The newest section of the AP English Language and Composition Exam, the synthesis essay, is one of three essays you will be completing during the examination’s 2-hour free-response period. However, you’ll also have a 15-minute reading and planning period just for this essay, and if you use this time to plan effectively, you can’t go wrong.
Before we get into specific advice on how to handle the AP English Language and Composition synthesis essay, you need to know what this part of the test really is. It is very similar to the argumentative essay you will also write as part of this exam, except that you are provided with a wealth of source material from which to draw some support for your ideas.
While this in some ways makes the AP English Language and Composition synthesis essay easier than the argument essay (because you can use quotations, point to authoritative sources for support, etc.), there is an extra element of complexity, and the AP readers want to see how well you can sort through your source material and put it to good use – which makes planning all that much more important. This brings us to our first tip…
1. Use Your 15-Minute Planning Period Wisely.
The main purpose of this 15-minute period is to give you time to read the source materials. This essay will present you with several sources providing different information about or opinions on a certain topic. Make sure you don’t just skim them, but read them closely – make notes, underline key sections you may want to quote later, etc.
You should also begin outlining your essay and considering your opinion on the subject; have this opinion in mind before you start writing the essay, as you will use it to construct your thesis.
You’ve already learned how to structure persuasive essays in this class and in other classes you have taken; put that knowledge to good use now, and have your main points set out before you start writing. Try to have a thesis statement written by the time you start the essay – your thesis should establish your opinion and the general reasons you feel this way; the rest of your essay will go on to justify and exemplify these reasons. Also write down some of the main points upon which you will base subsequent paragraphs and mark quotes or sections of the sources you can use in each of these paragraphs.
2. Evaluate Your Sources.
Every source you can use for the AP Language and Composition synthesis essay will have a small box above it explaining where it comes from and who said it – to see exactly what this looks like, check out the free synthesis essay sample questions at AP Central. There are also public sample questions available there for the rest of the AP English and Composition Exam.
Keep all information about your sources in mind when you’re quoting them or using them to support your arguments. What journal an article appeared in can say a great deal about its potential biases. For example, consider a question on the environmental impacts of corporate practices – an environmental journal is obviously going to be biased in favor of more environmental regulation, while a report from a company spokesperson will probably gloss over some of the negative impacts of his company. Think critically.
3. Keep Your Tone Consistent.
There is no hard-and-fast advice about what tone you should take – some students try to inject a little humor into their essays while others prefer to be as serious as possible, some are extremely critical and others more accepting. However, the one thing you really have to do while writing the AP Language and Composition synthesis essay (or any other essay) is keep your tone consistent. Jot some tone-related ideas down as you outline during the 15-minute reading period, and keep in mind everything you’ve learned about tone and other aspects of rhetoric so far this year.
4. Use Rhetorical Technique to Your Advantage!
The various rhetorical practices you’ve been learning about all year can be put to good use here. This class and this test aren’t just about recognizing and analyzing these techniques when others use them, but about preparing you for college and your career by teaching you how to use them effectively yourself. However, this isn’t just about writing a beautiful essay, so read on to Tip # 5!
5. Your Argument Must be Well-Crafted.
The AP English Language and Composition Exam synthesis essay does not have right or wrong answers; rather, it asks you for your opinion. The AP Examiner cannot take points off because she disagrees with you. However, you must show logical basis for your opinion, drawing on both the sources AND your own knowledge and experience.
To do this, make sure you have a clear and complete thesis. Make sure the ideas expressed in the beginning of each paragraph or section support the thesis, and that you in turn show how those ideas are supported by a source or through your own knowledge and experience. Don’t generalize or write anything down that you can’t support.
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The Art of Argumentation
When I taught high school in my home state, West Virginia, I encountered a situation that teachers all over the world must deal with when they teach students how to incorporate sources in their writing. After several initial classes on searching for information (these were the pre-internet days, so we went to the library), narrowing the topic, and crafting a preliminary thesis, my students would return to the library and then come back to me with a familiar refrain: “I can’t find anything that supports my thesis!” I didn’t blame the students, of course: they were just learning what it means to enter into the discourse of academic argumentation. As novices, they needed to learn that accomplished academic writers don’t simply draw material from published sources as if the sources were maples being tapped for their sap. On the contrary, savvy writers converse with sources and incorporate (literally: em-body) them in their argument. In most college courses that require substantial writing, students are called upon to write researched arguments in which they take a stand on a topic or an issue and then enter into conversation with what has already been written on it.
The synthesis question provides students with a number of relatively brief sources on a topic or an issue — texts of no longer than one page, plus at least one source that is a graphic, visual, picture, or cartoon. The prompt calls upon students to write a composition that develops a position on the issue and that synthesizes and incorporates perspectives from at least three of the provided sources. Students may, of course, draw upon whatever they know about the issue as well, but they must use at least three of the provided sources to earn an upper-half score.
What should a writer do to accomplish this task? Essentially, there are six things: read, analyze, generalize, converse, finesse, and argue.
Read Closely, Then Analyze
First, the writer must read the sources carefully. There is a 15-minute period allotted to the free-response section to do so. The student will be permitted to read and write on the cover sheet to the synthesis question, which will contain some introductory material, the prompt itself, and a list of the sources. The students will also be permitted to read and annotate the sources themselves. The student will not be permitted to open his or her test booklet and actually begin writing the composition until after the 15 minutes has elapsed.
Second, the writer must analyze the argument each source is making: What claim is the source making about the issue? What data or evidence does the source offer in support of that claim? What are the assumptions or beliefs (explicit or unspoken) that warrant using this evidence or data to support the claim? Note that students will need to learn how to perform such analyses of nontextual sources: graphs, charts, pictures, cartoons, and so on.
After Analysis: Finding and Establishing a Position
Third, the writer needs to generalize about his or her own potential stands on the issue. The writer should ask, “What are two or three (or more) possible positions on this issue that I could take? Which of those positions do I really want to take? Why?” It’s vital at this point, I think, for the writer to keep an open mind. A stronger, more mature, more persuasive essay will result if the writer resists the temptation to oversimplify the issue, to hone in immediately on an obvious thesis. All of the synthesis essay prompts will be based on issues that invite careful, critical thinking. The best student responses will be those in which the thesis and development suggest clearly that the writer has given some thought to the nuances and complexities of the assigned topic.
Fourth — and this is the most challenging — the writer needs to imagine presenting each of his or her best positions on the issue to each of the authors of the provided sources. Role-playing the author or creator of each source, the student needs to create an imaginary conversation between himself or herself and the author/creator of the source. Would the author/creator agree with the writer’s position? Why? Disagree? Why? Want to qualify it in some way? Why and how?
Fifth, on the basis of this imagined conversation, the student needs to finesse, to refine, the point that he or she would like to make about the issue so that it can serve as a central proposition, a thesis — as complicated and robust as the topic demands — for the composition. This proposition or thesis should appear relatively quickly in the composition, after a sentence or two that contextualizes the topic or issue for the reader.
Sixth, the student needs to argue his or her position. The writer must develop the case for the position by incorporating within his or her own thinking the conversations he or she has had with the authors/creators of the primary sources. The student should feel free to say things like, “Source A takes a position similar to mine,” or “Source C would oppose my position, but here’s why I still maintain its validity,” or “Source E offers a slightly different perspective, one that I would alter a bit.”
In short, on the synthesis question the successful writer is going to be able to show readers how he or she has thought through the topic at hand by considering the sources critically and creating a composition that draws conversations with the sources into his or her own thinking. It is a task that the college-bound student should willingly take up.