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AP English Language FRQs
Have you ever wondered what it takes to get the best score possible on the AP English Language exam?
In this guide we have compiled the do’s and don’ts of the 2014 AP Language test to provide you with the best information to conquer the exam. As you prepare, keep a close watch for the best practices for each type of essay, and the things to avoid.
Let’s breakdown the test to see how it is scored and what you’re expected to do.
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 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 important, 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 will help.
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 2014 FRQ section of the AP exam, the synthesis essay focused on the value of a college education. 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 position on whether or not college is worth the cost. As you read this, you might have some experience with discussions of college costs and the value of a degree; perhaps you have had the discussion with your parents or at 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 9 being the highest. Let’s take a look at some examples of student essays, along with comments from the readers – to break down the do’s and don’ts of the FRQ section.
You should always strive to get the highest score. Writing a high scoring paper involves learning some practices that will help you create the best possible synthesis essay. Let’s look at two examples of student writing:
Create a Clear Argument
One of the key elements of scoring high on the synthesis essay is to make your argument as clear as possible. Let’s look at the clarity in the example below:
This sample comes from a high scoring essay. If we examine the words closely, we can pick out some specific ways that this essay is clear:
- The student identifies one of the key components of the debate when he talks about “dollars and cents” – showing that he understands most people associate the worth or value of a college education to cost and future earnings.
- The student redirects the argument though to encompass “so much more” – giving the reader a clue that he is going to be discussing other definitions or explanations of the value or worth of a college education.
For the reader of this essay, it was laid out clearly by the student. The student addressed the main arguments usually made about the value of a college education, but then using clear wording redirected his argument to focus on a more broad definition of value.
Integrate Sources Seamlessly
Another essential part of scoring well on the synthesis essay is to integrate sources into your writing. The student example below demonstrates the skill:
The student who wrote this essay was able to integrate the different sources into his writing. Notice that in this particular passage the student was able to integrate a negative source (A) and positive source (B). The sources are integrated into the essay, supporting the student’s point about the emotional value of college.
When using sources, whether they support or oppose your point, you should always strive to integrate and explain how they connect to your argument. This student demonstrated the ability to have his writing flow through embedded quotes, which only added to the idea that he has a strong command of language.
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 Use the Wrong Tense or Words
One of the simplest changes you can make to score some extra points is to ensure you use the correct diction and grammar. The example below demonstrates what you shouldn’t do on the test:
This student doesn’t demonstrate his command of the English language. Instead, he shows that he does not have a grasp on simple structures like grammar. The student says, “…many of my friends and families yell and start to panic” – which shows that his command of language is weak because the word families should not be plural.
Unless the student has “many” “families” the correct word he should use would be family, and then it wouldn’t go with the verb “yell” in the sentence. This could be easily fixed with a re-read of the essay and changing the word “families” to “family members”.
It seems like it shouldn’t matter that much, but using the wrong word or tense can decrease the confidence a reader has in your writing skills. Students that make these “simple” mistakes, generally have more glaring errors in their essays – meaning they will be reading the rest of your paper more closely than before.
Make sure you proofread your essay before you move on – it could mean the difference between a high score and a low score. Even if it saves you just one point, that point could make the difference.
Don’t Misuse Sources
One of the easiest ways to fail question one is to write an essay that doesn’t utilize sources correctly. The student in this example doesn’t integrate the source they use:
This student doesn’t use the information provided by source F correctly. They give a quote, but then do not explain how the source relates to his argument, or what the given quote even means.
The information provided by source F is an argument against college education – stating that it isn’t as valuable as a good work ethic or being personable. The student cites this evidence, but then gives an argument against what it says without substantiating his argument.
The student provides no proof as to how college benefits the character of people. Instead the student writes some vague examples of how college can benefit the character of a person, which doesn’t refute the evidence he cites from the text.
If you want to score high, make sure you understand the sources you use and that they add to your argument. If you are using a source that opposes your argument, use another source that supports it in your refutation. Don’t use sources if you don’t know what they are saying.
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 2014 FRQ, the analysis was supposed to concentrate on rhetorical strategies:
The prompt asks the reader to carefully read a letter written by Abigail Adams to her son and write an essay analyzing the rhetorical choices she uses in the letter. 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.
When analyzing rhetorical strategies, you should pay close attention to the details within the text. The students below use some valuable strategies to enhance their analysis.
Provide Different Reasons to Support Your Argument
In this high scoring essay, the student provides many reasons that support her argument. In particular, she points out how Adams uses “maternal tone, historical allusions, qualified flattery, patriotic appeals, and lists” as the concrete rhetorical strategies in the letter.
Each of the reasons the student highlights provides support to the essay’s primary claim that Adams is writing to convince her son to be diligent and apply himself. The student makes it clear how she is going to argue in the rest of the essay by laying out these reasons in the beginning.
To make your essay easier to read, you should have distinct reasons and that each supports your claim in a different way. The more reasons you have, the stronger your argument will be by the end.
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 2014 exam:
In the example above, the student can provide a more in-depth analysis of Adams’ words by connecting her mention of “difficulties” to the American Revolution and rebellion from Britain.
The student can connect what she has learned in her history and literature classes to what is being discussed in the letter. This brings a new dimension to her writing and allows her to go into more detail in her analysis. It gives the student an edge over others who don’t use their background knowledge.
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 be Vague about Your Argument
One way to receive a low mark on your essay is to be unsure about your claim, reasons, or evidence. Any essay grader is going to want to see proof of thought and planning throughout the essay, so you cannot afford to be vague. Let’s look at one of the examples of this from a student essay:
The student seems to have been rushed for time, but that is no excuse for leaving out necessary details. This is the entire first paragraph of the student’s essay. The student at the very least provides the reader with an idea that will be analyzing “pathos, repetition, and diction,” but she doesn’t go into detail about their argument.
The student is very vague about her overall argument. The student doesn’t specify a claim, and she does not go into detail about what the rhetorical strategies are doing in the letter. Leaving out those essential details led to the essay receiving a low score.
In your essay be sure to specify your claim and the reasoning behind your analysis in your thesis. It is a clear sign of good writing when the thesis makes sense, and you can connect your claim to the specific reasons you give for why your argument is correct.
Don’t Miss the Chance to Include Textual Evidence
Textual evidence is the bread and butter of a rhetorical analysis – so you will want to include as much evidence from the passage as possible. Here is an example of a student not including enough textual evidence:
The student references lines from the text, mentioning this as the primary rhetorical strategy she is showing, but doesn’t give enough evidence to show what the choices in diction do in the letter. The student would need to cite an example of how Adams uses diction.
Whenever there is a chance to show evidence from the text that supports one of your reasons, you should insert a quote from the evidence you’ve collected. Explicitly putting the evidence in your essay in the form of a citation is one way to make your essay stronger. Never give a reason without supporting it with evidence, otherwise you might as well not include it.
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 of the author. 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 2014:
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 the need for creativity in the world, and you are asked to create an argument dealing with that issue.
For 2014, the scenario asks you to argue the value of creating a specific class to teach students creativity. You are invited to use your experience and understanding to write to your school board arguing for or against the idea of a class in creativity.
It is important to note that students are not being asked to argue about the value of creativity. The prompt assigns a significant value to creativity, so in the essay, a student would need to argue from that knowledge. The student must focus on the value of a class in creativity, if he instead discussed the importance of creativity itself he would lose points for the task.
A few of the most important things you can do to ensure you score well on the essay include providing strong examples and define the examples you discuss.
Provide Strong Examples to Substantiate Your Reasoning
There is always a need when arguing to provide strong examples to make your reasons and argument clear. In the student writing below, he goes to great lengths to provide strong examples of his argument:
The student gives a very thorough explanation and many good reasons why he is against the idea of a creativity class. In this case, he gives his reasoning why a separate class would be detrimental to the act of thinking creatively, and then the student gives an example from his experience.
The concrete example of his creativity class, coupled with his explanation of why a class on creativity would not be useful both serve to further his argument. The amount of detail present in the paragraph is indicative of a high scoring essay.
When you write, you will want to ensure that you give credible and concrete examples that are then supported with thorough explanation and detail.
Define the Terms and Reasoning You Use
An excellent essay should provide a definition for the terms used or an explanation of the ideas presented in the argument. If you are arguing that a class in creativity is not useful, it would be helpful to define or articulate what creativity needs to look like to be helpful.
Let’s take a look at one example of how one student articulated creativity:
The student gives a definition to what creativity looks like in the real world. He says that it is, “being able to develop novel ideas, apply, and adapt them…” This definition gives the student a way to explain the process of creativity – and show how a class in creativity is not useful.
If you are going to write an essay about the value of a topic or idea, it will suit your needs to determine what that topic or idea entails. In the case of the student above, by defining what valuable creativity looks like, he was able to explain then how it is only useful in the context of other issues – not in a disconnected class focusing on creativity.
If we take a look at the essay samples from 2014, there are few examples that stand out as don’ts. In particular, you should avoid going off topic and rambling in your essay.
Don’t Go Off Topic
One of the cardinal sins of essay writing is to go off topic. Students that fail to address the prompt are sure to get a very low score.
Let’s take a look at a sample from an essay that goes off topic and fails to adequately address the prompt:
The student does not address the prompt properly in his essay. He starts off the paragraph by talking about how some people are creative, and others are not. He goes on to explain how creativity is just thinking outside the box, and finally, he offers the idea that there are pros and cons to having a creativity class.
At the end of the paragraph, despite all of the words he has written, he has said nothing of importance. He has not formed an argument; he has not presented new ideas, instead he has just danced around the issue and offered some ideas that are off topic like “some people are born with creativity”.
You must always address the prompt. It is important that you take a stance. It may be a moderate or middle of the road position, but there has to be something concrete that you are arguing. It doesn’t do any good to write an essay that goes off topic and doesn’t address the prompt.
It seems simple, but many low scoring essays show that the student didn’t know what he was going to say ahead of time. This type of “word vomit” leaves the reader confused, and shows that the writer didn’t have a good grasp of the subject. Let’s look at the example below:
The student seems to be rushed in this essay, but he writes whole sentences that do not add anything to his points. The first sentence in the example above doesn’t tell the reader anything new and simply serves as fluff. It is useless and will not earn you extra points to include sentences that say nothing.
The rest of the writing doesn’t go into any more detail, and the entire paragraph above could be cut from the essay without costing it any of its argument, evidence, or support. If you find that you are writing just to write, and not saying anything important – you should stop and figure out if you have anything left to write that will add to your argument.
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 2014 prompt, the essay needs to discuss the creation of a creativity class.
- Try to reference literary examples in your writing. There wasn’t much opportunity to reference readings in the 2014 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 you are in your 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.
Go Forth and Conquer
Now that you better understand the expectations of the AP English Language 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 English Language FRQ add them in the comments below.
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