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AP U.S. History essay-grading week is a busy time for the College Board. More than 1,000 teachers grade around 1.2 million essays in the course of a few days, sitting around tables with only one 20-minute break in the morning and afternoon — an example of hard work and dedication if ever there was one. The average reader could be covering as many as 1,000 essays, with only around 2 minutes to read each contribution.

The graders look quickly for proof and analysis supporting an overall thesis (PAT). Grading leaders develop clear criteria that the graders use for each essay, and each grader spends the whole time scoring only one question, over and over again.

The College Board makes grading a million plus essays as fair as it can, but no one has time to ponder garbled proof, vague analysis, or a thesis that's not clearly stated. For that reason, you want to make your PAT answers simple and direct.

Some football teams use a five-yards-and-glory strategy. They're not looking to score a touchdown on every play; they just want to gain five yards on each down with short passes and runs because, if they keep doing that, they'll move on down the field and eventually win. AP U.S. History essays are like that. You write approximately five paragraphs with a goal of showing that you know and can analyze historic information. You're not trying to list everything that went on during the era you're writing about. The official College Board policy is that carefully selected facts connected by a reasonable thesis is better than a long list that doesn't have a common theme.

Follow these suggestions to make sure your essay dodges the test hazards and emphasizes your strongest points:

- Make sure you address all the parts of the free-response essay questions. Missing a subtopic can affect your grade. Get all three PES parts: political, economic, and social.

- If you can't remember a name or date, don't guess. A wrong specific is worse than a possibly incorrect general. If you can't remember Seneca Falls in 1848, for example, say "an important women's-rights meeting before the Civil War." Don't let your grader see a clear error that she can use to slap you down.

- Don't worry if the only essay questions available look hard. If the questions are tough for you, they're tough for everyone. The test is scored on a curve, so grading is survival of the fittest. You could even get lucky. If you did well on the multiple-choice part of the exam and score very low on an essay, the grading coordinator may automatically ask that your essay be reread to make sure you're not being underscored. You could have two chances to make an impression.

- Don't get anxious and start to write before you really understand the question. You

may be missing the main point of the prompt while you're rattling off random facts. Carpenters have a saying: "Measure twice, cut once." You won't have a chance for a second cut at your essay, so read the question prompt twice.

- Jot down important things in the question book. Circle the key words and make notes before you write.

- Follow standard essay organization for a five-paragraph essay. The first paragraph is the introduction and includes your thesis statement. Each of the body paragraphs has a different theme that supports the thesis. A good goal is to have three proof facts in each of the body paragraphs. (Deemphasize your weakest point by putting it in the middle.) The final paragraph of your essay restates the thesis in slightly different words and provides a summary that mentions the themes of the middle paragraphs.

- If the prompt decides the themes for you, address those themes in the order given.

If a question asks how post-Civil War government policies affected American Indians, Western settlement, and economic development, for example, the middle paragraphs of your essay need to deal one-by-one with American Indians, settlement, and development. If no clear division is obvious from the prompt, write a paragraph each on political events, economic conditions, and social trends.

- Stay on-topic. Don't let your essay wander around the subject like some drunk in a bar. Check back during the writing of each paragraph to make sure what you're saying supports the thesis in the introduction.

- Tie each trend or event you mention to the theme of your essay. You don't want to introduce historic facts just to prove you know something. Fortunately, you shouldn't have to exclude too many facts; you can usually find a way to logically tie almost any trend or event to the theme you're supporting.

- Make sure you tie your proof together with analysis to support your thesis. You get

no penalty for having a wrong thesis, but you sink fast if you don't use proof and analysis to support your theme.

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