The Ultimate Guide to the 2016 AP US History LEQ
Only at the very end of the AP U.S. History exam do you reach the Long Essay Question (LEQ). As a result, the LEQ is a challenge for even the most prepared test-taker. By this point in the exam, you are mentally exhausted, your hand is tired from writing all the other Free Response questions, and you just want to go home. That is what makes it so important that you practice for the exam so that even when you’re tired, you’ll still be able to get the full six points on the AP U.S. History LEQ.
In this post, we will help you prepare for this part of the test by walking through how the LEQ is scored, with specific examples from the 2016 U.S. History LEQ. By the end of the post, we hope you will be more confident in your ability to succeed on this year’s LEQ. So, let’s get started! Before we get into the specifics of the 2016 questions, though, let’s review the overall format of the LEQ in the AP U.S. History exam.
Format of the AP US History LEQ
For the 2016 test, the CollegeBoard implemented a new format and rubric for grading the Free Response section of the AP U.S. History Exam (see here). Here we will focus on the revised format and rubric, addressing how questions are scored under the new system and how you can succeed on this year’s LEQ. Be careful, though, when using resources from before 2016 that focus on the old AP U.S. History exam format.
The LEQ occurs in the final half of the second section of the exam. It is the final part the exam and lasts for a total of 35 minutes. You will be asked to pick one of two questions to answer, and your response will count for a total of 15% of the overall exam score (see here). Ideally, you should probably spend about five minutes outlining and the remaining thirty minutes writing the actual response.
The CollegeBoard grades you based on four general categories (with points indicated in parentheses), for a total of six points overall:
- Thesis (1)
- Argument Development Using Targeted Historical Thinking Skill (2)
- Argument Development Using Evidence (2)
- Synthesis (1)
Note that you earn each point in the rubric independently and you will need to show unique evidence for each point (see here). Thus, you can’t get both a Thesis and Argument Development point from the same sentence.
For the remainder of the piece, let us dive deeper into what each one of these point categories means and how you can be sure to get all of the points for each one. We will use the 2016 questions and student responses as our examples. Let’s briefly look at the questions and then we will address what students did well and what they did poorly in answering the questions in 2016.
The 2016 LEQ Questions
For the 2016 AP U.S. History exam, the CollegeBoard asked students to respond to either of the following two LEQs (see here):
“Evaluate the extent to which the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution marked a turning point in the history of United States politics and society.
In the development of your argument, explain what changed and what stayed the same from the period immediately before the amendments to the period immediately following them. (Historical thinking skill: Periodization)”
“Evaluate the extent to which United States participation in the First World War (1917–1918) marked a turning point in the nation’s role in world affairs.
In the development of your argument, explain what changed and what stayed the same from the period immediately before the war to the period immediately following it. (Historical thinking skill: Periodization).”
The 4 Keys to LEQ Success
The key to LEQ success is to follow the rubric closely. The CollegeBoard looks for concrete evidence that you have completed each element of the rubric. If you have everything required, you’ll earn points. If you don’t, you will not. There is no partial credit on the AP exam. Let’s take a look at the general rubric categories you need to touch upon to earn credit on the AP U.S. History LEQ.
1. Write a Strong Thesis
For the first point in the rubric, the CollegeBoard demands a strong thesis: a historically defensible claim or argument that addresses all parts of the question (see here). Your thesis should be a relatively easy point for you to achieve because your entire essay depends on having an argument you wish to make—a stand you take on the question. It is simply a matter of stating that overarching argument clearly, either in the introduction or the conclusion. Let us take a look at what made a successful LEQ thesis statement for students taking the 2016 AP U.S. History exam.
For the first LEQ question about the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, you must address the entire question, evaluating the extent to which the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments marked a turning point in U.S. politics and society. Thus, if you choose to answer this question, you must make a historically defensible claim about this period. For instance, one student argues (see here):
“The ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments marked a minimal turning point in the way African Americans were viewed, and not much in the way they were treated, as well as a minimal political shift due to African American influence in politics.”
Note that the student provides specific historical examples of social and political views that changed with the Amendments (that they will follow up on in their essay with evidence) and clearly states their argument that the amendments marked a turning point (albeit a minimal one) in U.S. politics and society. A good example of a thesis from the second 2016 LEQ option might be as follows (see here):
“The First World War has been widely considered as the nation’s turning point in world affairs. However, it was the Second, not the First World War that really impacted our nation’s foreign policy. Although the First World War created a lasting mark internationally, our nation sought to return to a period of isolationism after the war.”
This student argues that the First World War was not a major turning point as it specifically relates to world affairs (which they will address for the remainder of the essay). Note, however, that each LEQ is open for interpretation, so one answer is not necessarily the only answer. For instance, another student earned a thesis point arguing that the war was a turning point because it spurred the U.S. towards greater international involvement (see here):
“Before World War One the United States attempted to stay as nuetral [sic] and isolated from Europe as possible so as to avoid unnecessary conflict. This had been its foreign policy as much as possible since the days of Washington and the First World War changed that when the United States got involved. The war marked a turning point in America’s national role to a great extent as it paved the way for more involvement outside of our own country.”
You will want to make sure that you can support your thesis statement to get the remaining points for the LEQ, but there is a bit of flexibility in how you can earn the “Thesis” point of the rubric.
One way not to get “Thesis” credit on the U.S. History LEQ is to provide only a vague restatement of the question. For instance, this student’s thesis for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments prompt fails to fully address the question (see here):
“These two [amendments] caused a turning point by ensuring a better life for African Americans, for the American people as a whole and for the over-all attitude of the people of the U.S.”
While the student does make an assertion, they do not evaluate how the amendments were turning points in American politics or society, nor do they make a historically defensible claim about the impact of the amends themselves. By not addressing the entirety of the question, the student did not receive credit for the “Thesis” portion of the grading rubric. Similarly, this student address only part of the second LEQ prompt about the First World War (see here):
“The United States has always been a powerhouse country. The American economy has been strong (despite a couple of bumps) and the people even stronger. The First World War showed the true power of the United States due to the willingness of its citizens and the brightness of their minds.”
To receive credit for this thesis, the student should have responded to the entire question, specifically evaluating the extent to which the war was a turning point. If your reader couldn’t read anything from your essay but your thesis, they should still be able to capture your entire argument from the thesis statement alone. When you practice writing theses, be sure to look at them and ask yourself whether or not you can do this: does your thesis completely address the question? If so, you’re ready to further develop your thesis argument with your historical thinking skills and specific historical evidence.
2. Apply Historical Thinking Skills
You will notice that at the bottom of each LEQ option, the CollegeBoard prints a “Targeted Historical Thinking Skill.” For the 2016 exam, both of these historical thinking skills were “Periodization,” meaning the graders want you to describe and explain the extent to which the historical development specified in the prompt was different from and similar to developments that preceded and followed it (see here).
Specifically, you will receive one point for successfully describing this period change and a separate point for explaining the extent to which the historical development was similar to or different from developments that preceded and followed it.
Other examples of Historical Thinking Skills you might see on this year’s exam include Causation, Comparison, and Change and Continuity over Time (see here). For each one of these, you will also be asked to describe the elements involved the causation, comparison, or change/continuity for one point and then explain how they played a role in causation, comparison, or change/continuity.
In the 2016 exam, both questions were “Periodization” questions, however, so let us get to the bottom of how “Periodization” questions are scored:
Your first point for using the Targeted Historical Thinking skill demands that you describe the ways in which the historical development in the prompt differed from or was similar to developments that preceded and followed it. One student writing on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, for instance, emphasizes social and political differences between the periods before and after the Amendments’ passage as a means of developing their overall thesis, while still recognizing some similarities (see here):
“This included allowing blacks to vote which ultimately led to President Grant’s victory in the elections. The prosperity of the freedman increased by the Freedman’s Bureau that advocated equality in education and ownership in land. However, once the compromise of the next election occurred and ended reconstruction, the reforms of equality between races began to decline. Regardless, the Fourteen [sic] and Fifteenth amendment was still in effect; even though the poll taxes and grandfather clause restricted many blacks from voting and achieving full equality. . . .”
Another student working on the second prompt about the First World War successfully similarly emphasized the differences between pre- and post-war periods (see here):
“Prior to the war, America was not interested in joining the effort. . . . After successful outcomes within the war with other European countries, the United States became a key player in world affairs. . . . A turning point was made when the United States joined World War I because the country was able to gain confidence in their military and political influence. . . . Although the United States never joined the League, the nation still aided its victory and played an influential role at the Paris Peace Conference when signing the Treaty of Versailles.”
Once you have earned a point for describing differences and similarities between periods before and after the time frame described in the prompt, you must explain the extent of these differences and similarities for the second point. Differences and similarities that are limited to a particular city or medium, for example, have a very different pragmatic impact than do those that occur across the country in a variety of mediums. For instance, one student explains the extent of African-American political power before and after the Fifteenth Amendment, as follows (see here):
“Prior to the Fifteenth amendment, only white men could vote, so the Fifteenth allowed African Americans to voice their concerns to society through the power to vote. However, this amendment also marked the beginning of voting restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests in southern states where racist sentiment continued to exist. Politics in the south would still restrict African Americans however, these restrictions set the stage for the future in legislation such as voting rights in the 1960’s which abolished literacy tests.”
The student goes beyond simply describing differences between periods for this amendment (as is required for the first point) and addresses the extent to which they occur (in light of all the restrictions that still remained in place). To earn the point, the student also explains the periods before and after the Fourteenth Amendment (see here). Another student similarly explains the similarities and differences before and after the First World War in the second prompt as (see here):
“The United States’ shift from isolationism to interventionalism [sic] was a drastic change in American foreign policy as the nation switched its views on treatment of the world almost entirely after its participation in World War I. Before the Great War, Americans were wary of the issues that could come about from engaging in foreign affairs and were more than reluctant to join a war half-way across the world. . . . America’s desire to protect democracy was full of passion and is ultimately what caused the drastic change in foreign policy. While the nation did change its mind on involvement with the rest of the world, one fear remained constant. . . . an unwavering fear of radicals.”
This student addresses the extent of the differences in national policy, while recognizing there was still a similar spirit of reluctance to engagement in foreign affairs. The key is to tie in an explanation of this extent to a description of the differences and similarities between previous and later periods. If you provide both a description and an explanation of the extent to which these differences and similarities were true, you will receive two points for this section of the rubric.
If, on the other hand, you are unable to describe and explain the differences and similarities between events before and after the prompt’s period of interest, you will not receive the two points for this section of the rubric.
For instance, a common problem students faced in 2016 was that they would describe only what followed the event of interest and not what happened before it. So, for example, in the first question about the extent to which the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were turning points, one student wrote (see here):
“Giving African Americans the right to vote led to the rise and creation of the Ku Klux Klan. During Ulyess [sic] S. Grant presidency. It was a majority of black votes that [got] him into office. The KKK didn’t like this new amendment, so they would use scare tactics, such as burning churches and burning African American homes, to scare black people from voting. Grant took action and forced the KKK to stop the hatred against his African American voters.”
In order to receive credit, you must remember to describe both the period before and after the “turning point” event the exam prompt focuses on.
Similarly, you will not receive the second point for your explanation about the extent of differences and similarities if you provide only a vague statement or do not clearly answer the question provided in the prompt. For instance, this student’s response to the First World War prompt remains general in describing the development of isolationism in the U.S. and doesn’t clearly explain the extent the isolationism at different time periods or how it relates to World War I (see here):
“Without the United States the League of Nations fell apart and the United States remained in the same role in world affairs as it was in before World War I. . . . After the defeat of the Central Powers, the United States was primed to lead the world towards peace and recovery. But the U.S. backed down and returned to isolationism and continued its limited role in World Affairs. . . . Before its entry into WWI the United States foreign policy was isolationism, the same policy of the first president, George Washington. Like Washington, Woodrow Wilson felt that isolationism was the best chance for prosperity in the United States.”
The key for this point in the rubric is to be clear. For a “Periodization” question like the ones in 2016, you want to make sure your graders know that you can effectively describe the periods before and after the time in question. Once you have described the periods, then you want to be able to explain the extent to which your description holds. If you do both of these things, you will receive two points for the section.
3. Support Your Argument with Specific Evidence
Up to this point, we have covered three out of five points you can earn through the LEQ rubric. You earn an additional two points for developing your argument by “Using Evidence”. On the exam, you should be able to provide specific, relevant historical examples that address the topic of the question (for one point) and (for a second point) support or substantiate your thesis (see here).
Some acceptable evidential references that relate to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment topic might be, for instance (see a more complete list here):
- Three-Fifths Clause/Compromise (1787)
- Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
- Civil Rights Act (1866)
- Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
- Thirteenth Amendment (1865)
Likewise, if you chose the First World War LEQ, you might choose to use some of the following acceptable evidence (see a more complete list of acceptable evidence here):
- Fourteen Points
- Hawley-Smoot Tariff
- League of Nations
- Treaty of Versailles
The key is that you provide some evidence relevant to the topic at hand. As long as you give your evidence and relate it to the question’s topic, you will earn a point for this first part of the “Using Evidence” portion of the rubric.
To receive the second point in the “Using Evidence” section of the rubric, however, you need to provide evidence that substantiates your thesis or a related argument. For instance, the CollegeBoards states that acceptable evidence for arguing that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments marked a turning point might include (see here):
- African Americans gained suffrage and equal protection under the law for the first time.
- The majority of eligible African Americans registered to vote and there was a sharp increase in black voting.
- The Fourteenth Amendment gave African Americans legal standing in courts.
- 2,000 black politicians were elected to public office during Reconstruction.
On the other hand, for the same question, evidence that could be used to argue the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not mark a turning point might include (see here):
- Free African Americans in the North had previously been stripped of their rights to vote.
- Reconstruction politics were almost entirely in white hands, so few black politicians were elected in the South after Reconstruction ended.
- African Americans in the South were effectively disenfranchised through poll taxes, literacy test, voter intimidation, and violence at polls.
- Lynching, Ku Klux Klan, violence, and intimidation prevented blacks from exercising their legal rights until the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century
For each of these pieces of evidence, you need to make specific reference back to your thesis or relevant argument, demonstrating how this piece of evidence develops the overall argument of your essay to answer the exam prompt.
In the same way, examples of acceptable evidence that could be used to argue the First World War was a turning point might include (see here):
- The First World War marked the end of United States’ isolationism. It was the first time the United States was involved in a European war.
- Woodrow Wilson led the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles. He attempted to influence European politics with his Fourteen Points and League of Nations.
- The First World War can be seen as a break in the United States’ emergence as an imperial power (represented by the annexation of Hawaii; the Spanish-American War; and the annexation of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico) because Wilson sought to end imperialism and “to make the world safe for democracy.”
- Submarine warfare made it impossible for the American public to ignore the European conflict (evidenced by sinking of the Lusitania) and to remain neutral.
In contrast, evidence that could be used to argue the First World War was not a turning point might include (see here):
- The United States retreated to isolationism in the 1920’s, as evidenced by the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
- The United States erected high tariffs during the interwar period as part of the retreat to isolationism (Hawley-Smoot Tariff).
- Henry Cabot Lodge successfully prevented the United States from joining the League of Nations.
- The First World War can be seen as a continuation of the United States’ emergence as an imperial power (as evidenced by the annexation of Hawaii; the Spanish-American War; and the annexation of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico).
If you successfully use a piece of evidence like those listed to substantiate your thesis, you will receive a point for the “Using Evidence” section of the LEQ. The key point here is to make sure you support your arguments with evidence. The CollegeBoard does not want you to be tossing around statements without providing clear evidence to support them.
The first point in the “Using Evidence” section gives you a lot of leeway regarding how you earn it. You simply need to mention a relevant piece of evidence to the prompt and you can earn points for your response. However, even if you provide a piece of evidence, you will not necessarily get points for it if it is not relevant to the question or true. For instance, this student confuses the chronology of events when trying to answer the First World War LEQ (see here):
“The First World War also presented ourselves as anti-communism and showed other countries the U.S.’s values and morals.”
Anti-communism efforts only occurred later in the United States, and as a result this “evidence” is factually incorrect and not directly relevant to the question.
You earn a second point in the “Using Evidence” section of the rubric by substantiating your thesis or relevant argument with evidence. However, if you do not fully explain how the evidence supports your thesis, you will not receive credit for your answer. For instance, this student provides evidence, but does not explain how their evidence supports the argument that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were a turning points in American politics and society (see here):
“Plessy v. Ferguson outlined the state of blacks and whites together as ‘separate but equal.’”
The student needs to address more fully how and why this court decision marks a political difference or similarity from previous time periods for this evidence to constitute any substantiation. For this point, the CollegeBoard wants you to engage with the evidence and not just list it out in a rote, memorized fashion.
To earn the second point in the “Using Evidence” portion of the grading rubric, you must use the evidence in service of your argument. In other words, you need to clearly explain how it fits into the larger argument of your thesis.
4. Synthesize Your Argument with Another Historical Development or Course Theme
In the previous sections, we have covered five of the six total points you can earn on the U.S. History LEQ. The final point you can earn is the “Synthesis” point. To earn this final point, the CollegeBoard wants you to extend your argument by explaining a connection between the argument and either a development in a different historical period or geographic area or a historical theme (see here). To get the point, you need to not just mention but explain why there is a connection between your argument and an outside theme or development. If you do so, you will earn the final point for the LEQ.
One student, for instance, compared the social and political changes resulting from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the results of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote (see here):
“Much like the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments was the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. This amendment gave suffrage to women and created significant social and political changes in the decade that followed. As women were given the right to vote, they gained political influence, much like the African Americans who gained the right to vote. Furthermore, they helped to usher in a new social era that gravitated towards wealth and success and a more liberal sentiment in America. The passage of the 14th and 15th amendments as well as the 19th amendment had significant impacts on the political and social climate of the United States, but also reflected some continuity as both groups continued to face discrimination in some ways.”
They used a completely different period and context to build on their existing argument for why the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were turning points for American politics and society. As a result, this excerpt earned a point for “Synthesis”.
Note, however, that you do not need to compare your argument to another historical development to earn the “Synthesis” point. You can also receive the point by addressing how your question might be interpreted from an alternative historical theme. For instance, one student spent their entire essay analyzing rising American interventionism during and after the First World War from a military and political perspective, but synthesized this political analysis with an economic perspective (see the full synthesis here):
“Beyond diplomacy, being an industrial powerhouse with no damage to said industry due to the ravages of war allowed American business to become pivotal to the markets of allies in Europe and Asia, and eventually all across the world. The economy of the following decade, the Roaring 20s, was based heavily on the vast fortunes that one could amass in the stock market – an institution propped up and integrated into business interests all over, but especially in Europe.”
The key is that these successful “Synthesis” points draw upon something external to their central argument or period of inquiry to extend their argument and demonstrate how the thesis fits into the bigger scheme of history.
If you do not, however, explain the connection between two contexts as they relate to the question, you will not receive a point. For instance, one student makes comparisons between the Ku Klux Klan’s persecution of African Americans after the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Red Scare. However, the student does not fully explain how the two contexts are connected (see here):
“The intimidation methods of freed African Americas is much like the Palmer Raids during the Red Scare because entities like HUAC intimidated workers who wanted to form unions, as did entities like the Ku Klux Klan to African Americans who wanted to exercise their rights.”
To earn the “Synthesis” point, the student would need to expand more on how these intimidation methods produced similar social and political effects, and why it is valid to compare economic disenfranchisement to political disenfranchisement.
Regarding thematic comparisons, the CollegeBoard emphasizes that students might similarly fail to adequately connect the alternate theme to the primary one used in their argument (see here). However, one of the main problems for students attempting thematic comparisons is that they fail to address the thesis from an alternative theme at all. For instance, this student’s thesis centered on industrial and gender influences in changing American norms following the First World War and said (see here):
“After military success, and an amazing economic boom due to increased industrial production, the US saw itself jump to the forefront of international affairs as a leading industrial powerhouse and military power. Furthermore, the role of women in America changed, as with the men away they were introduced to the work force. Women not only remained the primary care takers in the family, they also worked in factories and were the bread-winners in many families. This change in the role of women significantly shaped American gender roles for years to come and inspired a growth of feminism that carried into the women’s rights movement of the 1940’s.”
While this statement may be true, it does not represent an alternative theme from the dominant one they used throughout their essay. Therefore, the student could not receive points for bringing up the “gender” and “industrial” historical themes. They would need to bring up alternative thematic issues to receive credit for the “Synthesis” point.
Now that you have seen examples of 2016 students who have succeeded on the AP U.S. History LEQ and those who have not, it’s time for you try your hand at practice LEQs.
Try and write an answer to both of the questions described in this post with a 35-minute timer. Then, check and see how well you did at earning each one of the six points described in this post.
If you practice enough, writing LEQs will become automatic, and however tired you are by the time you reach the LEQ section of the exam, you will at least have confidence that you can succeed.
Let’s put everything into practice. Try this AP US History practice question:
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