Writing essays for AP United States History Tips, Tricks, Advice and Warnings
you need to have the right pieces. In an APUSH essay, there are a few things that you absolutely HAVE TO HAVE. These are: There’s a lot more that goes into an essay, but these are the essential pieces. • Background knowledge • Documents • PIES • Critical Thinking • A Cohesive Argument • Context
your essential pieces are like an ingredients list. You can’t cook even a basic pie without the essentials, like: • Flour • Eggs • Butter • Sugar In the same way, you can’t write an essay without your necessary pieces.
But what do these pieces really dofor an essay? A piece by piece breakdown.
Background Knowledge You should be getting your background knowledge from being in this class. You need to bring background knowledge into every essay you write – think of the things that you’ve learned this year and how they might apply to the question on your paper. Your background knowledge is like knowing what goes into a pie in the first place – for example, you (hopefully) know that apple seeds and raw garlic have no place in good pie.
In the same way, these things do not belong in your essays: • Personal opinions • Swearing • Informal language (first or second person) • Cultural insensitivity • Unsupported claims
PIES should provide a valuable framework to your essay Political I nternational Economic Social Use PIES to break up and organize your essay – this way, your paper is more readable and you cover essential topics that AP graders are looking for. Keep in mind that it’s OKAY to have more than one paragraph about a topic, and that sometimes parts of PIES aren’t enough to make a paragraph out of.
Also • Keep in mind that you are writing an argument. You use the documents and outside knowledge to defend your viewpoint. • Keep the events in context. While you may not need to know the exact date of every battle of every war ever fought, you do need to know the major dates, events and people. • Nothing in history happens independently. Everything is one long chain of cause and effect, so you should talk about what came before, what happened and what its effects were afterwards. Even seemingly small, unimportant events can play large roles down the line!
Think of PIES like a recipe for your paper Having a recipe to work from makes baking a pie much easier, right? It also helps you to keep track of what you have and have not included in your paper – so you don’t run the risk of repeating yourself and ‘spoiling the recipe’.
Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). • 2 Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. • Frost. • Pour batter into prepared pans. • Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. • Heat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9 inch pie plate. • Beat together white sugar, buttermilk, baking mix, melted butter or margarine, vanilla, and eggs until smooth. Pour filling into pie plate. • Bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. • Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans. • Cool completely. • Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes. • Heat oven to 350° F. • Cool completely. • Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Here are the steps to baking a pie– out of order. Could you put these steps in order and cook this pie the right way every time?
Here’s what you didn’t know: That was actually the steps from two cake recipes and a pie recipe mixed together. In the same way, when you start writing a paper without using some kind of a framework, it’s very easy to accidentally drift into other topics – and start writing a different paper altogether. Using PIES as an outline for your essay makes this much less likely to happen – it’s like cooking with your recipe on hand.
DOCUMENTS Your documents are like flour. Flour is a necessary component to every pie, but if you use too much, the pie will be inedible. However, you can’t just leave out the flour altogether – without it, your pie will fall apart with no support. In the same way, your argument in your essay falls apart with no documents to support it. However, if you use too many documents, your essay can get muddled and hard to read.
Primary Vs. Secondary: A Tale of Two Documents Primary Secondary Second or third hand sources that comment on the event or mention primary documents (articles, paintings, essays, etc.) Written after the fact. The writer was not necessarily present at the event. • First hand sources (letters, journals, tables, eyewitness accounts, pictures, etc.) • Written by someone at the event, usually at the time of the event.
You also need to use the right flour when you bake a Pie Have you even eaten a pie that was made with the wrong type of flour? It tastes at best off, and at worst completely inedible. The same thing happens if you use the wrong documents to support your arguments: when they’re put into the wrong spot, documents can hinder rather than help a good argument.
Let’s say you’re making a pie to enter into a contest You slave away, baking like crazy, adding in all the right ingredients and following your recipe and cooking what can only be described as beautiful food. You finally pull your creation out of the oven, lay it out before the judges, and let them eat. The judges eat, and they’re amazed by your food. The first one gets up and says to you:
“This is a Cake contest.” …Oh. How could you miss that? I mean, it was right on the flyer. You get disqualified from the contest, not because you can’t cook – but because you can’t follow directions.
Prompts work the same way You could write the most beautiful essay known to mankind for your AP tests, but your grader can’t give you points if you don’t address the prompt. Prompts work like guidelines about what you’re supposed to be making in the first place – and if you don’t follow them, you’re only setting yourself up for failure.
Putting it in Context Context is important. Really, Really, Important. You can’t get away from it. You need to understand context. I know I’m repeating this, but you NEED TO UNDERSTAND CONTEXT. Not just chronological context, but social, economic, international and political context.
Setting your essay apart from others Critical thinking and inventiveness are key.
Don’t just follow the recipe Remember, AP graders go through hundreds of essays – don’t be generic! You want your paper to stand out – be inventive and creative in your thinking. AP wants to know that you can be thoughtful and contemplative when it comes to your essays. They don’t want regurgitation – they want synthesis.
Use critical thinking • Critical thinking is about asking questions. Never accept what you’ve been told – explore, learn, be curious! • Never be afraid to ask questions or be skeptical of claims. • Make connections between historical events. History is just a chain of cause and effect- and most events have more than one cause (think PIES!).
You need to combine everything you’ve learned this year into something new. Mrs. Trainor has spent the whole year giving you the necessary pieces to write your own essay – but she can’t do it for you. You need to take the raw ingredients and make something great – you need to bake a pie.
So your Pie is ready to bake But wait! You forgot something…
Always poke holes in your pie before you add any finishing touches You have not finished your essay until you have poked holes! Showing only one side of an argument makes your paper weak and simple. You want to show that you can understand a historical event from more than just your own perspective. Yes, Christopher Columbus is a hero who was one of the first westerners to sail to the Americas, but he also established the transatlantic slave trade and caused the genocide of millions of natives.
Having trouble poking holes? It happens to the best of us. Sometimes you can’t think of any arguments to poke holes through – or the argument is too solid for you to poke any holes.
Here’s a few things you can do: • Even little holes are still holes.You don’t always have to completely destroy an opposing viewpoint in your paper – sometimes just pointing out their weaknesses is good. • Every viewpoint has a weakness. Yes, even yours. Sometimes they aren’t obvious at first – but this is where critical thinking comes in. • Think outside the box. Everybody starts with the same documents, so creative responses give you points with graders – they like seeing that you can be thoughtful and considerate when you evaluate theories and studies.
Putting it all together Why not all pies are created equal.
So, you’ve got your pie together But something’s missing. Right now, you just have a pie. But you could have something world-shattering, career-making, the kind of pie that people would kill to eat and die to know the recipe for.
“I should make my pie look great.” Lots of people think this – but it’s not necessarily true. You only need to work on your essay’s more superficial parts – word choice, flow, grammar, spelling, etc. – if they are bad. And when I say bad I mean the-essay-is-unreadable-because-of-the-errors bad.
AP wants something with substance, not just something that looks good Just because you can make it look like you know something doesn’t mean that you do – and no matter how much fluff or how many big words you pepper throughout your paper, the AP graders will be able to tell that you don’t know what you’re doing. The graders are looking for substance, not style. Show facts and critical thinking, not fluff. Don’t spend all of your time decorating your pie– keep it simple. Graders don’t care as much about what your introduction or your conclusion look like as you think they do – they want to see you demonstrate what you know.
A Few things to remember Some general advice.
Everybody cooks differently And everybody writes differently. This isn’t a bad thing!
Don’t stop writing after putting down a few paragraphs Would you eat a pie that had only been in the oven for five minutes? No, it’s gross. Don’t turn your essay in after writing only two or three paragraphs – it’s not done, and it’s not going to be pretty to read. One way to avoid running out of things to say is to make an outline before you start. This is essential. Make time for it!
A few things to keep in mind when writing about History • Don’t generalize. If you start writing about a topic, finish it! Don’t throw out a thought and then walk away. Don’t make broad generalizations. • Be considerate of other cultures and time periods. Remember that society and what was considered proper was different- that doesn’t make it right or wrong. You are not writing to make judgments. You are writing about history and historical connections. • Facts that aren’t relevant don’t count. If you know a good fact about a topic, use it! But if you’re talking about Richard Nixon and throw out something about Ronald Reagan, you’ll just confuse your grader. Facts that aren’t relevant detract from your paper.
Also: • People are products of their time period. Remember to put things into context. However, YOU are not part of their time period, so this is not a blank check to call Native Americans “savages” every time you mention them. • Dates earn you crazy brownie points with graders. If you can’t remember a specific year, at least learn a decade. • Go above and beyond. Putting in that extra effort is often the difference between a 4 and a 5. • Eat before you go to the test. It might seem like you are so nervous that you can’t down anything, but you need to try to eat. It will help keep you focused and calm down a bit before the test. Hearing you stomach growl and trying to ignore the hunger in the middle of the test will throw you off, so eat something. If you can’t eat a whole breakfast, get a banana and some yogurt.
We’ve all heard that phrase “made with love” But obviously love isn’t an ingredient that you can actually use in a pie– or an essay.
But a little enthusiasm can go a long way Let’s face it: papers that sound engaging are more fun to read than papers that don’t. People that genuinely enjoy a topic tend to have a lot more fun writing an essay than people that don’t – and that enthusiasm bleeds into their writing. I know it sounds like completely ridiculous advice, but get comfortable when you write. Don’t stress yourself out on the day of the test – just relax, sit down, kick off your shoes and have a little fun while you write your papers.
Thanks for listening! (And sorry for making you hungry.)