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.
I. What to Look For
The first step in the successful writing of a history essay examination is to make certain that you read the question carefully and understand what in essence is being asked. Many writers spend their time writing "around" a question because, by failing to grasp immediately the meaning of a question, they fail to perceive what the teacher wants discussed.
Some questions are easy comprehend -- for example: "Trace the course by which the Thirteen Colonies came to declare their independence from Great Britain": or "Write a history of the gradual slippage of the United States toward involvement in World War I."
Other questions, however, may intimidate a reader simply because of the language in which they are written. The result in such cases is usually an aimless rambling in an essay filled with words and memorized facts (sometimes lists of memorized facts), void of ideas and understanding.
Example: "Without the contributions of George Washington, the rebelling Colonials would
never have won the Revolutionary War. Discuss."
In this query you are not being asked to recite a memorized factual summary of the contributions
of George Washington to the revolutionary effort, nor are you being asked to spit back the
major battles of the War. Rather, and here is where the word meaning is applicable, you are
being asked for an evaluation of George's contributions-- a critical assessment made by yourself
and based upon the knowledge which you have acquired, not memorized, from the lectures and
readings -- with references as to why his contributions were important.
II. Types of Questions
Depending upon the teacher, you may be called upon to "discuss," "trace," "compare and contrast," "write an essay," "evaluate," etc., etc., etc. Do not be taken off guard by the wording or the verbs
used in the question; the verb within the questions is the teacher's method of channeling your answer
in a certain direction. Note the following example questions, all treating a single problem, yet each a little different because of the imperative verb:
a. "Discuss the role of sea power in gaining the eventual victory over the British in the
b. "Compare and contrast American and British sea power accomplishments during the
c. "Trace the development of American sea power showing how it proved decisive during the
d. "Write an essay on the effectiveness of American sea power during the Revolutionary War."
e. "Evaluate American sea power during the Revolutionary War."
A second type of query is that which utilizes the interrogative words such as "what," "why," "how,"
etc. This type is the easiest to comprehend because it is the type of question which is used most frequently in everyday life.
Example: "How are you this morning?", and "How did American sea power facilitate the victory
over the British in the Revolutionary War?", and "What are you doing this weekend?", and
"What accounts for the effectiveness of American sea power during the Revolutionary War?"
A third type of question, the "What if you were," or "Let's pretend" type, is less frequently used
Example: "If you were John Paul Jones writing during the Revolutionary War, how would you
phrase a note to the Continental Congress re-questing appropriations for further naval supplies?"
This kind of question calls for an under-standing of the historical period, an imaginative mind, and a
good deal of empathy
III. Method of Answering
To the historian (and that means you simply because you are enrolled in a history course) the most important part of his writing, be it an examination or a book, is the thesis. To the ordinary world (non historians) what the historian calls a thesis is nothing more than "the point he's trying to
make." But to us of the in-group a thesis is a thesis. For instance, in answering the question about
George Washington's contributions to the War effort, you may have contended that he was
not indispensable. To you, that was a statement of your opinion, interpretation, point of view, etc.
But to the historian that was your thesis! Consequently, from now on you will not write an opinion in
an examination; you will write a thesis in your examination.
Every examination essay should have a thesis, a consistent and logical arrangement which runs
throughout your entire essay. Some questions lend themselves more readily to theses. Nevertheless,
if your essay is going to say anything worth reading, there should be a thesis consistently developed within. Most of you are familiar with the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but if
you listen closely to the Symphony, and the First Movement in particular, you will notice that
Beethoven continually returns with those original four notes as if to remind his listeners of the
boldness of the introduction. You too, in writing an essay, must present a bold first four notes, in this case your thesis, and develop throughout the essay the proof of those four notes (thesis).
In presenting your answer to an examination question, there is a general format which, if mastered
early in your academic career, will prove useful not only in history, but in any non science course in which essay tests and term papers are assigned. This format is:
I) The introduction to your essay should be bold, direct, and assertive -- it should present in
general (or specific) terms the point that you intend to prove in your essay. This, to the
historian (and you), is the presentation of the thesis. (Remember Beethoven's first four notes!)
An example of such a presentation in answer to the George Washington query is:
"Throughout the Revolutionary War period George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief of
the Continental Army, waged a war against great odds in attempting to evict from North
America the legions of British troops intent upon quashing a pesky colonial uprising.
From 1776 until eventual victory in 1783, Washington played a decisive role in prosecuting
the war, a role which, in the long run, appears to have been indispensable."
"No man is ever indispensable, least of all George Washington in his role as Commander-
in-Chief of the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. Certainly Washington made
contributions to the Colonial effort, but in the long run, others in the Army could have
performed at least equally as well as the Father of his Country."
II) The Body of your essay is the place in which the facts which you have learned can be put to
use; however, you have already drawn from that reservoir to some extent simply by taking a
stand -- presenting a thesis -- in the Introduction. Here in the Body you must prove the validity
of your opening position -- your thesis.
III)The Conclusion of your essay examination can be a time to prove your thesis or a time for
simple reiteration of the points presented in the Introduction and proven in the Body.
Whatever it is, the Conclusion will baffle you only if you do not know what you have been
writing. In general, the Conclusion need be nothing more than a space in which you say
in so many words: "I said such-and-such in the beginning, I have proven this with the facts
of my assessment, therefore what I have contended is correct."
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University of California, Berkeley J. Frederick MacDonald
Edited for K-12