It should come as no surprise that the AP English Language and Composition Exam requires students to do a lot of writing. In addition to the multiple choice section at the beginning of the test, the AP Lang exam includes 3 free-response prompts: a Synthesis Question, a Rhetorical Analysis, and an Argument. The second essay task, the Rhetorical Analysis, provides students with a non-fiction text and asks them to write an organized essay that analyzes how the writer’s language choices contribute to the text’s intended meaning and purpose.
If you’re reading this as a current AP Lang student, your teacher should have already taught you many of the ins and outs of a good rhetorical analysis and had you do at least a few practice rounds. The intent of this blog post is not to break down the entire process of writing a successful AP essay, but to give you a few final tips to keep in mind as you prepare for the exam. Check out these expert tips for writing your best AP Lang Rhetorical Analysis essay.
1. Take notes as you read the text the first time.
It’s very important to read the non-fiction text included in the prompt carefully, as it’s the basis for your essay. However, you know that the AP exam also doesn’t give you all day to do this. Make your reading process more efficient by taking notes right off the bat - not on the second reading, but the first time you lay eyes on it.
As for what kind of notes to take, I recommend making just one little note per paragraph that establishes that part’s particular purpose. This will help you stay focused and engaged with the text. In addition to this, make sure to be circling/underlining and labeling all the rhetorical devices you can find. Then you can go back and decide which ones you’d like to write about.
2. Outline before writing!!!!!
If you don’t think you have time to outline before you start writing, consider any time that you’ve tried to do a timed write without planning and then lost your focus, realized you forgot some information, or realized in the middle that you should have organized everything differently. Sound familiar? Outlining prevents all of these little crises.
I recommend just sketching out your thesis and topic sentences and writing down a couple of bullet points for the examples and commentary in the body paragraphs. As for the intro and conclusion? These you can make up as you go along, as (except for the thesis in the intro) these parts are much less important than a strong body. Which brings me to my next point...
3. Don’t agonize over a clever/impactful intro or conclusion.
I know you’ve learned that these parts of an essay are your opportunities to either be
very clever/eloquent or make some sort of emotional impact on your reader, but a
timed essay like this one is neither the time nor the place for such things. Treat the intro
as simply a vehicle for your thesis. Two or three sentences total is enough. As for the
conclusion, AP readers like to see one merely for the sake of overall structure, but if
you’re running out of time, just restate your thesis in one sentence and call it a day.
4. Include the function of the rhetorical devices you’re writing about in your thesis.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but this is among AP readers’ pet peeves when it comes to the Rhetorical Analysis. A student can write an otherwise great essay, but if the thesis just says, “The author uses X and Y,” they’re likely to lose out on the thesis point. The point of this kind of essay is not just to explain what kinds of rhetorical strategies are present, but to detail how these devices come together for the author’s specific purpose(s). Make sure to reflect that in your thesis.
5. Explain the effect that each example has on the audience.
As a related point, in your explanations of each example, make sure to write about the
specific effect the example has on the audience. Don’t just say something like “the author uses humor when they write ‘X’” and just move on to the next thing. Perhaps the author uses humor in that instance to lighten the mood and/or attempt to earn the trust of a skeptical audience. Even if the function seems obvious to you, the reader can’t know you understand the concept if you don’t show them you do.
6. Avoid relying on boring, overused signal verbs.
“Signal verbs” refer to the verbs we use when explaining what an author is doing. Too
often, students rely on the same old boring signal verbs (i.e. the author “explains, says, writes, tells us,” etc.). As easy as these words are to fall back on, they’re both boring and nonspecific. Practice using more interesting, specific verbs like “argues, emphasizes, clarifies, acknowledges,” etc. These words will elevate your style and allow you to write with more precision. For even more great signal verbs, check out this helpful page from the University of Illinois’ Center for Academic Success.
7. Study student samples.
This last tip differs from the others in that it’s not something you can do in the moment of
writing; it’s something you have to carve out separate time to do. This may sound like just another pre-exam chore, but studying student samples from past tests is helpful in so many ways. The main reason why I recommend it is so you can see how different samples are organized. As you’re probably aware, the Rhetorical Analysis is more flexible in that multiple methods of organizing information can be effective. To keep yourself from getting stuck in the same old organizational rut (or just to see how high scorers do it), take a look at past samples to analyze other students’ strengths and weaknesses. The College Board’s online collection of sample responses to AP Lang prompts can be found here.
I’d like to conclude this post with the reminder that no amount of tips will suddenly allow you to just start writing a perfect Rhetorical Analysis overnight. Getting better at writing any kind of free-response question is a process that requires lots of practice and revision. With that being said, I hope these tips help you along the way as you develop more organized, efficient ways to answer these challenging essay questions.
If you’re anxious about preparing for the AP exams this year, I encourage you to check out ThinquePrep’s edition of our annual AP review classes, taking place this April.
If you’d like a little more in-depth academic support, take a look at our academic coaching services, too.
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
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