The AP English Language persuasive (or argumentative) essay is one of the three long-form free-response questions that will make up 55% of your score on the AP English Language and Composition Exam. While the multiple-choice section and the rhetorical analysis essay will test you on how well you have learned the various rhetorical techniques you have been exposed to this year, the persuasive essay and a similar task, the synthesis (also see our article “5 Tips to the AP English Language Synthesis Essay You Must Know”), will test you on how well you can put these techniques to use yourself.
It’s time for you to follow in the footsteps of the established, respected writers you have been reading all year and put everything that you’ve learned to work in the AP English Language persuasive essay.
How the AP English Language Persuasive Essay Works
Persuasion through essay writing is something you probably learned about a long time ago, but the AP English Language Exam’s persuasion essay requires some more specific tips. You will be given a prompt that may or may not reference a reading sample; it will ask you to then “defend,” “challenge,” or “qualify” a position on a public issue – either the position espoused in the reading sample or one simply stated by the author of the question.
To defend a position is to agree with it and rationalize that agreement, to challenge it is to disagree with it and show holes in its supporting logic. To qualify a position is to attempt to truly understand all sides of the issue and see that both sides may have some valid points. However, you still need to take a definite stand, no matter what you do, although it can be a stand such as “Idea X is ethical in certain situations and unethical in others” – however, expand on that to give the AP Examiners an exact notion of your opinion, and then use logic and beautiful writing to persuade them to see your way of thinking.
No Issue is One-Sided
Although taking a definitive stand is one of the most important things you need to do during the AP English Language persuasive essay, you will often score higher if you show the full complexity of issues and exhibit understanding of the other side of the argument. This can not only show that you are intelligent and appreciate the complexity of the types of issues you may be talking about on the exam, but may actually help strengthen your argument, in that you can foresee potential arguments against your support for your beliefs, then undermine them as you write about them.
Even in issues that you are very passionate about or cannot see the other side’s logic on at all, keep in mind that you should be respectful and mature in all your AP Exam writings.
Draw from All Possible Sources – But Don’t Be Self-Centered!
This AP Language persuasive essay allows you to draw on your knowledge from other subjects, what you’ve read inside and outside of school (be it a classic novel or this morning’s paper), and your personal experience; a well-rounded, well-thought-out essay will use all or at least most of these. That being said, don’t be too focused on using your own experience to justify your beliefs – this is a less mature, less powerfully logical way of arguing than what the Examiners expect. Use personal experience, when relevant, as one facet of a wider, more nationally and globally aware argument.
For example, a prompt on advertising could probably use some personal anecdotes about your experiences with advertising alongside things you may have seen in the news or learned in a statistics class and analogies you can draw using global events or literature. A prompt on the ethics of experimentation on animals probably shouldn’t use much personal experience (unless you have a biologist in the family), because your “experiences” will be limited to feelings, not fully lived and understood events that will hold up in an argument.
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The AP Language and Composition exam tests your ability to not only read content, but also to analyze what you have read and draw conclusions to present in an argument. The test consists of two parts: multiple choice and free response.
These AP English Language tips can help you feel confident about scoring a 5 on the AP Language and Composition exam. Let’s get started.
AP English Language Course Study Tips
Before you learn how to study for the specific portions of the AP Language exam, it’s time to learn how to study for AP courses in general. AP stands for Advanced Placement; meaning, the courses are designed to challenge you more so than a regular high school class. It’s safe to say that it’s nearly impossible to pass the AP Language and Composition exam if you don’t have a grasp on how to study for a class as stimulating as an Advanced Placement course.
1. Become Familiar with AP Style Questions: Before you can even begin to study for the AP exams, you need to familiarize yourself with the overall format of the questions being asked on the exam. AP Central is a study aid website developed by the College Board, who writes the AP exam. Here, they have the formats of the questions being asked on specific AP exams. They even have copies of the questions present on previous AP exams. Take a look at the questions they have specifically for the AP Language and Composition exam on AP Central.
2. Complete Any Summer Work Assigned: Many AP English courses require you to read a few books over the summer vacation months. The teachers expect you to have read the content, and in some cases, they’ll even want you to complete a book report or project during the first week of class. It would be incredibly unwise to procrastinate and try to cram reading three or more books in the span of the last few weeks of summer. Not only will you stress yourself out, but you also will hinder your understanding of the content. If you plan on procrastinating and not doing what is asked by your AP teachers, be prepared for a rude awakening at the beginning of the school year in the form of a bad project grade. This can develop into your end of the year exam scores suffering.
3. Teach Yourself the Material: A good portion of Advanced Placement courses is based on teaching yourself the content. I can guarantee that you won’t understand every single concept covered in the hour or so that you’re actually in the classroom. When this inevitably happens, you’re going to feel lost and the subject matter becomes a little daunting. But the rest is up to you: you can either take it into your own hands and research the topic when you get home, or you can ignore the topic completely and hope you understand the next one. Here’s a hint: you should choose the first one. There’s a huge abundance of extra content out there for you to discover. Of course, there are the obvious choices like YouTube review videos and articles explaining the content you find a little hazy. However, there’s also an incredible amount of hidden gems around the Internet just waiting to be discovered.
Teachers don’t have time to cover every single tiny detail of content in the sixty minutes or so that they have you every day. At the end of the year, it’s up to you to make sure you understand everything to make a 5 on the AP exam.
4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills: A good portion of Advanced Placement courses is designed to test your ability to think critically. Critical thinking is a skill that will be extremely beneficial for you to acquire, not only for AP courses, but also for real life. To pass many AP courses, you need to understand that everything covered isn’t simply black and white. There are an incredible number of gray areas within the content that you need to learn to approach from every angle. If you keep an open mind and combine your observations as well as inferences you’ve made with the material, critical thinking will be a skill you’ll build with ease. This will drastically increase your odds of scoring high on AP exams.
5. Go to Class: Avoid missing your AP classes at all costs. If you’re not in class, how can you possibly expect to learn the content? You’re more likely to get behind on assignments if you miss class, which can become very stressful. Any amount of added stress can severely affect your understanding of vital concepts covered on the end of the year exams.
6. Form a Study Group: One of the most effective ways to study for any exam is to form a study group. Ideally, this group will contain members of all knowledge levels. Each person will bring something to the table—maybe you know more about symbolism than Susan, while Susan understands literary devices better than Ryan, and so on. Learning other people’s viewpoints on the subjects covered on the different exams will help you approach questions from every angle.
Now that you’ve followed the previous general Advanced Placement study tips, you can focus on studying specifically for the AP Language and Composition exam.
This part of this article will focus on the multiple-choice portion, which amounts to 45% of your overall score. So you could say that it’s pretty important.
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AP English Language Multiple Choice Tips
1. Prepare Early: The most important tip for acing any standardized exam is to develop good study habits. Prepare early. If possible, start at the beginning of the semester. Once you learn your first new topic or cover a key concept, review it that night. Then, when you learn your second, study that in addition to the previous learned concept. The process should go on throughout the semester which will be a surefire way to remember important content at the end of the year.
2. Test Yourself: If you’re one of the many high school students who don’t spend most of their time studying, preparing early, and following the system of the previous study tip, we understand. You have cheer practice, guitar lessons, homework and everything in between. Studying every single night may be a bit of a struggle. If this sounds like you, then the best option for studying for the AP Language exam is to test yourself. Periodically throughout the semester, look up practice exams to test your comprehension of the material.
3. Read the Passages FIRST: Everyone knows the classic shortcut when it comes to multiple choice tests—read the questions first, then scan the passages to look for the answers. This is a method of approaching the exam that is completely wrong. It will leave you without a deep understanding of what the passage is about. With less comprehension, you’re more likely to make mistakes and choose the wrong answer.
4. Read the Questions Thoroughly: This goes without saying. If you don’t have a good grasp on the content of the question, you’re going to get it wrong. Read the questions carefully and determine what it is asking, where in the text the answer can be found, and whether any of the choices provide a logical answer to the question.
Sometimes the answer to the questions can be complicated and rather unnerving. To avoid getting overwhelmed by this, try covering up the multiple choice answers with your hand or ignore them completely while you read just the stem of the question. Try to come up with an answer for the question before you even glance at the possible choices.
5. Reread Portions of the Text: When you have determined where in the passage an answer can be found, reread that portion. Dissect it thoroughly and from there, decide what the correct answer might be.
6. Use the Process of Elimination: This tip may be a little bit obvious. Ever since you were young, you’ve heard the helpful suggestion of deducing answers. If you’re familiar with the subject matter of the question, it should not be hard to rule out at least one of the choices that you have determined not to be the answer. Physically mark through the answers you believe are wrong. It will help you to visually see which answers couldn’t possibly be the right one. Be sure to take your time when deducing an answer. Sometimes the writers of the test will write two answer choices that seem almost identical. However, one of them will have the slightest difference that makes it incorrect.
It might also help you to circle or underline the terms or reasoning within the wrong answer choices that proves they are incorrect. This may help you further into the test. If you get stumped on a similar question, you may look back onto these incorrect responses. With this information, you can deduce which answers are incorrect and which are correct.
7. Skip Difficult Questions: Because the multiple-choice portion is timed, you may not have time to answer every single question if you are unsure of a few. The simplest way to clear your mind and focus on the easier question is to immediately skip the more difficult questions that require more critical thinking. Then, once you have answered all of the questions you feel more confident about, go back to the more difficult questions, if time permits.
8. Use Circles or Check Marks: Whenever you skip a question, be sure to circle its number. That way, when you’re going back through your test, the search time for unanswered questions will be cut drastically. Alternatively, you can put a check mark beside every question you have answered, leaving unanswered questions with a blank space beside the numbers.
9. When in Doubt, Guess: On the AP Language and Composition exam, like every other Advanced Placement exam, your score on the multiple-choice portion is based on the number of questions you answer correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers. So there’s no logical reason not to guess on questions you are stumped on.
10. Make Flashcards: For terms or concepts that are crucial for you to memorize, make flashcards. It may seem like an elementary study tip, but it truly works. Pay special attention to terms or concepts that you don’t fully understand.
11. Study before Bed: If you’ve made flashcards, a great time to study them, or really any notes you’ve taken, is before you go to bed. The brain remembers the most information right before you go to sleep. This is because when you’re asleep, it processes the most important memories of your day for storage. If you review right before bedtime, your brain prioritizes this information and stores it for quick access. Because of this, it’d be a good idea to study first thing in the morning, too. This will remind your brain that the subject you’re studying really needs to be remembered.
12. Focus on Your Weaknesses: When you don’t quite understand a concept as well as you should, be sure to take time to break it down. Run over it many times in your head and you can even research it for a better understanding. It’s crucial that you’re at least familiar with all concepts that are going to be covered on the exam.
13. Don’t Stress: This is easier said than done, we understand. But there is nothing worse than working your way through multiple choice questions and having your brain freeze because you’re stressed out. This makes it difficult to even read the question, let alone understand it.
14. Remember to Breathe: The best thing you can do when you get overwhelmed by the pressures of the exam is to take a deep breath. Have confidence that you know the material well enough to get through this portion with ease.
The next part of this article will focus on the seemingly daunting free response portion of the AP Language and Composition exam, worth 55% of your score. This portion consists of three different essays you must write within a two-hour period after a mandatory fifteen-minute reading period. Ultimately, these essays will assess your ability to quickly formulate arguments form inferences and analysis drawn from the sources provided to you. If you don’t understand early on how to go about following the instructions that are asked on the exam, you might find this portion more difficult than the multiple-choice section.
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Here are some tips to help you ace this portion of the exam:
AP English Language Free Response Question Tips
1. Understand the Question: Make sure you read the essay prompt many times and identify the key question being asked. Approach the question from each side of the possible argument that it poses.
2. Choose Your Side: Based on the evidence provided for you in the passages you’ve read, come up with an argument. It is often helpful to choose an argument that has more evidence and references to support it, even if you do not necessarily agree with every tiny detail.
3. Create a Thesis: Come up with a strong thesis statement that clearly and effectively approaches the topic and the argument you are presenting. Don’t bother regurgitating the prompt in your introductory paragraphs—the scorers will just assume you are filling space and it will make your argument seem weak and lacking confidence. Answer all of the questions asked by the prompt in your introductory paragraph and include the main point of your argument in your thesis.
4. Build a Strong Body: Once you have your thesis statement, construct body paragraphs around it. Be sure to mention how the supporting evidence you are citing within your essays relates back to your argument.
5. Be Specific: Ambiguity and vague sentences have no place within an AP Language and Composition exam essay. The readers of your essay expect you to be exact and to the point. They want you to prove a point to them, not dance around it aimlessly. The more specific you are with your information, the better.
6. Use Your Resources: You’re given sources for a reason. Use these to strengthen your argument and convince your audience of its legitimacy. Failing to use the resources provided to you will result in an incredibly low score. Why should you be given a high score when you couldn’t even follow the directions of the exam?
7. Develop a Tone: The tone of an essay is what sets the stage for your argument. If there is no tone, it makes the essay seem sloppy and poorly structured. The argument itself may even seem scattered and all over the place. The tone of your essay should reflect your side of the argument. If it doesn’t, how can the readers be expected to understand completely what side you are taking?
8. Learn How to Make Assumptions: A great deal of the scoring of this portion is based on the assumptions you make. The assumptions and inferences made from your sources are crucial. Use them to explain your viewpoints and strengthen your argument. Logical assumptions give interesting perspectives to the scorers of the essays. The use of inferences and assumptions in your essays also demonstrates your ability to think critically (as we discussed earlier).
9. Organize Your Thoughts: As you work through planning your argument in the essays, make sure you take time to organize your thoughts. This will strengthen your argument and the overall structure of your essay. If your essay is neat and clean, the scorers can easily find what they are looking for in a well-written argument.
10. Know the Fundamentals of Writing: If you are unfamiliar with the structure of an essay, you definitely need to learn it before the exam. Think of an essay as a skeleton: the introductory, body, and conclusion paragraphs are the bones; the actual muscle, tendons, and organs holding it together are the bulk of the essay. This is what you add to it, including arguments and supporting evidence.
11. Use Variety: If you write your essay with choppy, short sentences having a simple vocabulary, the reader is going to assume that you are not well-versed in the English language. This can severely hurt your score—especially considering you are taking an exam in AP Language and Composition. If anything, this course should make your writing shine and appeal to the scorer. You wouldn’t want the person grading your essay to assume that you are lacking in style and grammar.
12. Work Quickly: Although you want to keep all of these tips in mind, remember that this is still a timed portion of the exam. You don’t have much time to spend trying to make every single part of your essays perfect.
13. Develop Time Management Skills: Learning time management skills early on can help tremendously when it comes to timed exams. Practice taking timed exams frequently throughout the semester to build confidence and skill. This will really help when you’re forced to formulate multiple arguments for different essays in a limited amount of time.
14. Know the Rubric: Knowing the rubric is an incredibly strategic move in acing the AP Language and Composition essay portion. When you know what exactly it is the scorers usually look for, you can be at ease. This is because you know exactly what to put into your arguments to make for a high-scoring essay.
15. Develop a Good Attitude: Having a good attitude going into the course will show the teacher that you are there to learn. Teachers are more willing to help students that seem upbeat and overall well-rounded. This can also translate into confidence when it comes exam time.
16. READ!: This may seem obvious, but many students don’t understand how much reading is required for this course. AP Language and Composition covers writing styles throughout several centuries and it’s crucial to become familiar with all of them. Reading a few books for leisure in between assignments will help drastically in developing a writing style of your own as well.
17. Practice Dissection: No, don’t worry; you won’t have to know how to dissect a dead frog for the AP Language exam. However, it is a good idea to practice dissecting everything you read. When reading, ask yourself: Who is the audience in this piece? What is it that the author is trying to accomplish by writing this? What is the main idea? Is there any symbolism used in vague sentences?
18. Write Neatly: Legible writing is a scorer’s best friend. They are very busy people with thousands of essays to grade. They do not have much time trying to decipher your chicken scratch. The more the scorers can read, the more there is to grade.
19. Plan Out Your Essays: Even though the essay portion is timed, you should still take a few minutes to plan out your arguments. The last thing you want to do is confuse your readers by having a sloppy essay with little to no organization or planning. Plans help bring structure and life to your writings.
20. Avoid Clichés: Sure, a cliché may bring a sense of familiarity to your writing. But mostly, it just bores the reader. If you must use a common cliché phrase, try to change it up a bit by using synonyms for the verbs.
21. Be Specific: When writing your essays for the AP Language and Composition exam, be specific. The prompt may ask you to discuss the rhetoric devices used in a passage. Instead of just listing them, provide a brief description of each device and how it is used. This will display a sophisticated understanding of the material sure to impress the readers.
22. Stay on Topic: This goes hand in hand with number five. If you have planned out your essay well, you’ll be more conscious as to when your writing is deviating from the main topic. Periodically look back at the prompt as you are writing to make sure you’re answering everything required in your essay.
23. Stay Healthy: A healthy body leads to a healthy mind; they go hand in hand. Be sure to fuel your body and brain with water and a good hearty breakfast before your exam. Moreover, be sure to get enough exercise and eat healthy throughout the rest of the year. You’ll come to see both your mood and your school performance increase.
24. Learn How to Handle Stress: Stress can take a toll on each and every one of us. Learning how to handle it is a skill that is vital to every aspect of life, especially when it comes to school. Be sure to remember that your mental and physical health is more important than a score on a high school exam. Know your limits and take breaks when needed so you can assure a happy and healthy brain.
25.Be comfortable in uncertainty, for that will lead to clarity. The essence of all art, and literature is no exception, is that it dwells in the realm of ambiguity and multiplicity; this is what makes great art. Consider Moby Dick, especially the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” this is fundamentally the world of art. If students can only manage or see one answer, they will never be able to truly understand literature and will always succumb to superficial interpretations and debilitating stress. Thanks for the truly insightful tip from Dan B. from Holy Cross High School.
26. Say you have to read two articles, one in the San Francisco Chronicle and one posted on a blog. You know nothing about either author. You know nothing about the content (topic). Brainstorm about what credibility factors you can deduce before you even see the articles. Thanks for the tip from Mark M.
27. Multiple choice always presents a combination of easy, medium, and hard questions for each passage. Generally speaking, these questions follow the chronology of the passage, but they are all worth the same amount of points. Therefore, the best approach is to go for easy and medium questions first and skip questions that will require a significant amount of time up front. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.
28. When dealing with questions asking about things in context, the best approach is to return to the beginning of the sentence or the previous sentence and read the end of that sentence to understand its meaning. It may also be a good idea to read the sentence that follows as well. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.
29.If you’re running out of time, you should either scan the remaining questions and find the shortest questions or look for questions that contain the answer without requiring you to refer back to the text. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.
30. A great way to pace yourself is to take the number of multiple choice questions and to divide the number by two. Therefore, if you have 60 questions to answer and an hour to do so, you should be at question 30 by the 30 minute mark. You can also use this approach by dividing by the number of passages. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.
31.Create your own excitement about the prompt and what you have to say about it. If you can find a way to be passionate about it, you will write faster, easier, and better. After this year’s test one of my students said she remembered the tip and intentionally generated her own enthusiasm about her topics, so she came out feeling happy about what she wrote. She scored a 4. Thanks for the tip from Pam S.
32. Students need to enhance their vocabulary through adding quality verbs in order to read and write more effectively. This study should embrace the verb in both active and passive voice; likewise, the verb should be mastered for gerundive and participial uses. Thanks for the tip from Mike M.
33.Read credible newspapers daily. Connect current world events to classic essays and memoirs. Look for the connection between the human condition and the speaker’s purpose. Always ask why? Why that word? Why that tone? Why that call to action? Thanks for the tip from Bobbi C.
34. The two skills of the course are argument and rhetorical analysis.One bit of advice that is central to impart to students is the tenet “acknowledge complexity.” This is relevant in arguments (e.g. take time to address reasonable counter-arguments) and rhetorical analysis (e.g. a letter can be both threatening and conciliatory — check out Banneker’s letter to Jefferson from the 2010 test). Passing the AP English Language and Composition exam is never going to be easy. But with the right amount of studying, motivation, and understanding (along with these tips, of course), you should have more than what it takes to score well on this exam. Prepare early, be confident in your comprehension of the material, and watch yourself work through the exam with certainty. Thanks for the tip from Peter D.
Tips Submitted by AP English Language Teachers
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