How To Get Full Marks on Your AP Language Rhetorical Analysis Essay


These simple tips can help you ace the AP Lang rhetorical analysis essay.

The AP Language rhetorical analysis essay is tricky because you’re essentially writing an argument about how a writer writes an argument. So you end up with this distance you have to deal with – you’re writing is not about your own argument; it’s about someone else’s. But wait a minute, you’re still writing an argument, so…

This distance makes the rhetorical analysis essay meta, and meta things can bog you down and overcomplicate your writing. It can also take you down a wholly different path: you might end up half-assing your analysis or failing to get into specifics, which can lead to oversimplified claims that’ll make the grader feel you’re not up to the challenge of writing at a college student-level.

So what can you do to impress the grader and make them feel you have college-worthy argumentation? I will tell you.

Don’t say the author uses x, y, and z rhetorical devices

I see this over and over. Students saying “the author uses metaphor, irony, and parallelism to convey his love of (insert thing author loves here).” Don’t do this. It tells the grader nothing. Why? Because you haven’t explained what the metaphor is, what the irony is, what the parallelism is, and how all three are tied together and relevant to the author’s love of (insert thing author loves here). This kind of writing is merely functional – it reads almost like a technical manual an engineer (who doesn’t know/care about good writing) might write. It lacks personality.

I’m not trying to be mean. If you write like this, surely you have a personality. You just need to bring it out in your writing.

HOWEVER you are writing about someone else’s writing, which makes things complicated. So what’s the next best thing you can do? Well, you can bring out that someone else’s personality.

Here’s how to do it. Let’s use Michael Pollan’s writing as an example. Pollan is a nature writer a lot of AP Language teachers like to assign to their students. His essay, Weeds Are Us, has a lot of interruptions (in the form of parentheses, aka the brackets holding this clause together), and asyndeton, which is a rhetorical strategy that uses commas to link (or separate) ideas.

You can see for yourself. Here’s the first two paragraphs of his essay:

So we’ve figured out two rhetorical devices we want to talk about: parentheses and asyndeton.

*A QUICK NOTE: Keep in mind I’ve narrowed the scope of parentheses and asyndeton just to keep things simple for the purpose of this article. They have broader applications than what I’ve described above, but we’ll save that for another article.

Don’t write like this:

Michael Pollan uses parentheses and asyndeton to convey his understanding of romantic thinkers.

Instead, write like this:

Michael Pollan’s writing style is fast-moving and loaded with detail. He builds ridiculously long lists and interrupts himself (via parentheses) with sarcastic remarks to convince his readers that we should question the relevance of Romantic-era thinking in solving modern environmental problems.

You can see I have downplayed the actual rhetorical terms (parentheses and asyndeton) in this thesis – in fact I didn’t even bother to mention asyndeton. These are just jargon words at the end of the day and they’re not important. What’s important is defining them, and describing how they work to convey the writer’s personality. I can always drop the exact technical term later on if want to, in the body paragraphs.

Your takeaway here is to use personality-driven words (in my case with Pollan, it was fast-moving, loaded, ridiculous, interrupts, and sarcastic) to describe the writer’s rhetorical strategy.

A step-by-step outline of this thesis writing process might look like:

  1. Identify the actual rhetorical strategies a writer uses (aka the jargony terms).
  2. Take a look at the terms all together, holistically, to see how they’re an embodiment of the writer’s unique personality. Remember, you don’t have to identify every single term. Two or three key ones will suffice.
  3. In your own words, describe the personality (with as much detail as you can).
  4. Use your personality descriptors in your thesis.

Use the clue in the prompt

There’s a reason AP Language teachers are obsessed with the context in which a writer writes. It provides the information you need to frame your understanding of the passage, which will make it easier for you to say something insightful about the passage.

In the case of the rhetorical analysis essay, it couldn’t be easier. The prompt practically gives you a bone structure for your thesis.

Let’s take a look at the passage that was provided for the rhetorical analysis essay in 2022 (on page 11 in the document).

You’ll notice in the prompt it says: Write an essay that analyzes the rhetorical choices Sotomayor (the first Latina justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) makes to convey her message about her identity.

There’s your clue right there. The prompt has basically given you a framework for at least part of your thesis. You just need to flesh it out. What is Sotomayor’s message? What is her identity? Message and identity are two abstractions you can fill in, based on what you glean from the passage. But don’t short-change Ms. Sotomayor. Simply saying she’s a Latina (identity) who believes in Latin-American advancement (message) is too basic. What kind of specific trials (no pun intended) or obstacles do Latinas tend to go through that other ethnicities (or even Latinos, their male equivalents) don’t? What might Latin-American advancement actually look like, at ground level in day-to-day life, or at the level of policy? Is Sotomayor even concerned with trials and obstacles at all – is she concerned about something else? Make sure you come up with something specific enough to do justice (I’m really not a pun guy – seriously) to the prompt. Don’t be lazy! Dig as deep as you can.

If you take a look at the top sample essay provided by the College Board (which is 2A, on p. 6), the student describes Sotomayor not simply as a Latina, but as a “product of America’s diversity” and “the daughter of Puerto Ricans.” These are terms that hint at the specificity of Sotomayor’s experience as a “New Yorkrican,” which is what her speech is all about. The student also describes the message not as mere Latina advancement or struggles, but as the idea that “identities shouldn’t be black and white” (meaning one clear thing vs. another clear thing), and the student also roots this black-white description in ongoing debates in America about homogeneity vs. heterogeneity, which Sotomayor also alludes to. It all begs an alluring question – how specific can an ethnic identity be?

Don’t write like this (but do use it as a framework):

Sotomayor conveys her message by sharing her identity.

Instead, write like this:

Sotomayor shares her unique experience as a “New Yorkrican” to convince viewers that a salad bowl approach to society is more accepting of intra-cultural nuances than a melting pot approach.

You’ll notice I flipped the framework in my correct example – I describe the identity before the message. This is fine too. Do whatever flows with you. You’re writing on a time crunch, after all.

Bottom line here is: use the clue, but only as a framework to dig deeper.

Don’t forget to dive into the subject the writer is writing about

So you’ve figured out the rhetorical strategies the author is using, you’ve figured out what the personality of the author is, and you understand the author’s argument. But can you envision other people who may disagree with the author’s argument? And these other people – what’s their aim? What do they want?

If you can’t answer these questions, it means you don’t have a good grasp of the subject. And you’re going to struggle to get a good grade on your essay if you don’t know the subject.

Let’s go back to the Sotomayor example. You’ll see the top student in the sample essays describes the subject (you can find this on p. 6, in the student’s intro) as “debates between a homogeneous vs. heterogeneous society in regards to cultural identities.”

You’ll notice this isn’t the most pristine description in the world, but the student still manages to tap into this debate idea of the kind of co-existence policy America should advocate: melting pot or salad bowl. You’ll notice also Sotomayor mentions this debate situation herself, in her speech.

What makes this top student really succeed is how they’re able to keep looping back to this debate subject in their essay. Closing sentences in this student’s paragraphs include:

 “…[Latina] cultural identity has many layers.”

“…. reinforces that there isn’t a single experience or quality that make a person a single cultural identity.”

“She maintains that there are so many factors that contribute to cultural identity, not just common languages or foods, that drawing distinct separations between them simply cannot be done.”

You’ll notice all of these phrases keep looping back to the subject Sotomayor is engaged in, which, to boil it down to simple terms, is the debate between melting pot and salad bowl. The student clearly describes what’s at stake if America takes the melting pot route, and by describing this, the student addresses the other side of the argument (or in other words: all the people out there who might disagree with Sotomayor’s salad bowl/intra-cultural nuance advocacy).

As I mentioned before, this student’s writing isn’t the most vivid or pristine, but it gets the job done. And although the student might lack serious writing chops, they make up for it with sophisticated thinking and genuine engagement with the subject. And guess what – that’s enough to earn them the sophistication point.

The College Board’s scoring guideline for “Sophistication.” You can see all their scoring guidelines here (see page 6 for the Rhetorical Analysis section).

So it’s not game over if you don’t have the most sophisticated writing in the world. In the scoring commentary (see p. 13, at the top), the grader awarded the sophistication point to this student for their “nuanced understanding” rather than their “writing style.”

Just make sure you don’t think you can get away with bad writing, because this student’s writing is good. It’s just, in the College Board’s terms, not “consistently vivid and persuasive.” In other words, it’s good, but not great.

DISCLAIMER: Make sure you’re confident of your analysis skills

Keep in mind this is not a deep dive into what makes a good rhetorical analysis essay. It’s just some quick tips you can apply to your writing which can give you the push you need to score higher on the essay. These are not shortcuts. They’re reminders for how you should be presenting your analysis. You should definitely be confident of your analysis skills before you go into the exam – the graders are too smart to be fooled by an essay that only looks good on the surface. However, the way you present yourself and communicate your findings is crucial. What I’m trying to say is if a genius can’t present her own genius, then no one will know she’s a genius. So these are a set of tips that’ll help you ensure you’re looking composed and presentable in front of the grader. My point here is that you’ll need composure and presentation to maximize your score.



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