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How to Use Sample Essays for AP English Prep

Now that we’re in the spring semester, AP exam prep is one of the key focuses of AP courses. For AP English students, that means an increase in timed writing tests at school. While your teacher may provide you with the basics of AP English essay writing, you most likely will still need to review and study the format on your own (as well as practice writing on your own). Today, I am going to explain how best to prepare.

[Note: College Board has recently made changes to the format of the AP English exam. One notable change is that the essays are now scored 1-6, not 1-9.]

College Board, the company that creates the AP English content and exams, has a few useful resources on its website. One of the best pages is “AP English Language and Comp Past Exam Questions.” On this page, you can access previously released free-response prompts, sample responses, and graders’ responses to those responses.

(Sample of what the “AP English Language and Comp Past Exam Questions” page looks like. The years go back to 1999.)

Let’s use the AP English synthesis essay as an example of how to use the sample material.

When using the sample materials on the College Board website, your goal is to understand the format of the essay prompt, how to structure your essay, and the depth of analysis necessary to get a high score. That means you need to read “Free-Response Questions” and “Sample Responses.”

Step 1: Read the prompt yourself.

Before you look at the sample responses, give yourself the recommended amount of time to read the prompt and the corresponding documents. As is the case for the synthesis essay, you need to review several sources. You should read the prompt, determine your potential position, read the sources, and then finalize your position (based on the information presented in the sources).

For a synthesis essay, you simply determine if you agree or disagree with the premise (and to what degree). Therefore, when reading the sources, you should note whether the source supports a “for” or “against” argument. In some cases, information may go both ways.

Step 2: Create your own outline.

After reading the prompt and the corresponding documents, you should create your own outline--again, all before looking at any samples. For your outline, you want to include your thesis (or, simply, your position) as well as three key points. If you are not sure how many body paragraphs or points you should include, assume that you are writing a five-paragraph essay. (Note: The samples will illustrate how many body paragraphs you should write, so you won't assume the structure indefinitely.)

For argumentative/position essays, the traditional structure is an introduction, a counterpoint, a support, another support, and a conclusion. So, for the synthesis essay, you should create an outline that addresses these components.

At this point, you are now best prepared to see how your reading and planning should translate into a high-scoring essay.

Step 3: Read the sample essay that scored the highest.

When you open the “Sample Responses” document, you will not know what the sample essays scored until you scroll to the end. Do this first, and then flip to the sample (usually the first) that scored the highest. What you are looking for is …

  • How long is the essay? How many pages? How many words per page (approximately)?

  • How many paragraphs? What types of paragraphs (intro, support, counter, conclusion, other)?

  • How many sentences per paragraph?

  • In the introduction, what information is stated from the first sentence to the thesis statement? What is the movement of ideas?

  • Does the thesis present a broad idea? Supporting points? Are these points later seen as topic sentences in the body paragraphs?

  • How many sources/quotes per body paragraph?

  • How many sentences are devoted to commentary on the sources/quotes?

  • In the conclusion, how is the thesis restated? How are the key points (i.e., the main ideas of the body paragraphs) reiterated? Is there any new information?

As you can see, your study is related to both content and structure. You want to know literally how long the essay is, as well as how long each paragraph is, so that you can better contain your ideas and simplify the task. Once you’ve attached a number to each of the parts of the essay, you can more concretely write towards that goal. Of course, you also want to know the quality of evidence and analysis required to achieve a high score.

It’s worth noting that how well you write is a consideration, quite reasonably, for AP English essays. While you should strive for great writing, your primary focus at this point is about length and content, not the wording itself. Basically, don’t tell yourself, “Well, this is written so well. I can’t do it!” Getting the right format and content is half -- or even three-fourths -- of the battle.

Step 4: Compare your outline and thesis to the sample essay.

After you have read the high-scoring sample essay, return to your own thesis and outline and determine if you planned your essay in a way that would yield a high score. If so, you can start to add more details to your outline, such as which sources to support which points. If not, then revise accordingly.

Basically, you want to prepare yourself to actually write an essay, using the high-scoring sample as a guide.

Step 5: Write a practice essay.

Having now put in all the work to study the prompt and the high-scoring sample essay, you should write your own essay without timing yourself. For now, you want to prove to yourself that you can write a quality essay, and then you can add the time limit after. Also, you’ve already spent more than the time limit studying the sample essay, so it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of your timing if you placed a limit on writing the essay itself.

The hard part of writing the essay on your own is that you will not have someone around to grade it. That’s why using the concrete framework of page length, word length, and sentence length can give you an estimate of how strong your essay is. Still, it wouldn't hurt to get a trusted reader to offer some feedback.

Timed writing season is here! Do you need extra help with preparing for your timed writing exams? Have no fear! B2A has writing tutors that can help you at all parts of the essay writing process. We’ll make sure that you are writing quality AP English essays in no time!

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