Basics of the Synthesis Essay for AP English Language

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

What Is the Synthesis Essay on the Exam Like?

Basically, the student is presented with an introduction to and a description of an issue that has varying viewpoints associated with it. Accompanying this is a selection of sources that address the topic. These sources can be written texts that could include nonfiction, fiction, poetry, or even drama, as well as visual texts, such as photos, charts, artwork, cartoons, and so forth.

After carefully reading and annotating the sources, the student is required to respond to the given prompt with an essay that incorporates and synthesizes at least THREE of the sources in support of his position on the subject.

What Is the Purpose of the Synthesis Essay?

The College Board wants to determine how well the student can do the following:

  • Read critically
  • Understand texts
  • Analyze texts
  • Develop a position on a given topic
  • Support a position on a given topic
  • Support a position with appropriate evidence from outside sources
  • Incorporate outside sources into the texts of the essay
  • Cite sources used in the essay

The synthesis essay is a chance to demonstrate your ability to develop a "researched idea," using not only your personal viewpoint, but also the viewpoints of others. This essay is a reflection of your critical reading, thinking, and writing skills.

What Kinds of Synthesis Essays Can I Expect?

The synthesis essay has two primary approaches.

The first kind of synthesis essay is one you're probably familiar with. This is the expository essay in which you develop your thesis and support it with specific examples from appropriate sources. You could develop this type of synthesis essay using any of the rhetorical strategies, such as:

  • Compare and contrast
  • Cause and effect
  • Analysis

The second kind of synthesis essay presents an argument. Here, you take a position on a particular topic and support this position with appropriate outside sources, while indicating the weaknesses of other viewpoints.

You should be ready to write either of these two types of synthesis essays. Given the nature of the AP Language exam, however, it is more likely that you will be presented with a synthesis essay prompt that requires a response in the form of an argument.

The important thing is to practice composing both types of synthesis essays. Practice. Practice. Being familiar and comfortable with the synthesis process is the crucial factor.

How Is the Synthesis Essay Rated?

As with the other essays on the AP Language exam, the synthesis essay is rated on a 9-point scale that is based on the AP Reader's evaluation of this first draft of an essay written in approximately 40 minutes. Here is a sample rubric for the synthesis essay.

A 9 essay has all the qualities of an 8 essay, and the writing style is especially impressive, as is the analysis and integration of the specifics related to the given topic and the given sources.

An 8 effectively and cohesively addresses the prompt. It clearly takes a position on the given topic and supports the claim using carefully integrated and appropriate evidence, including at least three of the given sources. The essay will also show the writer's ability to control language.

A 7 essay has all the properties of a 6, only with a more complete, well-developed, and integrated argument or a more mature writing style.

A 6 essay adequately addresses the prompt. The claim is on the given topic and integrates, as well as makes use of, appropriate evidence, including at least three references from the given sources. These elements are less fully integrated and/or developed than scores in the 7, 8, or 9 range. The writer's ideas are expressed with clarity, but the writing may have a few errors in syntax and/or diction.

A 5 essay demonstrates that the writer understands the prompt. The argument/claim/position about the given topic is generally understandable, but the development and/or integration of appropriate evidence and at least three of the given sources are limited, strained, or uneven. The writer's ideas are expressed clearly with a few errors in syntax or diction.

A 4 essay is not an adequate response to the prompt. The writer's argument indicates a misunderstanding, an oversimplification, or a misrepresentation of the assigned task. The writer may use evidence that is inappropriate, insufficient to support the argument, or fewer than three of the given sources. The writing presents the writer's ideas, but it may indicate immaturity of style and control.

A 3 essay is a lower 4 because it is even less effective in addressing the question. It is also less mature in its syntax and organization.

A 2 essay indicates little success in speaking to the prompt. The writer may misread the question, only summarize the given sources, fail to develop the required argument, or simply ignore the prompt and write about another topic. The writing may also lack organization and control of language and syntax. (Note: No matter how good the summaries, the essay will never rate more than a 2.)

A 1 essay is a lower 2 because it is even more simplistic, disorganized, and lacking in control of language.

Timing and Planning the Synthesis Essay

Before Writing

Before you begin to write your essay, you need to perform an important series of tasks.

The first among these tasks is to wisely use the allotted, prewriting 15 minutes of reading time.

  • Read ALL three of the prompts
  • Deconstruct the synthesis prompt
  • Read and annotate each of the given texts related to the synthesis prompt
  • Decide how you will address the synthesis prompt

The second of these tasks is to be aware of the timing of writing your essay. You've been told to open the test booklet and begin to write. Now what? Well, you've already read each of the three prompts and decided what position you're going to take on the synthesis essay. Here's what we recommend as a timeline for writing the synthesis essay:

  • 5 to 6 minutes going back to the texts and deciding which you will use in your essay
  • 8 to 10 minutes planning the support of your position
  • 20 minutes writing the essay
  • 3 to 4 minutes checking to make certain you've included at least the minimum number of sources and correctly cited each of them
  • 3 minutes proofreading
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