How to Approach the Free-Response Essay on the AP U.S. Government and Politics Exam (page 3)
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, www.apcentral.collegeboard.com. You will have to register to access the specific course sites, but it is worth your time.
What Criteria Do the AP Readers Use to Score a Free-Response Essay?
The readers look for responses that answer the questions asked. Remember, each free-response is scored by a different AP reader, trained to score that particular question. Care is given to compare each student essay to the standards established in the rubric. The same standards are applied to all essays, and no modifications in the rubrics occur. In general, students should:
- Recognize the subject matter of the question. When you see “Congress,” don’t just start writing about Congress. Analyze what the question asks about Congress.
- Recognize what task you are being asked to perform in relation to the question, for example, list, explain, describe, identify and explain, or explain and give examples (sometimes you will be asked to perform more than one task).
- NOTE: Remember that there is a general order to the tasks within the question. Organize your essay to answer the question or address the tasks in the order asked.
Types of Free-Response Prompts Free-response questions are generally straightforward and ask you to perform certain tasks. Understanding what the prompt is asking you to do will help you perform the task correctly.
- analyze—examine each part of the whole in a systematic way; evaluate
- define—briefly tell what something is or means
- describe—create a mental picture by using details or examples
- discuss—give details about; illustrate with examples
- explain—make something clear by giving reasons or examples; tell how and why
- argue/defend/justify/support—give evidence to show why an idea or view is right or good
- categorize/classify—sort into groups according to a given set of traits or features
- compare and contrast—point out similarities (compare) and differences (contrast)
- determine cause and effect—decide what leads to an event or circumstance (cause) and what results from an event or circumstance (effect)
- evaluate/judge—determine the worth or wisdom of an opinion, belief, or idea
Developing the Free-Response Essay
Strategies for Writing the Free-Response Essay
- Read the question carefully, in its entirety, and determine what you are being asked to write about. Analyze the question and identify the topics, issues, and key terms that define your task (define, discuss, explain). Underline key terms to focus your attention.
- Brainstorm ideas.
- Organize ideas and outline your essay before you begin to write. Use the blank space in your test booklet to plan. (Brainstorming and outlining should take about five to eight minutes per question.)
- Write the essay. Include an introduction that restates the question, the factual information, evidence and examples, and a conclusion. Stick to your outline and keep sentences simple. If time is short, forget the introduction and conclusion and jump into the essay, using bulleted lists with explanations or an outline.
- Reread the question and your essay to determine if you answered the question or questions. NOTE: Many of the free-response questions will have several parts; make sure you answer them all.
- Proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Even though these errors will not count against you, they can make your essay harder to read and can make your answer less understandable.
Rubrics for the Free-Response Essay
What Is a Rubric?
Rubrics are scoring guidelines used to evaluate your performance on each of the free-response essays. They are based on the sum of points earned by meeting the preestablished criteria.
How Are Rubrics Developed and Applied?
The number of points students may earn for each free-response question is assigned by members of the Test Development Committee. The chief faculty consultant, exam leaders, and question leaders develop preliminary rubrics for each question based on these points. These rubrics are sampled against actual student essays and revised if necessary. Table leaders are then trained using these standards. When the reading begins, table leaders train the AP readers at their table (usually five to seven readers) in the use of the rubric for that particular question. Once the reading begins, the rubrics are not changed.
Common Characteristics of Rubrics
Since each free-response question is different, each scoring rubric will differ. There are, however, several characteristics common to all U.S. Government and Politics rubrics. Each rubric
- Addresses all aspects and tasks of the question. Points are awarded for each task or response requested—one point for a correct identification and two points for the discussion.
- Contains evaluative criteria. These distinguish what is acceptable from what is not acceptable in the answer, for example, accept AARP as an interest group but do not accept the Democratic Party.
- Has a scoring strategy, a scale of points to be awarded for successfully completing a task. For example, identification of an interest group is worth one point.
- Awards points for correct responses; points are not deducted.
- Can be applied clearly and consistently by different scorers. If more than one reader were to score a particular essay, it would receive the same score, based on the same standards.
Final Comments—Some Helpful Hints
When writing your free response, consider these do’s and don’ts.
- Don’t use words that you are uncomfortable using or not familiar with. Readers are not impressed if you use “big words” but don’t understand what they mean or use them incorrectly.
- Don’t try to “fake out” the reader. They are government professors and teachers.
- Don’t preach, moralize, editorialize, or use “cute” comments. Remember, you want the reader to think positively about your essay.
- Don’t “data dump” or create “laundry lists.” Do not provide information (names, court cases, laws) without explanation or relevant link.
- Do write neatly and legibly. Write or print in blue or black ink (not pencil; it’s harder to read) as clearly as you can.
- Do use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They make your essay much easier to score.
- Do answer all questions and all parts of each question. You may answer the questions in any order. Answer the questions you feel you know best, first. That way, if you run out of time and don’t finish, no harm is done. Even though the essays are graded on different scales, they are weighted equally and together count for half your total score. (Each essay is 12.5 percent of your total score.)
- Do support your essay with specific evidence and examples. If the question asks for examples, supply not only the example but also a discussion of how that example illustrates the concept. Provide however many examples the question asks for; hypothetical examples may sometimes by used, if they are backed up with facts.
- Do pay attention to dates and terms like “modern.” When time frames are used, keep your evidence and examples within that time frame (modern presidency would not include Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln).
- Do stop when you finish your essay. Proofread! If you ramble on after you have answered the question completely, you might contradict yourself, causing the reader to question your answer.
- Do your best!
Test Your Free-Response Skills
It is now time to try the free-response section of the second diagnostic exam. Once again, do this entire section in one sitting. Time yourself. Be honest with yourself when scoring your answers.
If the 100 minutes passes before you finish all the questions, stop where you are and score what you have done up to this point. Afterward, answer the remaining questions, but do not count the answers as part of your score. When you have completed all of the freeresponse questions on this exam, assess which ones gave you trouble. Use this book to learn from your mistakes.