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

AP English Language & composition exam


Cracking the System: The Essays


The Synthesis Essay


The synthesis essay came about because college professors begged the AP English Language and Composition test writers to develop an essay that would test students’ abilities to read and evaluate multiple sources and integrate appropriate ones into a coherent, cogent essay. In essence, professors wanted to know that students who use the AP English Language and Composition Exam for credit or placement out of freshman English know how to write a good research paper.

The good news is that, to allow enough time for students to both read the sources and write about them, the folks at ETS decided to allot a 15-minute reading period at the beginning of the essay section of the exam. We suggest you use at least part of this reading period to read all the sources given and start to plan how you will write the perfect synthesis essay.


On the synthesis essay, it’s more important than ever that you get a clear grasp of the prompt. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you will not be able to deal with the mass of material that you must read and digest. If you know what to look for, then you can skim the parts that do not pertain to your thesis—and underline just the good stuff.

What follows is another sample question. Since these questions are so long, we’ll break it into parts in this chapter.




Total time—2 hours

Question 3

(Suggested reading time—15 minutes)

(Suggested writing time—40 minutes)

This question counts as one-third of the total essay section score.

Carefully read the following six sources, including the introductory information for each source. Then synthesize information from at least three of the sources and incorporate it into a coherent, well-developed essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies the claim that men must be masculine and women must be feminine.

Make sure that your argument is central; use the sources to illustrate and support your reasoning. Avoid merely summarizing the sources. Indicate clearly which sources you are drawing from, whether through direct quotation, paraphrase, or summary. You may cite the sources as Source A, Source B, etc., or by using the descriptions in parentheses.

Assignment: Read carefully the following sources discussing gender roles. Then, in an essay that synthesizes at least three of the documents for support, write an essay responding to the following prompt: Throughout history, people have portrayed men and women differently, often requiring of the former masculinity and of the latter femininity. What does it mean to be a man, or masculine, and a woman, or feminine?

You may refer to the sources by their titles (Source A, Source B, etc.) or by the descriptions in parentheses.

Source A (Kipling)

Source B (De Beauvoir)

Source C (Shakespeare)

Source D (Wollstonecraft)

Source E (David)

Source F (Angelou)


As always, do your first reading of the prompt and underline key instructions and other terms. First, you should have underlined the phrase “Then synthesize information from at least three of the sources and incorporate it into a coherent, well-developed essay.” Before you begin writing, you must double-check to make sure, in your outline, you planned to use at least the required number of sources. The number of sources will always be spelled out in the instructions; normally you will not be required to use all the sources provided (although there is nothing wrong with doing so, if each of the referenced sources helps advance your point). Finally, you should have underlined the key questions in the prompt: “What does it mean to be a man or masculine and a woman or feminine?”


In this case, a second reading of the prompt probably won’t help you much, unless you have already discussed gender roles and society in your classes. Even if you have, remember that your essay should primarily depend on the sources for support, not on what you know from outside.


How closely you read the passages the first time through should depend on how well you know the context of the topic. If you are not familiar with the topic at all, your first read will help you get your bearings on the topic; if you are familiar, you will need to read more closely to ensure that you write about what is in the passages, rather than spending most of your essay writing about outside knowledge. In either case, you should have your pen in hand and be ready to underline anything that helps you answer the question. These passages will require some interpretation to determine what they say about masculinity and femininity. Once you’ve made up your mind about what position you will take in response to the question, you are free to underline only the points that substantiate your position.

As a general rule, you should examine all the sources. Put a mark through the ones you do not intend to use. Do not assume that all the sources are relevant; it is unlikely that you will use them all, but you should use as many as you can—and of course at least as many as the essay prompt requires.

As you plan your essay, remember your task. In this case, no one is asking you to document the historical progress of the development of masculinity and femininity. Your goal is simply to make a convincing case for what it means, in our culture, to be a man or a woman. Stick to your task.

Source A

Poem by Rudyard Kipling, “If” (1895)

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breath a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run -

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my son!

Source B

Excerpt from The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, translated by H.M. Parshley, copyright 1952 and renewed 1980 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf. a division of Random House, Inc. (1949)

The fact that I ask [the question, “What is a woman?”] is in itself significant. A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. It amounts to this: just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as the testicles, and that they secrete hormones. He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.

Source C

Excerpt from William Shakespeare, Henry V (believed to be written in 1599)

[Henry the Fifth is speaking to one of his nobles, Lord Exeter. Exeter has just seen two of Henry’s uncles, the Duke of York and the Earl of Suffolk, die in the tremendous battle with the French.]

Exeter: The Duke of York commends him to your Majesty.


King: Lives he, good uncle? Thrice within the hour

I saw him down; thrice up again and fighting,

From helmet to the spur all blood he was.


Exeter: In which array, brave soldier, doth he lie,

Larding the plain; and by his bloody side,

Yoke-fellow to his honor-owing wounds,

The noble Earl of Suffolk also lies.

Suffolk first died; and York, all haggled over,

Comes to him, where in gore he lay insteeped,

And takes him by the beard, kisses the gashes

That bloodily did yawn upon his face.

He cries aloud, “Tarry, my cousin Suffolk!

My soul shall thine keep company to heaven.

Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast;

As in this glorious and well-foughten field

We kept together in our chivalry!”

Upon these words I came, and cheered him up;

He smiled me in the face, raught me his hand,

And, with a feeble gripe, says, “Dear my lord,

Commend my service to my Sovereign.”

So did he turn, and over Suffolk’s neck

He threw his wounded arm, and kissed his lips;

And so, espoused to death, with blood he sealed

A testament of noble-ending love.

The pretty and sweet manner of it forced

Those waters from me which I would have stopped;

But I had not so much of man in me,

And all my mother came into mine eyes

And gave me up to tears.

Source D

Excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue. Yet it should seem, allowing them to have souls, that there is but one way appointed by Providence to lead mankind to either virtue or happiness.

If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do not keenly satirize our headstrong passions and groveling vices. Behold, I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force. Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.…

How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle…

Source E

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii (1784)

Source F

“Phenomenal Woman,” copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou, from And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

The palm of my hand,

The need of my care,

’Cause I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.


That’s quite a lot of reading (not to mention some art history!). If you want to use your extra 15 minutes effectively, you must read selectively. You may have noticed that about half of the sources comment on manliness, and the other half comment on femininity. You may also have noticed that the women do not always seem pleased with the role given to them by society, while the men have many positive traits ascribed to them. You might even say that manliness is defined as courage, strength, and maturity, while being feminine is defined as being excluded from most of these virtues.

With that, you’re ready to respond to the questions. Hopefully you underlined some great examples and jotted down a quick outline for how you’ll go about using them. Now, it’s time to write a strong synthesis essay.

When you’re finished writing your essay, take a look at the essay below. This is a sample of an essay that was written in the allotted 55 minutes. As you read it, evaluate how well it addresses the prompt and whether it integrates enough sources well.


Every society tries to define what is masculine and what is feminine. In doing so, all societies assign certain traits to men, and others to women. In our own society, manhood is associated with bravery, stoicism, strength, and wisdom; the conventional (and insulting) view is that womanhood is the lack of those virtues. Instead, women are valued primarily because they are pleasing to men—even when they try to show themselves as powerful and strong on their own terms, they still look to male approval to measure their success. While one may wish to challenge these notions, men and women alike seem to agree with them—suggesting an inherent truth about men and women.

Our society’s traditional view is that manhood is associated with bravery in battle, strength in the face of suffering, and level-headed rationality. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” provides a conclusive summary to manly virtues. For him, a boy becomes a man when he can wait patiently, endure the criticisms of lesser men and the reversals of fortune without complaint, and give his all by seeking success at every moment, neither proud in victory nor broken in defeat. These are admirable qualities in anyone—but Kipling assigns them specifically to men. Men are also stoic in the face of emotion: all the way back to Shakespeare’s time, men were supposed to be strong enough to fight their own tears. Losing that battle is a feminine sign of weakness.

This cultural assumption has not gone unnoticed by women. Simone De Beauvoir notices that in discussions between men and women, the man’s viewpoint is naturally considered to be “both the positive and the neutral” one. Men are the standard, the “absolute vertical,” by which women are judged—and found wanting. An earlier feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, also noticed (and objected to) the difference in social roles for men and women: in her view, men keep women in ignorance by denying them education and responsibility, but then say that women are not worthy of these things because it is their nature to be frivolous and overly emotional. Instead, women are to appeal to men for protection. Men are valuable in themselves; women cannot be, but must only be measured by their relationships with men.

It would be easy to dismiss the complaints of the feminist writers, except that both male and female creators reinforce those same complaints. Consider David’s Oath of the Horatii. The scene shows a father stoically offering swords to his three sons, who are ready to go bravely off to war. Meanwhile, the women helplessly cry in the background, victim of their emotions and their own lack of courage. And in Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” for all the speaker’s efforts to describe herself as a powerful, phenomenal woman, the measure of her quality is in the way “fellows … swarm around” her, wondering “what they see in” her. In the end, rightly or wrongly, both women and men have subconsciously agreed with the judgment: men are brave doers, while women are their accessories.

What did you think? Clearly, this is another strong essay—probably an 8. The introduction is very strong, but the conclusion is simply tacked on to the last body paragraph. The stance is clear: “[M]anhood is associated with bravery, stoicism, strength, and wisdom; the conventional (and insulting) view is that womanhood is the lack of those virtues.” This sentence could be improved if it were more parallel in structure, but it is quite clear nonetheless. However, the thesis could be even more powerful if it were phrased more succinctly.

This essay uses appropriate sources and integrates them well, but using all six sources was probably too ambitious for the time and space allotted. Several of the sources make the same (or similar) points; it was not really necessary to discuss all of the Henry V passage, and the Kipling poem, and the David painting. Similarly, the essay did not strongly benefit from mentioning both De Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft. One extra source does not prove any kind of agreement among all the sources out there, but trying to introduce and use both of the sources meant that the author was not able to explore either one with much depth. It would be better to take a smaller number of sources, but interact with them in more detail.

Artistic works, in particular, are hard to use in these kinds of essays. In order to refer to the David painting in this essay, the author had to take valuable space and time to provide an explanation of the painting. But there is not necessarily solid textual evidence that there is any relationship among the men in the painting, or that the women in the background represent the reactions of all women everywhere to the events in the foreground. Also, the author depends on reading between the lines of the Angelou poem. This is an excellent critical skill that will be valued by the graders—but only if it is done well. It can be too easy to quote a passage and then make a tangential point.

Probably the best aspect of this essay is its use of language. The author uses strong vocabulary, but avoids the kind of long sentences that students often write when under time pressure. By writing in shorter sentences that still use high-level vocabulary, the author communicates his ideas clearly to the reader and shows solid command of language. The essay also benefits from a definite organizational pattern, even if it is not explicitly stated: The author begins by describing masculinity, then gives a critical perspective defining femininity, then shows that both male and female artists implicitly endorse the views that were explicitly stated above. This organizational plan could be improved and could be stated more clearly, but it is definitely noticeable to the reader.

This sample essay should get a score of at least 8. Like any essay written in such a limited time, it will not exhaustively explore the sources (and indeed, it was weaker for trying to touch on all the sources), but its clear organization, excellent use of language, and good thinking make it quite good. Remember, you don’t need to be perfect. And to score high on the test overall, all you really need to do is keep all three of your essays in the 6 to 7 range—so an 8, or even a 9, would be fantastic. By following our strategies and using the essays that you’ve seen as models, you can do that.


In this and the two preceding chapters, you’ve seen some pretty solid examples of essays. In the next parts of this book, you learn (or review) the important aspects of formal training in rhetoric and composition that will prepare you to craft essays that equal—or exceed—the ones that you’ve examined so far.


synthesis essay