What You Need to Know About the AP® Language Free-Response Questions

by Katie Upton

As we get closer and closer to the AP® Language and Composition exam date (May 13th for those of you who like to be prepared), it is important to take a closer look at the free-response questions.

Q1: The Synthesis Prompt

  • To answer this prompt, you are required to create your own original argument and support it with evidence from 3 of the 6 sources included along with the prompt.
  • You need to know that this question requires the most amount of time, and College Board is aware of this. Because you must first read and analyze 6 sources, you get an extra 15 minutes for this question. The recommended time is 55 minutes for this essay.
  • After reading the prompt and developing a stance, you will review the documents to find evidence to develop a line of reasoning in support of your claim. It is imperative that you include at least 3 sources within your essay. Some teachers believe it is important you develop a stance before you read the sources. Others believe that is not necessary. What is necessary is that you determine which method works best for you.
  • Finally, the primary purpose of this question is to evaluate your ability to develop an argument with a line of reasoning that includes evidence from outside sources. Therefore, you need to be able to put the evidence from the sources in conversation with one another along with your own argument and commentary.

Q2: The Rhetorical Analysis Prompt

  • This prompt requires a difficult task; you must analyze a rhetorical passage, identify the author’s central argument, and evaluate the writer’s use of rhetorical choices to achieve their purpose. This prompt really requires two skills: reading and writing.
  • Again, this is a hefty task, but College Board recommends that you use only 40 minutes to develop this response, so you must work quickly. While it is easier said than done, try not to over-analyze the passage. Once you have a good understanding of the argument, and you have identified 5 to 6 rhetorical choices that advance the argument, you are ready to write.
  • For this essay, the prompt is incredibly helpful. Essentially, if it is in the prompt, it should be in your commentary somewhere! Often, the prompt reveals vital information about the rhetorical situation.
  • Finally, the primary purpose of this question is to evaluate your ability to recognize rhetorical choices and how they support a line of reasoning. Therefore, you need to be able to examine the relationship between the speaker, subject, and audience.

Q3: The Argument Prompt

  • This prompt seems easy at first glance; however, the challenging aspect is developing your own line of reasoning with a solid thesis and effective evidence. You are left to your own devices when finding support for this argument, making it more important than ever to stay plugged in to the world around you!
  • Like the rhetorical analysis, College Board recommends that you complete this essay within 40 minutes. While that is a good amount of time, you still need to work efficiently to develop a defensible stance and perhaps outline your ideas before writing.

Three more things you need to know:

  1. There is a brand-new rubric. If you haven’t already heard, there were some major changes in AP Lang over the summer. One of the most significant changes is the new 6-point rubric. Based on feedback from students and teachers, College Board developed a rubric that is more explicit about the expectations for these essays. This is a good thing for you! To see previous student samples scored with this new rubric, visit the College Board AP® Language and Composition exam page.
  2. You have 2 hours and 15 minutes. Although the FRQs are numbered, you can work through them any way that you see fit. You may decide that you want to start with the Q2 essay because it is your strength or you may decide to save it for last. Whatever you do, make sure that it is intentional. Make sure to create a plan of action before you walk in on test day.
  3. The essays are 55% of your score. Whether the essays are a strength or weakness for you, it is important to note the weighting of the exam. If you are a strong writer, you can afford to miss a few more multiple-choice questions. If you are knocking the multiple-choice questions out of the park, there is slightly less pressure for you to score a 6 on each essay.

BONUS—Stay plugged in to Marcolearning.com and our social media accounts. Throughout the year, we host free study sessions and share testing tips and materials to help you prepare!

Need AP® Essay help? Check out our NEW AP® Essay Review. Get fast feedback on all the questions from 3 full-length practice tests from AP® Experts. Learn more.


Katie Upton has been teaching English courses for 15 years, helping students become college and career ready. She is an expert in AP® Language and Composition and a leader of the AP® Capstone program, and has led professional development as well, helping teachers blend 21st century learning with educational practices that have stood the test of time. A former basketball coach herself, Katie spends her free time cheering on her two boys in all that they do and supporting her husband, a head girls’ basketball coach.