Synthesis Overview

10 min readnovember 18, 2021

Justin Nazario

Justin Nazario

AP English Language ✍🏽

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Overview of the Synthesis Question

Section II of the AP English Language and Composition exam includes three free-response questions that you must answer in 2 hours and 15 minutes.
This guide will focus on Question 1 of Section II of the exam, the Synthesis question. As with all AP exams with free-response questions, the Synthesis question has its own rubric and scoring that we will detail later in this guide. 
To summarize, however, your essay should include/ demonstrate the following:
  • An easy to identify thesis 
  • Use of three or more of the provided sources
  • Explain how the sources used defend the claim in a complex manner
  • Writing that is sophisticated and collegiate
In the sections that follow, we will go over exactly what each part means. One thing to keep in mind is that the sources you choose should only strengthen your claim-- not step in and be the claim. Avoid overly citing from the sources to the point that your voice takes the backseat.
Luckily, the same skills of sophistication and complexity translate into the other essays you’ll write for this exam. Once you have developed your own voice, the rest is a matter of organization.
As stated before, you have 2 hours and 15 minutes to answer all three of your free-response questions. It seems like a lot, but it flies. To prevent getting behind schedule, it’s important to manage your time wisely.
A good breakdown to consider when pacing yourself is the following:
  • 10 min. (to read sources) + 5 min. (planning) + 35 min. (writing) = 50 min.

How to Rock the Synthesis Question: The Rubric

The synthesis question is scored on a six-point rubric, and each point can be earned individually. This means that you can get points in one category, but not in others. It all depends on how well you accomplish each level on the rubric.

The Synthesis Question Rubric

CriteriaThings to know...
Thesis/ Claim1Responds to the prompt with a defensible position that establishes a line of reasoning.Can occur anywhere in the essay. Answer the Prompt!
Evidence and Commentary4Response uses at LEAST 3 of the sources AND provides consistent, complete commentary on the sourcesUse the topics to support your thesis! Explain how the sources relate and what they prove! The line of reasoning must be complex and envelope the essay as a whole. Don’t be strong in one area and weak in another! All of the sources should be used with regard to their perspective and claims. 
Sophistication1The writing in response to the prompt must be complex as well as demonstrate a complete understanding of the rhetorical processes at play.Craft a complete argument. Nuance is important! Be sure that your writing style is vivid and descriptive, as if you’re persuading the reader to agree with you.


Your thesis is the statement of your essay that introduces your claim to the reader. This is where you come forward and explicitly say: here is my position on the argument, and here are my reasons for feeling this way. 💭Above all else, you must respond to the prompt in its entirety. 
As in most essays, the introduction is recommended to be in the opening paragraph of your essay. ☝If it’s not in the introduction, you run the risk of confusing your reader, but your thesis can be anywhere in your essay. It can be as long as you’d like, so long as you present your main ideas in the order you will be discussing them in.
In order to receive the point, you need to both answer the prompt and present your own argument and claim to said prompt. A simple way to do so is to use words from the prompt to drive your thesis forward, but avoid just restating the thesis without adding your claim. You’ll lose out on the point if you forget to weave your argument into the thesis.
Your thesis and introductory paragraph are really where you introduce your style and voice as a writer. You have the opportunity to speak to your reader-- say something. Answer the prompt in complex, rich sentences that convey your use the sources to their highest potential. 👏
A great thesis does not have to be a paragraph long: as long as it answers the prompt, you’ll be alright!

Evidence and Commentary

This section on the rubric is split up into two categories: use of sources and commentary on the sources.
The College Board requires that you use at least three of the sources in order to earn the maximum amount of points. To “use” a source, you must cite text from the source or paraphrase an idea expressed by the author of the source, and then must explain its significance to the overall claim. (More on that in a moment.)
You must also establish a line of reasoning that the sources answer and/or incorporate into your elaboration. To make it a bit simpler, you need to explain how the source proves or challenges your claim. This can be accomplished in one sentence or several-- regardless, you need to explain why you chose to use that source to prove that claim. 
The second part of this category is the commentary section. Here, you must consistently establish the line of reasoning for each of the sources you introduce and do so with complexity. In all reality, this is just making sure that you are using each source for a reason, and not just fact-dropping information to earn the point. 
An easy way to do this is by prefacing your citation with how the source relates to your argument, and then elaborating afterward.  Consider this example:
“The indoctrination of immigrants into American society is representative of a divide in American politics and culture, a line created by the two party system. (Source 2) Through the conditioning of immigrants to the ways of American society, there is a systematic erasing of native culture and ways in order to push American agendas onto people of other backgrounds and identities...”
The example drops the citation right in the middle of the paragraph in order to introduce the paraphrased idea, but divide it from the elaboration that follows:
Quote/paraphrase ➝ Citation ➝ 2-3 sentences of elaboration


The final row in the rubric is sophistication, or the level and complexity of your writing. This point is earned over the course of your essay and must be consistent in order for you to get the point.
This one is a little more complex to earn than some of the other points on the rubric. Contrary to the other rows, this is not something you need to directly set out to do, but something that needs to be developed over the course of your essay-- when you read a well-crafted sentence, you can tell. When you don’t read a well-crafted sentence, you can tell.
College Board has 4 notes on responses that typically earn this point:
  • Typically notice variations and conflicts within the sources, and explore said variations and conflicts
  • Express the restrictions of a source’s argument and does so within a larger scope and context
  • Demonstrate specific and powerful use of language so as to express professionalism and maturity
  • Use voice that is consistently lively yet coherent
Let’s break down each bullet.
The first bullet states is asking that your response acknowledges the difference between sources. Let’s say Source A is about how peanut butter is good for dogs but Source B says that peanut butter is actually harmful for dogs-- by expressing the counterpoints of the two sources, and discussing the broader context of the source and arguments presented in the two, you are demonstrating sophistication and can earn the point. The ‘explore’ part of the bullet is what makes or breaks it.
Make sure you don’t just drop things without explaining their significance or value!
The second bullet is relating the sources and information presented in them to both one another and the overall prompt. Ask yourself: What does this source talk about that this one doesn’t? How is the scope of this source relating to the prompt? What does this source say that this one builds off of? It’s about finding relationships between the sources and how, together, they make a set and rely on one another for validation or dejection. 👪
The third and fourth bullets are notes on your writing. The College Board wants to read essays and responses that are high quality and complex, not ones that lack development or are lackluster. They are really looking for responses that feel whole and complete, expressing entire thoughts rather than fragments of ideas that can get scattered and lost in translation. 
This mainly comes with practice and reading your peers’ work. Look for things such as sentence structure, diction, and punctuation. Do most of their sentences follow the same order and flow? Do they use the same three words to describe one thing or are they using a wide array of vocabulary? Think of how you can apply these things to your own writing, as well.

How to Rock the Synthesis Question - Process

Before you start writing...

Take time to plan your essays. If you just jump into writing without jotting down some ideas or a battle plan, you’re going to find yourself lost in the middle of your body paragraphs.
A very simple idea for planning your essay is by using a template:
Main Idea #1
  • Supporting Detail #1
    • Evidence #1
    • Evidence #2
    • Elaboration (2-3 Sentences)
  • Supporting Detail #2
    • Evidence #1
    • Evidence #2
    • Elaboration (2-3 Sentences)
By organizing your ideas into an umbrella shape, you can get an idea of how your essay is going to read by the progression of your ideas. Remember that the order you present your ideas in must be the order you discuss them!
Another tip is to be 100% of what it is the prompt is asking of you. If the prompt is asking you to develop an argument or position on an event or idea, do exactly that. The sources tend to lend themselves towards one side of the argument, so be sure that whatever side you pick is well-supported with evidence from the sources. You can’t use any outside knowledge or anything that is not directly stated or implied by the sources. 
As mentioned before, it is extremely useful to use words in the prompt to formulate your thesis.
For example, if the prompt asks you what a country needs to consider before it engages in war with another country, you could formulate your thesis by saying “prior to engaging in war with another country, one must consider…” in order to directly respond to the question. This avoids confusion and allows you to easily pinpoint, for yourself, your thesis.
Think of all of Section 2 as a speech– this is the only section of the exam where you get to speak to the scorers. They are reading your handwriting, seeing your words and erase marks: make an impression! They are scored by a rubric, but they are also looking for voice and sophistication. Don’t brush off these essays and give minimal effort, they want you to pass.

Writing the Essay

Your introductory paragraph should realistically comprise of your thesis and introduce your response to the prompt. Your introduction can be just one sentence with your thesis, or you can build context by prefacing your argument or claim with things you learned from the sources. Avoid using “I”. 
Your body paragraphs should be where you spend most of your time writing. Remember what the rubric says about relationships and connections between the sources. Look for key similarities and differences that may lend you to choose a main idea from the set. They all have something in common!
After you have an idea of your main points, start with a topic sentence that is essentially a thesis for the paragraph. Explain what you’re going to discuss and how it relates back to the prompt (or broader context, if applicable).
After introducing your topic sentence, begin using your evidence and elaborating in complete, complex sentences. If you planned your essay well enough, you may even be able to just copy what you have written down and just spend time elaborating on the sources. This maximizes your time and gives you some space to develop an even more complex argument. 2-3 sentences of elaboration is the sweet spot if you cover all your bases.
After you’ve done the steps above, do the same for the next body paragraph.
Once you reach your conclusion, state for the final time your thesis and the points you mentioned in your body paragraphs. Someone should be able to read your conclusion and get a good idea of what it is you discussed in your response, so make it informative and a good representation of your work!
And once you’ve reached this point, you’re all done! Give your essay a read and fix any mechanical or grammatical issues that you may stumble upon. After that, move on to the next essay and keep your head high-- you’re one step closer to finishing the exam! ✋

Browse Study Guides By Unit
🤔Exam Skills
🥇Unit 1 – Claims, Reasoning, & Evidence
🗂️Unit 2 – Organizing Information for a Specific Audience
👀Unit 3 – Perspectives & How Arguments Relate
🔚Unit 4 – How writers develop arguments, intros, & conclusions
🎀Unit 5 – How a writer brings all parts of an argument together
👥Unit 6 – Position, Perspective, & Bias
🥊Unit 7 – Successful & Unsuccessful Arguments
😎Unit 8 – Stylistic Choices
😈Unit 9 – Developing a Complex Argument
📚Study Tools

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