The AP English Language persuasive (or argumentative) essay is one of the three long-form free-response questions that will make up 55% of your score on the AP English Language and Composition Exam. While the multiple-choice section and the rhetorical analysis essay will test you on how well you have learned the various rhetorical techniques you have been exposed to this year, the persuasive essay and a similar task, the synthesis (also see our article “5 Tips to the AP English Language Synthesis Essay You Must Know”), will test you on how well you can put these techniques to use yourself.
It’s time for you to follow in the footsteps of the established, respected writers you have been reading all year and put everything that you’ve learned to work in the AP English Language persuasive essay.
How the AP English Language Persuasive Essay Works
Persuasion through essay writing is something you probably learned about a long time ago, but the AP English Language Exam’s persuasion essay requires some more specific tips. You will be given a prompt that may or may not reference a reading sample; it will ask you to then “defend,” “challenge,” or “qualify” a position on a public issue – either the position espoused in the reading sample or one simply stated by the author of the question.
To defend a position is to agree with it and rationalize that agreement, to challenge it is to disagree with it and show holes in its supporting logic. To qualify a position is to attempt to truly understand all sides of the issue and see that both sides may have some valid points. However, you still need to take a definite stand, no matter what you do, although it can be a stand such as “Idea X is ethical in certain situations and unethical in others” – however, expand on that to give the AP Examiners an exact notion of your opinion, and then use logic and beautiful writing to persuade them to see your way of thinking.
No Issue is One-Sided
Although taking a definitive stand is one of the most important things you need to do during the AP English Language persuasive essay, you will often score higher if you show the full complexity of issues and exhibit understanding of the other side of the argument. This can not only show that you are intelligent and appreciate the complexity of the types of issues you may be talking about on the exam, but may actually help strengthen your argument, in that you can foresee potential arguments against your support for your beliefs, then undermine them as you write about them.
Even in issues that you are very passionate about or cannot see the other side’s logic on at all, keep in mind that you should be respectful and mature in all your AP Exam writings.
Draw from All Possible Sources – But Don’t Be Self-Centered!
This AP Language persuasive essay allows you to draw on your knowledge from other subjects, what you’ve read inside and outside of school (be it a classic novel or this morning’s paper), and your personal experience; a well-rounded, well-thought-out essay will use all or at least most of these. That being said, don’t be too focused on using your own experience to justify your beliefs – this is a less mature, less powerfully logical way of arguing than what the Examiners expect. Use personal experience, when relevant, as one facet of a wider, more nationally and globally aware argument.
For example, a prompt on advertising could probably use some personal anecdotes about your experiences with advertising alongside things you may have seen in the news or learned in a statistics class and analogies you can draw using global events or literature. A prompt on the ethics of experimentation on animals probably shouldn’t use much personal experience (unless you have a biologist in the family), because your “experiences” will be limited to feelings, not fully lived and understood events that will hold up in an argument.
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To score an 8 on the AP English Argument FRQ question, the CollegeBoard outlines that students need to write an essay that effectively argues a position, uses appropriate and convincing evidence, and showcases a wide range of the elements of writing. Essays that score a 9 do all of that and, additionally, demonstrate sophistication in their argument.
An essay that does all of that is an essay that is well constructed. Such an essay needs a solid framework and excellent support. To construct an essay like that, it is important to have a clear idea of what you are being asked, to not waffle, to spend time and care with your thesis and outline, and to support every claim you make.
The best way to write an AP English FRQ that does all of that is to understand what you are going to see on the AP English Language test.
What You are Going to See on the AP English Argument FRQ
The AP English argument FRQ is the most straightforward of the AP English FRQs because it is the most like essays you are already used to writing. It’s exciting to have free reign and make your own argument, unrestrained from rhetorical analysis devices or documents. But, like most AP writing, it also can be a little overwhelming. There’s nothing to read to provide evidence for you or to help you form an argument. Whether you’re feeling excited or overwhelmed by the AP writing argument FRQ, being strategic about forming your thesis, crafting a strong, chronological argument, and utilizing good, supportive evidence will lead to a better overall essay response.
Determine the Question
The first question to ask yourself is what am I being asked to do? Look for keywords and phrases that will answer that question.
Here’s an example from the 2016 AP English Language argument FRQ.
Though there are just two short paragraphs, there is a lot of room for confusion here. In this case, “Write an essay that argues your position on the extent to which Wilde’s claims are valid” is the key sentence you are looking for. In 2016, AP English Language test takers were asked to argue either for, or against, the idea that disobedience is the virtue through which progress is possible.
If you cannot determine what the question is, go back and reread the prompt. Knowing the question you are answering is the most important part of AP writing. You will not be able to answer the question effectively if you aren’t certain what the question is. Pick out a specific sentence or two to determine the question, and thereby ensure that you aren’t just writing an essay that responds to the general sense of the prompt.
Pick an Opinion and Stick to it
The next step is both simple and difficult. Identify your own opinion on the subject.
But remember — the AP argument FRQ is designed to test how well you can craft an argument. Questions like the 2016 question seem so daunting, because how one feels about disobedience has ramifications. It is a bigger question than students are used to encountering on an AP test.
But there is no right or wrong answer for this AP English FRQ. And whatever argument you choose will not come back later in the exam or in your final grade in the class. This is not to say that you shouldn’t believe in what you are writing. Only that you should remember that both sides are arguable, pick one, and stick to it. Don’t waffle.
Craft a Thesis Statement
The thesis statement should be both simple and elegant. It should encompass your entire essay in just one sentence. So, for the 2016 argument FRQ:
Good thesis: As Wilde claims, disobedience is a valuable human trait without which progress could not be made because, in situations like the American Revolution, it is only deviance from the norm that can change the norm.
This thesis breaks down a) that the author is claiming to agree with Wilde, b) that the author will support that claim with examples from the American Revolution, and c) that the author will continually return to the idea that only deviance from the norm can change the norm.
Not a Good thesis: Disobedience is a good trait for humans, because historically, disobedient men and women made history.
This thesis doesn’t really answer the question. It says that disobedience is good but doesn’t mention Wilde. It alludes to the idea that disobedient men and women made history but doesn’t mention progress. Plenty of people, like Franz Ferdinand, made history without progressing the human race. This thesis isn’t specific and doesn’t give you a clear idea of what the author will be saying next.
See the difference?
After you’ve determined your thesis, use it as a jumping point to sketch a quick outline. Then, follow your outline, bringing in your own concrete examples and evidence. Doing so will improve your AP writing.
Craft a Chronological Argument
A good argument builds as you move through the essay. It does not simply repeat the same points. Instead, the different points of the argument build off one another and work together to advance the author’s point.
Let’s look at the 2014 AP English argument FRQ for an example.
In this case, students are being asked to both define creativity and to argue for, or against, the creation of a class in creativity.
All students are likely to have their own definitions of creativity and their own opinions about a creativity class. For the purposes of example, let’s use Steve Jobs’ definition of creativity and quickly outline an argument for the creation of a class in creativity.
Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” Jobs sees creativity not as the art of making something completely new from scratch, but instead the art of connecting dots differently.
A chronological argument builds off itself. So, in this question’s case, an outline would look something like this:
- Creativity is best thought of as making connections.
- Making connections is a type of thinking that can be taught.
- Making connections is best taught in school, as opposed to outside of it.
First, a student would have to argue why creativity is best thought of as making connections. The second point, that making connections is a type of thinking that can be taught, cannot be proven until the first point has been sufficiently supported. And the final point, that this is a skill that is best taught in school, cannot be made without the other two. The points of the argument cannot be moved around, changed, or removed. This shows the argument is chronological and has built on itself.
When you sketch your outline, quickly ask yourself if the outline would make just as much sense if you rearranged it. If the answer is no, start writing your essay. If the answer is yes, try to structure your argument so that your points build off one another.
Support Your Claims
All arguments need evidence. This is the proof you need to support your thesis. And in the case of the AP English argument FRQ, the evidence all comes from you. What exactly that evidence is will vary from question to question and from student to student. But make sure that every point you make is supported by evidence.
Here’s some good news — you already know quite a bit about effective evidence from what you have learned in AP English about rhetorical devices. Your main purpose in this essay is to persuade. What have you learned in class about effective ways to persuade? What rhetorical devices can you utilize? Try to pick the best devices to support your argument that you can.
Here are some examples of supportive and non-supportive evidence that students could use to support their claims.
The 2015 AP English language argument FRQ asked students to argue what the function of polite speech in a culture they are familiar with.
Supportive evidence: Polite speech is useful for conveying tone, especially in the world of the Internet. A great example of this need is email. Because emails are virtual communications, they are completely stripped of the context that non-verbal cues, like body language, eye contact, and physical touch, can provide. Polite, formal speech conveys that the sender of the email respects the receiver. Phrases like “How are you?” help convey friendliness between e-mailers. Taking the time to ensure an email sounds friendly can, for example, help ease the sting of a virtual scolding from a boss to a subordinate. As more communication becomes virtual, polite speech is more important than ever to provide context.
In this paragraph, the student chooses to discuss the role of polite speech in the culture of the Internet. The student claims that polite speech is necessary to convey tone in communication without context and uses emails as a frame. The student uses examples of situations where email and polite speech are directly involved to support her claims. Every one of the claims is followed up with an example.
Non-supportive evidence: Polite speech is useful for conveying tone, especially in the world of the Internet. In forums, people are never polite, and it is bad for discourse, which is bad for democracy. The world would be a much better place if when people online disagreed with one another, they were polite instead of angry and ready to form a new subreddit at any time. When people on the Internet aren’t polite, they don’t worry about their tone at all, and it offends people. The lack of polite speech makes the Internet a hostile place.
In this paragraph, the student chooses to discuss the role of polite speech in the culture of the Internet. However, the student does not utilize supportive evidence to do so. The paragraph is full of claims, like that the world would be better if people on the Internet were polite, but does not provide a concrete example to anchor the claim. Additionally, the paragraph does not support the idea that polite speech conveys tone on the Internet because it primarily focuses on the lack of polite speech on some parts of the Internet.
There is so much variance in prompts and students’ prior knowledge; it’s impossible to provide a checklist of what makes evidence supportive. But a good trick to decide if you’ve supported your claims well enough is to talk to yourself. No really, it’s a good idea.
Picture yourself discussing your essay with someone. Imagine that this person disagrees with everything that you say. Every time you make a claim, like that it’s important to be polite in an email, your imaginary person shakes their head and tell you no. How would you try to convince them? What examples would you use? Make sure that for each opinion you put forward; you have provided an answer to someone who would disagree with you.
The evidence is an important part of your essay. If your outline and your argument are a framework, your evidence is the brick and mortar. A house without brick and mortar won’t fall, but it won’t be a very nice house to inhabit. Tie every claim you make to a piece of evidence to ensure the best essay possible.
To Sum up
The AP English argument FRQ varies quite a bit. But it is ultimately about how well you can put forth an argument. So, don’t be afraid to spend some time crafting that argument. Pick a clear position that can offer no confusion, write a clear and direct thesis statement, and make an argument that has to be in the order you write it. Support yourself with concrete, specific evidence and examples. But most of all, have fun. This essay is the one you should be looking forward to, where you have the freest rein. Enjoy it and earn yourself a 9.
Do the examples shown make sense to you? Can you picture yourself moving through the AP writing argument FRQ with ease now?
Test yourself and write a practice essay response. Here are tips on how to score your own AP English Practice Essay.
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