Mastering the Free-Response Essay Question on the AP European History Exam

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  • 0:02 Mastering the Free…
  • 0:24 Question
  • 2:02 Outline
  • 3:49 Writing Tips
  • 6:55 Preparation
  • 7:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the structure of the free response essay question and what qualifies as a good structure for an essay, in addition to gaining a few quality writing techniques.

Mastering the Free Response Essay

Welcome to the free response essay prep! At this point, you've not only completed the exhaustive multiple-choice section, but you've also likely already answered the document-based essay question as well. Great job! Give yourself a pat on the back - not every student makes it this far! Now that that's done, let's tackle this final portion of the test before you can set your pencil down and relax.


As with every portion of the AP test, it is incredibly important to read the essay prompt before you even begin reading the questions. Read it a few times if you have to - this way, you make sure you haven't missed a single nuance or point. What's more, the question prompt itself can often give you hints as to the answer, or at the very least, how to sculpt your essay! For example, the 2012 AP exam free response essay questions instruct the student to 'write an essay that has a relevant thesis, addresses all parts of the question, supports the thesis with specific evidence and is well organized.'

These points should be at the front of your mind when writing your entire essay; you should always be asking yourself 'Am I answering the question?' 'Is my thesis relevant?' 'Is my essay organized?' Simply keeping these points in mind will go a long way to helping you write an essay that receives full marks.

Now that you've read and understood the prompt, move on to the actual questions you'll be answering. In the free response essay portion of the AP exam, it will usually give you a few different choices of which you must answer two. The choices can be wildly different - anything from the French Revolution to the Protestant Reformation to the formation of the European Union! It's important to choose whichever questions you feel most comfortable answering.

Do not try to choose the question you think is the hardest - you're not trying to impress anyone! - just the question of which you have the most knowledge. If you can go back and forth between a couple, choose quickly and go with your gut! Your instincts are likely right here and what's more, you don't want to waste any precious time vacillating between two questions!


Great! Now that you've chosen your question, it's time to start regurgitating everything you know about the subject onto the page, right? Wrong! Just starting to write without any organization will cause you all sorts of problems while writing the essay and likely lead to an unorganized and rambling mess of an essay. Since the AP question prompt often tells you to have a 'well organized' essay, this cardinal sin of essay writing could cost you precious points in the final tally!

Therefore, it's incredibly important to write out an outline, even if only a brief one, before you begin writing your actual essay. Not only does the outline give you some rough guidelines with which to refer back to while you are writing your essay, it also allows you to organize your thoughts and think critically about the question before you get into the nitty-gritty details of your essay and argument.

Begin your outline by writing out your thesis. A thesis is generally one to three sentences, which summarizes your argument as succinctly as possible. Generally, you should start your free response essay with an introduction, which ends with your thesis clearly stated, and end your essay with a conclusion, which reiterates your thesis. We cannot stress this enough: having a well-defined thesis is critical to your success on the essay. For example, in the 2012 AP exam essay scoring rubric, quality of thesis was mentioned as the first criteria for each and every scoring section!

Besides your introduction and conclusion, your outline should also briefly sketch the main points with which you are going to support your thesis. Generally, you should come up with three or more reasons why the reader should believe your thesis. It is in these supporting statements and evidence - the main body of your essay - that you build the strength of your thesis. A clearly written and succinct thesis is nothing without strong and specific supporting evidence to follow it.

Writing Tips

Now that you've sketched out your outline, it's time to write your essay. This, believe it or not, is the easy part! You did most of the hard work when you crafted your thesis and jotted down some of the supporting evidence you are going to use. In order to write a well-organized essay, it's important to follow a few simple guidelines. First, your essay should be organized into paragraphs. The first paragraph should be your introduction and the last paragraph your conclusion.

The amount of paragraphs you have between these should be dictated by the amount of supporting points you jotted down in your rough outline. Each point should be its own paragraph, and there should be little crossover between them. Each of these middle paragraphs should also have a strong, opening sentence; often, it will be close to whatever you wrote down quickly in your outline!

After your opening sentence, you should fill that paragraph with all the pertinent facts, figures and information you learned about this subject during the course. Be sure to be as specific as possible: for example, mentioning Galileo and his particular discoveries will win you many more points than simply saying 'Several Italian scientists made contributions to science.' Blanket statements like that might save you some time, but it won't win you any points with the test scorer!

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