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Follow the Recipe...Key to AP® Writing

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We all know that success on the AP® history exams depends on the success of our students’ writing.  Yes, knowledge of history is key… and the ability of students to read sources carefully is important, but if our students are not prepared to express their understanding through effective writing… well, what they know won’t help them!  So, we have to ask ourselves this question: How can we help our students be successful on the essay portions of the AP® exam? I am suggesting that to answer that question… you ask yourself a different one… How do I make pecan pie?

When I was growing up, my grandmother made the best pecan pie in the world!  I looked forward to her pie on every holiday, and, if I was lucky, at family birthday dinners.  When I grew up and became a real grown-up, I decided it was time I learned to make this amazing dish.  My grandmother graciously agreed to teach me to make pecan pie.  Now, my grandmother (and probably yours) could create her pecan pie without much reference to a recipe.  But, she wrote down the recipe with the ingredients and instructions so that I, too, could create a pecan pie.  I used the recipe, I followed the instructions… and, low and behold, I baked a pecan pie… It was not as good as my grandmother’s pie, but it was good! I was proud! After a few successful pies, I got a little cocky and did not pay close attention to the recipe… and when I took the pie out of the oven I discovered that I had made pecan soup! Without careful attention to the recipe, I could not make a good pecan pie…

Now, I know what you are thinking… what does pecan pie have to do with AP® essay writing?  Well, we wouldn’t expect our students to be able to make a pecan pie without a recipe… why should we expect them to be able to write an essay without one.  Here’s the thing… a pecan pie is a complicated concoction with a lot of parts … when it is done well, it is a beautiful thing… but when it is not done well… well, you get pecan soup!  The same is true for an AP® essay.  The AP® essay is a complicated concoction with many parts, but it’s construction can be boiled down to a recipe that students can learn and follow to write beautiful essays.  We can teach students the recipe and use it to help them not only write well-developed essays for the AP® exam, but also to write effective essays in other courses and in college.  Since the rubrics for AP® essays are the same across all three history courses (AP® US History, AP® World History and AP® European History), the recipe can be effectively implemented in each course. 

The AP® Essay Recipe:


1 part - Thesis Statement

1 part - Contextualization

6 parts - Document Analysis

4 parts - Extended Analysis

1 part - Outside Evidence

1 part - Synthesis

1 part - Argument Development


  1. Read the prompt carefully.
  2. Identify the Historical Thinking Skill required in the prompt
  3. Quickly analyze the seven documents
  4. Extend analysis of at least 4 documents by historical context, intended audience, purpose, and point of view of the author
  5. Write a thesis statement that addresses the Historical Thinking Skills and answers the question
  6. Organize at least six documents to support the thesis statement
  7. Contextualize the thesis by explaining the relationship of topics OTHER THAN THE PROMPT TOPIC to the thesis
  8. Choose one or two ways that the documents relate to one another - either by contradiction, corroboration, or qualification
  9. Choose at least one piece of evidence that supports your thesis
  10. Think of at least one way that your thesis could be applied to a different time period, different historical context, or different discipline. You only need to use one part of your thesis statement to do this.

The recipe for an AP® essay can be illustrated with an hourglass model.  The hourglass model illustrates exactly where students can plug in each requirement of the AP® rubrics.  This model can work in teaching students to successfully write a Document Based Question Essay, a Long Essay Question, and even more importantly, a college level essay.  The AP® Essay Model below shows the recipe applied to the DBQ and to the LEQ

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AP® Essay Model for the DBQ

In the recipe for a successful AP® essay, the top part of the model represents the introduction.  I explain to students that the hourglass is a good model for any essay, because essays should always start with the “big picture” that sets the essay’s thesis statement into historical context, which is what is required to show the skill of Contextualization.  However, it is important to emphasize that only the DBQ requires students to write a full introductory paragraph… this is where the skill of contextualization should be shown.  Contextualization in the DBQ is a skill that can be confusing for students, but it works if you explain to students that contextualizing means they are “introducing” their thesis statement.  It is important that students use specific factual information (SFI) in their contextualization to show that they understand how the specific topic of the essay prompt relates to other developments, events, processes that were important in the time period.  Here is a key to the recipe and to the DBQ rubric… Contextualization comes FIRST in the essay as the first  4 - 5 sentences in the introduction with the thesis statement as the last sentence (or two) in the introductory paragraph.  Organizing contextualization into the introduction teaches students to write effective essays, both for the AP exam and in college. 

The narrow, middle sections of the hourglass model represents the body paragraphs of the essay.  As you can see in the model, the recipe for each body paragraph begins with restating a part of the thesis statement. It is important for students to understand that the recipe is designed to convince the reader that they are making a strong argument. The recipe requires students to restate a part of their thesis in each body paragraph.  Then, the recipe directs students to use the sentences in the body paragraphs to illustrate the evidence that supports the historical argument in their thesis statement.  The model shows that each sentence should have a purpose in supporting the thesis and that students should use transitions between sentences to illustrate the way in which different documents or evidence show contradictions in evidence or documents, corroboration between evidence or documents, and/or qualification of evidence or documents.  The recipe also tells students to restate their main argument at the end of the paragraph - making the historical argument clear is key.

The bottom of the hourglass model is an inversion of the top… or an inversion of the introductory paragraph.  Therefore, according to the recipe, the thesis statement comes first in the conclusion.  Restating the thesis is important for making a synthesis argument.  Just as the skill of contextualization should be illustrated in the introduction,  the skill of synthesis can be easily shown in the conclusion.  Now, the AP rubrics do not require that contextualization or synthesis be included in any certain part of the essay… and that is exactly why these skills are confusing to our students.  This recipe clarifies for students where these skills can be effectively shown.  So, in the conclusion, students begin by restating their thesis statement.  Then, the recipe requires that students take at least one part of their thesis statement and apply it in a different time period, different geographical situation, or different discipline.  Synthesis is simply showing understanding of patterns in history.  And… to be completely honest, students can write a very effective DBQ (or LEQ) without the synthesis point… yes… I said that! Tell students to never stress out about the synthesis point. They should definitely try to include the synthesis argument, but it is “gravy”... (sorry for mixing my food metaphors)... but, if a student does a good job at writing the rest of the essay according to the recipe, they will be successful. 

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The LEQ Model follows the DBQ model. The main difference is that the skill of contextualization is not required in the LEQ and the evidence in the body paragraphs is based on evidence students know as opposed to document based evidence.