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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This year, I was assigned to read Question 3, which called for students to write an argument. The directive says: “Carefully read the following passage by Susan Sontag. Then write an essay in which you support, refute, or qualify Sontag’s claim that photography limits our understanding of the world. Use appropriate evidence to develop your argument.” There followed a provocative and somewhat cryptic three-paragraph excerpt from On Photography.
Identify the Task through Key Words
Perhaps the single most important key to success on an AP Exam is the student’s ability to see that the prompt identifies a task to be performed. Students who were successful on Question 3 recognized key words in the prompt and were able to determine the task they were being asked to do.
Claim and Argument
The question was not merely an invitation to write discursively on the subject of photography. The word “claim” in the prompt should have alerted students to the need for writing in argumentative form. This point was reinforced by the explicit mention of “argument” in the last sentence. The question requires that students understand what an argument is and know how to construct one.
Support, Refute, or Qualify
The words “support, refute, or qualify” are technical terms that were not decoded in the question. Students need to know and to have practiced these forms of argument during the term. (Some students misunderstood “qualify”; for example, “Sontag is not qualified to talk about photography.”) In addition, these three words should signal to students that taking a position, even if a qualified one, is essential.
Evidence and Develop
The word “evidence” is also important. Students need to know not only what constitutes evidence, but the difference between evidence and example. Even “develop” conveyed important signals—their argument needed to move forward; they couldn’t just make one little point and assume they were developing it by adding six redundant illustrations.
Problems that prevented students from earning a high score on Question 3 included:
- Not taking a clear position or wavering between positions.
- Substituting a thesis-oriented expository essay for an argumentative essay.
- Being reluctant to engage in verbal combat because “everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion,” so there’s nothing to argue about.
- Slipping out of focus by discussing imagery in general.
- Trying to argue about photography by using evidence drawn from a literary reading list (for example, Othello, The Scarlet Letter) and sliding off topic into the theme of appearance and reality.
- Lacking clear connections between claims and the data, and the warrants needed to support them.
- Trying to analyze Sontag’s rhetorical strategies or her style instead of arguing a point.
Some Teaching Suggestions
When students did less well, the reasons often point toward the need for more direct instruction and practice in argumentative writing.
I recommend that teachers place an emphasis on:
- Teaching students to read the prompt as part of their analysis of the rhetorical situation.
- Teaching students to analyze and compose for a wide variety of writing situations, not merely literary analysis.
- Using a variety of nonfiction prose for teaching composition and rhetoric.