Approach AP Essay Questions with Ease

Every page of the Advanced Placement (AP) essay exam gives you plenty of space to make notes. If you write better essays by putting together an outline first, you can organize your thoughts in the spare space. The outline won't be graded or counted in any way. Your overall goal is to create an essay that relates well to the question, gives to-the-point supporting information, and makes a clear statement.

Start off by reading the question all the way through and circling key words. If you don't choose to work from an   outline you jot down in the margin, make sure you go back and reread the question halfway through writing your answer. Check your answer against the question. It's easy to get carried away, and by the end of your response, you may be answering a different question.

Here are more strategies for answering AP essay questions:

  • Give specific information in your answer. Don't be so general that you don't really say anything — for example, "Many things happened in 1968." The combination of using the right terminology and explaining processes will convince an AP exam reader that you understand the answer. You don't have to offer the tiniest details, however, to get full points.

  • Answer each part of an essay question separately. Many of the AP essay questions ask several related questions. A single question, for example, may have two or three parts, each requesting specific information. You should answer each part of the question in a separate paragraph. This will help the reader recognize each part of your answer. Some questions are formally divided into parts, such as a, b, c, d. Answer these questions in separate paragraphs labeled a, b, c, and d.

  • Answer all parts of an essay question. When you answer the essay questions, be sure to give a response for each part of the question. Don't overload the detail on one part at the expense of saying nothing in another part because you ran out of time. Each part of the question is assigned a specific number of points. If you give lots of information on one part, and nothing on the remaining parts, you receive only the maximum number of points allotted to the part you completed.

  • Budget your time. Here's the best plan: Answer all the essay questions adequately. You'll probably know something about every question, so be sure to record at least a few thoughts for each question. If you reach the last question with five minutes remaining, use that time to write as much information as possible. One or two points is a whole lot better than zero.

  • Don't be overly concerned about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or penmanship. The AP exam readers don't marks points against you for incorrect grammar, spelling, or punctuation or poor penmanship. They are interested in content. However, if your grammar, spelling, or penmanship gets in the way of clear communication, the readers may not know what you're trying to say, and your score will suffer.

  • Dive right in and answer the question directly. You most likely know how to write a five-paragraph "standard essay," which consists of an introduction, the body of the essay, and a conclusion. Cranking out five full paragraphs isn't necessary for the AP exam. A solidly supported three-paragraph essay, without an introduction or conclusion, can cover the subject. Test readers don't count paragraphs; they do look for well-developed ideas and arguments.

  • Pay attention to direction words. A direction word is the first word in an essay question that tells you how to answer the question. The direction word tells you what you need to say about the subject matter that follows. Here are common direction words found on AP exams.

    • Discuss means to consider or examine various aspects of a subject or problem.

    • Describe means to characterize, or give an account in words.

    • Define means to give a precise meaning for a word or phrase.

    • Explain means to clarify or make understandable.

    • Compare means to discuss two or more items with an emphasis on their similarities.

    • Contrast means to discuss two or more items with an emphasis on their differences.

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