Only at the very end of the AP U.S. History exam do you reach the Long Essay Question (LEQ). As a result, the LEQ is a challenge for even the most prepared test-taker. By this point in the exam, you are mentally exhausted, your hand is tired from writing all the other free response questions, and you just want to go home. That is what makes it so important that you practice for the exam so that even when you’re worn out, you’ll still be able to get the full six points on the AP U.S. History LEQ.
In this post, we will help you prepare for this part of the test by walking through how the LEQ is scored, with specific examples from the 2015 U.S. History LEQ. By the end of the post, we hope you will be more confident in your ability to succeed on this year’s LEQ. So, let’s get started! Before we get into the specifics of the 2015 questions, though, let us review the overall format of the LEQ in the AP U.S. History exam.
Format of the AP US History LEQ
For the 2016 test, the CollegeBoard implemented a new format and rubric for grading the Free Response section of the AP U.S. History Exam (see here). Here we will focus on the revised format and rubric, addressing how the 2015 LEQ questions would have been scored under the new system and how you can succeed on this year’s LEQ. Be careful, though, when using resources from before 2016 that focus on the old AP U.S. History exam format.
The LEQ occurs in the last half of the second section of the exam. It is the final part the exam and lasts for a total of 35 minutes. You will be asked to pick one of two questions to answer, and your response will count for a total of 15% of the overall exam score (see here). Ideally, you should probably spend about five minutes outlining and the remaining thirty minutes writing the actual response.
The CollegeBoard grades you based on four general categories (with points indicated in parentheses), for a total of six points overall:
- Thesis (1)
- Argument Development Using Targeted Historical Thinking Skill (2)
- Argument Development Using Evidence (2)
- Synthesis (1)
Note that you earn each point in the rubric independently and you will need to show unique evidence for each point (see here). Thus, you can’t get both a Thesis and Argument Development point from the same sentence.
For the remainder of the piece, let us dive deeper into what each one of these point categories mean and how you can be sure to get all of the points for each one. We will use the 2015 questions and student responses as our examples. Let’s briefly look at the questions and then we will address what students did well and what they did poorly in answering the questions in 2015.
The 2015 LEQ Questions
For the 2015 AP U.S. History exam, the CollegeBoard asked students to respond to either of the following two LEQs (see here):
“Evaluate the extent to which the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War, 1754-1763) marked a turning point in American relations with Great Britain.
In the development of your argument, analyze what changed and what stayed the same from the period before the war to the period after it. (Historical thinking skill: Periodization)”
“Evaluate the extent to which the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) marked a turning point in the debate over slavery in the United States.
In the development of your argument, analyze what changed and what stayed the same from the period before the war to the period after it. (Historical thinking skill: Periodization)”
The 4 Keys to LEQ Success
The key to LEQ success is to follow the rubric closely. The CollegeBoard looks for concrete evidence that you have completed each element of the rubric. If you have them, you’ll earn points. If you don’t, you will not. There is no partial credit on the AP exam. Let’s take a look at the general rubric categories you need to touch upon to earn credit on the AP U.S. History LEQ.
1. Write a Strong Thesis
For the first point in the rubric, the CollegeBoard demands a strong thesis: a historically defensible claim or argument that addresses all parts of the question (see here). Your thesis should be a relatively easy point for you to achieve because your entire essay depends on having an argument you wish to make—a stand you take on the question. It is simply a matter of stating that overarching argument clearly, either in the introduction or the conclusion. Let us take a look at what made a successful LEQ thesis statement for students taking the 2015 AP U.S. History exam.
For the first LEQ question about the French and Indian War, you must address the entire question: evaluating the extent to which the Seven Years’ War marked a turning point in American relations with Great Britain. Thus, if you choose to answer this one, you must make a historically defensible claim about the period. For instance, one student argues (see here):
“The French and Indian War marked a major turning point in American relations with Great Britain, with changes such as increased British control and anti-British sentiment in the colonies, but also continuities such as loyalty to Britain that remained largely untouched by the war”.
Note that the student provides specific historical examples of things that changed with the French and Indian War (that they will follow up on in their essay with evidence) and clearly states their argument that the war marked a major turning point in American relations with Great Britain. A good example of a thesis from the second 2015 LEQ option might be as follows (see here):
“The Mexican-American War marked a huge turning point in the debate over slavery because it brought to light the controversy of territorial self- determination and asked the question that would define America on a fundamental level: is this country one of slavery or one of freedom?”
This student argues that the Mexican-American war was a turning point and also specifically discusses its relationship to slavery, which they will address for the remainder of the essay. Note, however, that one answer is not necessarily the only answer. For instance, this student earned a thesis point for arguing that the war was not a turning point in the debate over slavery (see here):
“The Mexican-American War was not a significant turning point in the debate over slavery because sectional divisions over the Mexican Cession did not increase until after the Compromise of 1850, a much more significant turning point.”
You will want to make sure that you can support your thesis statement to get the remaining points for the LEQ, but there is a bit of flexibility in how you can get the “Thesis” point of the rubric.
One way not to get “Thesis” credit on the U.S. History LEQ is to provide only a vague restatement of the question. For instance, this student’s thesis for the Seven Years’ War prompt fails to fully address the question (see here):
“The Seven Years’ War was a major event in the world’s history, and it played an important role in shaping many nations.”
While the student does make an assertion, they do not evaluate the extent to which the war was a turning point in American relations with Great Britain, nor do they link the war to changes in relations with Great Britain. By not addressing the entirety of the question, the student did not receive credit for the “Thesis” portion of the grading rubric. Similarly, this student address only part of the second LEQ prompt about the Mexican-American War (see here):
“The Mexican-American War marked a turning point in the debate over slavery in the U.S.”
To receive credit for this thesis, the student should have responded to the entire question, specifically evaluating the extent to which the war was a turning point. If your reader couldn’t read anything from your essay but your thesis, they should still be able to capture your entire argument from the thesis statement alone. When you practice writing theses, be sure to look at them and ask yourself whether or not you can do this: does your thesis completely address the question? If so, you’re ready to further develop your thesis argument with your historical thinking skills and specific historical evidence.
2. Apply Historical Thinking Skills
You will notice at the bottom of each LEQ option, the CollegeBoard prints a “Targeted Historical Thinking Skill”. For the 2015 exam, both of these historical thinking skills were “Periodization,” meaning the graders want you to describe and explain the extent to which the historical development specified in the prompt was different from and similar to developments that preceded and followed it (see here). Specifically, you will receive one point for successfully describing this period change and a separate point for explaining the extent to which the historical development was similar to or different from developments that preceded and followed it.
Other examples of Historical Thinking Skills you might see on this year’s exam include Causation, Comparison, and Change and Continuity over Time (see here). For each one of these, you will also be asked to describe the elements involved the causation, comparison, or change/continuity for one point and then explain how they played a role in causation, comparison, or change/continuity.
In the 2015 exam, both questions were “Periodization” questions, however, so let us get to the bottom of how “Periodization” questions are scored:
Your first point for using the Targeted Historical Thinking skill demands that you describe the ways in which the historical development in the prompt differed from or was similar to developments that preceded and followed it. One student writing on the French and Indian War, for instance, focused on similarities between the periods before and after the war as a means of developing their overall thesis that the war was not a turning point in American relations with Great Britain (see here):
“Both before and after the war, officials attempted to place taxes on colonial goods to finance the empire.”
For this statement, the student earned a point for describing a similarity that carried on before and after the war in support of their thesis. Another student working on the second prompt about the Mexican-American War successfully emphasized the differences between pre- and post-war periods (see here):
“The Mexican War did exacerbate sectionalism significantly. Before the war, the debate over the expansion of slavery and the balance of free and slave states had been somewhat settled by the Missouri Compromise. However, in the Treaty of Guadalupe – Hidalgo, the U.S. was granted vast new lands, including California and New Mexico. Debate immediately ensued over the state of slavery in the new lands.”
Once you have earned a point for either describing differences and similarities between periods before and after the time frame described in the prompt, you must explain the extent of these differences and similarities for the second point. For instance, differences or similarities that are limited to a particular city or medium have a very different pragmatic impact than do those that occur across the country in a variety of mediums. For instance, one student explains the extent of discontent before and after the French and Indian war, as follows (see here):
“Discontent became a major change in Anglo-American relations with one another as protest grew to British involvement in American affairs and duties. Before the war, Americans were okay with some taxes and controlled trade restrictions, but the sudden and seemingly illegal tax actions forced protests and traitorous talks, none of which had been prominent before the war.”
The student goes beyond simply describing differences between periods (as required for the first point) and addresses the extent to which they occur (via protests and traitorous talks, for instance). Another student (who had already addressed the level of debate before the war), explains the differences after the Mexican-American War in the second prompt as (see here):
“After the Mexican- American War, the debate became over what to do with the newly acquired territory and ultimately led to the creation of new parties. … Though the United States was unwilling to admit it, the political aspect of the country was turning into one all about slavery. The demographic of political parties changed and foreshadowed the civil war.”
This student addresses the extent of differences in the demographic composition of the political parties themselves. The key is to tie in an explanation of this extent to a description of the differences and similarities between previous and later periods. If you provide both a description and an explanation of the extent to which these differences and similarities were true, you will receive two points for this section of the rubric.
If on the other hand, you are unable to describe and explain the differences between events before and after the prompt’s period of interest, you will not receive the two points for this section of the rubric. For instance, this student confused the period under question (see here):
“The U.S. and Great Britain had been on bad terms ever since the American Revolution.”
Since the American Revolution occurred after the French and Indian War, this cannot be an adequate description of the period before the war. Thus, they would not receive a point for their description. Even if you have a factually correct description, however, you may not receive a point if that description is off-topic. For instance, this student’s response to the Mexican-American War prompt does not tie directly into the slavery debate—an essential part of the question (see here):
“After the Mexican-American War, U.S. gained land in the southwest. Because this would upset the balance of slave and free states too much, the government decided to implement popular sovereignty.”
While the student mentions slavery, they do not complete their thought on why (or if) this relates to the slavery debate itself. As such, they did not earn a point for their description.
Similarly, you will not receive the second point for your explanation of the extent of differences and similarities if you provide only a vague statement or do not clearly tie your writing in to answer the question provided in the prompt. For instance, this student does not move beyond the description of differences phase, providing only a vague statement about the extent (see here):
“When the war began, colonists did take up arms to assist the British and protect their land, but it wasn’t until the war ended that relations began to change between the colonies and the motherland.”
Likewise, this student writing the from the Mexican-American war prompt provides only a vague description of the differences between periods, without clearly addressing the extent to which the difference was true (see here):
“When the war ended, the acquisition of new land led to debates over the status of slavery in those territories.”
The key for this point is to be clear. For a periodization question like the ones in 2015, you want to make sure your graders know that you can effectively describe the periods before and after the period in question. Once you have described the periods, then you want to be able to explain the extent to which your description holds. If you do both of these things, you will receive two points for the section.
3. Support Your Argument with Specific Evidence
Up to this point, we have covered three out of five points you can earn through the LEQ rubric. You earn an additional two points by developing your argument by “Using Evidence”. On the exam, you should be able to provide specific, relevant historical examples that address the topic of the question (for one point) and (for a second point) support or substantiate your thesis (see here).
Some acceptable evidential references that relate to the Seven Years’ War topic might be, for instance (see here):
- British debt from the Seven Years’ War
- Colonial attitudes toward autonomy before the war
- Similar intellectual and religious attitudes between the colonies and Britain before the war
- Imperial policies in the wake of the Seven Years’ War
- Colonial resentments over treatment of colonial forces by British regulars
- British efforts to pacify and negotiate with American Indians
- Albany Plan of Union
Likewise, if you chose the Mexican-American War LEQ, you might choose to use some of the following acceptable evidence (see the complete list of acceptable evidence here):
- Manifest Destiny
- Missouri Compromise (1820)
- Increasing fear of slave power
- William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator (1830)
- Gag rule
- Frederick Douglass
- Annexation of Texas (1845)
- Opposition to Mexican–American War among northern Whigs
- Abraham Lincoln’s Spot Resolutions (1846)
- Wilmot Proviso
The key is that you provide some evidence that is relevant to the topic at hand. As long as you do, you will earn a point for this first part of the “Using Evidence” portion of the rubric. This point should be a relatively easy one for you to get if you review your course notes before the exam. To earn this first evidence point, you do not even need to have a stated thesis or a relevant argument—only reference to a relevant piece of historical information (see here). So, even if you know nothing about the question but a single relevant fact, you will be able to get at least one point for it.
To receive the second point in the “Using Evidence” section of the rubric, however, you need to provide evidence that substantiates your thesis or a related argument. For instance, the CollegeBoards states that acceptable evidence for arguing that the Seven Years’ War was less important as a turning point in different areas might include (see here):
- The attitudes of everyday colonists
- Trans-Atlantic exchanges throughout the period
- Longstanding trans-Atlantic belief systems including republicanism, natural rights, the Enlightenment, and the Great Awakening
- Unchanged labor systems, including slavery
- The Zenger trial or other events illustrating a growth of distinct colonial identity well before the war
- Previous British policies of mercantilism.
On the other hand, for the same question, evidence that could be used to argue the Seven Years’ War was a major turning point in different areas might include (see here):
- Taxation and efforts of Britain to assert greater control over colonial affairs
- The fact that British troops remained in the American colonies, there was a standing army, and the Quartering Act of 1765
- The passage of the Proclamation of 1763 to prevent movement of settlers across the Appalachians
- The passage of the Sugar Act (Revenue Act)
For each of these pieces of evidence, you need to make specific reference back to your thesis or relevant argument, demonstrating how this piece of evidence develops the overall argument of your essay to answer the exam prompt.
In the same way, examples of acceptable evidence that could be used to argue the Mexican–American War was not a turning point might include (see here):
- Ongoing debates over slavery that continued before and after the war with William Lloyd Garrison, as well as The Liberator (1830), and the passage of the Gag Rule before the war
- Prior expansion of slavery into the Texas territories and debates over this expansion, including debates over Texas annexation
- Possibly more significant turning points, such as The Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas–Nebraska Act.
In contrast, evidence that could be used to argue the Mexican–American War was, in fact, a turning point might include (see here):
- The increased debate over “free soil” and expansion of slavery
- The debates surrounding the Wilmot Proviso
- The need for addressing the influx of new territories and the effect that had on increasing sectional debates over slavery
- The changes to the political party system, including the death of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican Party, much of it centered on issues of expansion of slavery into the territories acquired by through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
If you successfully use a piece of evidence like those listed to substantiate your thesis, you will receive a point for the “Using Evidence” section of the LEQ. The key point here is to make sure you support your arguments with evidence. The CollegeBoard does not want you to be tossing around statements without providing clear evidence to support them.
The first point in the “Using Evidence” section gives you a lot of leeway regarding how you earn it. You simply need to mention a relevant piece of evidence to the prompt and you can earn points for your response. However, even if you provide a piece of evidence, you will not necessarily get points for it if it is not relevant to the question or true. For instance, this student confuses the chronology of events when trying to answer the Seven Years’ War LEQ (see here):
“Some examples of the harsher rules and taxes that were enacted after the war were the Navigation Acts …”
The Navigation Acts were first enacted long before the start of the Seven Years’ War. As a result, even though they the acts did exist, the student did not receive a point because they incorrectly identified how the facts relate to the prompt.
Besides providing chronologically incorrect evidence, however, you can also lose the first point in the “Using Evidence” section by failing to connect it to all aspects of the question. For instance, a student writing about the Mexican-American War failed to clearly connect their evidence to the debate over slavery (see here):
“The Missouri Compromise was an act that banned slavery in states above a certain parallel. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for popular sovereignty in those new states west of the Mississippi.”
You earn a second point in the “Using Evidence” section of the rubric by substantiating your thesis or relevant argument with evidence. However, if you do not fully explain how the evidence supports your thesis, you will not receive credit for your answer. For instance, this student provides evidence, but does not explain how their evidence supports the argument that the Seven Years’ War was a turning point in American relations with Great Britain (see here):
“The Seven Years’ War marks a turning point because the colonists refused to agree to British demands.”
The student needs to address more fully how and why colonists’ refusal marks a change from previous periods for this evidence to constitute any substantiation. For this point, the CollegeBoard wants you to engage with the evidence and not just list it out in a rote, memorized fashion. An additional example of unacceptable evidence to substantiate a thesis or relevant argument from a student who chose to answer the Mexican-American War LEQ is as follows (see here):
“The Compromise of 1850 was drafted that made more of the newly acquired states free, and to appease the South it created the fugitive slave law, which returned ‘escaped’ slave to their owners, but this was abused since many slaves captured and returned were free.”
While this example features a more detailed example than the last one, the student still does not explain how their evidence supports the argument that the war was or was not a turning point in the slavery debate. To earn the second point in the “Using Evidence” portion of the grading rubric, you must use the evidence in service of your argument. In other words, you need to clearly explain how it fits into the larger argument of your thesis.
4. Synthesize Your Argument with Another Historical Development or Course Theme
In the previous sections, we have covered five of the six total points you can earn on the U.S. History LEQ. The final point you can earn is the “Synthesis” point. To earn this final point, the CollegeBoard wants you to extend your argument by explaining a connection between the argument and a development in a different historical period, geographic area, or historical theme (see here). To get the point, you need to not just mention, but to explain why there is a connection between your argument and an outside theme or development. If you do so, you will earn the final point for the LEQ.
One student, for instance, tied together the results of the French and Indian War with those of the later French Revolution (see here):
“The French and Indian War’s results were similar to what took place in the French Revolution later on, in that debt from the war helped cause colonial independence from Great Britain, while the debt from involvement in the American Revolution helped inspire the French Revolution.”
They used a completely different period and context to build on their existing argument for why the French and Indian War was a turning point for Americans. As a result, this excerpt earned a point for “Synthesis.”
Similarly, another student compared changing attitudes towards slavery during the Mexican-American War to President Johnson’s later War on Poverty and its effects on the Civil Rights Movement (see here):
“The increased tensions over the debate over slavery that resulted from the Mexican-American War continued to show themselves in racial tensions in the Civil War and beyond. These tensions boiled up again in the 1960’s as Southerners fought the expansion of rights to African Americans. While the Mexican-American War amounted to a great turning point in the debate over slavery, Johnson’s War on Poverty amounted to a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.”
Note, however, that you do not need to compare your argument to another historical development to earn the “Synthesis” point. You can also receive the point by addressing how your question might be interpreted from an alternative historical theme. For instance, one student spent their entire essay analyzing the Seven Years’ War from the perspective of political policy and attitude, but compared how an economic perspective might shed light on the question (see here):
“While the Seven Years’ War changed political policies and attitudes, it also affected economic and commercial ties, as British taxation began to enforce mercantilist policies.”
Likewise, in a political essay about the Mexican-American War, another student discusses other social factors that also played a role in the differences the war created (see here):
In an otherwise political essay: “The Mexican War created political imbalance because the balance between slave and free states from the Missouri Compromise ended. This loss of power in Congress resulted in an increase in the slave owners’ oppression of their slaves. They were afraid of also losing control of the social class structure seen in the South and the risk of losing their social and economic status. So the political crisis caused by the Mexican War also had a social element as well.”
The key is that all of these successful “Synthesis” points draw upon something external to their central argument or period of inquiry to extend their argument and demonstrate how it fits into the bigger scheme of history.
On the other hand, if you do not explain the connection between two contexts as they relate to the question, you will not receive a point. For instance, this student makes comparisons to the Seven Years’ War but does not explain how each of these conflicts served to foster revolutions in the external contexts (see here):
“The anger caused by Britain’s strong handed actions left the land of the colonies fertile for the seeds of Revolution to grow in the same way they were in France, Haiti, and other soon to revolt countries of the time.”
To earn the “Synthesis” point, the student would need to expand more on how these other conflicts unfolded and how those processes correspond with the process of history in prompt’s period of interest more generally.
Similarly, another student compares the Mexican-American War to the Spanish-American War regarding land acquisition and imperialism, but does not address the central issue of the exam prompt—slavery (see here):
“This era is very similar to that of the very late 1800’s in which the U.S. instigated a war with Spain to attain land, as done in Mexico during this period.”
It is not enough to simply state a similarity between the periods. The comparison must be relevant to the overall thesis of your essay and the LEQ itself.
Regarding thematic comparisons, the CollegeBoard emphasizes that students might similarly fail to adequately connect the alternate theme to the primary one used in their argument (see here). However, one of the main problems for students attempting thematic comparisons is that they fail to address the thesis from an alternative theme at all. For instance, this student spent the majority of the essay discussing political reasons that the French and Indian War was a turning point and said (see here):
“The war caused changes to political beliefs for both colonists and British officials.”
While this statement may be true, it does not represent an alternative theme from the dominant theme they used throughout their essay. Therefore, the student could not receive points for bringing up the “political” historical theme. They would need to bring up related Economic or Social thematic issues for instance.
Now that you have seen examples of 2015 students who have succeeded on the AP U.S. History LEQ and those who have not, it’s time for you try your hand at practice LEQs.
Try and write an answer to both of the questions described in this post with a 35-minute timer. Then, check and see how well you did at earning each one of the six points described in this post.
If you practice enough, writing LEQs will become automatic, and however tired you are by the time you reach the LEQ section of the exam, you will at least have confidence that you can succeed.
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