AP English Language and Composition Essay Scoring

August 21, 2021
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How AP English Language and Composition Essays are Graded and Scored

When it comes time to make judgments about writing, the word "effectively" comes up repeatedly. It’s a popular word because it’s easy to use. But it’s also hard to define. It means so much, and yet so little. You probably know effective writing when you see it, but what the AP English Language and Composition folks have in mind is the thoughtful organization of ideas, appropriate word choice, proper syntax, varied sentence structure, a mature style of writing, sensible paragraphing, coherent development, and correct mechanics (grammar, spelling, and punctuation).

AP readers don’t sit there with a checklist to see whether your essay meets all these criteria, however. Rather, they read it holistically, meaning that they read it quickly for an overall impression of your writing and then assign your essay a grade from 1 (low) to 5 (high). Readers are trained to look for clearly organized, well-developed, and forceful responses that reveal a depth of understanding and insight. 

Frankly, the 40 minutes suggested for each essay is not a great deal of time to read the question, plan what you will say, write a few hundred words, edit and proofread your draft, and submit a finished piece of work. In effect, you must condense into a short time what would normally take far longer. A saving grace, however, is that the AP test readers don’t expect three polished pieces of immortal prose, just three competently written essays. 

Each year in early June, thousands of college and high school teachers get together to read and evaluate the essays written by students like you from across the country and overseas. Readers are chosen for their ability to make sound judgments about student writing and are trained to use a common set of scoring standards.

Each essay is read by a different reader—an experienced English teacher who doesn’t know your name, your school, your gender, or anything else about you. Nor do readers know the score you earned on other essays or on the multiple-choice questions. They rate essays according to standards that customarily apply to those written in college-level English courses. A score of 1–5 is assigned to each essay, the same scale used to report AP test results. 

Essay Score

Essay Rating

5

Extremely well qualified

4

Well qualified

3

Qualified

2

Possibly qualified

1

No recommendation

As part of their training, AP essay readers are given guidelines to ensure that all essays are evaluated as fairly and uniformly as possible. Readers are instructed: 

  • To read an essay only once 
  • To read it quickly 
  • To read primarily for what the writer has done well in terms of organization, word choice, clarity, purpose, mechanics of writing, and so on 
  • To assign a grade promptly 
  • To ignore poor handwriting as much as possible 
  • Not to penalize a well-developed but unfinished essay 
  • Not to penalize the writer for supporting or rejecting a particular point of view on an issue 
  • Not to consider length as a criterion of evaluation 
  • To keep in mind that even a marginal response to the question should be judged according to the logic of the argument developed by the writer 
  • To remember that each essay is a first draft written under pressure in about 40 minutes by a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old.

Interpreting AP English Language and Composition Essay Scores

What do AP essay scores tell you about your writing? You’ll find some answers below, and you’ll also see what AP essay readers think about while on the job.

  • 5: A score of 5 represents student writing at its best. It attests to a high level of control of several crucial elements of effective writing: insightful thinking, an ability to convey ideas clearly and succinctly, and competence in organizing ideas to fulfill a specific purpose. Minor flaws in analysis, prose style, or mechanics may creep into the text of an essay rated 5, but they do no damage. 
  • 4: An essay earning a 4 is well-written and organized. In most ways it demonstrates the student’s ability to manage several elements of effective writing, such as clearly articulating the intent of the essay and supporting it with appropriate evidence arranged in a purposeful sequence. Errors, if any, are relatively inconsequential. 
  • 3: A score of 3 indicates a respectable level of writing competence. The main idea may remain in focus throughout the essay, but the text may contain occasional soft spots, perhaps in its development of important ideas or in its organization or use of language. Despite such short- comings, the essay is an acceptable piece of writing. 
  • 2: An essay scored 2 demonstrates a weak grasp of essay-writing basics. It may contain a main idea, but it is neither well-articulated nor sufficiently developed. Paragraphs lack unity and are randomly organized. Awkward expression, sentence errors (e.g., fragments and run-ons), and mistakes in standard usage undermine the essay’s quality. 
  • 1: A score of 1 indicates that the piece submitted bears slight resemblance to an acceptable AP essay. It suggests that the writer has had limited instruction or experience in responding to AP prompts. Numerous weaknesses—from rambling, disjointed paragraphs to irrelevant ideas— signify weak control of written language and may leave readers unsure of what the writer is trying to say.

Scoring Your Own AP English Lang and Comp Essays

Evaluating your own essays takes objectivity that can’t be acquired overnight. In effect, you’ve got to disown your own work—that is, view it through the eyes of a stranger—and then judge it as though you have no stake in the outcome. A word of caution: Don’t expect to breeze through the evaluations. Set aside plenty of time. Many English teachers vividly recall their snail-like progress as novice essay readers—sometimes spending hours on grading a single essay and rereading it again and again. In short, scoring essays can be challenging, and it takes practice. 

If you accept the challenge, begin by reading the following essay-writing instructions (printed in boldface). On the exam, these instructions are included as part of the prompt for each essay. In effect, they are your essays’ ingredients. Because AP readers will look for evidence that you have followed these instructions as they score your essays, it’s important for you to understand what each one tells you to do.

Essay Grading Tip #1: Respond to the prompt with a thesis that may establish a line of reasoning.

Each of your essays must have a thesis, or main idea. It may be placed anywhere in your essay, and can be built in as a separate sentence, a part of a sentence, or even as pieces of two or more sentences. Sometimes the thesis need not be stated at all if the contents of the essay make the main idea so obvious that it would be redundant to spell it out. 

However you construct the thesis, it must in some way reflect the purpose of the assignment—a different one for each of the essays: 1) to use published sources to support your position on an issue; 2) to analyze the rhetoric in a given passage; and 3) to write a convincing argument backed up by evidence drawn from your reservoir of knowledge and experience. Ideally, the thesis of your essay should be visible to the reader from the start, or at least soon thereafter. 

The thesis may also “establish a line of reasoning.” That is, it may explain how you intend to support your essay’s main idea. For instance, in the synthesis essay, you may plan to discuss the issue by citing ideas drawn from two of the textual sources and by statistics found in a chart or graph. Or, the thesis of your argument essay may state or imply your intention to build a case using evidence based on your reading or perhaps on your observations or personal experience.

(The following instruction applies only to Essay 1, the Synthesis Essay. See 2B for the instruction that applies only to Essays 2 and 3.)

Essay Grading Tip #2a: Provide evidence from at least three of the provided sources to support the thesis.

Indicate clearly the sources used through direct quotation, paraphrase, or summary. Sources may be cited as Source A, Source B, etc., or by using the descriptions in parentheses.

Although your thesis may be based on your personal opinion on the issue, build your argument with references to the sources. You needn’t depend solely on the sources with which you agree. By refuting those opposed to your views, you might strengthen your own argument.

(The following instruction applies only to Essays 2 and 3, the Rhetorical Analysis and the Argument. See 2A [above] for the instruction that applies to Essay 1.)

Essay Grading Tip #2b: Select and use evidence to develop and support your line of reasoning.

This instruction reminds you to formulate a claim and support it with convincing and relevant evidence drawn from your studies, reading, observation, and personal experience. You have abundant choices: facts, anecdotes, statistics, analogies, theories, examples, testimonies, expert opinions, your own values and recollections, and more—whatever will bolster your main idea. Each piece of evidence need not be presented as a separate statement. That is, consider blending the evidence gradually into the development of your entire essay.

Essay Grading Tip #3: Explain the relationship between the evidence and the thesis.

Whatever evidence you choose, be sure to explain its pertinence to your thesis. Although the connection may be obvious to you, there is no guarantee that a reader will see it as you do. Connections might be pointed out with stand-alone statements or pronouncements, or less blatantly, by artfully weaving them into the development of the entire essay.

Essay Grading Tip #4: Demonstrate an understanding of the rhetorical situation.

Each of the three essays has a distinct “rhetorical situation,” or purpose. Rather than stating it outright, you might demonstrate your grasp of the rhetorical purpose by implication—that is, simply by fulfilling the assignment. By writing an essay that takes a stand on a particular issue and citing material from three of the given sources, you will have shown comprehension of the Synthesis Essay’s rhetorical situation. Likewise, following the stated instructions for each of the other essays is evidence enough that you’ve understood the rhetorical situation.

Essay Grading Tip #5: Use appropriate grammar and punctuation in communicating your argument.

Use the conventions of standard written English. Unless you need them for effect, avoid street talk, emojis, acronyms, and the abbreviations so common in e-communications.

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