger foundation. He eventually put the house on a set of sturdy stilts that would hold up against the power of a rushing river. He was never able to take his neighbor up on the offer to go out, but that spring when the waters of the river came rushing toward their houses, it all paid off. His house was left standing, while the flood destroyed his neighbor’s house.
Taking your AP Language test puts you in the unique situation to choose your path. You can be like the man who put off preparing, going into the test blind. Or you can be like the man who spent long hours in preparation, making sure he was ready when the time came.
You want to be like the man who ensured his house had a stable foundation. The foundation you are building, though, will reflect the time you put into learning how to write stellar essays. That foundation includes learning about what the essays require, the best way to write them, and the scoring process. If you prepare yourself for the Free Response Questions, your writing will stand up to the flood, at least metaphorically.
The Free Response Questions (FRQs) are the essay portion of the AP Language exam. The exam itself has two parts, the first is a multiple choice section, and the second is the FRQs. This guide provides an overview, strategies, and examples of the FRQs from the CollegeBoard. There is a guide to the multiple choice here.
The FRQ section has two distinct parts: 15 minutes for reading a set of texts and 120 minutes for writing three essays. The 15 minute “reading period” is designed to give you time to read through the documents for question 1 and develop a thoughtful response. Although you are advised to give each essay 40 minutes, there is no set amount of time for any of the essays. You may divide the 120 minutes however you want.
The three FRQs are each designed to test a different style of writing. The first question is always a synthesis essay – which is why they give you 15 minutes to read all of the sources you must synthesize. The second essay is rhetorical analysis, requiring you to analyze a text through your essay. The third paper is an argumentative essay.
Each essay is worth one-third of the total grade for the FRQ section, and the FRQ section is worth 55% of the total AP test. Keep that in mind as you prepare for the exam, while the multiple-choice section is hard, the essays are worth more overall – so divide your study time evenly.
The scale for essay scores ranges from 1-9. A score of 1 being illegible or unintelligible, while a score of 9 is going to reflect the best attributes and aspects of early college level writing. You should be shooting to improve your scores to the passing range, which is 5 or above. Note that if you are struggling with the multiple choice section, a 9-9-9 on the essays can help make up for it.
The Tale of Three Essays
If you are currently taking an AP class, you have probably experienced the style and formats of the three assignments. You may have learned about the specifics of the different types of essays in class, and you may have already found out which of the three is easiest for you. However, you must possess skill in all three to master the AP test.
The First Essay (Synthesis)
The first essay on the test is going to be the synthesis essay. This essay can be the trickiest to master, but once you do get the hang of it, you will be one step closer to learning the others. The synthesis requires you to read six texts, which can be poems, articles, short stories, or even political cartoons.
Once you have read and analyzed the texts, you are asked to craft an argument using at least three of the documents from the set. The sources should be used to build and support your argument, and you must integrate them into a coherent whole.
On the 2015 FRQ section of the AP exam, the synthesis essay focused on university honor codes. The complete prompt for the section is below:
If we break down the task it is asking you to use the six sources to create a “coherent, well-developed argument” from your own position on whether or not schools should create, maintain, change, or eliminate the honors system. As you read this you might have some experience with the idea of honor codes; perhaps you have one from your high school. You can use that experience, but your response needs to focus on the given texts.
To find the actual documents you can go here. Taking a look at the documents will provide some context for the essay samples and their scores.
The question is scored on a scale from 1-9, with nine being the highest. Let’s take a look at some examples of student essays, along with comments from the readers – to break down the dos and don’ts of the FRQ section.
You should always strive to get the highest score possible. Writing a high scoring paper involves learning some practices that will help you write the best possible synthesis essay. Below are three examples taken from student essays.
Craft a Well-Developed Thesis
One of the key elements of scoring high on the synthesis essay section of the FRQ is to craft a well-developed thesis that integrates three sources.
This thesis is from a high scoring essay based off of question 1 from the 2015 FRQ. Take note of some of the good things that this student is doing:
• The essay mentions three examples that they will reference throughout the rest of their essay: promotes a healthy academic environment, statistically lowers the percentage of academic dishonesty in school, and adaptability to school environments.
Part of a strong thesis is the use of three reasons to support the main claim. Each of the reasons that supports your claim should come from a different source text. By using a three-reason support of your claim, you ensure that you have at least the three required sources integrated. Remember: to get a 6 or higher requires 3 or more sources.
• The intro always introduces a counterclaim as a contrast to the thesis. The student points out that, “Some argue that honor codes should not be implemented for reasons such as ineffectiveness of the code and creation of a “big-brother”-esque environment…”
This counterclaim sets the student up to include a paragraph that argues against the claims posed in some of the articles, allowing them to use more of the given sources to their advantage. Using a counterclaim sets them up to write a well-supported essay.
Use Sources Effectively
Another essential part of scoring well on the synthesis essay is to utilize the sources effectively. The student demonstrates their command of the text through their second and third paragraphs:
The student seamlessly integrates the different sources in their essay. Notice how in the section above the student can go from one source (Vangell) into information and argument based off of another source (Dirmeger and Cartwright). The ability to use the sources together to form a coherent and cohesive whole is one factor that can set your essay apart from other students’.
Have a Well-Developed Reason for Each Source
Lastly, you will want to ensure that you give a well-developed explanation of the texts when speaking about them. Take this for example:
The student demonstrates deep understanding, and it shows in their writing. You should read a range of texts to prepare for the test. In the example above the student demonstrates a few key skills:
• The student establishes that they understand that Bacall’s comic is satiric, and isn’t meant to seriously. The analysis shows the reader that the student understood the text, and was able to grasp the nuance of the satire.
• The student also establishes that the use of the spy cam is connected to a philosophical idea like totalitarianism – showing the student understands how the text relates to other parts of the world as a whole.
• The student uses the cartoon as a way to jump into his argument, showing how the fears of critics are unwarranted.
There are some practices that students should avoid on FRQ 1 of the test. Students who do these things can expect to receive low scores on their essays, and if you wish to score above a five, you should avoid them at all costs.
Don’t Change Your Argument Midway Through Your Essay.
Changing your argument creates confusion and will make your essay weaker overall. Let’s look at a few pieces from a student essay to see how they change their arguments midway through:
Notice that this student talks about the honor system at their school. The student say that it should be maintained in its current form because it is fair, but also punishes students. This statement is taken from the end of the intro paragraph and sets this up as the main crux of the student’s argument – with the idea that they will expand this idea in their paragraphs later.
However, they do not expand the argument with any evidence:
The student continues to talk about how the system at their school is stable, but at the same time, they offer no proof of the actual policy at their school. They use words like “possible” and “fairly” to describe the system – which seems to suggest they don’t have a good grasp of it.
Up to this point, the student has been somewhat consistent, despite being vague and offering no evidence to support the point about how their school’s honor code is a good example of an honor system that works. In the next paragraph, though, the student’s essay takes a complete turn:
In their second to the last paragraph, the student turns from the idea that their school’s honor code is “solid” and instead state that they should change it to incorporate a peer-enforced honor system. This line of argument doesn’t go well with the rest of their essay and even acts to contradict their main points.
Most likely the student added this part to their paper after they realized that they had only utilized a single source. The essay ends with confusion and two sources used inadequately. The lesson to learn from this bad essay is that we should stay consistent in our arguments, sticking to the points we discuss at the beginning.
Don’t Fail to Argue the Prompt
One of the easiest ways to fail question one is to write an essay that doesn’t answer the task in the prompt. If we take a look at a sample of a student’s writing, we can see what it looks like when the aim of the essay isn’t focused on the prompt:
This student is not focusing on whether or not honor codes work. The student is instead giving information and background about honor codes. This explanation goes on for the entire introductory paragraph of the essay, but in the end, the reader has no idea what the student is going to say in the rest of the essay.
The use of information instead of argument is an ineffective strategy for the AP Language exam, and you should avoid it. Don’t try to make the essay about something other than the assigned prompt. If you stick to the prompt, you will have a better shot at getting a high score like an 8 or 9.
AP Readers’ Tips:
- Read every text before you start your essay. One of the pitfalls of many students is that they do not use enough sources and try to fit them in after the fact.
- Plan ahead. Ensure that you understand what you are going to be saying and how you will incorporate the different sources into your writing. You will need at least three sources to get above a 6, so ensure you have at least that many mapped in your plan.
The Second Essay (Rhetorical Analysis)
The second essay on the FRQ section is always a rhetorical analysis essay. This essay will focus on analyzing a text for an important aspect of the writing. In the case of the 2015 FRQ, the analysis was supposed to concentrate on rhetorical strategies:
The prompt asks the reader to carefully read the article written by Cesar Chavez and write an essay analyzing the rhetorical choices he uses in the article. Rhetorical choices are simply another term for rhetorical strategies and include things like the rhetorical appeals, and rhetorical devices.
Let’s examine the do’s and don’ts for the second essay.
Utilize Specific Examples from the Text in Your Analysis
In this high scoring essay, the student goes into their analysis right away. The student points out that Chavez uses precise diction, a rhetorical device, to get his point across. This specific example shows the depth and understanding of the student’s analysis and sets the student up to receive a high score.
Whatever you identify in the text for your analysis, you should be able to point out precisely how it supports your main point. The more depth you can give in your analysis, the more accurate you can be with your comments, the better you will do.
Use Outside Knowledge Effectively to Strengthen Your Argument
The ability to pull in outside knowledge from your classes or books you have read will help enhance your analysis. Let’s take a look at how a student did this on the 2015 exam:
In the example above, the student can provide a more in-depth analysis of Chavez’s words by connecting Chavez’s mention of Gandhi to background knowledge of what Gandhi did in British-controlled India.
The student can provide a comparison of sorts and show how effective Chavez’s comparison is by offering background information about Gandhi’s efforts in India.
Whenever possible, bring in background information that will help with your analysis. It might only seem like extra knowledge about the topic or author, but it could provide some insight into why they chose to write about something or show the full effect of their argument.
Some things to avoid on the literary analysis essay include misreading the passage and providing inadequate analysis of the text.
Don’t Misread the Text
One of the easiest ways to lower your score is to explain something from the text that is incorrect. Let’s look at one of the examples of this from a student essay:
The article mentions that the farm workers union was inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr. The student’s misreading of the article led them to write, “Chavez’s appeal reached out to an audience of African-American working for justice and equality…” This analysis is a blatant misread of the passage because nowhere does it signify that Chavez was reaching out to African-Americans specifically.
This type of misread may seem minor, but it indicates that the student’s grasp of the article is less than what they need to analyze it in depth. It will also alert the reader to that fact, and they may look more closely for other signs of misunderstanding and shallow reading.
Don’t Over-simplify Your Points
You will want to ensure that your analysis is detailed and gets to the very root of the text. Here is an example of simple analysis from a student:
The student references lines from the text, but the student does not go into detail about what those lines say, nor does the student elaborate on why “…readers are overcome with a sense of duty and motivation.” This simplistic analysis of the text leaves a lot to be desired, and it received a low score because it didn’t provide the necessary details to analyze the text accurately.
You should elaborate on each piece of evidence that you bring forth from the text, and be specific about what in the text you are analyzing. The more you pay attention to the smaller details, the better your score will be in the long run.
AP Readers’ Tips
- Pay attention to both the holistic (overall) and analytic (particular) views of the piece. You will need to understand both the text as a whole and the specific parts of the text to analyze it effectively.
- Don’t just analyze the rhetoric used, but instead connect the rhetoric to the specific purpose that Chavez hopes to achieve through his speech. This rule applies to any rhetorical analysis essay.
The Third Essay (Argument)
The third and last essay of the FRQ does not respond to a particular text. Instead, the prompt focuses on crafting an argument about a particular issue. Your essay will need to argue a particular position, though most of the questions put forth by the exam will not be simple either/or questions.
Let’s look at the prompt for the third essay from 2015:
Before we get into the do’s and don’ts of the essay, let’s talk about the particular challenge of this task. You are presented with a scenario, in this case, it deals with small talk, and you are asked to create an argument about that issue.
For 2015, the scenario asks you to argue what value or function you see in small or “polite” talk. You are asked to reference a culture or community you are familiar with, and use evidence from some sources.
A few of the most important things you can do to ensure you score well on the essay include clearly articulating your thesis and use every example to support your main claim.
Clearly Articulate Your Thesis
Like with the synthesis essay a clear thesis is important for the argumentative essay. The thesis should be clear in articulating the essay’s claim, and it should demonstrate that the student understood the requirements of the prompt. Let’s examine a well-written thesis statement:
The student, in this case, chose to argue that polite speech serves the purpose of making others more receptive to your purpose. The student then points out three specific situations where polite speech matters: when speaking to superiors, juries, and the general public.
At the end of the thesis statement, the student makes plain the exact nature of the exchange of polite speech for the desired goal. The clarity of their speech and the depth of their understanding is made clear by their command of language.
Use Examples to Support Main Claim
The best essays are going to use all of their examples to support their main claim. In the case of the third essay, the student sets the essay up so that every example will support the idea that polite speech works as an exchange between those with power and those seeking their purpose.
Let’s take a look at one example of how this support works:
The student ensures that they are supporting their main claim. The student is very explicit in tying the example back to the claim with phrases like, “polite speech is an expectation in an environment like school”.
The student points out that there is an expectation of polite speech, and then shows what would happen if polite speech wasn’t used, “…without its implementation, students’ words, and by extension, requests or queries would be disregarded.” This evidence shows that not only is this type of speech required in a school setting but that it is what allows people to get what they want.
This passage demonstrates the level of depth and connection you must make from your evidence to your claim if you want to score well on the third essay of the FRQ. Keep the relationship in mind, and ensure that all your examples explicitly support your claim.
If we take a look at the essay samples from 2015, there are few examples that stand out as don’ts. In particular, you should avoid circular reasoning, and a failure to use variety in your sentences and writing.
Don’t be Unclear in Your Writing
When you are making an argument, and it is based solely on your experiences and reasoning, it can be easy to get bogged down in the details and fail to write a clear well-reasoned essay. You need to take your time and ensure you use clear, well-reasoned logic in your essay.
Let’s take a look at a sample from an essay that has circular reasoning:
The essay doesn’t have a clear, logical path. The thesis statement that polite speech is polite doesn’t add anything to the discussion of the value of polite speech. Their essay is set up by this reasoning to fail. You should avoid circular arguments and logical fallacies at all costs in your argumentative essay.
There is a three-part process to creating an argument and avoiding the mistakes from the sample above. Arguments have three main parts:
• Claim: What you are arguing is true.
• Warrant: Your explanation and reasoning for why it is true.
• Evidence: The proof that your warrant uses to prove your claim.
Without any of these three parts any argument is incomplete, and like the sample above – an argument that is incomplete will fail to earn you a high score.
Don’t use a Repetitive Sentence Structure
It seems simple, but many students use simple and repeated sentence structure. You don’t want your writing to become repetitive, so instead try to create variety. Let’s take a look at a student that used repetition too often:
Now the mistake this writer makes may have been done by accident, but it perfectly represents the problem of repetitive structure. It would be advised that you reread your essay before time is up to ensure that you don’t have any repetitions this obvious (In short…In short. above).
This problem can be solved by using a variety of sentence structures, lengths, and formations. You should work diligently as your practice to vary all the elements of your sentences and work to elevate the diction (word choice) you use to make it more formal and academic.
AP Readers’ Tips
- Keep track of all parts of the prompt. One of the easiest ways to drop points is to forget to answer an important aspect of the prompt. In the case of the 2015 prompt, the essay needs to discuss both a community that is familiar with the student and the value of “polite” speech in that community.
- Try to reference literary examples in your writing. There wasn’t much opportunity to reference readings in the 2015 prompt, but if you can reference the different literature you have read as evidence, it can help boost your scores.
General AP Readers’ Tips
• Make a plan. One of the best things you can do for any essay you are writing under a time crunch is make a thought-out plan. Sometimes, in the heat of writing, it is easy to forget where we are in our arguments. Having a simple outline can save you from that misfortune.
• Answer the question in your introduction, and be direct. Directly answering the prompt is one of the easiest ways to ensure you get a higher score.
• Clearly, indent your paragraphs, and ensure that you always have an easy to navigate structure. Topic sentences are a must, so make sure those figure into your structure.
• Use evidence especially quotes from the texts, and explain what they mean. You need to make an explicit connection between the evidence you use, and how it supports your points.
• Part of all great writing is variety. Vary your sentence structures, don’t make all of your sentences short or choppy, but instead try to inject some creativity into your writing. Utilize transitions, complex sentences, and elevated diction in your writing.
• Use active voice, and make every word add to the paper as a whole. Avoid fluff; you don’t want your paper to look bad because you are trying to pad your word count.
Wrapping up the Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Language FRQs
Now that you better understand the expectations of the AP Language and Composition FRQ section, you are one step closer to getting your five on the exam. Take what you have learned in this guide, and work on applying it to your writing. So, now it is time to go practice to perfection.
If you have any more tips or awesome ideas for how to study for the AP Lang FRQ add them in the comments below.
Looking for AP English Language practice?
Kickstart your AP English Language prep with Albert. Start your AP exam prep today.
Multiple Choice — 52 to 55 Questions | 1 Hour | 45% of Exam Score
- Excerpts from non-fiction texts are accompanied by several multiple-choice questions
Free Response — 3 Free-Response Questions | 2 Hours, 15 Minutes (includes a 15-minute reading period) | 55% of Exam Score
This section has three prompts:
- Synthesis: Students read several texts about a topic and create an argument that synthesizes at least three of the sources to support their thesis.
- Rhetorical analysis: Students read a non-fiction text and analyze how the writer's language choices contribute to his or her purpose and intended meaning for the text.
- Argument: Students create an evidence-based argument that responds to a given topic.
The total Section II time is 2 hours and 15 minutes. This includes a 15-minute reading period. The reading period is designed to provide students with time to develop thoughtful, well-organized responses. They may begin writing their responses before the reading period is over.