The Rhetorical Analysis Essay - Cracking the System: The Essays - AP English Language & composition exam

AP English Language & composition exam


Cracking the System: The Essays


The Rhetorical Analysis Essay


You will be asked to write a rhetorical analysis essay for the AP English Language and Composition Exam. Don’t be scared by the long title: The rhetorical analysis essay is a type of essay for which you will be asked to read between the lines of a text and discuss how the writer expresses himself or herself. Keep in mind that you are not expected to summarize the document; instead, you are pointing out what strategies the writer uses to effectively get his or her point across. Essays of this type will have prompts containing the words analyzeexplain, and/or point of view.


Below is a sample rhetorical analysis prompt. Let’s start by taking a quick look at the instructions for our first sample essay.



Section II

Total Time—2 hours

Question 1

(Suggested time—40 minutes. This question counts as one-third of the total essay score.)

The passage below is extracted from Booker T. Washington’s most famous speech, known as “The Atlanta Compromise Address.” Washington presented the address to the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. Read the entire passage carefully. Then write an essay analyzing the rhetorical strategies that Washington uses to convey his point of view.


You should read the prompt twice, pen in hand. The first time, you should read only to identify the type of essay they’re asking you to write and what you’re supposed to do. Also underline any directions that the essay gives you. Your instructions should now look as follows:

The passage below is extracted from Booker T. Washington’s most famous speech, known as “The Atlanta Compromise Address.” Washington presented the address to the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. Read the entire passage carefully. Then write an essay analyzing the rhetorical strategies that Washington uses to convey his point of view.

For this question, you’re expected to analyze Washington’s rhetorical strategies. The prompts will not always have a marker to show that you are required to present your analysis in an expository essay, but it will be obvious that you are required to explain. Often, but not always, the prompt will contain the word explain. Basically, if the prompt doesn’t instruct you to argue (or take a stand on an issue), then you’ll be expected to explain something. Sometimes, the prompt will give you the point of view or position, but sometimes it won’t. As you can see, this prompt does not give you the point of view. In this case, What is his point of view? amounts to What is his position?

Before reading the essay for the first time, you know that you have two main tasks. As you read the passage, you’ll need to

1.    figure out Booker T. Washington’s point of view, and

2.    identify the rhetorical strategies he uses.

By the way, almost all AP English Language and Composition Exams require that you identify or analyze rhetorical strategies, so it is essential that you spend a lot of time studying Chapters 9 through 11, which are devoted to rhetorical strategies.


The second time you read the prompt, you should circle clues or key elements that you know or need to figure out. For example, for this question, you should circle Booker T. Washington’s name. Hopefully you know that he was a famous African American leader and scholar of the nineteenth century; many public schools in the United States are named after him. If you do not know that, then you would have to glean the information from the text. “Most famous” is another clue; this implies that this person gave several famous speeches, and this tells you something important about Booker T. Washington if you do not know about his fame to begin with. You should also note the date of the speech, for it gives a clue about the speech’s historical context, which will be important. Washington delivered the speech in the South (Atlanta, Georgia) just 30 years after the Civil War. Finally, the audience is important. It is easy to guess that the attendees of the Exposition were mostly white, and this is confirmed early in the reading passage—which you are ready to read.



What is Washington’s point of view? Is he an angry man demanding change? Is he an outraged man warning of rebellion? Is he a timid man begging indulgence? No, he is none of these. Booker T. Washington’s point of view is that of the inspirational Southern preacher who urges blacks and whites to rally round the same economic flag. He employs three principal rhetorical strategies in this part of his speech.

1.    Throughout, there is an appeal to sentiment; this is particularly noteworthy in the first paragraph.

2.    Next, there is the central image of the bucket, which could be considered part of either an extended metaphor or an allegory; this is first addressed to the black population, then to white people.

3.    Finally, to support the imagery, Washington uses analogy (e.g., “there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem”), scare tactics (e.g., the references to people of foreign birth), and interesting deductive reasoning. Washington purports that the continual loyalty and hard work of blacks in the past proves that they will be loyal, hard-working collaborators in the future. While the claim is reasonable, the logic is not; in the past that Washington is talking about, the blacks were slaves. For the most part, they had no choice but to be hard-working and loyal.

Now, keep all the above information in mind as you read the following sample essay, which was written in 40 minutes under actual test conditions.


Born into slavery and liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation, Booker T. Washington is widely regarded as one of the most influential African American figures in the history of the United States. In 1881, he started the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, and soon became recognized, admired, and respected for his wisdom. Because a number of well-placed business leaders and political figures turned to him for advice, he delivered his most famous speech “The Atlanta Compromise Address” in 1895. It is an explication of his beliefs that his fellow African Americans and other former slaves should make the best of what they have and strive to excel in the positions and jobs they already occupy rather than continually fighting for something. Furthermore, he argues that the people of the white race also do not see what they have around them. A moving speech, the impact of the “Atlanta Compromise” was so powerful partially because of Washington’s skill as an orator and partially because of his strong rhetorical strategies of appeal to ethos, allegory, and repetition, and style and tone.

One of the most memorable quotes from the “Atlanta Compromise” is “cast down your buckets where you are.” In this short allegory about a lost ship without drinking water being found by another ship and saved by using what was around them, Washington conveys his central idea that African Americans can help themselves and save themselves by using what resources they already have. The lost ship, in thinking that it is surrounded by salty water, does not even attempt to try the water before the second ship suggests the idea. Similarly, Washington implies that simply because they do not think they have anything to work with, the African Americans who were once slaves do not try to see what can be done with what they have. The impact of the allegory of the two ships is strengthened by Washington’s repetition of the phrase “cast down your bucket where you are.” However, in repeating it, he applies it to not only the African Americans, but also to “those of the white race.” In that context, he states that the white Americans could look to the African Americans for help with the “prosperity of the South” instead of looking to “those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits.” Again, he implores both sides to look around and make use of what is already present.

The idea of the speech is set up in the introductory paragraph, wherein Washington states that the recognition of the race of the “American Negro” at the Exposition will do much to “cement the friendship of the two races.” It is in this paragraph and these phrases that Washington turns to the strategy of an appeal to ethos. By asserting that the Exposition will help further the friendship between the white Americans and the African Americans, he subtly suggests that this end, this friendship, is what the organizers of the exposition should want (a moral want). This appeal is utilized again in the final paragraph of the passage. In asking the white Americans to cast down their buckets, Washington also asks them to remember that the African Americans “have proved [their] loyalty to [the white Americans] in the past.” Thus, he seems to be saying it would be immoral for the white Americans to turn away from proved loyalty when they are in search of help and employees.

However, the most compelling element of Washington’s speech is his tone and style. When reading the passage, one can almost imagine Washington delivering his oration. His tone and style are uplifting, optimistic, and emphatic, much like the tone of a passionate Southern preacher. His own emotions seem to be invested in every word. With phrases like “it is at the bottom of life that we must begin, and not at the top,” or “there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” Washington lends nobility and a right to pride to the common labor that most African Americans performed at the time. When he speaks of casting down the bucket “in agriculture, in mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions,” he assures both the African Americans and the white Americans that hard labor is not something to be looked down on. Neither, he implies, is the struggle to rise above your station a condemnable action. Nevertheless, he always comes back to the point that one must first make use of what is already present and readily available before searching for something else.

A wise and powerful man and speaker, Booker T. Washington often knew just what to say to convey his ideas and opinions. Even more important, he knew how to phrase and present what was important. In “The Atlanta Compromise Address,” Washington successfully utilizes the strategies of appeal to ethos, repetition, allegory, style, and tone to impart his message of using what one had to improve oneself. In simplified terms, “The Atlanta Compromise” is a speech based on carpe diem, the idea of seizing what one has and using it to one’s advantage.

What do you think? This essay would probably earn a score of 7 or 8; it’s strong, but it isn’t as clear as it could be. It’s obvious from the outset that the student knows about Booker T. Washington and understands the historical context of the speech. The fact that both the introduction and the conclusion evince an attempt to go beyond the bare bones is probably what would make the reader lean toward the higher score.

However, there are two glaring problems in this essay. Although one of them would probably not affect the score, it is an unnecessary and entirely avoidable error; it has to do with the five-paragraph form. The last sentence of the introduction announces a road map for the essay: “strategies of appeal to ethos [sentiment], allegory and repetition, and style and tone.” That’s fine. However, the student goes on to address the three examples in a different order: First the student addresses allegory and repetition, then discusses appeal to sentiment, and, finally, gets to style and tone. Luckily, most AP readers would overlook this, but it’s better to be safe than sorry—keep your organization consistent. There is another problem that readers would probably not overlook. Do you remember the two tasks that we set for our reading? One was to look for rhetorical strategies. The other was to establish a clear point of view. The student never addresses point of view in a coherent manner and in the only mention of it seems to confuse it with tone.

Let’s look at another example of an analytical/expository essay, to get more practice.


For this one, make sure you try writing the essay on your own by hand before you read the student essay—you should get as much practice as you can before test day. Set your timer for 40 minutes and begin.




Total Time—2 hours

Question 1

(Suggested time—40 minutes. This question counts as one-third of the total essay score.)

In 1676, Madame de Sévigné wrote the letter below. Read it carefully; then write an essay in which you identify the writer’s purpose and analyze how she uses language to achieve that purpose. Pay particular attention to organization, point of view, and diction.


Write down the type of essay you’ll need to write, and describe your “job” in writing this essay.


Next, circle the hints in the prompt.

There isn’t much to circle, is there? There are only two items: the fact that the writer is a woman (Madame), and the historical context of the letter (seventeenth-century France under Louis XIV); if you know that “de” indicates nobility, then you have another clue to the point of view—the writer, indeed, belongs to the privileged nobility.

Here is the letter.


List at least two, but no more than four, aspects of language that Madame de Sévigné’s uses to serve her purpose.

By the way, you are not expected to ascertain the “correct” purpose of the letter; the limited amount of text offered implies various points of view. Does Madame de Sévigné condemn the crime? Does she feel sorry for the criminal? The key is to point out that, above all else, the letter’s purpose is to relate an event. Beyond that, you would only be conjecturing.

Here’s a sample essay by the same student who wrote the previous one. This time there is no doubt: The essay falls clearly into the 8 to 9 range. The student addresses the difficult prompt well, follows the road map, provides relevant examples from the text, and supports it all with strong, organized writing.


In the 1600s, life was by no means easy for women. They were expected to cater to any whim their husband might have, and they were treated like property. Whenever a woman outstepped the boundaries society had established for her, and her crime was serious enough, she was humiliated and punished publicly. In her 1676 letter, Madame de Sévigné writes of the Brinvilliers affair and incites questions regarding the treatment of women in her time.

Society of the seventeenth century, especially the upper echelons of France, was mostly occupied with the scandalous doings of others in their class. Each affair was picked apart, discussed, and passed from ear to eager ear. Naturally, details tended to be embellished and exaggerated, and each individual’s opinions and emotions wormed their way into the retelling. In her description of the Brinvilliers affair, Madame de Sévigné includes many of her own feelings upon witnessing and hearing of the fiasco. Watching the Marquise de Brinvilliers’ be taken from Notre Dame to the scaffold, Sévigné declares that “the sight of [the Marquise] struck [her] with horror.” Expressing her condemnation of the criminal, Sévigné writes that “it seems that some say [the Marquise] was a saint,” implying that Sévigné herself does not share in that opinion. The Marquise’s life story affected Madame de Sévigné in such a way that she shuddered. Further evidence of Sévigné disdain is evident in her hope that the Marquise’s “murderous instincts” will not be inhaled by the people along with her ashes. Nevertheless, a certain reluctant admiration is evident in Sévigné’s declaration that the Marquise “died as she had lived, resolutely, and without fear or emotion.” Despite the Marquise’s transgressions, one must respect a woman who displayed such strength in the face of the poor treatment they received from men, society, and even other women.

Though she has included some personal sentiments and observations, the majority of Sévigné’s letter is dedicated to a fairly objective account of the proceedings of the Brinvilliers affair. She begins by explaining how the entire affair began—“The Marquis […] poisoned her father, brothers […] one of her children,” and her husband because she believed that “Sainte Croix would marry her if she were free.” Tracked to England by Degrais and arrested in Liege, the Marquise was brought back to France and sentenced. Her punishment included a public confession, an execution, and a cremation. Sévigné’s narrative continues with details of the public punishment and humiliation of the Marquise. In a matter-of-fact manner, Sévigné relates the unfortunate end that the Marquise de Brinvilliers met with after her crimes against her family.

In the most obvious manner, Madame de Sévigné paints the Brinvilliers affair as a shocking event—she simply states that “the Brinvilliers affair is still the only thing talked about in Paris.” The fact that the Marquise’s proper first name is never mentioned lends the air and quality of an unmentionable scandal to the whole affair. One can imagine this straightforward letter being read in a shocked tone of voice, an underlying excitement and eagerness evident in the speaker’s voice due to the very “deliciously scandalous” nature of the event. Her crime was so abominable that her persecutors even threatened her with torture to procure her confession. Sévigné’s diction, quite candid, underscores the shocking quality of the Brinvilliers affair.

Madame de Sévigné effectively portrays society’s treatment of women who have overstepped their limits in the seventeenth century. Her hinted-at emotions relay Sévigné’s condemning opinion of the Marquise, while simultaneously they convey reluctant admiration. Both her narrative and her diction underline the fact that the Brinvilliers affair was a major scandal. However, overall, one is imparted with the sense that this treatment is ultimately unjust.

Hopefully, you can see that this essay is clear, precise, and well written. The student carefully grounds the letter’s content in the world of the seventeenth century. The essay analyzes the subtext of Madame de Sévigné’s words, pointing out that even though she does not see the woman as a saint, she perhaps harbors a secret admiration for her bravery under condemnation. Though the third paragraph includes some unnecessary summary, the fourth paragraph astutely analyzes useful details, such as Sévigné’s decision to never mention the Marquise’s first name, or the fact that Sévigné delights in being “deliciously scandalized.” In the final paragraph, the student reiterates her insights to remind the graders of her strongest points. Is it perfect? No, but keep in mind that you do not have to write the perfect essay to earn a high score.

In this chapter, we talked about what goes into writing the analysis essay on the AP English Language and Composition Exam and looked at a couple of very well-written examples. Keep the method for approaching these essays that we outlined in this chapter in mind when you are doing the sample exams at the end of this book (and, of course, on the real exam).

In the next chapter, we move on to the argumentative essay.



rhetorical strategies

rhetorical analysis

consistent organization