Free-response questions 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, I'll lay out a 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 has four questions total, each of which is worth an equal percentage of your score. You’ll have an hour and 40 minutes to answer these questions, which means you should spend no more than 20-25 minutes on each of them. Each question is typically worth between 5-7 raw points, and the free-response section as a whole makes up 50 percent of your score. All the free-response questions have pretty much the same format, so it's one of the simpler AP free-response sections overall.
Free-response questions on this exam 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.
AP Government FRQs: Step-By-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 that I’ll reference throughout so that you can see how these steps might work in practice:
Step 1: Read the Introduction to the Question
Most questions on this test will have an introductory sentence or two before they break down into parts that you need to answer. This will give you background information and a general sense of what to expect in the rest of the question. Some questions are accompanied by images or charts (as we will see in the example section). If that’s the case, you should also take a second here to review the graphics and make sure you understand what they’re showing.
If you want, you can read the intros to all the questions before choosing where to begin. It may help to build your confidence and improve your efficiency to start with a question that’s easier for you. In the sample question, you would note from the introduction that the question is going to be dealing with the role of political parties in US government. The intro also tells us that political parties have recently gained influence in Congress while losing influence in the actual election process.
Step 2: Identify (and Underline, If You Want) the Command Verb
For each part of each question, you’re given specific instructions on the type of answer that is expected. These instructions include verbs like “identify”, “explain”, “describe”, “define”, and “compare.” It’s important to be aware of exactly what the question is asking you to do so that you can earn full points. These command verbs are the first words you should zero in on as you read. If you think it will help keep you focused, you can even underline them as you go through the question.
In part a of the sample question, the command verb is “describe.” This indicates that you need to do more than just state an important function of political parties; you need to expand on exactly what it is. In parts c and d, the command verb changes to “explain”, which means you’ll need to include even more elaboration in your answer on how certain factors have affected party politics.
Step 3: Address All the Potential Points
After finding the command verb in the part of the question you’re answering, take note of how many examples or descriptions you need to provide. Each of them will almost always correspond to a point in your raw score for the question. Be careful to answer the question thoroughly but directly, addressing all of these points in a way that will make it easy for graders to assess your response. You don’t need to write an essay for these free-response questions. Just go straight for the answer to avoid ambiguity.
For part a of the sample question, you’re asked to describe two important functions of political parties, which means that part a is almost certainly worth two points. You need to make sure you provide two distinct functions and make it easy for the grader to award points for your answer. If you go through the rest of the question, it looks like there are five raw points available in total: two for part a, one for part b, two for part c, and one for part d. Write your answer carefully so you can scoop up all of them!
Step 4: Reread Your Answer
Finally, reread what you wrote to ensure that it makes sense and addresses the question completely. Did you give the correct number of descriptions/examples/identifications? Does your answer directly respond to what the question is asking overall? If you’re satisfied, move onto the next part of the question and return to step 2!
AP Government FRQ Example
Now, I’ll go through the answers to a real AP Government free-response question from the 2013 exam to show you what your responses should look like:
First, let’s consider the chart and the introductory sentence for this question. It looks like we’re comparing the distribution of judicial appointments by gender and ethnicity for two different presidents.
For part a, you are asked to describe one way in which the judicial appointments of Obama and Bush were similar. You might say that in both cases more than half of the appointees were white, with Obama at 59 percent and Bush at 82 percent white. You could also say that the percentage of Hispanic nominees was similar for each president or that in both cases Asian American nominees were the rarest of all the ethnic groups. You would earn one point for this part of the question if you included either of those responses.
For part b, you are asked to describe two differences between the presidents in their judicial appointments. One difference you might point out is that a significantly larger percentage of Obama’s nominees were women - almost half compared to Bush’s mere 22 percent. A second difference is that Obama appointed a greater percentage of candidates from racial minorities. For example, 22 percent of his appointees were African American as compared to Bush’s 7 percent. You could earn two points for part b, one for each difference between the two sets of nominees.
Part c asks you to explain how party affiliation impacts judiciary nominations. You might say that the President often chooses nominees with similar views who will adhere to his policy preferences. This typically means people who belong to the same political party as the President.
You could also say that the President tends to choose nominees who will make his party’s electoral base happy and lead to victories in future elections. Part c was worth one point.
Finally, part d asks you to describe what a President can do to increase the likelihood that his federal court nominees will be confirmed. Possible answers to part d include:
- Consulting with the Senate/using senatorial courtesy
- Selecting a moderate candidate in the first place
- Properly vetting candidates and choosing people who are highly qualified
You would earn one point for this part of the question if you described any one of these methods. Notice that this question was worth a total of five raw points, which is probably the lowest raw point value you’ll see on any of the AP US Government free-response questions. However, a lower raw point value doesn’t mean it’s worth any less in your final scaled score; each free-response question is equally important on this test.
Even people who make extremely important decisions, like federal judges, are appointed partially based on their political favorability.
How to Practice AP US Government Free-Response Questions
There are several resources that you can use to hone your skills in answering AP Government FRQs.
Official College Board Resources
The College Board site hosts free-response questions from previous tests that you can use for practice. Questions that come from tests administered between 2004 and 2015 are accompanied by scoring guidelines, so you can check your answers and tally up how many points you would have earned. These are the best sample free-response questions you can get because you know for sure that they accurately represent what you’ll see on the real test. The questions from 2002 and 2003 don’t have scoring guidelines, so be aware that you won’t be able to check the official answers if you choose to use them.
Review books can also be good resources for free response practice although they tend to vary in quality. The Princeton Review book for AP Gov includes five full practice tests, so there should be plenty of free response questions that you can use to practice your skills. The Barron’s review book also has a couple of practice tests and extra free response questions that may be useful for practice.
If you don’t want to buy the book, you can also take Barron’s free online practice test for AP Gov, which includes free-response questions and scoring guidelines. If you use these 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.
Review books can be great resources for free-response and multiple-choice practice questions and for test-taking strategies that you may not have discovered on your own.
The four free-response questions on the AP US Government exam can be approached methodically to earn the maximum number of points. Read the introduction to the question first so you can get your bearings. Then, for each of the separate parts, identify the command verb, address all aspects of the question, and double check your answer for missing pieces and careless errors.
I'd suggest practicing at least a few free response questions before heading into the exam. The best resource to use is the College Board website, which has an archive of past questions accompanied by answer guidelines. These questions are pretty simple compared to the free-response questions on other AP tests once you get the hang of them!
Not sure where to begin in studying for the test as a whole? Read our five-step plan that will help you prepare 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.
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.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
As we approach AP exam time, you’ll want to explore how to best prepare yourself for the AP English Literature free-response section of the exam. Free-response makes up 55% of your test score. In this section, you will write three essays regarding prompts from poetry, a selected passage, and a work of literary fiction you select.
Only 7.6% of AP English Literature students scored a 5, in 2016. Follow this AP English Literature study plan to improve your chances of a possible 5 on this year’s test. Included herein are best practices for studying, practice exams, and tips on writing extraordinary essays.
What is the format of AP English Literature?
The goal of the AP English Literature course is to familiarize students with complex literary works of fiction. Through analytical reading and a careful attention to detail, students learn critical analysis of creative writing. Writing is an integral part of the course and exam. Essay assignments focus on the critical analysis of provided literary works and can be expository, analytical or argumentative.
The exam takes 3 hours. It is comprised of three free-response essays and 55 multiple-choice questions. The free-response section accounts to 55% of your score.
You will be given two hours to complete three free-response essays. The first will be corresponding to a given poem. The second will be regarding an excerpt from prose fiction or drama. The third is centered around a literary work chosen by you, from a specified category.
Why is the AP English Literature Free-Response Important?
Scoring guidelines for the AP English Literature Exam show that essays are assigned grades from 1-9. A 9 is the best score possible. Each of your scores is then multiplied by 3.0556. This weighted score is added to your multiple-choice totals, and the sum is your score. Overall scores ranging 114-150 are required for a 5 on the AP English Literature Exam.
If you score a perfect 68 on the multiple-choice portion, you would need three solid 5’s on your essays to earn a 5, on your overall exam. Since, it’s unlikely for anyone to achieve a perfect multiple-choice score, you should aim higher on the free-response questions.
A reasonable goal to strive for, would be earning 7’s on your essays. This would allow you to earn a 5 for your overall score by answering 40 MCQs correctly.
What Content is Covered in the Free-Response Section of AP English Literature?
For the AP English Literature Free-response section you are required to write three essays. They may be argumentative, analytical or expository depending on instructions. This section tests your ability to read and interpret various literary works, as well as your ability to communicate your ideas in a stylized, coherent response.
The test questions and subject matter change yearly, however, the structure remains the same. There will be one poem, one passage from prose fiction (or drama), and one work that you choose from a given category. Each fictional work will be accompanied by a question that you must answer in your essay. These range from specific interpretation of a given line or literary device used, to overall understanding of a writer’s purpose, theme or style.
Literature represented may span the 18th to 20th centuries. Poets such as John Keats, Walt Whitman, and Gwendolyn Brooks are possible examples. In drama, you may see the likes of Samuel Beckett, Sophocles, or Tennessee Williams. And, in expository prose, you’ll find authors such as Gloria Anzaldua, George Orwell, or Edward Said.
How to Prepare for AP English Literature Free-Response
Managing your time, as the AP exams grow closer, is imperative if you want a perfect score. There are many resources available online to help get the most from your AP English Literature study plan, both on Albert.io and CollegeBoard. Whether you’re natural at writing and comprehending literature, or not, you’ll want to prepare for the coming exam. Here are some quick tips to help you get the most out of study sessions.
Practice Makes Perfect
You can find released exams and sample essays from previous years, on CollegeBoard. On Albert.io there are a multitude of helpful study resources including 15 Must Know Rhetorical Terms For AP English Literature, AP English Literature; 5 Essential Reads, and practice free-response essays for various works. If you’d like to follow a specific route the One Month AP English Literature Study Guide is helpful and comprehensive.
Focus on Critical Reading
Critical reading is essential for any AP English Literature review. It’s important to never skim through passages while studying. You will miss underlying themes and subtext which are important for answering the AP English Literature practice questions.
Always read at a normal pace in practice and during your exam. Repeat or elaborate passages to ensure you’ve understood them. Consider the following question as you read, “What is the meaning of this sentence, paragraph, stanza, or chapter?”
Utilize Your Syllabus
At the beginning of the year, collect as many of the books, poems and other works assigned for your AP English Literature course as you can. This will allow you to read at your own pace and save valuable time looking for assigned texts as they come up.
Take Notes as You Read
When reviewing any book, poem, essay or other literary work take careful notes which, can be used later. Include the exact title, author’s name and a paraphrasing of the preface or introduction. Also note important themes, styles, and content. When recording specific ideas related to a particular part include page, paragraph, and line number for easy re-examination at a later date.
Carefully Consider Principal Ideas
Take into account the key concepts in any reading assignment. What evidence or support does the author show? In the writings of journalists, identifying these ideas and reinforcing materials is easy. However, accomplishing the same task for a more subtle work, such as that of Sylvia Plath or F. Scott Fitzgerald, may prove challenging.
Explore the Context
Spending a short amount of time researching the context surrounding an author or their work can expand your understanding of issues they tried to address and how well they succeeded. For example, researching Berlin in 1935 will give you insight to better understand the motivations of Vladimir Nabokov, when he wrote The Gift.
Read out Loud
When reading complex passages or poetry it is helpful to read aloud. Often, this approach slows your reading and aids in your comprehension of underlying tones and themes.
Reread when Necessary
It is regularly advised to read a literary work more than once to fully understand complex issues and sophisticated expressions.
Consult Your Dictionary, Thesaurus or Encyclopedia
Take advantage of these invaluable resources at your local library or online to expand your knowledge of words and content that you are reading. Remember that many English and American texts require familiarity with the major themes of Judaic and Christian religious traditions and with Greek and Roman mythology.
Write, Review, and Rewrite Regularly
Writing quality essays takes practice. It’s not an innate ability we are born with. Proper use of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are just as important as understanding the literature you’re analyzing. Refer to How To Score Your Own AP English Literature Practice Essay to review and improve your writing. For an in depth review of free-response strategies turn to 3 Ways to Tackle AP English Literature Prompts. Use of the Albert.io AP English Literature free-response practice questions will be invaluable to your study plan.
How to Answer AP English Literature Free-Response Questions?
Here are some basic guidelines for writing a cohesive free-response essay. For more specific details on writing an exemplary response, check out How to Score Your Own AP English Language Practice Essay. Also, head over to 11 AP English Literature Test Taking Strategies for exam insight.
Understand the Subject Matter
Before you begin formulating your answer, read the prompt and any corresponding passage thoroughly. Ensure you fully comprehend what is being asked of you.
Outline Your Essay
Begin answering any free-response question with a quick outline of your planned essay. An effective introduction will include a thesis statement. Your thesis statement and supporting ideas should be clear and well thought out. Remember to structure your points and end with a conclusion which summarizes your answer.
Write Clearly and Eloquently
As you craft your response pay special attention to structure, vocabulary, and grammar. A well written essay is essential. Be certain to answer the presented question fully with supporting evidence from the passage provided. Ensure that your tenses are in line, pronoun use is not messy, and read your essay for fluidity as you go. Conclude by restating your thesis and summarizing your argument.
What are AP English Literature Free-Response Questions Like?
The following are actual free-response questions from AP English Literature Exams of the past years. You can find many more released questions and responses on CollegeBoard, for reference.
Example One is from the 2016 exam.
“In this excerpt from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Michael Henchard and his daughter Elizabeth-Jane are reunited after years of estrangement. During this separation, Henchard has risen from poor seasonal farm worker to wealthy mayor of a small country town, while Elizabeth has supported herself by waiting tables at a tavern.
Read the passage carefully. Paying particular attention to tone, word choice, and selection of detail, compose a well-written essay in which you analyze Hardy’s portrayal of the complex relationship between the two characters.”
When reading the passage, pay special attention to the relationship between the two characters. Note specific lines which give particular insight. Formulate your opinion and structure your essay to support it. A well-written response for this prompt would understand the many nuisances seen in this excerpt. Notable points to mention in an effective essay include the underlying hypocrisy of Henchard, the unhealthy relationship between the characters and the paradox wherein Elizabeth-Jane tries in vain to relate to her father, causing her own pain.
Take a look at some past responses for this prompt and the scores on CollegeBoard’s 2016 Scoring Guidelines.
Example two is from the 2015 exam.
“In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.
You may select a work from the list below or another work of equal literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”
Some of the choices given included Beloved, Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Letter, and The Crucible.
Select one of the given options or your own, based on your confidence that you remember and understand the plot, characters and details well enough to write a convincing and sophisticated essay. Examine how cruelty plays a role in the story, what that means for the victim and/or perpetrator, and any underlying themes which relate to cruelty. Use specific examples from the piece and support your argument clearly.
Take a look at a few past responses from this prompt and the scores on CollegeBoard’s 2015 Scoring Guidelines.
How can I practice AP English Literature Free-Response?
As you continue to prepare yourself for the AP English Literature free-response portion of the exam, take advantage of the many resources cited herein. Also, look on Albert.io for helpful AP English Literature practice questions, study tips and essay guides.
Don’t forget to check the quality of your writing as you practice by self-scoring your practice responses. Check out How to Score Your Own AP English Literature Essay for help.
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