How to Prepare for AP English Language Free-Response Questions

The Advanced Placement English Language and Composition exam consists of a multiple-choice section and a free-response portion, the latter including three essay question types: synthesis, rhetorical analysis and argument. Each question type involves slightly different skills and tasks, which can complicate test prep endeavors — especially if you wait until the last minute to start.

Here is what you should know about the three question types, each worth six points, and how you can study for them in advance.

The Synthesis Question

The synthesis question is the first free-response item on the exam. The prompt begins with an introduction to a topic like eminent domain or public libraries and is followed by six or seven sources that relate to the topic in some way. Test-takers must take a position on the issue and support their stance using at least three of the accompanying sources.

Because the synthesis question so closely mirrors the nature of document-based questions, or DBQs, that are typically assigned in high school history classes, AP English Language and Composition students can indirectly prepare for synthesis prompts as they complete DBQs — all the more reason to approach these assignments seriously and carefully.

[READ: 5 Steps to Tackle AP English Language Multiple-Choice Questions]

In addition, students can write an AP English Language version of their DBQs, with less focus on historical facts and more focus on the use of reasoning, language and argumentative logic. The instructions for the synthesis prompt remind students to develop and explain the reasoning for their argument and to avoid simply summarizing the sources.

The Rhetorical Analysis Question

The rhetorical analysis question is the second free-response item on the exam. The essay prompt tests your ability to identify and analyze rhetorical strategies.

Generally, it asks you to write an essay that analyzes the rhetorical choices that someone uses to make an argument or convey a message about a given subject. While the purpose of the nonfiction piece will be stated outright, such as to pay tribute to someone who has passed away, the rhetorical choices you highlight in your essay are up to you.

Lists of rhetorical devices to know for AP English Language and Composition can be overwhelming due to their size. However, know that being intimately acquainted with a handful of popular rhetorical devices — allusion, irony and symbolism, for instance — is more valuable than being able to describe dozens of rare ones like synesthesia that may never appear on the exam. Therefore, when reviewing such devices, focus on quality rather than quantity.

When you read the description of a rhetorical device, your intuition will usually tell you whether it is common. However, if you are unsure, ask your English teacher which ones tend to occur most frequently on the exam.

[Read: How to Select the Right AP Classes for You.]

To prepare for the rhetorical analysis question throughout the school year, watch televised political events like debates and presidential speeches. Keep a pen and paper nearby when you do, so you can compile a list of the noteworthy devices and strategies that you hear. For each device you jot down, ask yourself why the speaker used it. Think, “What is the effect?”

Next, share your analysis with a friend or family member. It is ideal that someone replies to you because you will have a chance to justify your claims, just like you would on the real AP English Language and Composition exam.

The Argument Question

The argument question is the third free-response item. The prompt introduces an idea or quote and asks students to analyze it. For instance, some past argument prompts have required students to develop their position on “the value of exploring the unknown,” which comes from an Anne Morrow Lindbergh quote, or to evaluate something they consider “overrated.”

Students can take such questions in an infinite number of directions, but the key is that their answers go beyond merely stating a point of view. A student would receive a low score, for instance, if he or she only listed and described what they believed to be overrated about the Super Bowl, such as the ticket prices, commercials and so on.

[Read: AP English Classes — How to Choose]

Instead, students should justify their points using evidence from their studies and/or experiences. To argue that Super Bowl ticket prices are overrated, for instance, the student could write: “With the $6,000 I would pay for the least expensive Super Bowl ticket, which would land me a seat in the farthest tier from the field, I could see my favorite singer in concert more than ten times.”

A helpful way to prepare for the argument task is by journaling regularly. For this activity, students can pick a different quote each time and provide their perspective on it in one or more paragraphs. When doing so, remember that each claim should be followed by both a reason and an example or concrete evidence that supports it.

You can prepare for AP English Language free-response questions by using much more than just past exams. Just be sure to start well in advance, so you have time to get comfortable with these three tasks.

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