AP English Language FRQs
Imagine you are watching your favorite show one night. All of a sudden your television flashes and shuts off. Try as you might, you can’t get it to work. You decide that you’ll have to go down to the store and pick out a new one.
On the way to the store, you pass a man handing out small cards. The cards say that they are good for up to $1,000 off the purchase of a television from the store. Of course you would take the card and buy the television with it at an incredible discount.
This scenario is similar to the way that AP exams work for college-bound students. Much like the store taking a large part of the cost of a television, colleges will offer credit for students that pass an AP exam. What students don’t often realize is that passing just one AP exam can save you thousands of dollars of tuition costs.
It seems obvious, but you should take the exam seriously. The offer has been made, but it is up to you to accept it. If you do accept, it means you will study harder and prepare yourself so that you can pass. This guide exists to help you seize the opportunity.
In this guide we have compiled the do’s and don’ts of the 2013 AP English Language FRQ section, to provide you with the best information to conquer the exam. As you prepare for the exam, keep a close watch for the best practices for each type of essay, and the things to avoid in your writing.
Let’s break down 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, some strategies, and some 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 one 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 that, 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 suggests your essay is 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 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 seven 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 2013 FRQ section of the AP exam, the synthesis essay focuses on the planning and consideration that goes into building a monument. 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 about the factors a group or agency should consider when memorializing a person in a monument. As you read this, you might have some experience with the topic or have seen monuments in your life. 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 two examples taken from student essays.
Create a Clear Thesis
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. In particular, this student makes her argument clear through the thesis she crafts. The language that the student uses makes it clear what she is talking about, “careful consideration of its location, size, material, and purpose can effectively pay homage to the deep sacrifice or honor moments of great achievement”.
In her thesis statement, the student points out the four reasons she will use to make her argument: location, size, material, and purpose. She also drives home the importance of those topics in connection with the overall use of monuments, to “pay homage”.
For the reader of this essay, the student wrote very clear what she will discuss in the essay. The clarity in the thesis makes this essay much easier to read and understand, which will result in more points.
Explain Sources in Detail
Another essential part of scoring well on the synthesis essay is to explain your sources in great detail. The student example below demonstrates the skill:
The student who wrote this essay was able to explain in great detail how the evidence works to support her argument. She can use her writing to examine how location works for or against the value of a monument by illustrating the difference for the reader.
In the case of this paragraph, she shows how a statue of Columbus fits in a park, a lovely scene where it belongs, and how it doesn’t fit with the scenery of an abandoned building or by billboards. The images she creates help to demonstrate her point well.
As you determine which sources to use as evidence, you will want to work on how you will explain or connect the evidence to your main point. You need to have valid reasoning that uses the evidence to drive home the argument.
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 Fail to Address the Prompt
One of the biggest mistakes students make is going off topic with the essay. Many students neglect the prompt and instead write around the issue, which results in a very low score. Let’s look at a low-scoring example of writing around the prompt:
This student doesn’t seem to understand the main point of the essay. Instead of explaining what needs consideration when planning a monument, the student goes off on a tangent about how the “government does not need to spend an excessive amount of money on memorials…”
The topic of monument cost could have fit into the prompt, but making it the main issue doesn’t set this essay up to succeed. Instead of addressing the important considerations before erecting a monument, this student has challenged the entire idea of monuments.
In your essay, make sure that you always work to address the prompt. Your score will depend on you arguing the issue presented in the prompt.
Don’t Use Assumptions to Argue
When writing an argumentative essay, it is good practice to focus on facts and evidence and not jump to conclusions. In the example below the student works off of an assumption that isn’t substantiated by the evidence given:
This student makes the assumption early on that “the Lincoln Memorial has no importance to some”. While the evidence used does demonstrate that the memorial can be discounted as “memorial,” it doesn’t show that people don’t think it is important.
The student needs to work towards an understanding that can be proven by the evidence he uses. The lack of proof to demonstrate their point makes their argument weak and accounts for the loss of points.
Always make sure that you can support your reasons and argument with substantial evidence. If the evidence you use doesn’t support what you are saying, you may want to change your argument to be underpinned by the sources.
AP Readers’ Tips:
- Read every text before you start your essay. A common pitfall is that many students 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 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 2013 FRQ, the analysis was supposed to concentrate on rhetorical strategies:
The prompt asks the reader to carefully read a chapter from Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and analyze the strategies that he uses to create and argument about the separation of people and nature. Rhetorical strategies 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.
Introduce the Topic with Background Knowledge
Background knowledge is one of the most efficient tools to use in the second essay. Students that have background knowledge tend to write much more detailed and meaningful essays. Let’s look at an example below:
In the example above, the student uses her knowledge of ancient Egypt to help explain her argument. The prompt asks students to examine Louv’s argument about humanity’s connection to nature – and the student introduces the topic by explaining how fundamental nature has been to humanity’s development.
The student can use her background knowledge to show that nature was intimately connected to all facets of life in the past. She goes on to explore how that relationship has changed in the present, but the examination helps draw out the comparison and sets her up to explain Louv’s argument.
If you can utilize background knowledge on a topic or argument, you should do it. The use of that knowledge will help shape your essay and can add depth that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise.
Use Direct Evidence from the Text
Using direct evidence from the text works to enhance your writing. Without direct evidence, your reasoning would have nothing to support it. Let’s take a look at how a student did this on the 2013 exam:
In the example above, the student goes into great detail about what Louv says in his story. However, the student also manages to pull direct quotes from the text to support what she is explaining from the text.
The use of direct quotations serves the student well, and she is ultimately able to show exactly what Louv was saying through her use of text. The example helps illustrate her point and supports her argument.
If you utilize direct quotations well it can go a long way towards earning you a nine on the essay. You must learn how to integrate the quotes seamlessly, and how to use them effectively with your reasoning.
Some things to avoid on the literary analysis essay include providing little evidence and adding fluff.
Don’t Write an Argument without Providing Direct Evidence
One way to miss crucial points is to neglect direct evidence in your argument. Just as adding direct evidence makes your argument stronger, choosing to argue without it will make it look weak. Let’s look at one of the examples of this from a student essay:
The student discusses the strategy of using direct quotations but doesn’t offer any examples. In the text, a story is described, but there is no direct quotation showing exactly what was discussed or how the story incorporates quotations.
The student should have added in direct quotations, but he failed to do so at crucial points in the essay. Not addressing the direct quotations makes the work look sloppy and ill-informed. Overall the failure to include examples from the text dropped the grade of the essay immensely.
When analyzing the rhetoric in a passage, it is best to find direct quotations to prove the strategies you are pointing out. Do not mention a strategy if you cannot show how the author used it in the text; otherwise, it seems like you are making it up.
Don’t Add Fluff
Students that have no more to write should stop writing. Adding in useless fluff to pad your essay and make it seem longer will only hurt the overall grade. Here is what some fluff looks like in the second essay:
The student’s sentence adds nothing to the discussion of Louv’s rhetorical strategies. The sentence “…writes a striking piece on the separation between people and nature…” is almost entirely superfluous. There are many other, better ways to explain and introduce the topic.
It is better to write nothing or a very short sentence then to add unnecessary and redundant sentences to your essay. As you are working, make sure that every word counts; you don’t have enough time to spare to write sentences that add nothing to your overall argument.
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 2013:
Before we get into the do’s and don’ts of the essay, let’s talk about the particular challenge of this task. This particular task would be tough to write about because it deals with the philosophical ideas around the concept of ownership.
Be advised that you need to read the third prompt carefully. It is easy to fall into the trap of writing off-prompt because you misread or do not quite understand what it is asking you to do. In this case, you are asked to explain the relationship between the concept of ownership and sense of self, so an essay that doesn’t address that relationship would be off-task.
Always read the prompt carefully.
A few of the most important things you can do to ensure you score well on the essay include providing strong examples and crafting a strong thesis.
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 they go to great lengths to provide strong examples of their argument:
The student writes a very thorough explanation of the concept of ownership – explaining how there are varying degrees or definitions of ownership. There can be the ownership of a thing or object, and then there is the ownership of thoughts and ideas.
The student then uses the example of Candide to show how ownership of thoughts or ideas is related to the sense of self –“I’ve added the experience and memory of reading it to my personal concept of myself and my story”. The way that this student connects the concept of ownership to the concept of self is both clear and tangible – leading to a high score.
As you write, be sure to include strong examples that are clearly explained to the reader. The more clarity you have when writing, the easier it will be to understand what you are saying – and the stronger your argument and reasoning will be in the end.
Have a Strong Thesis and a Clear Argument
An excellent essay will have a strong thesis – usually provided in the first paragraph of the essay – that clearly expresses the argument of the author. A strong thesis in a timed essay like those on the AP English Language exam should clearly articulate the claim.
Let’s take a look at one example of how one student articulated her thesis:
The student writes a very strong introduction, but the best part of her intro is the clarity of her thesis. She goes into detail about what it means to own something, defining the concept. She then attaches that to her claim that, “The verb ‘to own’ doesn’t just mean to have something, it means we know something, or that we have made it a part of ourselves”.
The connection between her central argument (that owning things makes them a part of you) and the rest of her essay is established clearly through the rest of her essay. She provides three valid reasons that are fleshed out through each of the paragraphs, and each of those reasons works to establish the claim and thesis she created in the introduction.
As you write, be sure that your thesis is clear. Don’t muddle your writing by failing to establish a strong claim or craft a clear thesis.
If we take a look at the essay samples from 2013, there are few examples that stand out as don’ts. In particular, you should avoid these things.
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 their essay. The student isn’t able to explain clearly what he means by ownership, and while he tries to make a connection between ownership and the sense of self, a strong link is never established.
The most shining example of how this student is seemingly off-task is in his short explanation of how ownership affects character. He says that “ownership is detriment to the person’s objects, it crafts the person’s character” but then goes into no detail about what that means. He then goes on to talk about the sense of self coming from protecting valuables.
This essay dances around the topic but it never quite makes a connection or any sense. Do not make the same mistake. Be sure of what the essay is asking you to write, and always keep on task – working to answer the prompt.
Don’t Give Simple Explanations for the Evidence Used
If you provide evidence from your thinking or the prompt, be sure that you explain it well. A simple explanation for the evidence you use is indicative of poor reasoning or sloppy work. Let’s examine the paragraph below:
The student doesn’t seem quite to understand exactly what Aristotle means in his quote. The student points to not coveting the property of someone else as development of “moral character” but doesn’t go on to explain how it is morality and not merely satisfaction that causes a person not to steal or covet.
The student doesn’t elaborate on how property instills moral character, and he seems not to be able to stick to a single idea of how it teaches things like “responsibility” or “how to be fair” – he simply places these ideas in his writing and hopes that they will stand for themselves. They don’t.
In your writing, you must not only understand what you are using as evidence, but you must also be sure to explain yourself clearly. The essay above could have been spectacular if the student had explained how physical ownership translates to moral development in a clear and logical fashion.
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 2013 prompt, the essay needs to discuss the relationship between ownership and sense of self.
- Try to reference literary examples in your writing. There wasn’t much opportunity to reference readings in the 2013 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 to create a thought-out strategy. 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. This 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 work 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 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 English Language FRQ add them in the comments below.
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