As someone who tutors AP English Language and Composition (lovingly referred to as AP Lang) and as someone who struggled with timed writing herself, I know how daunting a task it can be to score a 5. Luckily for you, I’ve also served as an AP Rater/Reader and can offer some additional insight into what we are told to look for while scoring a student Free Response Question 1 Synthesis essay on the AP Lang exam.
1. AP stands for answer the prompt.
Many people would tell you that AP stands for Advanced Placement, and they're not entirely wrong (College Board has the intellectual property to prove it!). But in order to demonstrate that you have the chops to perform at the college level while in high school, you need to demonstrate that you can effectively respond to the task at hand: the prompt. So, what does this mean for the AP Lang Exam FRQ1 Synthesis essay?
In order to write a successful essay, you must “answer the prompt.” No matter how brilliant your prose may be, you will not score well if you neglect to answer the question at hand. AP Raters/Readers are trained to discern the extent to which you are answering the prompt itself, and award points accordingly. Carefully read and break apart the different components of the question itself—the background, the direct prompt, the citation requirements—and use at least 3 of the given sources in order to score maximum points.
2. Understand the rubric and released student essays.
But how is your answer assessed? Look at both the rubric and the released student sample essays, along with the scoring commentary found on the College Board website. The 2019 rubric has three main components: Thesis (1 point), Evidence/Commentary (4 points), and Sophistication (1 point). Use those released questions and student essays as guides as you plan your own practice (more on that later).
3. Watch your timing and plan like your writing depends on it (because it does).
Very few of us naturally and consistently find ourselves “in the zone” in high-stress testing environments. One way to mitigate this challenge is through timed practice. Generally, you should spend a total of 10-12 minutes reading through the prompt/sources and outlining your essay. You then have about 35 minutes to write your essay and 5 minutes to edit. We all work at different paces, so it’s important to give yourself the opportunity to practice with these time constraints so that you may come to learn what pacing works best for you.
4. Be smart about unpacking sources and play to your strengths.
No matter your level of reading fluency (the rate at which you read and understand what you read), you likely will not have the time to read and understand all of the given sources with incredible depth. Through consistent practice, however, you'll be able to determine what kinds of sources you gravitate toward and unpack with ease. If you’re like me and enjoy engaging in visual analysis, you may want to unpack the visual image, be it a photograph or cartoon. If your brain is that of a burgeoning statistician, allow yourself to shine by analyzing (and citing!) the data table or graph. The additional boon to analyzing a visual text or data table/chart is that oftentimes you are already performing higher-level analysis—and quite naturally, at that! And it’s analysis, not summary, that garners points on the Evidence/Commentary portion of the scoring rubric.
It’s also good practice to go through and identify whether sources are favorable or disfavorable—in whole or in part—to your emerging position. This will help you rather quickly choose the sources that you want to spend your time unpacking.
5. Think critically and enter the conversation.
To meet the Evidence and Commentary requirement, you must provide support and reasoning for your position. Such analysis takes into account some of the nuance raised by the question itself using the sources provided. Yet, you are not entirely shackled to or limited by the sources provided; many of the top essays I’ve read incorporate ideas from those sources and synthesize them with other material drawn from personal readings and observations. Did you happen to listen to a podcast, watch a documentary, or have a conversation with a friend recently that pertained to the topic at hand? If so, these are relevant outside sources that can be drawn from when crafting and articulating your response and position.
It’s worth repeating, though: do not forget to properly engage with and cite at least three of the sources provided!
6. There's no perfection, so resist paralysis—you can't do everything!
No matter how much you would like to read and plan, at some point you have to start writing. You need to trust that you've honed the necessary skills throughout the school year to do the best that you can in the moment. This is timed writing – there is no perfection.
Let me repeat that for us perfectionists out there: this is timed writing—there is no perfection.
Even the top-scoring essays—the top of the top, the beloved unicorns—are imperfect! There just isn’t the time to polish the piece as if it were a take-home essay. Once you let go of the mindset that it needs to be flawless, you can perhaps let you own rhetorical voice sing. Frequently, that kind of confidence comes from (you guessed it) practice.
7. Engage in writing a number of practice essays and seek regular feedback.
The best way to study for any major exam is to take past versions of that exam multiple times. Rather than take a past exam every day for a week straight leading up to the test (a strategy that could backfire by tiring you out for test day), create a study plan several months in advance. The earlier you create this study plan, the better! In a skills-based AP exam like Lang, it’s best to get your feet wet as soon as possible. This will also give you a cushion for obtaining feedback from your AP Lang teacher or an experienced tutor, which sets you up well for the kind of score you’d like to see on your screen in July and on those college applications!
For more tips on how to think like an AP Rater/Reader, be sure to revisit this website. If you’d like to hear more about the Q1, Q2 or Q3, let us know. In the meantime, happy writing!