2017 Synthesis Essay Reflection

Editor’s note: Since AP Lit and AP Lang have a close relationship, I thought it would be helpful to provide feedback from this year’s AP Lang reading. Thanks to Roy Smith for sharing his thoughts on the synthesis essay. If you were an AP Lang reader and read for a different question, I would love to share your thoughts on those questions. Please contact Susan Barber for more information. 

The 2017 AP Language synthesis essay invites students to weigh in on the future viability of public libraries. The question asks students to consider the Internet’s impact on public libraries and their continuing relevance in the digital age.  The specific task reads as follows: “Then synthesize material from at least three of the sources and incorporate it into a coherent, well-written essay in which you develop a position on the role, if any, that public libraries should serve in the future.”  Six sources are provided for students to consider when developing their position. I read approximately 1200 essays over the course of the seven day reading.  I am always amazed by the hard work and dedication AP students and their teachers commit to during their school-year preparation, and it is with their collective commitment to excellence that I offer my reflections from this year’s reading.


  1. As a whole, students wrote between 3-6 pages. A vast majority incorporated the required minimum of three sources. Structurally, most essays followed clear formats and were easy to read.
  2. Successful students not only incorporated the required sources, but they used said sources to either support their position or challenge a source’s claims in relation to their position.
  3. Many successful students incorporated personal anecdotes from their experiences with public libraries both as children and high school students.  These personal experiences added voice and authenticity to their essays.


AP students are a hard-working bunch. They do the best they can on exam day to put into practice the skills and strategies their teachers have worked on throughout the year.  Our kids are active learners.  We have much to celebrate as we review and consider the path forward. We need to build on the strong foundations listed above.  I believe I have two distinct goals each year – my primary goal is to help each student achieve advanced placement at the college of his or her choice, and secondly, I want all students to grow as readers, writers, and critical thinkers. Some of my proudest moments are opening my students’ scores in July and seeing a hard-fought two.  Many students earning two’s are those who work diligently to improve throughout the year, and I respect and admire these students every bit as much as any other score point.     

Areas for improvement

  1. Many students didn’t directly answer the big question the prompt is asking:  “. . . you develop a position on the role, if any, that public libraries should serve in the future.” They wrote about the virtues of libraries. They wrote about the virtues of the Internet. They wrote about the sources. They wrote about doing research on the Internet. They wrote about the antiquated nature of “paperback” books as opposed to e-books. What many students didn’t write about was “the role, if any, that public libraries should serve in the future.” I am sure there are many reason students didn’t directly develop a clear position that answered the prompt, but the lack of a clear thesis driven essay hurt students.
  2. Students who lacked a clear position had trouble using sources effectively. Their source usage tended to shine a light on the source’s position as opposed to supporting or challenging the writer’s position. Some student’s used long sections from a source without linking it to their position. In other words, sources dominated many lower half essays.     
  3. Gross generalizations dominated many lower scoring essays:
  • “Lower income people will not be able to learn about political issues if public libraries close.”
  • “The Internet and e-books have made it so that nobody will use public libraries again.”
  • “Nobody reads real books anymore because they are too heavy.”   

            Students who qualified their claims, or who avoided the extremes fared better.

  1. The upper half essays I encountered had authentic student voices and they used diction that was consistent and appropriate to their overall work.  Many used personal anecdotes in their openings to establish personal connections (positive or negative) with public libraries.  These essays combined a passionate voice with a mature writing style to argue for a clear position. Lower scoring essays forced elevated language into otherwise pedestrian essays.  The result is often a tortured essay lacking an authentic student voice.  Students who trusted their voices and stayed consistent were more successful. Using “plethora” in an essay didn’t have the intended result students hoped for!


As an AP reader, I want students to answer the task of the prompt with a clear and specific position. I don’t care what their position is, or if I agree with it, but I do want to engage with a student’s position.  I don’t need a summary of each source. I have read and internalized each source.  I want students to use the sources to support their position, and I want them to challenge positions presented in the sources. As the prompt says “Your argument should be the focus of your essay.”  I want students to use language they are comfortable with.  I want to “hear” each student’s unique voice.  As an AP teacher I want my students to consider the prompt before them and to argue for their positions.  I want them to think before they write.  I want them to use evidence from a source, the passage, the poem, or the prose piece to support their considered position.  I want them to write with their authentic voices.  It’s far more important for an AP reader to see the student behind each essay than to only see the teacher.   

Roy F. Smith is an instructional coach and AP English and Dual-Credit teacher in Round Rock, Texas. Follow English Roy on Twitter for his latest thoughts and musings.       

AP Language teachers have occasional Twitter chats on Wednesdays at 8EST; for more information contact Sandy Jameson. 

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash