Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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How to Write the Free Response Essay

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


So this episode is really how to write the free response essay. What we are going to look at once again a kind of the logistics of the situation you find yourself in, and then some strategies, a basic format kind of, for approaching the test, this part of the test, the free response essay part, so that you really are well equipped and ready to go with strategies. In another episode, actually we'll practice one. We'll take a question, and we will work through it, and you will go do your work and come back. But right now what we want to do, is just take a kind of a big picture approach, looking at how to write the free response essay.

So here is some basic strategy in helpful hands, and an overview for the free response essay. 70 minutes to write two essays. You have two essays that each have two choices. So you want to take a look at what those are. Spend 5 minutes prepping for each essay that’s not hard and fair so obviously, so that’s the logistics. That’s the overview.

Again, you want to read the questions carefully. Now here especially because you have two choices, you want to take a look and check out each one, before you decide which one you are going to write first. After you read the questions and you start to attack them, you want to identify the prompt category. What’s the question about?

The organization of American historians, which is like the most distinct group of historians in the country, did some interesting research about the AP US history test from 1994 to 2006. And it had to deal with this. And one of the things they found, when they looked at categories was in that period of time, there were 105 references in the free response essay just specific categories and they broke down the number of references and then the percentage of the total. And I think if you look at this graphic, what you see is, basically right here you got 73%.

I’m not going to tell you to put all your eggs in one basket, but it certainly seems about three quarters of the free response essays have to do. These are broad categories; economic, political, social and diplomatic, military. You probably have in your course this year and in your review, look at economic, political, social those are common categories. But it may help you in your reviewing, and in your thinking about approaching the free response essay, to know in fact that the preponderance of references have been to those areas.

The other is geographic expansion, cultural, intellectual, religious. You can see, there have certainly been references there and very often this tie in. There is some combination categories. But this is how you want to look at. In the same way, the OAH the Organization of American Historians, broke down the time periods that free response essays were asking about. And again, we see if we look at this, before 1763 and after 1960, 27%. So again, you've got somewhere in, let’s see if I could do my math. 27 comes down to 73% again in these categories between really 1763 and 1960. And within that, you can say preponderance between 1820 and 1960.

So again, I’m not going to tell you to put all your eggs in that basket, but it does help I think, to see that there is a tendency to go for a certain time period, as well as certain categories. So when you are doing practice test, and again if you go online and look at our practice test, you may see that those categories show up most often. So you might want to really sharpen your knowledge, increase the depths of your knowledge for those periods.

Once you identify that prompt, here we go again and this is why you should sharpen your knowledge and increase your depth. You're going to brainstorm. You're going to get all your ideas out. You want to make sure that no stone is left unturned. One of the things that readers are impressed with, is your knowledge of history your breadth of knowledge, okay as well as your depth. So you want to brainstorm get everything out here and then you want to organize it. And again graphic organizers, I think are a big help here, because they kind of break down the categories which can really step your paragraph writing.

If you read it carefully, you identify the prompt category, brainstorm, organize, the last thing to do is write. Now going back to the organizing, you may want to use a graphical organizer like this, that just breaks it down into those categories. You may want to identify specific people.

But any kind of graphical organizer that helps you put it together, answering that question, addressing the prompts really should help you write the best possible free response essay. You have plenty of time to do it, so follow these basic strategies and you won’t have any problem with free response.

So just to kind of wrap up the free response writing strategy, and tips, here are the final tips I really want to leave you with. Because I think, with this in mind, you can really do very well on this part of the test. Be assertive in your thesis. Don’t just restate what they ask. There is nothing more bland and uninteresting to a reader. So really try to figure out a more dynamic way to say what you want to say.

Take some time to really think out by being assertive in your thesis. I mentioned the more the better. The readers love to see that you know your history. So if you can particularly bring in closing effect and we can see that this happened because of that, or if you can reference Plessey versus Ferguson, even though you are talking about Brown versus Board of education. Really using your historical knowledge is important and it’s impressive. Being organized, you can’t be all over the map. You may know your history really well, but if you just throw in facts out there and hoping something sticks, it’s not going to help your case. You want to really approach this with that assertive thesis with your historical facts, but in an organized fashion.

One thing I would recommend that you do before you take the exam, is if you just Google AP US History rubrics. There are some great teachers out there, aside from the College Board and you get it from their website. But there are teachers out there who’ve put this online also. Take a look at what the scores are going to be using to assess your writing. Because, that will give you a pretty good idea of what a high score essay is. If you can get one of these sample books or maybe your AP history teacher can get something from the College Board which are released exams from years ago, they actually even show some essays that have been written in the past. And you could take a look at that and get an idea of this is what a highly score essay is.

So the rubric and seeing test exams might help out. And I can’t stress this enough, practice, practice. I’ve mentioned before we’ve got some online practice test. You might be able to get some of these released exams. Again if you go online, there are some great history teachers around the country who have been incredibly generous and put their stuff online.

So if you just Google AP US history exam, you’ll find stuff out there. Now you might have to sort it out a little bit but, the fact is everything will help. The more practice you can do, the better your results are going to be. And with the free response essay, you don’t have to necessarily take 70 minutes and write two exams. Take a half an hour, try one, see how you do. Have somebody read it for you and give you some feedback about was your thesis assertive? Do you really organize it well?

There’s lots of ways; classmates can help you out, teachers can help you out. Obviously there’s information online that can help you out. So, the key thing here is that you got to take the time to practice because the more you do that, the better your results are going to be, and the more confident you will be going into the free response essay writing.

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