How to Study for the AP Language Argument Essay (Without Even Knowing the Prompt)


Believe it or not, you can do a bit of research for the AP Lang argument essay in the leadup to the exam – even before you know what the prompt is.

Here’s a tip that the College Board won’t tell you: before you even get the prompt for the argument essay, brainstorm a list of debate topics and try to find connections between those topics and your life.

If you take this tip, it will be a big time-saver for you when you’re writing the exam.

The open-ended nature of the argument prompt gives you maximum topic flexibility, so you can actually do preparatory research by finding a list of debate topics – it’s likely a bunch of those topics will be relevant to the prompt. This means you can get most of your brainstorming done before the exam even starts, which will give you more time to actually write your essay, or to dedicate to other tricky sections like multiple choice.

And what about finding connections between those debate topics and your life? This is not me being a positive vibes teacher, trying to help you “feel” the material. It’s more about making the argument essay easier to write. The more relevant you can make it to your daily life, the easier it will be to express yourself in a memorable way.

Example of brainstorm approaches to the 2023 argument essay prompt

Let’s take the 2023 prompt, for example (page 12 in the link). It references Maxine Hong Kingston, “an award-winning writer famous for her novels depicting the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the United States.” It references a quote Kingston has made: “I think that individual voices are not as strong as a community of voices. If we can make a community of voices, then we can speak more truth.”

The prompt goes on to instruct you to write an essay “that argues your position on the extent to which Kingston’s claim about the importance of creating a community of voices is valid.”

Broadly speaking, what philosophical discussion is this prompt about?

Well, it seems to be about the importance of the community over the individual, or vice versa.

And if you’ve done your research beforehand, then a bunch of different broad debate topics can apply:

  1. Eastern collectivism vs. Western individualism
  2. What’s more important – the wishes of the majority or the wishes of a minority?
  3. What should the limits of free speech be in a democracy?
  4. What constitutes “truth” in a world of deep fakes and ChatGPT?

These are all topics you would’ve at least touched on in some of your high school courses (hopefully you’ve taken some courses in history, philosophy, sociology, etc. –  humanities and social science courses are good to take to prepare for the AP Language exam).

Now, let’s go over your options for how to put some of these topics (not all – because that would be aimless) into your essay.

How to structure your essay (it’s all about the body paragraphs)

The way I see it, you have three options.

Option one: 3 body paragraphs = 3 different debate topics

One strategy for scoring high on the argument essay is to take three of these topics and use them, respectively, for your three body paragraphs. The key thing here is to find an overarching trend that ties the three topics together so that they can form a specific thesis that is unique to you. Look for connections between the topics. For example, immigrants from non-western countries may come from collectivist societies, and guess what – they’re going to be a minority presence in western democratic society, which might make it tough for their voices to be heard. To tie things together further, many of these immigrants (either themselves or their descendants) may do away with their collectivist backgrounds in favour of more individual-focused ones, or may even take on complex hybrid identities, which makes the problem of allowing minority voices to thrive in a democracy even more difficult to solve – because why should an entire immigrant community get to decide the voice of a hybrid person within that community? Hopefully you get the idea. Just make sure you don’t go rambling on like a smartass, the way I did in this paragraph (in my defence it was to demonstrate how to connect separate topics). Pick your topics and make sure your stance on them is clear. Make sure it’s obvious what you’re arguing in favour of.

Option two: three body paragraphs = 2 debate topics + 1 personal example

You might also opt to use two of your brainstorm topics for two body paragraphs, because you can use an example from your life for the third one. Let’s take the immigrant and hybrid experience points from option one. If you yourself are from an immigrant family, it’s only natural to write up a life analogy that tells your story. Maybe it was the voicelessness you felt until you joined an association that promoted your culture. Or maybe it was how, historically, your culture endured discrimination until enough people of the culture banded together and got their voices heard. Or maybe you’re not from an immigrant family. But if you’re Canadian or American (and not Indigenous), chances are your ancestors were immigrants. Go far back in time – what trials did they go through? Did they need to form a community to have their voices heard? Or if you’re well-read enough you can always reference the life story of a famous ethnic or immigrant person. Just be sure it hits those points about “truth” and “community” (otherwise you risk coming across as “hey look at me, I’m pro-diversity, therefore score me higher”).

Option three: three body paragraphs = 1 debate topic + 1 personal example + 1 counter-argument

My personal favourite approach to figuring out body paragraphs is option three: pick one brainstormed debate topic, one personal experience, and one counter-argument that addresses the other side of the debate. For the latter, you’re basically imagining someone disagreeing with you and critiquing your points. What would you say back to them to defend your side of the argument? Your response, or counter, becomes the focus of your third body paragraph.

For example, let’s say you ended up arguing that in a democratic society, minorities need to come together as a community to have their voice heard – this idea that if you’re a minority, you need to find a community of that minority so you can join it and band together to get a stronger voice, one that can unearth “truth” (maybe truth is how the minority group is not present enough in leadership positions in corporations, governments, etc. And they need this presence to thrive as a community). And in paragraph two, you talk about how you joined an association of your culture at your school, and it was only through this association (strength in numbers) that you were able to put your culture on display (maybe it was a multicultural event or something like that). Thanks to the group you were able to fundraise, tell the story of your trials (as an ethnic group), and let other students see and understand the beauty of your culture.

That’s all fine and dandy, but what if you’re someone who isn’t really into your ethnic background? You’re sort of here in the west to blend in, ditch your origins. And you deal with this problem of people seeing you and your ethnic makeup and automatically assuming you’re all about that ethnic life. For this kind of person, is joining an ethnic association the only path to advancement? That seems kind of messed up.

This is what someone arguing against you might say. And now you need to mention their argument, which runs counter to yours, in your third body paragraph. And you also need to explain (with logic of course) why you’re still right – why banding together in an ethnic association is a good thing, even for people of that ethnicity who don’t care to be in that ethnicity.

So remember, when you’re brainstorming debate topics for the argument essay – don’t go in researching one side per topic. Know all the sides!

If the prompt is broad enough, you’d be surprised at the things you can talk about

Now, let’s say on your brainstorm list, there was a topic like the environment – more specifically, what can we do to save the environment, knowing that our global economic system is based on constant material consumption?

You may be thinking: “alright, this topic isn’t relevant to the prompt. May as well forget it.”

But this isn’t true. Try to think more broadly. How might a “community of voices” apply to the environment?

Well, climate change is a global problem. A lone green nation on one end of the earth is powerless to make a difference on a global scale. But what if they formed an alliance with other states in different parts of the globe? What if they formed a community, so to speak, to become stronger and put more pressure on the heavy greenhouse gas-emitting countries in the world?

But still, this is not good enough. Why? Because it ignores the “voices” and the “truth” part of the prompt. So let’s try to incorporate those.

What if we could form a “global community,” so to speak, not of countries, but of citizens in countries. We could get the citizens inside heavy greenhouse gas-emitting countries to make some noise to inspire change, within their respective countries. And because it’s a global network of citizens dong this, the pattern would allow the truth to prevail over not just climate change deniers, but lazy governments who gaslight their citizens with half-measures, like unambitious emissions targets or modest consumer purchase incentives (something sucky like we’ll give you a $1000 tax credit if you install $30 grand worth of solar. And when you say huh what, that’s not enough, they’ll say no it’s definitely enough – trust us, we’re the government).

So basically the community of voices (which consists of concerned and protesting citizens around the globe) brings out the truth about the climate change. And we wouldn’t have this truth without their advocacy, because governments try to hide climate change realities with their gaslighting and their half measures.

IMPORTANT POINT: Notice I’m trying to avoid making it about climate change deniers. This is because it’s a bit too simple for the kind of sophistication required of the AP Language exam. At this point, most people know climate change is real and happening. The deniers are a fringe group not really worth our time. But deceptive politicians are much more dangerous to society – they acknowledge climate change, making themselves appear trustworthy, but their actions (or lack of actions) have devastating environmental consequences.

Preparing for the argument prompt – your takeaway

Basically, you have endless topic opportunities in any given argument essay, and it’s all because the prompt the College Board gives you is super broad. It’s almost like a bone structure for a debate scenario that can be applied to multiple fields. So the more debate topics you know (and make sure you know them well – know the different sides), the easier the argument prompt will be for you.

BUT BE CAREFUL: you do not want to force one of your brainstorm topics onto the prompt. Do a quick argument outline to be sure that your logic will check out. If in doubt, ditch it and move on to more relevant topics on your list.



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