AP US Government and Politics Free Response Strategies

Overview of the AP US Government and Politics Exam

The 1 hour and 40 minute free-response section is worth half of your total exam score and consists of 4 questions, all of which are required. You should devote about 20 minutes to each of the first 3 questions, which will ask you to write short responses to questions relating to a stimulus. You should plan to spend about 40 minutes on the final prompt, which will lay out specific criteria you must meet when constructing a longer essay with a thesis.

Every AP U.S. Government and Politics exam will contain the same four free-response question (FRQ) types, always in the following order:

  1. Concept Application: Apply government and politics concepts to a scenario described in a paragraph.
  2. Quantitative Analysis: Interpret data from an information graphic, and apply the data to government and politics concepts.
  3. SCOTUS Comparison: Compare a provided description of a non-required Supreme Court case to a required Supreme Court case.
  4. Argument Essay: Construct an essay with a thesis, support it with evidence, and respond to a view that opposes the thesis.

Most free-response prompts will contain three or four tasks (labeled A, B, C, D). Although each type of question is distinct, they share some common characteristics. Often, a question draws from two or more areas in the course; for instance, the prompt may ask you to relate the topic of government bureaucracy to the topics of public policy and voting patterns. The free-response questions are also often structured to ask progressively more challenging tasks that will help you think through the prompt and build your answer. For example, Part A of the question may ask you to simply identify a trend based on data provided, Part B to describe the historic precedents for this trend, and Part C to explain how this information would apply to a present-day scenario.


For the first three types of free-response questions, you should write organized paragraphs that clearly address all parts of the question. Do everything you can to make it straightforward for the readers to follow your responses and easily locate your quality content. For the fourth type of FRQ, the Argument Essay, you will need to write a longer essay with a central argument or thesis state- ment. With this in mind, you should aim to spend 20 minutes each on the Concept Application, Quantitative Analysis, and SCOTUS Comparison prompts and 40 minutes on the Argument Essay prompt.

AP US Government and Politics Writing Strategies

Step 1: Analyze the Prompt

Take the time to understand each and every part of the prompt. If you don’t answer each of the prompt’s required tasks, it will be impossible to earn a high score for that question! Analyzing the prompt means thinking carefully about the following components.

  • The stimulus. The first three prompts will all include a stimulus, paragraph(s) or an information graphic that serves as the base of the questions that follow. Whether text or visual, analyze the stimulus just as carefully as you do the questions themselves. Take notes, underline key facts, and mark data trends. Most of the questions will be based directly on information from the stimulus, so it is essential to fully understand the stimulus.
  • The content of the questions. Consider exactly what topics the questions address. Underline key terms and requirements. Some prompt parts might ask for more than one item—perhaps a “similarity” and a “conclusion based on the similarity”—so make sure you address them all. Read all the questions before starting work on your responses; often, the questions ask for related information or build upon each other, so understanding the set as a whole will help you plan out your response.
  • The action words. Next, make sure you know exactly what you have to do with the content: identify, explain, etc. Consider circling the action words so you make sure you do the correct required action, noting especially when prompts ask you to do more than one. While we often use these action words somewhat interchangeably when speaking, consider carefully how each action word calls for a slightly different treatment of the content. Some examples, from simple to complicated, include:
    • identify: point out a trend or piece of information
    • describe: fully lay out the details of something
    • explain: describe something, including why or how factors (e.g., what causes it, why it’s important)
    • analyze: explain something, considering multiple perspectives, and assert a claim based on evidence and logic

So before doing anything else, take a few minutes to analyze the prompt’s stimulus, question content, and action words. You must have this foundation to successfully answer any free-response prompt.

Step 2: Plan Your Response

This is the most important factor in writing a quality response. Planning is never a waste of time; rather, it is a crucial step to creating an effective response that addresses every part of every prompt. The test makers expect you to take time to plan your responses and have built this into the exam timing, so take advantage of it. Ultimately, planning saves you time by helping you write a focused response. You only have time to write each response once, so make it count! Here are some tips to help you make your plan:

  • Think about what you will write for each part of each prompt. Jot down brief notes—phrases and/or examples—for each part.
  • When asked to describe, discuss, or explain, see if you can come up with an example to help support your response.
  • Double check your notes against the prompt to make sure you didn’t skip any required tasks.
  • Devote an appropriate amount of time to each part, depending on the complexity of the required task. (Parts that only ask you to identify something will require less time than parts that ask you to explain or describe.)

Step 3: Action! Write Your Response

After thoroughly completing the pre-writing steps, actually writing the response should be relatively easy: just use the notes you jotted down in Step 2 to write your paragraphs. You may choose to label your paragraphs according to the part of the prompt they address (A, B, C) in order to stay organized, but you don’t have to. The most important thing is to make sure to write full paragraphs; lists or outline-style notes will not earn you points on the exam.

Step 4: Proofread

Try to leave a minute or two to briskly proofread. Your responses need not be perfect, but you should quickly correct any glaring errors that might distract your readers from your content. If you catch a mistake, just neatly cross it out and write the correction above. Try to avoid erasures or other potentially messy alterations. There’s no time for a complete overhaul of the response, but if you made a plan, there won’t be any need for one!

Learn more about each free response question on the AP U.S. Government and Politics exam.
Concept Application  •  Quantitative Analysis  •  SCOTUS Comparison  •  Argument Essay