Patrick Roisen

M.Ed., Stanford University
Winner of multiple teaching awards

Patrick has been teaching AP Biology for 14 years and is the winner of multiple teaching awards.

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Writing the Free Response Essay

Patrick Roisen
Patrick Roisen

M.Ed., Stanford University
Winner of multiple teaching awards

Patrick has been teaching AP Biology for 14 years and is the winner of multiple teaching awards.


Ever since elementary school, you’ve been practising taking multiple choice question test. Whether it’s the STAR test or other kinds of test. But you really should know by now some basic techniques on how to address these kind of what I like to call multiple guess questions. Essays on the other hand, you did start working on how to write an essay maybe in fourth or fifth grade. Then junior high your teacher started banging over your head, “You need to have an introductory paragraph and three body paragraphs and then a conclusion.” Many of you are taking AP English right now, and they’re really hitting you with how to have smooth transitions and restate your thesis statement and all these other stuff.

That’s all going to go to waste now because, when you take the AP biology Essay questions all of that stuff your English teachers taught you, complete and utterly useless. But don’t worry I’m going to help you.

My students on the AP test, they are typically scoring one or two points higher than the national average on the essay questions. And part of that is because I’ve sat down and I have analyzed how do they grade these essays? Then I teach my kids exactly how to attack them.

To me all tests are a game. And if you know how the game is played, you can do a lot better. Similarly, I don’t really like some of the guys who grade the AP exam. I feel completely and utterly happy to show you how to use their own rules against them. We’re going to work together to stick it to them. I’m going to begin by first just talking about generically, how should you write an AP Biology essay? Then I’ll take a quick look at the two different types of essay questions, and I’ll give you a few tips that are specific to those two different types.

What are some of the basic tricks that will help you on any AP biology essay? Let’s start with read the question.

They give you ten minutes to read all four questions on the essay. So make sure you use those ten minutes. They started doing that several years ago, I don’t know when you’re going to watch this. And what happened is that they had discovered when they gave kids just 90 minutes to read and write, a lot of kids were just reading them way too fast, and had no idea what they were actually writing an answer to.

So make sure you read the question underline. If they say describe, then describe. If they say compare and contrast, they want how are they similar, how are they different. Make sure you answer their question. I really emphasize that. Because I’ve had kids read a question and say I don’t really like that question and they invent their own and start answering it.

Don’t waste time with your English skills. Don’t restate the questions. Don’t have transitions. Don’t do generalizations. Just start vomiting up facts. Now, the one thing is, you cannot have an outline or bullet points it must appear from a distance if somebody was looking at your paper wasn’t actually reading but looking at it from a distance it needs to at least appear to be and essay. You need to have sentences and don’t forget that you have verbs now and then. No outlines and no bullet points.

During the ten minutes when you’re reading the question you can jot down ideas that’s fine but when you start writing your answers it needs to be in sentence form. Be very careful one thing that will screw kids up is the use of pronouns like it because a lot of us get very clumsy with our pronouns. Well remember you’re being graded by some kind of anal retarded guys and they’ll see it they go, “Well let’s see their last direct object was this and he used it I know what he meant to write but he did write as wrong.” You get no points. Be very careful that’s the only real English skill to use. Make sure you write all parts of the questions.

Typically these questions are broken down into part A and B or sometimes A, B and C. If you wan to maximize your score you need to write something for every single part.

Usually the way they break it down is if there’s three parts then the part A is worth four points, part B is worth four points and part C is worth four points. You may be wondering that’s 12 points. What that does is it allows you to say get four points here, three points here and three points here and you still get a max 10. Because they recognize that the breath of the AP exam, it covers, as they told me 130% of what any one freshman college class in Biology can cover.

What they do is, by having this broad diversity and more points possible on the Rubric, then the maximum score is, they’re hoping they’ll be able to allow kids say in California who have teachers that focus on thing to be getting points just like the kids in Florida, whose teachers may be covering other stuff that the California teachers aren’t.

Next up if you draw any pictures make sure you show them exactly what you mean. You have to refer to those diagrams in your essay because doodles they won’t pay attention to, but what you do is you draw and you label it. Then you say as you can see my diagram to the right if you’re going to be talking about DNA for example and you just want to draw the Double Helix? Go ahead and say DNA has a Double Helix shape as you can see in my drawing to the right and maybe label it DNA Double Helix.

Sometimes I’ve seen Rubrics where they just gave a point for having a diagram so why not add it in. Next up state the obvious. I have my kids take lots of practice essays and they get graded on. When they look at the grading Rubrics, they some times, “Well why didn’t I write that it’s obvious,” like describe the structure of the cell and the various functions of the organelles.

They won’t say things like there’s the membrane they think well that’s too obvious they start tying to get into the nitty gritty details. Remember they want you to pass. 60% of the people who take the test, pass.

So they will give points a to of times for the basic stuff. If you’re asked about photosynthesis, say photosynthesis it uses light. Sometimes they’ll give you a point just for mentioning things like that. Because, a lot of kids I’ve seen some essay questions, where 30 to 40% of the people don’t even attempt or answer. They want to give points for those really hard ones so start vomiting up anything that you just go DNA is important, without it you would die because it holds your genetic information. If that’s all you know about Genetic engineering, if they are asking some kind of Genetic engineering question, just saying DNA holds genetic information, they might give you a point for it. Go ahead state the obvious, can’t hurt.

Guess, again. They only give points for being right they don’t take away points for being wrong. If you are sitting there and you’re thing maybe this will work just toss it out there. As I tell my kids shot gun it or just vomit up all of the information that you think might apply. The one thing you need to be careful of yes they don’t take off points for being wrong unless you directly contradict yourself so be careful about that. Don’t say photosynthesis only happens during the day, photosynthesis only happens at night. Pick one.

One thing you can do is avoid absolutes on that photosynthesis one. If you say in stead of saying photosynthesis only happens during the day say, typically photosynthesis only happens during the day. That allows you to give yourself a little but of a cover to protect against any reader who happens to know nitty-gritty details that might say well what if such and such happened? Because there are some plants that do a weird form of photosynthesis where they actually do some portions of it during the night time.

Well that’s one reason to stay away from absolutes. Never ever use absolutes. Another reason to avoid these absolutes, like never and ever, is that, when you’re writing about something. Like for example, Protein Synthesis.

You’ll talk about how all Proteins are made out of the same 20 different amino aids. Well it turns about that there’s a few evolutionary weirdness out there, where they may use 21st amino acid.

Most teachers, they don’t even know about that. But there’s a few out there that have done their research on that. And if you write only 20 amino acids they would go, “You’ve not read my research paper? You’ve hurt my feelings, you get nothing.” On the other hand, if you say nearly all living creatures use the same 20 amino acids. They'll say nearly all? "You know my work I love you," and they’ll give you a point. Then another point for elaboration because you’re brilliant.

Invent enzymes; every molecular process is helped by enzymes so invent one. Use the end in –ase which means enzyme, and then slap in the name of whatever it is that you want to do in. You want to open up a Helix, call it Helicase. If you want to chop a bunny call it ARNase. A lot of times that winds up being the right answer. And even if it isn’t, guess what different scientist will call the exact same thing slightly different names, why? Because some guy’s over in France and he’s inventing his new name for something, while some guy in England is discovering the same thing and they both want to name it.

Well which name do you eventually use? It’s kind of open to debate and until the debate is settled, scientist will be using both names kind of synonymously. What will happen is that, you may stumble across on one of these more unusual versions of the name of the real enzyme, or you may trick the reader into thinking you’ve read a different textbook than he uses in his classroom. So he’s saying I know what he means by this that’s probably just one of those freaky little California versions of the enzyme.

Invent factors; a lot of molecular processes, whether it’s blood clotting, whether it’s RNA transcription, these are helped by molecules called factors. Why do they call them factors? Factors is Scientificis for something that’s important, but I may not know what it is.

With blood clot, scientists new that there's these things called Platelets which are involved in blood clotting. But even if you remove the Platelets, blood still has some ability to clot. So they said there must be these other factors or 'clotting factors'. Since then scientists have gone through, and they’ve discovered there’s a lot of different proteins, but they still call them clotting factors. So mention the process that you’re in the middle of doing and add in factor.

Whenever you’re trying to come up with any factor that can influence any process, mention Hydrogen bonds, mention Temperature, and the amount of something that’s important to that process. If you’re talking about photosynthesis, what can affect it? Temperature. You heat things up that adds more energy to the system, often will speed it up.

Mention Hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds keep DNA together, Hydrogen bonds affect their shape and structure of proteins, Hydrogen bonds influence the chemical behaviors of water. Hydrogen bonds are a back up answer to pretty much anything. So guess you cant be wrong. An amount of something important, if you’re talking about why there might be more penguins on the beach during noon than at night? What’s important to a penguin? Fish maybe there’s more fish available at the beach during the day time because they’re feeding on the Algae that are doing photosynthesis during the day. Maybe it will work.

Another idea to come up with, to mention in the middle of a concept thing, if you have no idea, if they’re asking about questions about structure and function, mention the surface area to volume ration hypothesis. What that idea is, if you chop something up it exposes internal surfaces that allow materials to move in or out. So that’s why I chew food. If I have a big steak by chopping it up with my teeth, it gives more surfaces for my enzymes to digest that steak so I can digest it faster. This is why my ears get colder faster than say my torso. Because it has more surface are per milliliter of body than my torso does. So it allows rapid exchange of temperature.

If you’re talking about any kind of evolutionary thing, if you have no idea why did a particular adaptation come round, just say this adaptation allows more specialization and you may be right.

Now let’s take a look at the various kinds of questions that will appear on the essays. There’s two basic sorts. There are the concept questions and a then the specific AP biology lab based questions. Let’s go into the concept questions and here’s an example Cellular Transport is a key process in biology and then describe the different between the two kinds of Cellular Transport and then apply them. You’re going to see at least two to three of the questions in the four will be this kind of thing.

Now you need to know some basic Biology to be able to answer this obviously but notice there’s a broad diversity of kinds of knowledge that will allow you to attack this. If all you know about Cellular Transport is the difference in active and passive transport you can still get some points here. You may not know anything about Turgor Pressure and Nerve Signal Transmission or a transmission of Oxygen in the blood, but you can at least get some points here.

On the other hand if your teacher is been focusing mostly on human body systems, you can probably get some points here even if you don’t know that but go ahead and try here and try here. Again notice the answer pick two out of these three you’ve got to make sure you only pick two don’t just answer all three or else or just take the first two.

Let’s go back into the lab base questions and if we look at these like I said they’re based one the 12 official labs. If you check out your bonus materials you’ll find a link to an online version that takes you virtually through all 12 of the official labs. There’s usually at least one essay question based on the 12 official labs and also in your bonus material I’ve gone through since 1985 every AP biology test and I’ve identified the basic content covered on every essay question.

I’ve also identified which of the 12 labs has been on that test. Because if you think about it if they usually ask one essay question based on the 12 labs, but there’s 12 of them. If they ask say for example lab number one last year, they’re very unlikely to do lab number one this year. That will help you target in. Now that does not mean you should completely ignore lab number one, because the labs will also appear on the multiple choice questions. So be familiar with them.

In your bonus materials, with that break down, I’ve also identified my best predictions, my best guess as to what will be the one lab question that will be on the test. So you can really make sure you focus in on the ones that I think are most likely.

I will add however that recently they’ve been having one or two one of the version of the test they actually had three of the essay questions based on content from the labs. What happens with the 12 labs there’s one kind where they give you a bunch of data and you have too analyze it and then you discuss applications of it say for example they can show you a bunch of data and ask you to graph it. Then they’ll ask so when did the rate of change over time, when did that rate increase? Why did it level off here? Then they’ll say this process is involved in blah, blah, blah explain how this process is there?

The other version is design an experiment. A touch on how to maximize your score if you get the design experiment and something I will tell you, if you do get a design experiment be glad because there’s a bunch of things I’m going to tell you that will automatically earn points.

Let’s look at the data analysis a little bit more closely. You have to know that rate is change in some variable like change in temperature, change in product over or divided by change in time. If they give you data and it’s changeover time or whatever, make sure you show the formulas that you’re using to calculate rate and put in the units at every state because a lot of the way that the data analysis things are built is that they’ll give you a point for using the correct formula.

They’ll give you a point for correctly plugging in the number and they’ll give you point for using the correct units.

Let’s get down to labeling the graph axis. If you have to draw a graph, be glad because they give some easy points. They give points for correctly labeling the axis. So make sure though that you put in the correct scales. Figure out if my data range is from 0 to say 10; go 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, have a consistent scale. And then put in the units. If you don’t, a lot of times you’ll miss points for the graph.

Also, don’t connect data you don’t have. My students, at the beginning of the year of my class, a lot of them will lose points because say for example we’re doing an enzyme lab where we’re looking at the rate of an enzyme’s function at different temperatures. Say for example they have data for a 10 degrees Celsius, 20 degrees Celsius, 30 degrees Celsius, 40 degrees Celsius, 50 degrees Celsius. They’ll connect those dots and then, almost variably a bunch of them want to go from the 10, they want to start at the zero. Even though they may not havedone the zero degrees. Don’t do that if you connect to a data you don’t have with a solid line you’ll lose a point.

What if they say predict? Then use a dashed line or dash it and then put an arrow. If you’re predicting beyond the range you have, then using of the dash or the arrows indicates to the reader I’m extrapolating. I’m guessing. The solid line is used for connecting the dots between known data points.

If we look at the design of your experiment, again, be glad they gave you this you don’t always get lucky enough to get a design in an experiment lab question. What you do is, to get one point you say, my hypothesis is. And be as explicit, and I mean that by being very obvious. Be as explicit as possible say my hypothesis is.

It used to be that they would only give it to you if you said my hypothesis is, or if you had framed it in an if then statement.

I was sitting next to the chief reader of the AP Biology essays and we’re reading some sample essay questions and one person wrote. "If my hypothesis is right then I’ll get good results." That’s a crappy hypothesis; that person got a point. Somebody else had go on about because this is a photosynthesis essay question. Something along the lines of plants use light energy to form glucose, and as the light amount in the area increases, then the plant will be able to start getting more and more energy to produce the Glucose that has stored the energy, the chemical potential energy gunned from the light. I thought wow, this kid really knows her stuff. Good for her she gets the point. And the chief reader said well no it’s not an if-then statement and she did not directly my hypothesis is.

Be sure to state your hypothesis even if your hypothesis is wrong you’ll still get a point for doing it.

Identify a variable that you’re not manipulating that you’re going to hold constant. Remember, you don’t actually have to do this experiment. Imagine, somebody gave you 12 billion Dollars. Do whatever it is you could do with 12 billion Dollars. If I’m doing an enzyme lab, and I’m trying to figure out what happens as I add more and more substrate, then I will hold the Temperature constant. If I’m doing a growth experiment on plants, may be different amounts of light, I will make sure the humidity is constant. I will make sure the Temperature is constant. I will make sure the amount of wind is constant. I’ll hold something constant. If I’m doing stuff with people I’ll pick test subjects who are all the same age. If you do that you get a point.

That ties into identifying your control group versus your variable group. Say my control group is my comparison group, so I can see the effect of the variable that I’m implying to my variable group. If I go back to what influences the rate of growth of the plants, I will have one plant group that is in darkness. Another plant group that’s in 50% light, another group that’s in 100% light. My darkness group is my control. And then I can compare to these guys.

Repeat your trials. Again you don’t have to do this, so instead of saying I will use a plant, change the word a, to I will use 1000 plants. You don’t have to do it, just say. I’m going to use a large sample size and say I will repeat my experiment. You do that, you get a point.

Now if you have to come up with factors, almost in variably pH will influence almost anything. Temperature influences almost anything in science, in Biology. And concentration, concentration of Carbon dioxide in your blood, concentration of Carbon dioxide in the air, concentration of food, concentration of predators, amount of firestorms in the area. Whatever it is, concentration of something that is significant to the lab that they’re talking about.

Last I’m going to say is, make sure you put in your units when you’re predicting your data because they’ll ask you to do that. Put in the units and a lot of times that’ll get you a point.

That was a lot of ground to cover but I’m sure you’ll handle it. In your bonus materials, I’ve also given you some other does and don’t to use on the essay. Just go through, practice a few times. A lot of textbooks will have essay questions or short answer questions that will give you the opportunity to kind of practice and think through in your head, how would you do this if it was the AP exam?

Take a look at the 12 official labs like I recommended. Make sure you know enough to be able to say okay what would be an application of this concept, what sort of data should I expect, and how would I graph it? How would I go through it?

If you do all these steps, you’re really going to be able to bump up your score. And if you can score above a four on an essay, you’re doing well. If you can get to six, to eight you’re doing awesome. If you score a ten on one essay, that’s what most people have to do combining their score from two or maybe even three essays so good luck.

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