Decoding the AP Language and Composition Exam Rubric

February 7, 2024

The AP Language and Composition Exam is a popular AP exam for students in AP Language classes as well as students who aren’t currently enrolled in AP English. Many of the skills tested on the exam are skills students practice in high school English classes: synthesizing information from multiple sources, analyzing an author’s rhetoric, and writing argumentative essays.

The first part of the exam is a multiple choice section with questions asking students to analyze nonfiction texts (23-25 questions) and make editing choices on short essays (20-22 questions). The multiple choice section accounts for 45% of the AP Language exam score, and students are given one hour to complete it. 

The second part of the exam requires students to write three essays. The three essays are Synthesis, Rhetorical Analysis, and Argument, and students are given a total of two hours and fifteen minutes to complete this portion of the exam. The fifteen minutes is considered the “reading period” and is the approximate amount of time you should use to read the given sources. Most of your reading time should be dedicated to the Synthesis essay since there are six or seven sources to read through for this essay. The essays account for 55% of the Language exam score.

For each essay, students can earn up to six points. It can be difficult to decipher what is required to earn these points and how students might gain or lose them. Since the AP Language Exam is a standardized test, there are specific things readers are looking for to award points in each category, which are outlined in the rubric for the essay questions.  

Thesis (0-1 point) 

According to the AP Language rubric, your thesis must respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents a defensible position.

The thesis point is usually the easiest point to gain, but having a strong thesis will also set you up for success for the rest of the essay. You want to make sure your thesis is on topic and defensible, meaning there is sufficient evidence to back up your ideas, either in the given text (for Synthesis and Rhetorical Analysis) or in your examples (for Argument). 

For the Synthesis essay, your thesis must take a strong position, not just restate the prompt or show pros and cons for two sides of the given issue. For the Rhetorical Analysis essay, your thesis must analyze the writer’s choices, not state your own opinion on the topic. For the Argument essay, again, you must take a strong position on the given topic. 

As you write your essay, make sure all paragraphs and ideas are in defense of your thesis

Evidence and Commentary (0-4 points) 

According to the AP Language rubric, your evidence and commentary must provide specific evidence to support all claims in a line of reasoning and consistently explain how the evidence supports a line of reasoning. 

A line of reasoning is the formal structure of your argument, which should be well organized to help prove your thesis – ideas should be grouped properly and build on each other as you work through the essay.

Evidence and commentary is the place where most students have room for growth. Your evidence should be relevant, significant, and well analyzed. Many students have evidence but don’t include enough analysis of their evidence. You want to make sure you’re showing how your evidence supports your ideas, assuming no piece of evidence is self-supporting.

For the Synthesis essay, you will use evidence from the given sources to support your position. Evidence should be cited and scrutinized, not just placed into the essay to stand on its own. The exam requires you to cite from at least three sources, though more can be useful and help show a higher level of sophistication, as long as all the evidence is examined as thoroughly as possible.

For the Rhetorical Analysis essay, you are examining rhetorical devices used by the author of the essay. These devices may include frequent repetition, personal anecdotes, extended metaphors, particular diction, detailed imagery, or concrete data (to name a few). Make sure you’re familiar with a number of rhetorical devices to prepare for this essay. You want to make sure you’re stating why these devices support the author’s main idea.

For the Argument essay, you are bringing your own evidence to the table. Your examples can come from your reading (like novels or essays), your studies (like history or social studies), or your personal experiences. No particular type of evidence is superior to another as long as it is fully relevant and thoroughly explained. This essay gives you the broadest range of material to work with, so you may want to consider some topics you’re comfortable writing about before the exam and use them as long as they are on topic.

Sophistication (0-1 point)

According to the AP Language rubric, essays that gain this point must demonstrate sophistication of thought and/or a complex understanding of the rhetorical situation. 

The sophistication point is typically the most difficult point to gain on an essay. It is sometimes referred to as a “unicorn point,” and only about 5-15% of students usually get this point on any given essay. While challenging to earn, there are some things you can do to work towards earning this point.

There are two ways to gain this point: you can demonstrate an advanced writing style or a nuanced argument

To achieve an advanced writing style, you’ll want to use strong vocabulary, adhere to the rules of standard written English, and vary sentence structure. While these elements don’t have to be perfect, the stronger they are, the more likely you’ll be to earn this additional point. Make sure any complex sentences are clear; being wordy without purpose will work against earning this additional point. 

To achieve a nuanced argument, you’ll want to avoid sweeping generalizations. The more specific the wording or example, the better. You’ll also want to directly address potential counterarguments and argue against them, putting the topic in a broader context and examining nuances in the given situation. The AP Language rubric is also looking for writing that is consistently vivid and persuasive. Include details and imagery; use strong and convincing language.

While this will remain the hardest point to achieve for any given essay, practice will help. One of the most effective ways to ensure your practice is properly focused and impactful on your performance is to work 1-1 with an expert tutor, who can give you personalized feedback on your FRQ responses. Get in touch with one of our Program Directors today or call 1-800-MY-TUTOR to get started.

*Any information in italics is directly from the AP Language rubric.


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