The newest section of the AP English Language and Composition Exam, the synthesis essay, is one of three essays you will be completing during the examination’s 2-hour free-response period. However, you’ll also have a 15-minute reading and planning period just for this essay, and if you use this time to plan effectively, you can’t go wrong.
Before we get into specific advice on how to handle the AP English Language and Composition synthesis essay, you need to know what this part of the test really is. It is very similar to the argumentative essay you will also write as part of this exam, except that you are provided with a wealth of source material from which to draw some support for your ideas.
While this in some ways makes the AP English Language and Composition synthesis essay easier than the argument essay (because you can use quotations, point to authoritative sources for support, etc.), there is an extra element of complexity, and the AP readers want to see how well you can sort through your source material and put it to good use – which makes planning all that much more important. This brings us to our first tip…
1. Use Your 15-Minute Planning Period Wisely.
The main purpose of this 15-minute period is to give you time to read the source materials. This essay will present you with several sources providing different information about or opinions on a certain topic. Make sure you don’t just skim them, but read them closely – make notes, underline key sections you may want to quote later, etc.
You should also begin outlining your essay and considering your opinion on the subject; have this opinion in mind before you start writing the essay, as you will use it to construct your thesis.
You’ve already learned how to structure persuasive essays in this class and in other classes you have taken; put that knowledge to good use now, and have your main points set out before you start writing. Try to have a thesis statement written by the time you start the essay – your thesis should establish your opinion and the general reasons you feel this way; the rest of your essay will go on to justify and exemplify these reasons. Also write down some of the main points upon which you will base subsequent paragraphs and mark quotes or sections of the sources you can use in each of these paragraphs.
2. Evaluate Your Sources.
Every source you can use for the AP Language and Composition synthesis essay will have a small box above it explaining where it comes from and who said it – to see exactly what this looks like, check out the free synthesis essay sample questions at AP Central. There are also public sample questions available there for the rest of the AP English and Composition Exam.
Keep all information about your sources in mind when you’re quoting them or using them to support your arguments. What journal an article appeared in can say a great deal about its potential biases. For example, consider a question on the environmental impacts of corporate practices – an environmental journal is obviously going to be biased in favor of more environmental regulation, while a report from a company spokesperson will probably gloss over some of the negative impacts of his company. Think critically.
3. Keep Your Tone Consistent.
There is no hard-and-fast advice about what tone you should take – some students try to inject a little humor into their essays while others prefer to be as serious as possible, some are extremely critical and others more accepting. However, the one thing you really have to do while writing the AP Language and Composition synthesis essay (or any other essay) is keep your tone consistent. Jot some tone-related ideas down as you outline during the 15-minute reading period, and keep in mind everything you’ve learned about tone and other aspects of rhetoric so far this year.
4. Use Rhetorical Technique to Your Advantage!
The various rhetorical practices you’ve been learning about all year can be put to good use here. This class and this test aren’t just about recognizing and analyzing these techniques when others use them, but about preparing you for college and your career by teaching you how to use them effectively yourself. However, this isn’t just about writing a beautiful essay, so read on to Tip # 5!
5. Your Argument Must be Well-Crafted.
The AP English Language and Composition Exam synthesis essay does not have right or wrong answers; rather, it asks you for your opinion. The AP Examiner cannot take points off because she disagrees with you. However, you must show logical basis for your opinion, drawing on both the sources AND your own knowledge and experience.
To do this, make sure you have a clear and complete thesis. Make sure the ideas expressed in the beginning of each paragraph or section support the thesis, and that you in turn show how those ideas are supported by a source or through your own knowledge and experience. Don’t generalize or write anything down that you can’t support.
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This year, I was assigned to read Question 3, which called for students to write an argument. The directive says: “Carefully read the following passage by Susan Sontag. Then write an essay in which you support, refute, or qualify Sontag’s claim that photography limits our understanding of the world. Use appropriate evidence to develop your argument.” There followed a provocative and somewhat cryptic three-paragraph excerpt from On Photography.
Identify the Task through Key Words
Perhaps the single most important key to success on an AP Exam is the student’s ability to see that the prompt identifies a task to be performed. Students who were successful on Question 3 recognized key words in the prompt and were able to determine the task they were being asked to do.
Claim and Argument
The question was not merely an invitation to write discursively on the subject of photography. The word “claim” in the prompt should have alerted students to the need for writing in argumentative form. This point was reinforced by the explicit mention of “argument” in the last sentence. The question requires that students understand what an argument is and know how to construct one.
Support, Refute, or Qualify
The words “support, refute, or qualify” are technical terms that were not decoded in the question. Students need to know and to have practiced these forms of argument during the term. (Some students misunderstood “qualify”; for example, “Sontag is not qualified to talk about photography.”) In addition, these three words should signal to students that taking a position, even if a qualified one, is essential.
Evidence and Develop
The word “evidence” is also important. Students need to know not only what constitutes evidence, but the difference between evidence and example. Even “develop” conveyed important signals—their argument needed to move forward; they couldn’t just make one little point and assume they were developing it by adding six redundant illustrations.
Problems that prevented students from earning a high score on Question 3 included:
- Not taking a clear position or wavering between positions.
- Substituting a thesis-oriented expository essay for an argumentative essay.
- Being reluctant to engage in verbal combat because “everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion,” so there’s nothing to argue about.
- Slipping out of focus by discussing imagery in general.
- Trying to argue about photography by using evidence drawn from a literary reading list (for example, Othello, The Scarlet Letter) and sliding off topic into the theme of appearance and reality.
- Lacking clear connections between claims and the data, and the warrants needed to support them.
- Trying to analyze Sontag’s rhetorical strategies or her style instead of arguing a point.
Some Teaching Suggestions
When students did less well, the reasons often point toward the need for more direct instruction and practice in argumentative writing.
I recommend that teachers place an emphasis on:
- Teaching students to read the prompt as part of their analysis of the rhetorical situation.
- Teaching students to analyze and compose for a wide variety of writing situations, not merely literary analysis.
- Using a variety of nonfiction prose for teaching composition and rhetoric.