How to Answer the AP English Language and Composition Essay Questions 

August 1, 2021

Homework. Now, there’s a topic that you must know something about. Being a seasoned doer of homework, you’re probably bursting with ideas on the pros and cons of the stuff and could probably argue brilliantly for or against homework, or come down somewhere between the two poles. Regardless of where you stand, you’re not apt to find yourself short of ideas on the issue. In fact, you may be overloaded and find yourself sifting out only the best arguments among many to include in an essay on the subject.

But beware. This essay assignment is not intended simply to give you a chance to vent about homework. Although your biases will no doubt shape your argument, you mustn’t rely solely on your personal experience and observations. This, after all, is what the AP people call a “synthesis essay,” a label that you’ve got to take seriously.

AP English Language and Composition Synthesis Essay Step #1: Cite Sources

Stylistically, it may serve you well to use phrases like “According to Source C, . . .” or “In Loveless’s opinion . . .”, or “A study of students’ reading scores (Source D) shows that . . . ,” etc. Or you can simply cite your sources with parenthetical references—(Source A, Source B)—in your text. Another approach is to name the author or even the title of the sources, but writing out lengthy titles uses up precious time. AP essay readers will look for citations and will penalize essays that contain fewer than three. At the same time, however, you won’t earn extra credit for citing more than three. 

Whether or not you agree with the premise that “large amounts of homework have more negative effects than positive ones,” your task is to write an argument that defends your point of view. Because a researched argument is meant to sway readers whose views may be contrary to yours, you need to gather compelling evidence in support of your position. 

Let’s say that you think homework is generally good for you and the more you get, the better. Right off the bat, then, you have a main idea, or thesis, for your essay. But even if you know immediately where you stand on the issue, take the time to read all the sources carefully, underscoring or circling those ideas you might consider mentioning in your essay. It’s good to read the material with which you don’t agree, too, because in making your case, you can bolster your argument by refuting and revealing the weaknesses in what you’d expect your opponent to say.

AP English Language and Composition Synthesis Essay Step #2: Support Your Position

In building a convincing case, it often pays to gather at least three compelling reasons  to support your position. Although AP students ought not be constrained by the familiar “five-­paragraph” essay, you won’t go wrong following its structure: an introduction, three paragraphs of development, and a conclusion. Why three paragraphs of development? Mainly because three is a number that works. If you can come up with three different arguments, you appear to speak with the voice of authority. One paragraph is too simple. Two is better but still shallow. Three is thoughtful. It suggests depth and insight. Psychologically, three also creates a sense of wholeness for the reader, like the beginning, middle, and end of a story. (Incidentally, it’s no accident that the number three recurs in all literature, from Goldilocks and the Three Bears to the Bible.) Use the sources to bolster your arguments for or against large amounts of homework. But you needn’t depend totally on the sources. In fact, AP readers are likely to look kindly on your own original ideas, provided they are relevant to the issue, clearly expressed, and well-­ developed. On the positive side, you might pick out such ideas as: 

  • Homework permits parents to participate with teachers in the education of their children. (Source B)
  •  “[T]he relationship between the amount of reading homework and performance on reading tests is especially positive for high school students.” (Source D) 
  •  Homework fosters the development of individual initiative and effective study habits. (Source B) 
  • Homework provides opportunities for low-achieving students to catch up. (Source C) 
  • Homework leads to a lifelong love of learning. (Source F) 
  • Homework generally contributes to higher grades, and higher grades can lead to admission to higher-quality colleges. (Source G) 

Or, if you have an unfavorable view of homework, the following ideas can be used to support your argument: 

  • Years of educational research have found only a weak correlation between homework and student achievement. (Source A) 
  • Large amounts of homework can keep a student from pursuing worthwhile personal interests. (Source C) 
  • Homework assigned during vacations is counterproductive; it turns kids away from the joys of learning and deprives them of reading for pleasure. (Source E) 
  • More homework does not necessarily lead to better grades. (Source E) 

The given sources either support or decry homework. A middle-of-the-road position may be difficult to defend unless you build a case by refuting arguments presented on both sides of the issue. Source F, which argues against homework, for example, quotes an apparently frustrated teacher: “It isn’t that kids don’t want to do homework; the majority of my students don’t have the skills to go home and do it independently.” 

Because the word “majority” can mean almost all or just over half, the teacher appears to have overlooked the fact that some students can be counted on to work on their own. By generalizing about all students, the teacher in effect deprives some of her kids the opportunity to learn at home. An essay that argues neither for nor against homework might emphasize that universal policies regarding homework don’t work. In other words, when it comes to education, one size cannot fit all.

AP English Language and Composition Synthesis Essay Step #3: Determine Order

Once you’ve collected your ideas for or against the issue, stop for a moment to figure out which idea to put first, which to put second, and so on. Order is important. The best order is the clearest order, the arrangement that readers can follow with the least effort. No plan is superior to another, provided you have a valid reason for using it. The plan least likely to succeed is the aimless one, the one in which you state and develop ideas in random order as they happened to come to mind. It’s better by far to rank your ideas in order of importance by deciding which provides the strongest support for your thesis. Although your best argument may be listed first in your notes, save it for last on the essay. Giving it away at the start is self- defeating because everything that follows will be anticlimactic. An excellent way to arrange your ideas is to lead with your second best, save your best for the end, and sandwich the others in between. This structure recognizes that the end and the beginning of an essay are its most critical parts. A good opening draws the reader in and creates an all-important first impression, but a memorable ending, coming last, is what readers have fresh in their minds when they assign you a grade. But, as always, don’t just follow these guidelines slavishly. If you can justify another organization, by all means use it. 

AP exam readers won’t judge your essay based on the opinion you express. Even if they disagree with you, they are obliged to ignore their own biases and grade you according to the criteria of good writing. They may think that your view is off the wall, but a cogent, forceful essay that smoothly integrates the sources and demonstrates mastery of argumentation will merit a high score.

Answering the AP English Language and Composition Rhetorical Analysis Essay Question

Go back to the original question, which asks you to analyze two features of the passage: (1) its structure, or organization, and (2) its language. The first aspect is fairly specific. As you read the passage, you need to observe what the author discusses first, second, third, and so on. Your essay should explain not only the order of ideas but the reasons the author may have chosen that order. 

The second part of the question is more general. It invites you to analyze the use of language, which may include the author’s choice of words (diction), syntax (word order), figures of speech, use of evidence (such as statistics or logical reasoning), sentence structure, rhythm, sound, tone, or just about any other characteristics of style and rhetoric you choose.

Although the question directs you to write about two different aspects of the passage, the essay itself should be unified. That is, a good essay should not consist of, say, two disparate paragraphs, one exclusively devoted to structure and another to language. Rather, the essay should include material that shows the interrelationship of structure and language in the passage and how those elements contribute to the meaning and effect of the passage. This might be covered in a separate paragraph, or it could be woven into the overall fabric of the essay. 

Before you begin to write, read the passage at least twice: once for an overview and once as you write your analysis. You may notice early on that the opening paragraph contains generalizations about Westerners’ concepts of science and progress. Then the author contrasts the Western view of science and progress with the Eastern view. Immediately, you see that the author, by using the first-person pronoun (as in “many of us”) is speaking from the perspective of an Easterner. Consequently, his discussion of Eastern views is apt to come across as more well-informed, more authoritative, perhaps more personal. 

To support his position, the author gives an extended example—the city of Shiraz—to illustrate just how different the East is from the West. The description and vivid images of Shiraz memorably convey the idea that the “spiritual way of life” has a side to it that many Westerners don’t know about. This is the heart of the passage. The use of quotation marks around “romantic” and “city of poetry” is meant to point out the discrepancy between the idealized and real versions of Shiraz. 

Nearing the end, the author reiterates his initial contrast between West and East, with emphasis on the East. The last paragraph offers a generalized statement about conditions in Asia and Africa, reminding the reader of the contrast made at the very beginning of the passage. Tying the end to the beginning of the passage creates a sense of unity—a desirable feature in any piece of writing.

Answering the AP English Language and Composition Argument Essay Question 

The third essay on the exam requires you to respond to an idea contained in a short statement or paragraph. Your response must be written as an argument that either supports or refutes a writer’s views on a particular subject. Or, if you prefer not to take an either/or position, you can adopt a stance somewhere in between the two.

Writing a persuasive essay involves more than simply expressing your opinion on an issue. The validity of your position must be based on sound evidence. Passion alone won’t do it. You need to corral evidence from your experience, reading, studies, and observation in order to prove that your opinion has merit. 

To argue on behalf of your position, find at least two (three is even better) distinct arguments to support it. It helps, too, to develop a counterargument—an argument most likely to be used by someone who opposes your views—that you can refute in order to persuade readers that you are right and your opponent is not. 

Because topics for AP persuasive essays are unpredictable, it makes sense to arm yourself with a ready-to-use essay-writing strategy—one that, regardless of the topic, lays out the steps to take during the approximately forty minutes it takes to complete the essay. Chances are that you’ve written reams of essays during your school career. Over the years, you may have developed a method for writing blue-ribbon essays. But in case you haven’t, here is a list of steps you can count on. Follow them while you write essays for practice. Then, based on the results you get, amend the list in ways that enable you to write the best essays you can.

  • Read and analyze the prompt.
  • Jot down ideas that might be used to argue both sides of the issue.
  • Review the ideas and choose a position on the issue.
  • Articulate a main idea, or thesis, for your essay.
  • Arrange supporting ideas purposefully—not simply in the order they occurred to you.
  • Introduce the main idea of your essay.
  • Develop unified paragraphs in support of your main idea.
  • Devote at least part of your essay to refute an argument likely to be used by someone whose opinion differs from yours.
  • Choose words and structure sentences that concisely convey your thoughts.
  • Write a memorable conclusion but not a brief summary of your essay.
  • Edit your essay for clarity, interest, and correctness.

Experience shows that these steps do not need be taken in the order presented, nor is each step discrete. Rather, they often overlap and blend into each other. While composing your essay, for example, you may also be revising and proofreading. Late in the process, you may weave new ideas into your text or shift the location of ideas. In short, no step really ends until the final period is put into place or the AP proctor calls “Time!” This book can’t tell you exactly how much of the suggested 40-minute writing period to devote to each step. A plan that works for other students may not work for you. In general, however, you won’t go wrong by devoting more than half the time—about 25–30 minutes—to composing an essay and no more than 5–10 minutes planning and polishing it. By now you may have noticed that the basic process of writing a persuasive essay hardly differs at all from that used in writing synthesis or analytical essays. All three require you to read the prompt over and over until you are absolutely sure of what it says and what you are expected to do. The prompt may not interest you right away, but if you really concentrate on the issue, you may soon be bursting with ideas for your essay.