How to Approach the Free-Response Essay on the AP U.S. Government and Politics Exam

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 22, 2011

The free-response section of the U.S. Government and Politics exam contains four mandatory free-response or essay questions. This means no choice between questions; you must answer all four. Don’t worry though; often a question will allow choice within the question (such as, choose one of the three court cases listed). You will be given 100 minutes for the free-response section; therefore, you should plan on devoting approximately 25 minutes per question. Questions will cover the themes, issues, concepts, and content from all six areas of the course (constitutional underpinnings; political beliefs and behaviors; political parties, interest groups, and the mass media; institutions of national government; public policy; and civil rights and civil liberties).

What Is a Free-Response Essay?

The free-response questions are specific; therefore, your responses must be focused. Responses do not necessarily require a thesis statement, and you must pay close attention to what is being asked. Remember, to gain the highest possible score, answer the question that is asked.

What Is the Purpose of the Free-Response Essay?

The free-response essay assesses your ability to think critically and analyze the topics studied in U.S. Government and Politics. The essays allow students to demonstrate an understanding of the linkages among the various elements of government.

What Are the Pitfalls of the Free-Response Essay?

The free-response question can be a double-edged sword. Students can experience test anxiety (what’s “free” in the free-response?) or suffer from overconfidence because of the open nature of this essay. The greatest pitfall is the failure to plan. Remember to pace yourself; no one question is more important than another. Plan your strategy for answering each question, and stick to it. Don’t ramble in vague and unsupported generalities. Rambling may cause you to contradict yourself or make mistakes. Even though your time is limited, creating a general outline may help you in this section.

How Do I Prepare for the Free-Response Essay?

You need to begin preparing for the free-response essay as soon as the course begins. Focus on your writing skills, and practice as if you were writing for the AP exam every time you are assigned an essay in your government and politics class. Determine your strengths and weaknesses, and work to correct areas of weakness. Don’t worry, your teacher will probably give you plenty of opportunities to complete these types of essays.

  • Broaden your knowledge base by reading your textbook and supplemental texts. They will give you basic information to draw from when writing the free-response essay. Do not skim the text—READ—paying attention to details and focusing on people, events, examples, and linkages between different areas of government and politics (for example, interactions between the branches of government or how the media influence lawmakers). Watch the news, and pay attention to current events relating to government and politics.
  • Pay attention in class to lectures and discussions. Take notes and study them.
  • Take advantage of practice writing whenever possible. Watch and correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation in classroom essays. Check out previous year’s free-response questions, rubrics, and sample scored student essays on the College Board Web site, You will have to register to access the specific course sites, but it is worth your time.
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