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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Average AP English Language Score
If you’re choosing your junior or senior year classes, you’re probably wondering which AP courses to take with your college choices and intended major in mind. You may want to boost your GPA or take practical classes for your career. Perhaps you need a five on the AP exam, so you want to know which is easiest. In most schools, mostly juniors and seniors take the AP English Language class and exam, but is AP English Language valuable to majors outside writing or the humanities? What’s the average AP English Language exam score?
Whether you’re considering AP English Language on your schedule or you’ve already finished the course and are preparing for the exam, understanding the average AP English Language score will help you evaluate your options.
What’s the Average Score on the AP English Language Exam?
If you look at how prior test-takers performed on the exam, you might have a better idea of the challenges ahead. In the historical data, you’ll get a sense of past exams scores, how many achieved threes or better, and your odds of getting those fours and fives.
The chart below contains the CollegeBoard’s 2010 to 2016 exam results data and score trends on the AP English Language exam.
CollegeBoard National Grade Distribution
|# of Students||374,620||252,262||443,835||476,277||505,244||527,274||547,575|
From 2010 to 2016, the chart shows that approximately 10% of the total test-takers earned fives, with a slight dip in 2014. Over 75% of the test-takers scored either four, three, or two. Less than one-fourth scored one and five. The mean score held relatively stable in seven years, except for 2013, when the number of those scoring ones increased, and the number of fours and fives decreased. The numbers of test-takers steadily rose from 374,620 in 2010 to 547,575 in 2016.
The average AP English Language exam score hovered around 2.8, which might signal a challenging but conquerable test. However, don’t forget that mostly juniors and seniors take AP English Language (and Literature), many of whom already have had advanced English classes that fostered strong reading and writing skills. Thus, the mean score of 2.8 might suggest a difficult test. On the other hand, upperclassmen probably carry more AP classes than freshmen or sophomores, so may prepare better for some exams than others. In other words, when you’re taking four or five AP exams, you may focus more on some exams and underestimate the difficulty of others.
No scheduled changes in the exam appear on the horizon, so the scoring trends promise some stability and forecasting.
The average AP English Language exam scores of all test-takers remained consistent, with slight downward fluctuations in 2013 and 2015. However, just as the total number of test-takers grew, the percentage of two scores consistently increased, peaking at a whopping 32.1% in 2016. Concomitantly, fours have also declined over the same period.
Despite dips and peaks, the numbers show a roughly 60-65% pass rate. This trend might reflect a difficult exam; the challenges of upperclassmen, who typically carry a steeper load of AP classes than younger test-takers; and the greater number of test-takers, which may include more unprepared individuals.
However, reading historical statistics alone does not give the complete picture of the course or the exam difficulty. The data shows that more students pass the exam than not, but students shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking they don’t need to study as much for the exam since it’s passable. At the same time, nor should they choose not to take the class because the exam’s too hard. To understand the challenges that lie ahead, students should get an overview of the course contents and strategies.
What’s a Good Score on the AP English Language Exam?
Several factors define a “good score”. Good scores and good-enough scores depend on your plans. To help you evaluate your needs and standing, understand AP test scores through four criteria:
1. The CollegeBoard’s Definitions:
The CollegeBoard explains the AP scores of 1 through 5 through the lens of preparation, understanding, performance and college credits.
One – the lowest score on the AP exam, this score reflects little knowledge of the material, little to no preparation, or possibly complications arising during the exam; therefore, the Board offers “no recommendation” on this score. No colleges in the US or abroad accept an AP score of 1.
Two – one below passing, this score shows potential to pass a similar college English Language or writing class but doesn’t get you college credit. Again, a possible bad test day explains this score for some. The Board assesses this score as “possibly qualified” to pass a college course of the same level.
Three – the most common score, this average score moves the bar to “qualified,” which refers both to your sufficient understanding of the course materials and your average chances for passing a similar college course and getting credits accepted at state colleges.
Four – a good score that reflects hard study, good comprehension of the course and high performance on the exam, perhaps showing strong essay writing and adept multiple-choice answering. The CollegeBoard deems you “well qualified,” translating to a B grade.
Five – the highest score, this score means you’re “extremely qualified,” and all colleges will give you credit for your course.
2. In Relation to Other Test-takers
To gain perspective, compare your score to other test-takers’ scores in a particular year to see how you stand. For example, if you were among the 10.7% of 547,575 test-takers receiving a five on the 2016 exam, you would have been among the smallest group of all test-takers but still one among 54,757 students.
That might give you some perspective that a passing score on the test arises more from individual effort and time than the difficulty of the exam. From year to year, the test may not be as hard or easy as the numbers indicate, and your score may not reflect your actual ability to take the course in college successfully. Your real chances of passing a college course similar or related to the English Language are probably higher since you took a rigorous AP course in preparation.
3. Based on College Credit Acceptance
Your score as a gateway to college credits depends on the college and your major. Some colleges accept only an AP score of four and five; others take threes and higher. Each school, and sometimes each department of a school, handles AP scores differently. In other words, an AP score of four may be sufficient in the biology department for credit but not so in the psychology department.
So, for example, California State University, Fullerton accepts an AP English Language exam score of three for six college credits applied to general education English 101 requirements and your degree. But if you’re planning to enroll in any university as a creative writing, composition or literature major, you probably want to score higher than three on the exam. Most schools require students to complete a college writing course, but you need to know the AP credit and major requirements beforehand.
Most Cal State universities accept threes, but more elite colleges take fours at a minimum, and fives earn credit most everywhere nationally and internationally. So, your school choice counts critically in your assessment. Check the AP credit database to find your school.
4. Based on Helpfulness in College Applications
Of course, fours and fives look great on your college application and will attract more attention to college admissions officers. Keep in mind, though, that passing AP courses looks good on high school transcripts regardless of the score. These courses show a capability to tackle rigorous coursework, which the applicant learned well enough to pass the class.
Don’t forget the AP Scholar award that goes to high scorers on multiple AP exams–a definite stand-out on your college application.
How is the AP English Language Exam Graded?
The AP English Language exam consists of 52 to 55 multiple-choice questions on excerpts from nonfiction texts. The multiple-choice section constitutes 45% of the exam. The other 55% of the exam consists of three free response essay questions:
- One synthesis – of several texts from which examinees write an argument citing three of the documents.
- One rhetorical analysis – of nonfiction texts that the writer analyzes to illustrate how language contributes to themes and purpose of the works.
- One argument – based on evidence.
The CollegeBoard describes the multiple-choice categories on the exam as follows:
- reading comprehension of rhetorically and topically diverse texts
- rhetorical analysis of individual texts in isolation
- synthesis of information from multiple texts
- written argumentation
The average score for the computer-graded multiple-choice answers consists of the total correct answers out of 52 to 55, which is the raw score. AP readers manually grade the free response answers against a rubric: the result is a total possible score of nine points per question (2016 exam). The grading rubric gives acceptable answers for each component of each question.
For example, the synthesis question might require a test-taker to read six or seven articles about how language has become globalized. Then after evaluating the sources, choose three to support an argument for or against the proposition that monolingualism is a disadvantage today. The rubric contains acceptable responses, gauged on completeness, structure, and writing, among other criteria (the 2016 exam rubric). The score for each response measures the overall correctness of the response to the rubric answers. If you got most of a question right, holistically, you could earn six or seven points out of the nine, which would be your raw score.
Then the multiple-choice and free response scores combine to create the composite score, which proportionally weights to each section, in this case 45-55. That score then converts to a scaled score of one to five, based on specific scoring calculations that are designed to keep scores uniform from year to year. The scaled score could represent a range of composite scores for one through five from year to year.
What’s the Best Way to Prepare for the AP English Language Exam?
Knowing the average AP English Language score, what’s on the test, how it’s scored, and how past students performed on the exam, you can clarify for yourself what you need to target. You know your strengths and weaknesses after taking the course and writing essays. Some students have high recall and don’t have to spend as much time memorizing. Some are better multiple-choice test-takers, while others dazzle with their reading and writing skills. Know yourself, what you’ll need more practice on, and apportion your study/practice time accordingly.
As to general tips, learn how to write an organized essay with a clear thesis statement. Hopefully, your teacher requires you to practice essay writing and gives good feedback to help you elaborate on a clear thesis statement with adequate support and development of your ideas. If you need more help here, check out some online resources or books.
You’ll need strong logic, argument, reading, comprehension, and analytical skills. Be sure you know how to evaluate and document sources credibly. Understand how to detect and use rhetorical strategies to fulfill the specific purpose of a nonfiction work. And of course, grammar counts.
Additionally, keep track of your time. Don’t skip questions altogether without trying to answer what you can, as you can earn some points even for incomplete answers. You can’t get any points if you leave questions blank. Complete the multiple-choice questions you know first, and then come back for the more difficult ones.
Outlining before you dive into longer written responses will help organize your thoughts and save time. You only have three and a half hours, so you want to be both efficient and thorough, especially for the coveted five. Get a good night’s rest the night before to ensure you work at full potential.
Take plenty of practice exams available in class or from outside sources. You can review previous tests on the CollegeBoard website to get an idea of past questions and the scoring rubrics that go with the exams. Get supplemental practice tips, materials, and exams from a review book sold in bookstores or from a reliable tutoring or AP prep service.
Be sure you carefully read the practice questions, so you know what you’re called upon to answer and how you need to respond. You get fewer points for responding with too much extraneous information.
Finally, ask other students who’ve taken the course and the exam, or your teacher for suggestions, and consider these sources for tips targeted to your subject:
Averaging the mean of all scores in the past seven exams, you get an average AP English Language exam score of 2.8, which means the exam, though challenging, offers the substantial potential to pass those who put in the time and effort. Don’t forget that your school’s passing rate or average AP English Language exam score may be higher than the national averages, so check with your guidance counselor for your school stats.
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