Taking the time to consider what the question really asks is often overlooked in the rush to start writing.
Stop and ask yourself, "What is the targeted historical thinking skill in the question? Causation? Comparison? Continuity and change over time? Periodization?"
You might try reading over the question or prompt three times. What is the key word(s) or phrase in the question? CIRCLE it. It could be verbs such as "analyze,“ "explain" or "support," "modify," or "refute."
All questions have one thing in common: They demand the use of historical thinking skills and analysis of the evidence.
A long-essay answer will not receive full credit by simply reporting information. Therefore, be on your guard for questions that start out with the verbs "identify" or "describe."
Such a question is usually followed by "analyze“ or some other more demanding thinking skill.
Consider TWO of the following and analyze the ways in which each of the two has affected the identity of women in American society since 1940:
For this essay, it is not enough simply to describe changing economic conditions, women's organizations, and so on. You must also analyze the effects that two factors had on the identity of women. Here is a reliable guideline for any AP essay question: If you think that you can write an essay without making some judgment that results in a thesis statement, you have not understood the question.
Sometimes, two, three, or more aspects of a question may be embedded in one sentence, as in the following example.
1.) What verb is used to assess your understanding of the topic?
2.) What does the verb mean?
3.) What aspects of American politics are you being asked to evaluate?
4.) Upon which time period does the question ask you to focus?
Evaluate the relative importance of domestic and foreign
affairs in shaping American politics in the 1790s.
This question asks the student to deal with BOTH domestic AND foreign affairs. Failing to deal with both parts of the question will result in a lower grade.
Break it down like so:
Try it with this example!
“The South never had a chance to win the Civil War.” Support, modify, or refute this statement?
Discuss the political, economic and social reforms introduced in the South between 1864 and 1877. To what extent did these reforms survive the Compromise of 1877?
2.) Organize the Evidence
Many students start writing their answers to an essay question without first thinking through what they know, and they often write themselves into the proverbial corner.
Directions for the AP History exam advise students to spend some time planning before starting to write an essay.
1.) Identify what you know about the question and organize your information by making a brief outline of what you know.
A strong thesis is necessary in every APUSH essay answer.
You must take a position on the question being asked!
Feel free to disagree. Go in the direction where the majority of the evidence takes you.
Avoid just restating the question.
Focus on the appropriate historical thinking skills.
Don’t be afraid of making a mistake!
Certainty is not as common in history as it is in math or the physical sciences.
Disagreement over the interpretation of the historical evidence develops because of the limitations of the evidence available and the differing perspectives of both participants and historians.
As a result, AP readers are looking not for the “single right answer" but for a writer's ability to interpret the evidence and marshal historical support for that interpretation.
The direction for the long-essay may give clear directions on the formation of the thesis, such as "support, modify, or refute" an interpretation.
Weak Thesis Examples
“Domestic and foreign affairs shaped American politics.”
“In some respects, foreign affairs shaped American politics more than domestic affairs during the 1790s.”
“In some respects, foreign affairs shaped American politics more than domestic affairs during the 1790s. A number of issues from wars overseas to relations with other countries caused this.”
Use this checklist:
Does the thesis take a position or does it “fence-sit”?
Does the thesis offer an interpretation of the question?
Does the thesis offer specific organizing or controlling ideas for an essay?
Although some historians may argue that domestic issues shaped American politics during the 1790s, foreign affairs contributed more to shaping American politics than domestic issues because these issues seemed to dominate American electoral debates in this time period. While the young nation struggled with questions about powers in the new Constitution, ideological conflicts over the French Revolution, foreign policy divisions created by the Napoleonic Wars, and our relations with Great Britain did more to divide Americans and promote the formation of two political parties during the 1790s.
1.) Acknowledges the other side / prepares a counter-argument.
2.) Sets the historical time and place
3.) Takes a position by making a judgment or argument (“Evaluate”).
4.) Uses a “because” clause to give a reason for the position and sets the historical context.
5.) Explains the “because” portion with an analytical interpretation & subtopics. This interpretation provided the organizing arguments that guided the development of the essay.
A good thesis may acknowledge the opposing argument
A good thesis allows the writer to show understanding of the complexity of the issue and knowledge of information on both sides of the issue. Most of the essay questions allow for an opinion on either side of the question. By acknowledging another view in the thesis, it becomes possible to add relevant information on that side of the issue.
Want a formula?
“Thomas Jefferson is often thought of as an idealist, but as president, he demonstrated his conviction as a pragmatist.” Support, modify, or refute this statement.
Although Jefferson was idealistic in his insistence on an embargo that cut off trade to Europe, he showed himself to be predominantly a pragmatist in the way he handled the Louisiana Purchase, the issue of the constitutionality of the National Bank, and Federalist appointees.
Despite his pragmatic decision to purchase Louisiana, Jefferson proved himself to be primarily an idealist through his handling of the Embargo Act and the national debt.
The number and length of the supporting paragraphs forming the body of the essay should vary depending on the thesis (not necessarily 5 paragraphs!), the main points of your argument, and the amount of historical evidence.
To receive the highest possible AP score, you must explain how specific historical evidence is linked to your thesis.
Each essay will also have a targeted historical thinking skill, which should shape one argumentation and choice of evidence.
Historical Thinking Skills & the Long Essay
Describes and analyzes causes and/or effects of a historical development, illustrated with specific examples.
Describes and analyzes reasons for similarities and/or differences in historical developments with specific examples.
Describes and analyzes historical continuity and change with specific examples.
Analyzes the extent to which the historical development specified in the prompt (often a date) was of higher or lesser value than a different event, again with specific examples to illustrate the analysis.
Synthesis & the Long Essay
organizing relevant historical evidence in a coherent and persuasive argument.
Explains the historical context of the question.
The historical context of the French Revolution is essential to analyzing the foreign policy debate in the United States electoral politics during the 1790s.
While length is no guarantee of a top grade, the longer essay often receives a higher grade because of its depth of analysis and factual support.
DO NOT just try to fill up a specific number of pages but, instead write an insightful, persuasive and well-supported essay.
DO NOT just list a few generalities or a "laundry list" of facts.
DO NOT write in the narrative style by telling “stories,” but rather your goal should be to write analytically and support your argument with specific knowledge.
DO NOT use fillers and flowery language in an attempt to impress the reader. Write a a concise, coherent essay in which every word has a purpose. Don’t waste time!
Tips for the Long Essay
Write essays in the third person, not 1st person ("I," "we").
Use the active voice (e.g. “Edison created”) b/c it denotes cause and effect.
Use specific words.
Clearly identify persons, factors, and judgments. Avoid vague verbs such as "felt" and "says," and vague references, such as "they" and "others." Avoid absolutes, such as "all" and "none." Rarely in history is the evidence so absolutely conclusive that you can prove that there were no exceptions.
Define or explain key terms.
If the question deals with terms (such as "liberal,“ "conservative," "sectionalism," or "manifest destiny"), an essential part of your analysis should include an explanation of these terms.
Communicate awareness of the complexity of history.
Distinguishing between primary and secondary causes and effects, between the significant and the less important. Use verbs that communicate judgment and analysis (e.g., "reveal," "exemplify," "demonstrate," "imply,“ "symbolize").
Tips for the Long Essay
Consider arguments that are against your thesis, not to prove them, but to show that you are aware of opposing points of view. The strongest essays confront conflicting evidence.
Avoid rhetoric, especially on social issues. The AP test is not the place to argue that a group was racists or that some were the "good guys" while others were the "bad guys." Do not use slang terms!
Communicate the organization and logical development of your argument.
Each paragraph should develop a main point that is clearly stated in the topic sentence. Provide a few words or a phrase of transition to connect one paragraph to another.
Focus on the thesis in the conclusion.
Restate the thesis in a fresh and interesting manner or explain its significance. The conclusion should not try to summarize all the data or introduce new evidence. No conclusion is better than a meaningless effort. If you are running out of time, but have written a well-organized essay with a clear thesis that is restated in the supporting paragraphs, you should receive little or no penalty for not having a conclusion.
6. Evaluate your Essay
More essay writing does not necessarily produce better essays.
Breaking down the process into manageable and sequential steps is one key for improvement.
Peer evaluation and self-evaluation both help students to internalize the elements of an effective essay and learn ways to improve.
1. Introductory Paragraph
Underline the thesis and circle the structural elements identified in the introduction. How effectively does the introductory paragraph prepare the reader for the balance of the essay? How could the introductory paragraph be improved?
How well does thesis deal with all parts of the question? Does the thesis acknowledge the complexity of the question? How could the thesis be improved?
Does the body of the essay provide analysis of the question or does it primarily describe? Does it acknowledge opposing points of view on the questions? How could the analysis be improved?
Is the thesis supported with substantial, relevant information? Is the evidence clearly linked to the thesis? What significant additional information could have been used for support?
What minor or major errors in fact or analysis does the essay include?