SELECTING THE BEST QUESTIONS
Although they are often referred to as "regular essays" to distinguish them from the DBQ, the free response topics require a high level of information and presentation. The AP is, after all, a college test you take before you've had any college classes. The featured topics give you an opportunity to write about a limited period of history.
You will choose your best prompts (essay questions), one from Part B and one from Part C. In general, each topic covers a 20- to 50-year history range from different time periods. For example, recent exams have asked about differences in colonial policy, responses to the French and Indian War, the North and South before the Civil War, and cultural changes in the 1920s.
You will have a choice of four time periods, with the topic limiting the scope of your answer to a particular issue during that period. You need to pick topics that you can come up with the greatest number of related events for. Getting the best score on these essays takes a combination of knowledge and reasoning. (If you want to know how common that combined skill-set is in the AP U.S. History test-taking population, just look at the average score: 2.86 on a scale of 9. Don't worry; you can do better.)
You don't have to answer the two regular essay questions in order. The specialist essay readers will find the essay they grade by its number in your answer book. You can read all four essay prompts and pick the one that seems easiest for you so you can get a running start. Just remember to do one essay from Part B and one from Part C. To leave time for both, switch to the next essay within a few minutes of the 35-minute advisory you get from the test proctor. Even better, bring a watch and keep your own time.
Writing like a professor
You know that your essay will be graded by a slightly bleary-eyed history teacher. One thing that professors insist on in their professional journals is that writers define their terms. If your essay question asks for the impact of changes on the common man, state the way you define "common man." If you're writing about the Progressive movement, use a sentence in the first paragraph to say what that word means. You can signal your high-level understanding of academic protocol by using this well-loved professional prelude: "It is important to define terms. By the Progressive movement, I mean newly organized initiatives in the early 1900s that had a goal of efficiency and fairness in U.S. society, economy, and government." Defining a term takes only a sentence and can impress a test grader.
If you're asked to assess the validity of a statement, you've just been given an invitation to jump into the middle of an argument. You may see something like this: "Assess the validity of this statement: The New Deal brought an end to the Great Depression." You need to say what you think. Take a position and make it your thesis statement. Here are two example theses:
Although economic problems remained that were not settled until after the U.S. entry into World War II, New Deal programs were effective in blunting the worst problems of the Great Depression.
Although New Deal programs created a public perception of progress, they were largely ineffective in dealing with the economic roots of the Great Depression.
Take note that both thesis statements begin with the effective word although. The use of this gentle, reasonable word signals that you're being intellectually fair in your thesis position by acknowledging from the start the limits of your argument. Professors know that modest arguments provide a safety shield from academic attack.
Later in each thesis statement, you can use more qualifying words to make the thesis argument easier to defend. The first example says "effective in blunting the worst problems." That way, you have to defend only blunting (not actually solving) and worst (but not all) problems. In the second version, the thesis reads "largely ineffective in dealing with the economic roots," so that the essay can admit that the New Deal was effective sometimes on the little issues but not the answer for solving problems at the economic roots, or causes, of the Great Depression. Then writers of these two essays can go on to define worst problems or economic roots in a way that makes their thesis arguments seem like the only reasonable interpretation.