The long essay question on the AP U.S. History exam is designed to test your ability to apply knowledge of history in a complex, analytic manner. In other words, you are expected to treat history and historical questions as a historian would. This process is called historiography— the skills and strategies historians use to analyze and interpret historical evidence to reach a conclusion. Thus, when writing an effective essay, you must be able to write a strong and clearly developed thesis and supply a substantial amount of relevant evidence to support your thesis.
Success on the long essay section of the exam starts with breaking down the task of essay writing into specific steps. As part of your yearlong preparation for taking the AP U.S. History exam, you should be writing at least two essays (one Document Based Question and one Long Essay Question) each month.
Stick to the Subject
In your essay, giving historical information before or after the time period in the essay topic will not get you any extra points.
Step 1: Dissect the Question
Always keep in mind that the AP U.S. History exam is written to be challenging and rigorous. Thus, the questions will require you to identify specific and important information prior to constructing a response. When given an essay prompt, first take some of your time to slow down and understand exactly what the question is asking you to do. The key here is to understand how to answer all parts of the question. Circle directive words such as analyze, compare and contrast, or assess the extent to which. Commonly, prompts will ask you to validate or refute a statement or to explain the impact of one event on another or the degree of impact. List these directives as pieces of the puzzle that you will attempt to put together with your history knowledge.
THERE’S NO U IN HISTORY
Don’t include personal opinions in the essay. The reader is looking for your grasp of the history itself and your ability to write about it.
Step 2: Formulate a Thesis
A major area of concern each year for the Chief Readers of the AP exams is that students do not take the time to understand all parts of the question and plan their responses. We have already dissected the question; now it is time to plan a thesis. The thesis is your way of telling the reader why he or she should care about reading your essay. If you have a weak thesis, the reader will not be convinced that you understand the question. He or she will not trust that you have the depth of knowledge necessary to answer the question! Therefore, you must have a thesis that takes a stand, answers the entire question, and shows the reader the path you will take in your essay answer. It is not enough to merely restate the question as your thesis. One of the most important things to do is to take a position. Don’t be afraid of taking a strong stand for or against a prompt as long as you can provide proper and relevant evidence to support your assertions.
Think of your thesis as the “road map” to your essay. It will provide the reader with the stops along the way to the final destination—the conclusion. Only through a thorough study of U.S. history can you construct a strong thesis.
During the planning time, make a short outline of all the outside information you’re planning to use in your essay; you will have the info handy while you’re writing.
Step 3: Plan Your Evidence
Now that you have a “road map,” you need to brainstorm all of the relevant evidence you can recall that relates to the question. There are several ways to do this. Some students prefer to use a cluster strategy; that is, they place the main thoughts in bubbles and then scatter supporting evidence around the main bubbles. Other students prefer to list facts and evidence in a bulleted list. Some like to create an outline of relevant information. Whatever you prefer, this is a step you cannot skip! Students who do not take the time to plan their evidence often find themselves scratching out irrelevant information during the exam, thus wasting valuable time. Also, you must learn to brainstorm efficiently—you should use only about five minutes to complete the first three steps of essay writing. Use abbreviations, pictures, or other cues that are efficient for you.
Once you have a list, you can move to the next (and most important) step—writing!
As you practice writing essays using these strategies, you will have the luxury of taking time to write topic sentences, list evidence, and construct “mini conclusions” for each prompt. However, on the AP exam, time is of the essence! You have 35 minutes to construct a coherent essay response for the LEQ and about 55 minutes for the DBQ. If you practice the prewriting strategies from the previously outlined steps 1 through 3, you will find it easy to write a developed paper in a short time.
When composing your essay, start with your most important information; if you run out of time when you’re writing, your key points are already in the essay.
There is no “standard” number of paragraphs you must have. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is one body paragraph for each portion of the essay prompt. Some AP U.S. History exam questions will be structured to fit a five-paragraph essay, while others may need more and others less. You will not be penalized for writing a strong four-paragraph response. Likewise, you will not be rewarded for constructing a weak six-paragraph response. AP readers look for quality, not quantity.
Your first paragraph should always introduce your essay. Your thesis from step 2 is only part of your introduction. The first paragraph of your essay should include your thesis and any other organizational cues you can give your reader. Ask yourself, “Could a complete stranger understand where my essay is going from just my first paragraph?” If your answer is no, then you must rework the introduction. Do not spend time creating a “hook” or flashy statement for your first sentence. Do not use rhetorical questions. AP Faculty Consultants are reading for the items that are listed on the scoring guide. You will notice that creativity in language and structure is not a listed item. However, a well-written and developed argument is a desired item.
Your body paragraphs should follow the “road map” you set in your introduction and thesis. Don’t stray from your plan, or you will find yourself straying from the question. You have taken the time to plan, so follow it! Do not merely list facts and events in a “laundry list” fashion. You must have some element of analysis between each set of evidence you provide. Using transition words such as however, therefore, and thus to show a shift in thought can make creating analytic sentences quick and easy. You should practice stringing facts and thoughts together using these “qualifying transitions” in your sentences.
KNOW THE LINGO
Whenever possible, use historical terms or phrases instead of general ones. For example, instead of saying that the South established laws against an owner freeing slaves, say that the South established laws against manumission. This shows the reader that you really know your stuff.
Beware of telling a story rather than answering the question. Readers are looking for analysis, not a revised version of your textbook. Do not attempt to shower the reader with extra factoids and showy language. Say what you need to say cleanly and simply. Readers will be impressed with your ability to write clearly and concisely in a way that showcases your historical knowledge, rather than your ability to write creatively. Because this is a formal essay, you should avoid using personal pronouns such as you, I, or we. Avoid the use of terms that could be “loaded” unless you intend on explaining them to the reader. For instance, you would not want to use the term liberal to describe Thomas Jefferson unless you were prepared to explain your use of the word liberal in the historical context. Do not use slang in any part of your essay. Also, because your essay is about history and thus is about the past, write your essay in the past tense. Do not write about Franklin D. Roosevelt as if he were still alive today.
You should end each body paragraph with a “mini conclusion” that ties the paragraph back to the thesis. It can serve as a transition sentence into the next paragraph or stand alone. In either case, the reader should be able to tell easily that you are shifting gears into another part of the essay.
Lastly, write your conclusion. Many students have learned that they should simply restate their thesis in the conclusion; these students may recopy what they wrote in the introduction word for word. This is incorrect. Yes, you should restate your thesis, but in a new way. Instead of rewriting it word for word, explain why your thesis is significant to the question. Do not introduce new evidence in your conclusion. The conclusion should tie all the “mini conclusion” sentences together and leave the reader with a sense of completion. If for some reason you are running out of time when you reach the conclusion, you may leave it off without incurring a specific penalty on the scoring guide. However, if you practice writing timed essays, you will learn the proper timing it takes to write a complete essay, conclusion included.
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