Tackling the AP English Language and Composition essays: part 1 (2022)

Tackling the AP English Language and Composition essays: part 1 (1)More than any other test, the AP English Language and Composition Exam is dominated by essays. Three timed essays—the Synthesis Essay, Rhetoric Essay, and Argument Essay—will take up most of your time on the exam, and count for more than fifty percent of your score. In this three-part guide, I’ll walk you through the process of writing timed essays in the style of the AP Lang Exam. In Parts One and Two, I’ll give you some general tips on writing these essays, focusing primarily on the Rhetoric Essay (which is the most unique). In Part Three, I’ll apply what I’ve said to the other two essays, the Synthesis and Argument Essay (which are more similar to one another). These tips should also help you with timed writing exams in general.

So, what are the three AP Lang Essays? The College Board shares a lot of general information about these essays on its website, as well as a large number of excellent sample essays. I suggest you take the time to review all of that material, here. But here’s my primer:

On the AP Lang Exam, there are three essays to write, all in a row (during the second half of the exam, after an initial multiple-choice portion). They are:

  • The Synthesis Essay: You’ll be given a general topic or question for debate (like: should public libraries continue to exist? Or: is eminent domain just?). Multiple short sources taking positions on that topic will follow the prompt. You will then be asked to write your own, short essay taking a position on the topic, citing at least three of the sources that you read.
  • The Rhetoric Essay: You’ll be given a short, rhetorically interesting passage, either taking a position on a topic, telling a story, or performing some other function. You will then be asked to write a short essay analyzing this passage’s use of language/rhetorical approach.
  • The Argument Essay: You will be given some position, usually stated in some brief excerpt from an author’s work. For example, you might be given an excerpt from Proust that suggests that people often regret their choices, or an excerpt from Eleanor Roosevelt praising the virtue of courage. You will then be asked to take your own position on the topic. This time, you won’t be given sources to help you make your arguments; all of your arguments must come from your own brain.

The scoring rubric for each essay is roughly similar, with six possible points awarded: there is one point for argument, four points for evidence and analysis, and one point for “sophistication.” What this means is that, in brief, you need to do three things on every essay to get a perfect score:

  1. Have an argument.
  2. Back up your argument with evidence and analyze how that evidence supports your argument.
  3. Have an ineffable, excellent quality to your writing, a sort of dexterity of mind and language, for which the scorers have reserved one, sacred point.

You can’t really control whether or not you can achieve #3, and a lot of that will be based on your prior level of experience writing/reading; but you can control whether or not you achieve #1-2. So, a high score is totally within your power! The TLDR version of this post is: make a clear argument and back it up with concrete, analyzed evidence. But, of course, that’s not as easy as it looks, and I have many more thoughts on how to actually achieve it, and achieve it well...

The six major components of successfully writing a timed essay on an exam are:

  1. Organizing your time
  2. Reading and Annotating
  3. Outlining Part 1: Thesis
  4. Outlining Part 2: Structure
  5. Writing Part 1: Paragraphs (Intro, Evidence, Analysis, Conclusion)
  6. Writing Part 2: Sentence by Sentence

#1 Organizing your time

On the AP Lang exam, you get a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes to write your three essays. This time is split into chunks. First, there is a 15 minute “reading period”; next, there is a 2 hour “writing period.” What this seems to imply is that the exam would like you to read all of the questions and their supplemental texts (the Synthesis Essay question and texts, the Rhetoric Essay question and passage, the Argument Essay question and short question blurb) in the 15 minute reading period, and then proceed to write the essays, in response, in the two hour writing period. This, however, is obviously an insane approach. For one thing, it’s kind of impossible: no one could keep the details of three different essay questions and associated readings together in their head all at once. For another, it’s really time inefficient: if you read all the material for all three essays first, you’re going to have to go back to it, a lot, each time you start to write a new essay, to jog your memory. Basically, no one in their right mind would (or does) advise this approach. And even the College Board seems to know it makes no sense, because they allow you to continue reading and referring to the questions and texts after the reading period.

What you should do instead? Simply treat the whole 2 hours and 15 minutes as a single time block. Divide it into three units of 45 minutes. Then, read and answer each of the three questions one after the other, giving 45 minutes to each. Start with the Synthesis Essay, followed by the Rhetoric Essay, and then the Argument Essay.

Your process should look like this: during the 15 minute reading period, begin work on the Synthesis Essay by reading the question and texts and planning that essay. Then, when the 2-hour timer starts, devote the first 30 minutes to actually writing that essay. Next, spend 45 minutes reading the Rhetoric Essay question and passage, and writing the Rhetoric Essay. Finally, spend the last 45 minutes reading the Argument Essay question/blurb and then writing the Argument Essay. The Argument Essay should actually take you less time than the first two, which means you should end up with 5-10 minutes to proofread your other essays. That said, I advise that you leave time at the end of each 45-minute block to check over each individual essay.

Now let’s talk about the Rhetoric Essay in particular. How should you organize your 45 minutes here? I suggest mapping out your time roughly like this: take about ten minutes to read the passage, take notes, and brainstorm; then, take about five minutes to make an outline for your essay; next, take about twenty to twenty-five minutes to write. Leave an extra five to seven minutes at the end to re-read and edit your work. As you practice, you might notice that slightly different divisions of time work best for you – feel free to be flexible! You don’t have to stick to your timetable exactly. BUT you should try to stick to a version of this timetable so that you have enough time for each of the steps. How? Watch the clock!

#2 Reading and Annotating

The Rhetoric Essay asks you to analyze the language or rhetoric that a passage uses to achieve its ends. In your first ten minutes of reading, you should be keeping an eye out for two things:

  1. What is this passage trying to achieve? Is it trying to persuade the reader of an argument (often the case)? Is it trying to entertain the reader with a story (sometimes the case)? Is it trying to make the reader laugh? Is it trying to make the reader think? Identify the passage’s main purpose.
  2. What rhetorical methods or devices does the passage use to achieve its aims? What exactly is it doing to achieve its aims? Yes, you should be watching out for rhetorical devices that already have fancy names, like “allusion” or “alliteration,” but you should also be using your OWN language/descriptive powers to identify the passage’s methods. You might, for example, note things like: “makes argument largely through anecdote” or “addresses counterarguments” or “lists so many absurd situations that they start to feel normal.” Try to identify not just rhetorical methods the passage uses, but also the central ones it uses.

To achieve this, I suggest proceeding as follows: read one paragraph. Once you’re done, stop, reflect, and note (in the margins) the most important rhetorical devices the passage used to achieve its aims (as far as you understand them thus far). Do this for each paragraph you read. Once you’re done, you should have a handy list in the margin of rhetorical tactics the passage uses. Which ones, looking back, seem to come up the most frequently? Which ones, even if they don’t come up frequently, seem particularly central to the passage’s aims? The tactics you identify will soon play a role in your essay’s thesis.

Next, you’ll be ready to write an outline for your essay, mapping out (as best you can) its thesis and structure. In the next blog post, we’ll begin with that step.

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