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Advanced Placement (AP)

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Free-response questions, or FRQs, on the AP US Government exam are more straightforward than those on some other AP tests, but they can still be tough if you're not ready for them. In this guide, we will lay out a simple step-by-step method for answering AP Government FRQs , go through a real example, and tell you where you can find additional practice resources.

AP Government Free-Response Section Format

The free-response section lasts one hour and 40 minutes and consists of four questions , each of which is worth 12.5% of your total score. So as a whole, the free-response section accounts for half your total AP Gov score (the other 50% comes from the multiple-choice section). Each FRQ is worth 3-6 raw points.

Here are the four types of FRQs you'll get on the AP Government exam:

  • Concept Application (3 raw points)
  • Quantitative Analysis (4 raw points)
  • SCOTUS Comparison (4 raw points)
  • Argument Essay (6 raw points)

The free-response questions will ask you to integrate your knowledge of the various content areas covered by the course. This includes analyzing political events in the US, discussing examples, and demonstrating your understanding of general principles of US government and politics. You'll also be asked to examine data from charts, define key terms, and explain the roles that different parts of our government play in the political system.

The following chart shows specifically what you must do for each FRQ on the AP Government test. All info below comes from the 2020 AP US Government and Politics Course and Exam Description .

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AP Government FRQs: 5-Step Solution Process

This section provides a step-by-step process for answering any question on the AP US Government exam. Here's a sample question from the 2020 AP Gov Course and Exam Description that I'll reference throughout so you can see how these steps might work in practice:

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Step 1: Read the Introductory and Concluding Sentences

Free-response questions #1 and #3 will include passages, while question #2 will have an image or a chart with data. Skim the first and final sentences of the passage (or title of the graphic for #2) before you get to the tasks (labeled A-C or A-D). This will help you get a rough sense of what to expect in the rest of the question.

It's a good idea to read the intros and conclusions to all the FRQs before choosing which one to begin with. Doing this might help build up your confidence and improve your efficiency to start with a question that's easier for you.

In the sample question above, you would read the title of the graphic ("Public Education Spending: Amount Spent per Pupil by State in 2014") and then skim the image itself to get a sense of what it's asking you to analyze.

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Step 2: Identify (and Underline, If You Want) the Command Verb

For each task in each FRQ, you're given specific instructions on the type of answer that is expected; these instructions include command verbs that tell you what to do. It's important to be aware of exactly what the question is asking so you can earn full points.

These command verbs are the first words you should zero in on as you approach a question. If you think it'll help keep you focused, you can underline these verbs .

Here are the most commonly used task verbs, as described in the AP Gov Exam Description :

Compare: Provide a description or explanation of similarities and/or differences.

Define: Provide a specific meaning for a word or concept.

Describe: Provide the relevant characteristics of a specified topic.

Develop an argument: Articulate a claim and support it with evidence.

Draw a conclusion: Use available information to formulate an accurate statement that demonstrates understanding based on evidence.

Explain: Provide information about how or why a relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning. Explain "how" typically requires analyzing the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome, whereas explain "why" typically requires analysis of motivations or reasons for the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome.

Identify: Indicate or provide information about a specified topic, without elaboration or explanation.

In part A of the sample question, the command verb is "identify," indicating that you need to correctly interpret the data in the image. In part B, the command verb changes to "describe," which means you'll need to go one step further and interpret and analyze data in the graphic that you have found.

Part C starts with "draw a conclusion," meaning that you will need to tie together the evidence you found in part B to come up with a final (accurate) statement on what this means. Finally, part D begins with the task verb "explain," showing that you must make a clear connection between the data in this graphic as a whole and the principle of federalism.

Step 3: Know Where You'll Earn Your Raw Points

In general, each part in a question (A, B, C, and D) will correspond to 1 raw point , but not all questions are like this.

After finding the task verb in the part of the question you're answering, take note of how many examples or descriptions you need to provide , as each will likely correspond to a point in your raw score for the question. There might also be more than one task verb in a question, in which case you'll likely get at least 2 raw points for it.

As a reminder, here is the maximum number of raw points you can earn for each question (don't forget that each question is still worth the same percentage of your score: 12.5%):

Take care to answer the question thoroughly but directly , addressing all points in a way that will make it easy for graders to assess your response. Remember that you don't need to write an essay for the first three FRQs, so just go straight for the answer to avoid any ambiguity.

In the sample question, we know there will be 4 raw points you can earn. And since the tasks are divided into four parts (labeled A-D), we can assume that each part will be worth 1 raw point .

You can see more sample FRQs and how they're graded with the official scoring guidelines here .

Step 4: Reread Your Answer

Once you've come up with an answer, reread what you wrote to ensure it makes sense and addresses the question completely . Did you give the correct number of descriptions or examples asked of you? Does your answer directly respond to what the question is asking?

If you're satisfied, move on to the next part of the question and return to step 2!

Step 5: Pace Yourself

The final step is to keep track of time so you can be sure you're pacing yourself effectively and are not spending too much time on any one question. As a reminder, you'll have one hour and 40 minutes for the entire free-response section of the AP Government exam.

It's suggested that you spend the following amounts of time on each FRQ:

As you can see, you should spend about an equal amount of time on the first three FRQs and save most of your time for your essay , which will likely require the most effort of the four.

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A Real AP Government FRQ Example + Analysis

Now, let's go through the answers to a real AP Government free-response question from the 2019 released questions to show you what your responses should look like. This question is an example of a Concept Application question on the exam, meaning it's worth 3 raw points (1 point each for parts A, B, and C).

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This question is all about the Johnson Amendment, which does not allow religious organizations to engage in political activities and contribute money to political campaigns. As this passage explains, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious group, encourages pastors to challenge this law by participating in an annual event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Below, we go through how to answer each of the three parts correctly using the scoring guidelines .

Part A—1 Point

Part A asks you to come up with an example of a specific action Congress could take to address the concerns of the Alliance Defending Freedom. In other words, what could Congress do to allow groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom to speak freely about political campaigns?

Note that the command verb used here is "describe," meaning you must "provide the relevant characteristics of a specified topic," or elaborate on what you're proposing and why it would work.

There are two possible answers you could put down here, according to the scoring guidelines:

  • Congress could pass a law that would reverse the Johnson Amendment.
  • Congress could pass a law to allow religious organizations to participate more directly in politics.

Part B—1 Point

Part B asks you to go into more detail about what you proposed in part A . You must talk about how partisan divisions (i.e., differences in political parties among politicians) could stop whatever you proposed in part A from going into effect (whether that's a new law altogether or a reversal of the original Johnson Amendment).

The task verb used here is "explain," so you must use evidence to show how the action you wrote down in part A could be blocked or reversed.

Here are two possible answers , according to the scoring guidelines:

  • Partisan divisions make it more difficult to pass a law because parties adhere to different ideological points of view.
  • If Congress and the president are from different political parties, the president might threaten to veto the legislation.

Part C—1 Point

The final part of this free-response question asks you to examine the scenario again, this time from the perspective of the Alliance Defending Freedom , or the religious group in question.

How might the Alliance argue that the Johnson Amendment, which prevents them from speaking on political issues and contributing money to political campaigns, is taking away their rights?

The key here is to first think about what rights these could be . Perhaps freedom of speech or freedom of religion? As you probably noticed, the task verb is "explain," so once again you must use plenty of evidence to show why this contentious relationship exists between the Alliance and the Johnson Amendment/the US government as a whole.

Here are examples of answers you could write, according to the official scoring guidelines:

  • The Alliance Defending Freedom and other religious groups might argue that their First Amendment rights are being violated.
  • The Alliance Defending Freedom and other religious groups might argue that their freedom of speech/religion is being violated.

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Essential Resources for Practicing AP US Government FRQs

There are several resources you can use to hone your skills for answering AP Government FRQs.

Official College Board Resources

The College Board website hosts free-response questions from previous tests that you can use for practice. I recommend starting with the 2019 FRQs (unfortunately, they don't come with sample student responses), as these will look the most like the questions you'll get on test day.

Once you've used those, you can look at FRQs from the 2018 test and earlier; most of these come with sample student responses so you can see what a good response looks like.

If you're hoping to practice FRQs in the context of a full-length test, here are some links to past AP Government exams you can download (as always, prioritize the most recent tests):

  • 2018 Practice Test
  • 2013 Practice Test
  • 2012 Practice Test
  • 2009 Practice Test
  • 2005 Practice Test
  • 1999 Practice Test

These are by far the best sample AP US Government free-response questions you can get because they most accurately represent what you'll see on the real test.

AP Government Review Books

AP Government review books are also solid resources for free-response practice, though they vary a lot in quality.

The Princeton Review's prep book for AP Gov includes five full-length practice tests , so there should be tons of free-response questions you can use to hone your skills. Barron's AP US Gov review book also has some useful practice tests and free-response questions.

If you use these unofficial free-response questions for practice, just be sure to intersperse them with official questions from the College Board so that you maintain an accurate sense of what to expect on the real test.

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Recap: Everything to Know About AP US Government FRQs

The four free-response questions on the AP US Government and Politics exam can be approached methodically to earn the maximum number of points.

Read the intro and conclusion to the question first so you can get your bearings. Then, for each of the separate parts, identify the task verb, figure out where you'll earn your raw points, and double-check your answer for any missing pieces or careless errors.

You should also pace yourself so that you're spending no more than 20 minutes each on the first three questions and 40 minutes on the essay.

I suggest practicing at least a few free-response questions before heading into the AP exam. The best resource to use is the College Board website, which contains an archive of past questions accompanied by scoring guidelines and sample student responses. These questions are pretty simple compared to the free-response questions on other AP tests once you get the hang of them!

What's Next?

Not sure where to begin in your AP prep? Our five-step plan will prepare you to take on any AP test .

If you're missing some of your notes that you need to study for AP Gov, check out this article with links to all the content you need to know for the test . You can also learn about the test as a whole with our comprehensive AP Government and Politics review guide .

Do you have a target score in mind for this exam? Learn more about what it takes to earn a 5 on an AP test and whether you should aim for one yourself.

how to write an argument essay ap gov

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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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Lesson Plan: AP Government: Argumentative Essay Practice

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The Federalist Papers

Boston College professor Mary Sarah Bilder gives a brief overview backgrounding the Federalist Papers

Description

This is intended as an end-of-course review activity for practice with the argumentative essay format included on the AP United States Government and Politics exam since the 2018 redesign. Eleven practice prompts are provided, reflecting content from Units 1-3.

ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAY PROMPT ANALYSIS

  • Review the provided Argumentative Essay Prompts in either an individual or jigsaw format.
  • Write a thesis statement for your selected prompt(s) and identify the selection you would make from the provided list and the second piece of evidence you would choose.
  • If there are prompts for which you struggle to develop a thesis, or items on the bulleted lists with which you are not conversant, use the hyperlinked C-SPAN Classroom resources to extend your understanding of the required founding documents and SCOTUS cases that you found challenging.

ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAY

  • Chose one or more of the provided Argumentative Essay Prompts , as assigned, and use the planning and exploration you did above to write a full essay in response to your designated prompt(s) in 25 or fewer minutes , since that's the time limit you'll face on the AP Exam!
  • Exchange essays with a classmate and evaluate each others' work.
  • 1st Amendment
  • Branches Of Government
  • Constitution
  • House Of Representatives
  • Separation Of Powers
  • Supreme Court

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AP® US Government

How to answer ap® us government free response questions.

  • The Albert Team
  • Last Updated On: March 1, 2022

how to answer AP® US Government free response questions

Mastering the free response section can make or break any student’s AP® US Government and Politics score. If you’re looking for the best tips and tricks for answering AP® US GoPo free response questions, you’ve come to the right place. 

In this article, we’ll review tips for writing top-mark AP® US Government and Politics FRQs, mistakes that students make one too many times on past AP® GoPo exams, and how to use past AP® free response questions to start practicing for your upcoming exam. 

Keep reading to get everything you need to know when it comes to making the most of your AP® US Government and Politics exam review. 

What We Review

5 Steps on How to Write Effective AP® US Government and Politics Free Responses

Here, we’ll review a five-step strategy for you to start writing AP® US GoPo free response answers that will score you maximum possible points. 

1. Commit to learning what gets you points on the AP® US Government and Politics exam by reviewing past rubrics and scoring guidelines.

A common mistake students make when it comes to preparing for their AP® GoPo exam is failing to understand how they’re being graded. The first step to solving this is going to the College Board’s AP® Central website and navigating to the past released exams for US Government. 

Here is the link for AP® US Government and Politics past released exams

Open up the scoring guidelines PDF. These guidelines outline how points were distributed on that particular year’s exams. 

Here’s a screenshot from the first question of the 2019 released exam: 

AP® US Government frq

Source: College Board

From this, you can see that this short answer question in 2019 was worth three points, with one point being allocated to each part. There are certain directive words to keep an eye on when reviewing AP® US Government and Politics free response questions, but we’ll get into that later.

For now, just make sure you review at least two years worth of released exam scoring guidelines so you begin to understand how questions and parts of questions are weighted. 

2. Underline or circle every bolded and capitalized word in the question prompt.

Alright, so now that we know how points are generally distributed, we need to build the habit of having a system for ensuring we actually answer the question asked by the College Board when we start our AP® US Government and Politics free response section.

ap us gopo frq example

AP® US Government and Politics isn’t as “nice” as AP® Biology free response questions in that they don’t always bold key directive words for you to know what is being asked.

That being said, it’s not hard to circle or underline for yourself the key thing you are being asked to answer. 

There are three “key phrases” to commit to memory when it comes to AP® US Government and Politics free response questions: 

That’s it. If you look at the last few years worth of released exam questions, these are the most commonly used directive words for the short answer question section of the AP® US Government and Politics free response section. 

If you aren’t sure what the three of these words are asking you for, keep reading.

When the exam asks you to describe something, you need to tell them about what they’re asking. This doesn’t mean you need to explain the “why” — it just means you need to talk about what the topic is and the characteristics of the topic being asked.

When you’re asked to explain something, this is where you need to show the “why”. You need to be able to give 3-5 sentences with an example in most cases to earn credit for these questions.

Finally, when asked to identify something, you need to simply indicate that you know what the topic is related to — no need for explanation or elaboration as you might when asked to describe or explain. 

One of our best test taking tips we can give you is to make a tick mark or star next to the words you have circled or underlined after you’ve answered it in your free response. This serves as a visual checklist for you to make sure you answered all parts of the question. 

Trust us! It’s easy to forget to answer one small part of an FRQ, and that can make all the difference in your free response score. 

Aside from the three directive words above, other commonly used ones for AP® GoPo include:

  • Define : Similar to identify — show that you know what the topic is but there is no need to elaborate further than what’s asked.
  • Compare : Provide a description of the similarities and/or differences of the topics presented.
  • Develop an Argument : State a claim and support it with evidence.
  • Draw a Conclusion : Make an accurate statement from what has been presented. 

3. Plan your response BEFORE beginning to write your response. 

planning your AP® US Government frq out

One of the most commonly cited mistakes students make on the AP® GoPo free response section is not actually answering the question in a thoughtful way. 

The College Board uses the free response section to test your ability to connect the dots with what you’ve learned in class. You need to demonstrate skills such as considering evidence to incorporate and how that fits into your analysis. 

This means plan out your response before you begin writing! 

Take a second before putting your pen down to start writing to think through how you’ll answer the “why” based questions. 

Think deeply about what the question is actually asking you — sometimes students answer questions without actually…answering the question.

Readers often express that student misconceptions come from having a poorly planned response or simply restating the question without adding any direct response to the question they were asked. 

4. Remember that AP® US Government and Politics free responses are not like other subjects — treat them differently than you may in AP® English Language. 

ap us gopo frq

When it comes to the short answer questions in AP® GoPo, you do not need to write an essay to score max points. There is no need for an introduction, thesis, or conclusion on these questions.

When it comes to the argumentative essay, it’s not necessarily a cookie-cutter five paragraph essay either. 

The argumentative essay’s scoring depends on each proceeding section building on the prior. On every question 4, the College Board states exactly what you need to score maximum possible points. 

You need: 

  • To articulate a defensible claim or thesis that responds to the prompt and establishes a line of reasoning.
  • Typically one will be from a foundational document while the other will be any other foundational document you learned in class
  • Use reasoning to explain why your evidence supports your claim or thesis
  • Respond to an opposing or alternative perspective using refutation, concession, or rebuttal.

What this means is that as long as you cover all the points outlined above clearly, you can score a perfect score on the argumentative essay! 

When it comes to preparing for the argumentative essay, one of the best things you can do is make sure you are fully comfortable with all 9 foundational documents and 15 Supreme Court cases. 

The required foundational documents to know are: 

  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Articles of Confederation
  • The Constitution of the United States
  • Federalist No. 10
  • Brutus No. 1
  • Federalist No. 51
  • Federalist No. 70
  • Federalist No. 78
  • Letters from a Birmingham Jail

Kelsey Falkowski has a nice 15-minute review video of these foundational documents here .

The required Supreme Court cases are:

  • Marbury v. Madison (1803)
  • McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
  • Schenck v. United States (1919)
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
  • Baker v. Carr (1961)
  • Engel v. Vitale (1962)
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
  • New York Times Company v. United States (1971)
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
  • Roe v. Wade (1973)
  • Shaw v. Reno (1993)
  • United States v. Lopez (1995)
  • McDonald v. Chicago (2010)
  • Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

Adam Norris has a great 11-minute review video on these fifteen cases here .

Typically when it comes to the final component, we like using rebuttals more than concessions or refutations. The reason why is because when you make a concession or refutation on a claim you made earlier in your essay, it can potentially come across as a weakening of your thesis if you are not able to position it properly. 

The last thing to remember here is to make sure you “close the loop”. This is a test taking strategy the College Board promotes across multiple disciplines and with good reason — it challenges a student to demonstrate they can form a coherent argument. Closing the loop in AP® US Government can mean using words like “because” or “therefore” to help bridge two concepts together and solve for the “why” this matters. 

5. Practice, practice, and did we say practice?

When you reduce AP® free response sections down to their core, regardless of subject domain, mastering them comes down to two things: knowing how you’re going to be graded, and learning how to craft responses that fit those rubrics. 

Sometimes students do the first part well but fail to practice enough at doing the second part, and vice versa. 

When you first start out, we recommend trying a set of past released questions and then having a friend grade your responses with the scoring guidelines. See how you would do without any intentional prep. Then, learn from your mistakes, log your mistakes in a study journal, and begin intentionally tackling other years one by one.

After a few times of doing this, you’ll begin building your intuition to craft a perfect-score response for your AP® US Government and Politics free responses.

25 AP® US Government and Politics FRQ Tips to Scoring a 4 or 5

Now that we’ve gone over the 5-step process to writing good AP® GoPo free responses, we can shift gears to tackle some test taking tips and tricks to maximizing your FRQ scores. 

We recommend you review these several weeks, and then days before your exam to keep them top of mind. 

  • Know which SAQ you’re weakest at. There are always three core question types: concept application, quantitative analysis, and SCOTUS comparison. If you’re weak at one, make sure you’ve reviewed all the past released exams for that particular SAQ. 
  • Make sure you review how issues or ideology can drive partnership on specific issues. 
  • Focus on applying the political concepts and processes you learned in class to scenarios in context. This is one of the most common mistakes for the SAQs. 
  • One of the easiest ways to bridge two concepts is to use words like “because” or “therefore” and then proceed to answer the “why this matters”. 
  • Focus on what is right instead of what is wrong in your response. These free response questions are often graded based on what’s right more so than what’s wrong (which is different from another subject like AP® Biology).
  • If you’re not 100% sure about a supporting statement, add a second supporting statement on the topic as backup. 
  • If you’re offering specificity, make sure to be explicit on what the intent of you introducing that in your response is. For example, if something is being presented to rebuttal something else, explain why or how it does so. 
  • When it comes to data analysis, you need to make sure you are comfortable interpreting data and applying data to demonstrate how it interacts with the political process. 
  • In the past, students have not been able to analyze and apply data to course content — they make mistakes in connecting how policy relates to respective parties in the political process. 
  • When practicing data analysis, it’s important to look at a variety of different types of graphs and focus on identifying the similarities and differences within a set of complex data. 
  • Data analysis is not just reading graphs, but also reading charts and tables. Don’t just think because you got one question reading a graph correctly that you’re good to go for your quantitative analysis SAQ. 
  • One of the easiest ways to bolster your data analysis skills is by reviewing sources such as the Gallup National Polls or Pew Research findings. 
  • When it comes to SCOTUS comparison, students often fail to effectively compare the two cases — they do a fine job of recalling the required case, but struggle to connect the required case to the non-required case. 
  • Remember that the SCOTUS comparison SAQ is typically not going to ask you to discuss the rulings of the required case, but rather the facts of the cases and how it applies to the non-required case. 
  • Keep an eye out for when you’re asked for the clause from an amendment or the Constitution. This means there will only be one right answer. 
  • Know the difference between reasoning of a case, the decision, opinions of the case, as well as the cold hard facts. Make flashcards or use Quizlet to help here. 
  • When you’re asked to compare facts, it means you need to review the facts of both cases, not just one. Even if the facts for the non-required case are included in the prompt, you need to include it in your response for points. 
  • When it comes to the argumentative essay, students typically fail to explain why the evidence they bring up supports their thesis.
  • The second area students struggle is in responding to an alternative perspective (refutation, concession, or rebuttal).
  • X is your counterargument or counterpoint
  • ABC are your strongest supporting points for your argument.
  • And Y is your argument. 
  • Know your foundational documents cold. Sometimes students mix up these documents. There are four different Federalists to know!
  • When looking to get the reasoning point, make sure to explain why the evidence you’re procuring supports your thesis. Don’t just restate your thesis or state the evidence without connecting the two. 
  • When seeking your perspective point (for refutation, concession, or rebuttal), make sure to state the alternative point of view, but also respond to it. Both of these parts are needed.
  • Work with a friend through at least three years of AP® GoPo FRQs. Then swap with each other and go through the scoring guidelines together to get consistent exposure to the rubrics. 
  • By your last two weeks before the exam, you should have clearly identified your 3-5 biggest weaknesses when it comes to FRQs. Devote at least 70% of your time to these areas and the remaining time on general review. 

Wrapping Things Up: How to Write AP® US Government and Politics FRQs

Wow! We’ve gone over a ton of things in this AP® US Government and Politics review guide. At this point, you should have everything you need to get started in preparing for your GoPo FRQs. 

To summarize, here are a few things to remember: 

  • Great AP® US Government and Politics free response scores are only made when you know how you’re being graded. Learn the rubrics. 
  • Have a consistent system for responding to each question. We recommend circling or underlining what you’re being asked, and then adding a tick or star next to the word in the prompt when you’ve answered it.
  • Know the facts of your foundational documents and required Supreme Court cases cold. Students have missed points in the past by mixing up one with another. 
  • Practice working with multiple types of data for the quantitative analysis SAQ: this means reviewing charts, graphs, and tables. Focus on being able to interpret the data presented to political concepts or processes. 
  • Review commonly tested AP® US Government and Politics topics. Review the curriculum and exam description to see the percentage breakdown of different units. Unit 2 on Interactions Among Branches of Government is a very important one to know as it makes up 25-36% of the exam. 
  • Make sure your thesis includes a clear line of reasoning. Remember the model: Although X, ABC, therefore Y.
  • Always “close the loop”. Use words such as “because” or “therefore” to bridge two concepts together and solve for the “why” this matters. 

We hope you’ve found this exhaustive guide helpful for your AP® US Government and Politics exam review. 

If you’re looking for more free response questions or multiple choice questions, check out our website! Albert has hundreds of original standards-aligned practice questions for you with detailed explanations to help you learn by doing.

If you found this post helpful, you may also like our AP® US Government tips here or our AP® US GoPo score calculator here .

We also have an AP® US Government review guide here .

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2 thoughts on “how to answer ap® us government free response questions”.

On the list of required supreme court cases, you guys listed Schneck v United States with the wrong year.

Great catch, Johnny! We’ve updated the list to include the correct date (1919).

Comments are closed.

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AP Comparative Government Free Response Help - FRQ

4 min read • november 18, 2020

Fatima Raja

Fatima Raja

Mixed AP Review

Endless stimulus-based MCQs for all units

how to write an argument essay ap gov

In these three things—production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on, and colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety—is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations bordering upon the sea. The policy has varied both with the spirit of the age and with the character and clear-sightedness of the rulers; but the history of the seaboard nations has been less determined by the shrewdness and foresight of governments than by conditions of position, extent, configuration, number and character of their people,—by what are called, in a word, natural conditions.

how to write an argument essay ap gov

The free-response section of the CompGov exam makes up 50% of your exam score. So, yeah, that means it's a good idea to do well on the FRQ section if you want to score well. Which, like, why wouldn't you? 🤔

Keep reading to learn how to ace the FRQ section!

FRQ Section Structure

You might be wondering what the FRQ section looks like, especially because every AP exam is slightly different. 🤮

The FRQ section of the CompGov exam has 4 questions, and each one of them is a different style of question. Here are the types of questions:

1 conceptual analysis question: In this question, you'll describe or explain a political concept in one of the six course countries.

1 quantitative analysis question: In this question, you'll address some kind of visual stimulus that you'll have to analyze to explain a trend or pattern that you can connect to the course concepts.

1 comparative analysis question: You'll compare and contrast political concepts/institutions/policies in different course countries.

1 argument essay: a new question type where you'll write an argument-based essay (P.S. you can get a general idea of what this may look like by looking at the US Government past exam questions 👀)

Each question may have a few different parts, and the structure of past CompGov questions look like that.

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The vibes in this picture are immaculate ... Image Courtesy of Pixabay

Look at High-Scoring Examples

A good way to score well on the FRQ section is to know what the exam graders want from you.

What makes a good FRQ response? What will get you/lose you a point? 🤔 You can figure all of that out by looking at past student responses. Doing this will help you learn how pretty much game the system.

https://firebasestorage.googleapis.com/v0/b/fiveable-92889.appspot.com/o/images%2F-Cipk7QEd5AEk.png?alt=media&token=e5ed1370-3eee-488a-b482-ca8f496999f9

This is what every AP student looks like when they're wrapped up like a burrito and studying Image Courtesy of Pixabay

CollegeBoard actually releases the scoring guidelines for past FRQs, student samples, and how they scored, and the average scores for each FRQ. You can find all of that here .

If you've played a sport 🏄🏽‍♀️ or ever had any kind of hobby, you know that you may not have all the skills to do well at first, but you get better at it with practice. FRQs work pretty much the same way: you need to practice writing them to get good at writing them.

The good thing is that you can access past exam FRQs until 1999. That said, you should start practicing with the most recent prompts because they'll be the most similar to what will show up on your test.

Writing Games

I'll admit that practicing FRQs isn't my first choice of a fun activity to do. So, here are a couple of writing games you can do to make practicing slightly less boring.

Popsicle Stick Essays

Get a bunch of popsicle sticks or slips of paper and put a bunch of different political concepts/institutions, important vocab words, and the required countries. Make sure that you separate these things by color (ex. make the countries blue, the vocab words purple...) so you can tell them apart.

Draw a country, an important vocab term, and a concept out of the jar. Then, write about them. Explain how that term exists in the country you drew and what it means.

🚨 This exercise will help you know what gaps you have in your CompGov knowledge and allow you to practice writing about the concepts you're learning.

Snowball FRQs

Have a few friends or classmates make up their CompGov FRQ prompts. This will work better if they're also taking the class or have taken it in the past (because they'll hopefully know what they're talking about 😂).

Then, ball up your piece of paper and throw your snowball across the room (or at a friend 😉). Everyone should pick up a snowball for themselves and reply to the prompt they picked up.

If you want, you can have another mini snowball fight and have different people grade the responses. Make sure everyone writes their name on their response, so they can feedback on what they wrote.

Past Prompts

If you decide that you don't want to practice FRQs from 1999 because they're outdated and you run out of prompts to practice with, you can change up how they're structured.

Just choose a prompt, and draw a different country out of a hat 🎩. Then, respond to the prompt as if it's about the country you drew.

Closing Thoughts

Half of your CompGov score consists of the FRQs you write, so knowing how to do well in this section will help you ace the exam. Connecting the course content to the short answers you have to write may be a bit difficult at first, but you'll get the hang of it with some practice.

Key Terms to Review ( 1 )

Political Culture

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how to write an argument essay ap gov

How to Write the AP Lang Argument Essay + Examples

What’s covered:, what is the ap language argument essay, tips for writing the ap language argument essay, ap english language argument essay examples, how will ap scores impact my college chances.

In 2023, over 550,148 students across the U.S. took the AP English Language and Composition Exam, and 65.2% scored higher than a 3. The AP English Language Exam tests your ability to analyze a piece of writing, synthesize information, write a rhetorical essay, and create a cohesive argument. In this post, we’ll be discussing the best way to approach the argumentative essay section of the test, and we’ll give you tips and tricks so you can write a great essay.

The AP English Language Exam as of 2023 is structured as follows:

Section 1: 45 multiple choice questions to be completed in an hour. This portion counts for 45% of your score. This section requires students to analyze a piece of literature. The questions ask about its content and/or what could be edited within the passage.

Section 2: Three free response questions to be completed in the remaining two hours and 15 minutes. This section counts for 55% of your score. These essay questions include the synthesis essay, the rhetorical essay, and the argumentative essay.

  • Synthesis essay: Read 6-7 sources and create an argument using at least three of the sources.
  • Rhetorical analysis essay: Describe how a piece of writing evokes meaning and symbolism.
  • Argumentative essay: Pick a side of a debate and create an argument based on evidence. In this essay, you should develop a logical argument in support of or against the given statement and provide ample evidence that supports your conclusion. Typically, a five paragraph format is great for this type of writing. This essay is scored holistically from 1 to 9 points.

Do you want more information on the structure of the full exam? Take a look at our in-depth overview of the AP Language and Composition Exam .

Although the AP Language Argument may seem daunting at first, once you understand how the essay should be structured, it will be a lot easier to create cohesive arguments.

Below are some tips to help you as you write the essay.

1. Organize your essay before writing

Instead of jumping right into your essay, plan out what you will say beforehand. It’s easiest to make a list of your arguments and write out what facts or evidence you will use to support each argument. In your outline, you can determine the best order for your arguments, especially if they build on each other or are chronological. Having a well-organized essay is crucial for success.

2. Pick one side of the argument, but acknowledge the other side

When you write the essay, it’s best if you pick one side of the debate and stick with it for the entire essay. All your evidence should be in support of that one side. However, in your introductory paragraph, as you introduce the debate, be sure to mention any merit the arguments of the other side has. This can make the essay a bit more nuanced and show that you did consider both sides before determining which one was better. Often, acknowledging another viewpoint then refuting it can make your essay stronger.

3. Provide evidence to support your claims

The AP readers will be looking for examples and evidence to support your argument. This doesn’t mean that you need to memorize a bunch of random facts before the exam. This just means that you should be able to provide concrete examples in support of your argument.

For example, if the essay topic is about whether the role of the media in society has been detrimental or not, and you argue that it has been, you may talk about the phenomenon of “fake news” during the 2016 presidential election.

AP readers are not looking for perfect examples, but they are looking to see if you can provide enough evidence to back your claim and make it easily understood.

4. Create a strong thesis statement

The thesis statement will set up your entire essay, so it’s important that it is focused and specific, and that it allows for the reader to understand your body paragraphs. Make sure your thesis statement is the very last sentence of your introductory paragraph. In this sentence, list out the key points you will be making in the essay in the same order that you will be writing them. Each new point you mention in your thesis should start a paragraph in your essay.

Below is a prompt and sample student essay from the May 2019 exam . We’ll look at what the student did well in their writing and where they could improve.

Prompt: “The term “overrated” is often used to diminish concepts, places, roles, etc. that the speaker believes do not deserve the prestige they commonly enjoy; for example, many writers have argued that success is overrated, a character in a novel by Anthony Burgess famously describes Rome as a “vastly overrated city,” and Queen Rania of Jordan herself has asserted that “[b]eing queen is overrated.”

Select a concept, place, role, etc. to which you believe that the term “overrated” should be applied. Then, write a well-developed essay in which you explain your judgment. Use appropriate evidence from your reading, experience, or observations to support your argument.

Sample Student Essay #1:

[1] Competition is “overrated.” The notion of motivation between peers has evolved into a source of unnecessary stress and even lack of morals. Whether it be in an academic environment or in the industry, this new idea of competition is harmful to those competing and those around them.

[2] Back in elementary school, competition was rather friendly. It could have been who could do the most pushups or who could get the most imaginary points in a classroom for a prize. If you couldn’t do the most pushups or win that smelly sticker, you would go home and improve yourself – there would be no strong feelings towards anyone, you would just focus on making yourself a better version of yourself. Then as high school rolled around, suddenly applying for college doesn’t seem so far away –GPA seems to be that one stat that defines you – extracurriculars seem to shape you – test scores seem to categorize you. Sleepless nights, studying for the next day’s exam, seem to become more and more frequent. Floating duck syndrome seems to surround you (FDS is where a competitive student pretends to not work hard but is furiously studying beneath the surface just like how a duck furiously kicks to stay afloat). All of your competitors appear to hope you fail – but in the end what do you and your competitor’s gain? Getting one extra point on the test? Does that self-satisfaction compensate for the tremendous amounts of acquired stress? This new type of “competition” is overrated – it serves nothing except a never-ending source of anxiety and seeks to weaken friendships and solidarity as a whole in the school setting.

[3] A similar idea of “competition” can be applied to business. On the most fundamental level, competition serves to be a beneficial regulator of prices and business models for both the business themselves and consumers. However, as businesses grew increasingly greedy and desperate, companies resorted to immoral tactics that only hurt their reputations and consumers as a whole. Whether it be McDonald’s coupons that force you to buy more food or tech companies like Apple intentionally slowing down your iPhone after 3 years to force you to upgrade to the newest device, consumers suffer and in turn speak down upon these companies. Similar to the evolved form of competition in school, this overrated form causes pain for all parties and has since diverged from the encouraging nature that the principle of competition was “founded” on.

The AP score for this essay was a 4/6, meaning that it captured the main purpose of the essay but there were still substantial parts missing. In this essay, the writer did a good job organizing the sections and making sure that their writing was in order according to the thesis statement. The essay first discusses how competition is harmful in elementary school and then discusses this topic in the context of business. This follows the chronological order of somebody’s life and flows nicely.

The arguments in this essay are problematic, as they do not provide enough examples of how exactly competition is overrated. The essay discusses the context in which competition is overrated but does not go far enough in explaining how this connects to the prompt.

In the first example, school stress is used to explain how competition manifests. This is a good starting point, but it does not talk about why competition is overrated; it simply mentions that competition can be unhealthy. The last sentence of that paragraph is the main point of the argument and should be expanded to discuss how the anxiety of school is overrated later on in life. 

In the second example, the writer discusses how competition can lead to harmful business practices, but again, this doesn’t reflect the reason this would be overrated. Is competition really overrated because Apple and McDonald’s force you to buy new products? This example could’ve been taken one step farther. Instead of explaining why business structures—such as monopolies—harm competition, the author should discuss how those particular structures are overrated.

Additionally, the examples the writer used lack detail. A stronger essay would’ve provided more in-depth examples. This essay seemed to mention examples only in passing without using them to defend the argument.

It should also be noted that the structure of the essay is incomplete. The introduction only has a thesis statement and no additional context. Also, there is no conclusion paragraph that sums up the essay. These missing components result in a 4/6.

Now let’s go through the prompt for a sample essay from the May 2022 exam . The prompt is as follows:

Colin Powell, a four-star general and former United States Secretary of State, wrote in his 1995 autobiography: “[W]e do not have the luxury of collecting information indefinitely. At some point, before we can have every possible fact in hand, we have to decide. The key is not to make quick decisions, but to make timely decisions.”

Write an essay that argues your position on the extent to which Powell’s claim about making decisions is valid. 

In your response you should do the following:

  • Respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents a defensible position. 
  • Provide evidence to support your line of reasoning. 
  • Explain how the evidence supports your line of reasoning. 
  • Use appropriate grammar and punctuation in communicating your argument.

Sample Student Essay #2:

Colin Powell, who was a four star general and a former United States Secretary of State. He wrote an autobiography and had made a claim about making decisions. In my personal opinion, Powell’s claim is true to full extent and shows an extremely valuable piece of advice that we do not consider when we make decisions.

Powell stated, “before we can have every possible fact in hand we have to decide…. but to make it a timely decision” (1995). With this statement Powell is telling the audience of his autobiography that it does not necessarily matter how many facts you have, and how many things you know. Being able to have access to everything possible takes a great amount of time and we don’t always have all of the time in the world. A decision has to be made with what you know, waiting for something else to come in while trying to make a decision whether that other fact is good or bad you already have a good amount of things that you know. Everyone’s time is valuable, including yours. At the end of the day the decision will have to be made and that is why it should be made in a “timely” manner.

This response was graded for a score of 2/6. Let’s break down the score to smaller points that signify where the student fell short.

The thesis in this essay is clearly outlined at the end of the first paragraph. The student states their agreement with Powell’s claim and frames the rest of their essay around this stance. The success in scoring here lies in the clear communication of the thesis and the direction the argument will take. It’s important to make the thesis statement concise, specific, and arguable, which the student has successfully done.

While the student did attempt to provide evidence to support their thesis, it’s clear that their explanation lacks specific detail and substance. They referenced Powell’s statement, but did not delve into how this statement has proven true in specific instances, and did not provide examples that could bring the argument to life.

Commentary is an essential part of this section’s score. It means explaining the significance of the evidence and connecting it back to the thesis. Unfortunately, the student’s commentary here is too vague and does not effectively elaborate on how the evidence supports their argument.

To improve, the student could use more concrete examples to demonstrate their point and discuss how each piece of evidence supports their thesis. For instance, they could discuss specific moments in Powell’s career where making a timely decision was more valuable than waiting for all possible facts. This would help illustrate the argument in a more engaging, understandable way.

A high score in the “sophistication” category of the grading rubric is given for demonstrating a complex understanding of the rhetorical situation (purpose, audience, context, etc.), making effective rhetorical choices, or establishing a line of reasoning. Here, the student’s response lacks complexity and sophistication. They’ve simply agreed with Powell’s claim and made a few general statements without providing a deeper analysis or effectively considering the rhetorical situation.

To increase sophistication, the student could explore possible counterarguments or complexities within Powell’s claim. They could discuss potential drawbacks of making decisions without all possible facts, or examine situations where timely decisions might not yield the best results. By acknowledging and refuting these potential counterarguments, they could add more depth to their analysis and showcase their understanding of the complexities involved in decision-making.

The student could also analyze why Powell, given his background and experiences, might have come to such a conclusion, thus providing more context and showing an understanding of the rhetorical situation.

Remember, sophistication in argumentation isn’t about using fancy words or complicated sentences. It’s about showing that you understand the complexity of the issue at hand and that you’re able to make thoughtful, nuanced arguments. Sophistication shows that you can think critically about the topic and make connections that aren’t immediately obvious.

Now that you’ve looked at an example essay and some tips for the argumentative essay, you know how to better prepare for the AP English Language and Composition Exam.

While your AP scores don’t usually impact your admissions chances , colleges do care a lot about your course rigor. So, taking as many APs as you can will certainly boost your chances! AP scores can be a way for high-performing students to set themselves apart, particularly when applying to prestigious universities. Through the process of self-reporting scores , you can show your hard work and intelligence to admissions counselors.

That said, the main benefit of scoring high on AP exams comes once you land at your dream school, as high scores can allow you to “test out” of entry-level requirements, often called GE requirements or distribution requirements. This will save you time and money.

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Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action ruling leaves them no choice

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

how to write an argument essay ap gov

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. (AP Video: Noreen Nasir)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa listens to others member of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa, second from left, practices with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, stands for a portrait outside of the school in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

*Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait outside of the school in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Hillary Amofa, left, practices with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa sits for a portrait after her step team practice at Lincoln Park High School Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. “I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18 year-old senior, “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.” (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

CHICAGO (AP) — When she started writing her college essay, Hillary Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. About hardship and struggle.

Then she deleted it all.

“I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.”

When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in higher education, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions. For many students of color, instantly more was riding on the already high-stakes writing assignment. Some say they felt pressure to exploit their hardships as they competed for a spot on campus.

Amofa was just starting to think about her essay when the court issued its decision, and it left her with a wave of questions. Could she still write about her race? Could she be penalized for it? She wanted to tell colleges about her heritage but she didn’t want to be defined by it.

In English class, Amofa and her classmates read sample essays that all seemed to focus on some trauma or hardship. It left her with the impression she had to write about her life’s hardest moments to show how far she’d come. But she and some of her classmates wondered if their lives had been hard enough to catch the attention of admissions offices.

“For a lot of students, there’s a feeling of, like, having to go through something so horrible to feel worthy of going to school, which is kind of sad,” said Amofa, the daughter of a hospital technician and an Uber driver.

This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action . The Supreme Court upheld the practice in decisions going back to the 1970s, but this court’s conservative supermajority found it is unconstitutional for colleges to give students extra weight because of their race alone.

Still, the decision left room for race to play an indirect role: Chief Justice John Roberts wrote universities can still consider how an applicant’s life was shaped by their race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”

“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” he wrote.

Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students’ backgrounds. Brown University asked applicants how “an aspect of your growing up has inspired or challenged you.” Rice University asked students how their perspectives were shaped by their “background, experiences, upbringing, and/or racial identity.”

*Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa, reflected right, practices in a mirror with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WONDERING IF SCHOOLS ‘EXPECT A SOB STORY’

When Darrian Merritt started writing his essay, he knew the stakes were higher than ever because of the court’s decision. His first instinct was to write about events that led to him going to live with his grandmother as a child.

Those were painful memories, but he thought they might play well at schools like Yale, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

“I feel like the admissions committee might expect a sob story or a tragic story,” said Merritt, a senior in Cleveland. “And if you don’t provide that, then maybe they’re not going to feel like you went through enough to deserve having a spot at the university. I wrestled with that a lot.”

He wrote drafts focusing on his childhood, but it never amounted to more than a collection of memories. Eventually he abandoned the idea and aimed for an essay that would stand out for its positivity.

Merritt wrote about a summer camp where he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin. He described embracing his personality and defying his tendency to please others. The essay had humor — it centered on a water gun fight where he had victory in sight but, in a comedic twist, slipped and fell. But the essay also reflects on his feelings of not being “Black enough” and getting made fun of for listening to “white people music.”

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to write this for me, and we’re just going to see how it goes,’” he said. “It just felt real, and it felt like an honest story.”

The essay describes a breakthrough as he learned “to take ownership of myself and my future by sharing my true personality with the people I encounter. ... I realized that the first chapter of my own story had just been written.”

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

A RULING PROMPTS PIVOTS ON ESSAY TOPICS

Like many students, Max Decker of Portland, Oregon, had drafted a college essay on one topic, only to change direction after the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Decker initially wrote about his love for video games. In a childhood surrounded by constant change, navigating his parents’ divorce, the games he took from place to place on his Nintendo DS were a source of comfort.

But the essay he submitted to colleges focused on the community he found through Word is Bond, a leadership group for young Black men in Portland.

As the only biracial, Jewish kid with divorced parents in a predominantly white, Christian community, Decker wrote he constantly felt like the odd one out. On a trip with Word is Bond to Capitol Hill, he and friends who looked just like him shook hands with lawmakers. The experience, he wrote, changed how he saw himself.

“It’s because I’m different that I provide something precious to the world, not the other way around,” he wrote.

As a first-generation college student, Decker thought about the subtle ways his peers seemed to know more about navigating the admissions process . They made sure to get into advanced classes at the start of high school, and they knew how to secure glowing letters of recommendation.

Max Decker reads his college essay on his experience with a leadership group for young Black men. (AP Video/Noreen Nasir)

If writing about race would give him a slight edge and show admissions officers a fuller picture of his achievements, he wanted to take that small advantage.

His first memory about race, Decker said, was when he went to get a haircut in elementary school and the barber made rude comments about his curly hair. Until recently, the insecurity that moment created led him to keep his hair buzzed short.

Through Word is Bond, Decker said he found a space to explore his identity as a Black man. It was one of the first times he was surrounded by Black peers and saw Black role models. It filled him with a sense of pride in his identity. No more buzzcut.

The pressure to write about race involved a tradeoff with other important things in his life, Decker said. That included his passion for journalism, like the piece he wrote on efforts to revive a once-thriving Black neighborhood in Portland. In the end, he squeezed in 100 characters about his journalism under the application’s activities section.

“My final essay, it felt true to myself. But the difference between that and my other essay was the fact that it wasn’t the truth that I necessarily wanted to share,” said Decker, whose top college choice is Tulane, in New Orleans, because of the region’s diversity. “It felt like I just had to limit the truth I was sharing to what I feel like the world is expecting of me.”

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

SPELLING OUT THE IMPACT OF RACE

Before the Supreme Court ruling, it seemed a given to Imani Laird that colleges would consider the ways that race had touched her life. But now, she felt like she had to spell it out.

As she started her essay, she reflected on how she had faced bias or felt overlooked as a Black student in predominantly white spaces.

There was the year in math class when the teacher kept calling her by the name of another Black student. There were the comments that she’d have an easier time getting into college because she was Black .

“I didn’t have it easier because of my race,” said Laird, a senior at Newton South High School in the Boston suburbs who was accepted at Wellesley and Howard University, and is waiting to hear from several Ivy League colleges. “I had stuff I had to overcome.”

In her final essays, she wrote about her grandfather, who served in the military but was denied access to GI Bill benefits because of his race.

She described how discrimination fueled her ambition to excel and pursue a career in public policy.

“So, I never settled for mediocrity,” she wrote. “Regardless of the subject, my goal in class was not just to participate but to excel. Beyond academics, I wanted to excel while remembering what started this motivation in the first place.”

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person." (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Hillary Amofa stands for a portrait after practice with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

WILL SCHOOLS LOSE RACIAL DIVERSITY?

Amofa used to think affirmative action was only a factor at schools like Harvard and Yale. After the court’s ruling, she was surprised to find that race was taken into account even at some public universities she was applying to.

Now, without affirmative action, she wondered if mostly white schools will become even whiter.

It’s been on her mind as she chooses between Indiana University and the University of Dayton, both of which have relatively few Black students. When she was one of the only Black students in her grade school, she could fall back on her family and Ghanaian friends at church. At college, she worries about loneliness.

“That’s what I’m nervous about,” she said. “Going and just feeling so isolated, even though I’m constantly around people.”

Hillary Amofa reads her college essay on embracing her natural hair. (AP Video/Noreen Nasir)

The first drafts of her essay focused on growing up in a low-income family, sharing a bedroom with her brother and grandmother. But it didn’t tell colleges about who she is now, she said.

Her final essay tells how she came to embrace her natural hair . She wrote about going to a mostly white grade school where classmates made jokes about her afro. When her grandmother sent her back with braids or cornrows, they made fun of those too.

Over time, she ignored their insults and found beauty in the styles worn by women in her life. She now runs a business doing braids and other hairstyles in her neighborhood.

“I stopped seeing myself through the lens of the European traditional beauty standards and started seeing myself through the lens that I created,” Amofa wrote.

“Criticism will persist, but it loses its power when you know there’s a crown on your head!”

Ma reported from Portland, Oregon.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org .

COLLIN BINKLEY

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