The Free-Response Question (FRQ) portion of the Advanced Placement® exam provides test takers with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge on a vast array of topics in a concise manner. In many instances, each bullet can be answered in one to three sentences if students are able to completely understand the question and correctly discern what the question is asking. In my many years of AP® exam grading, I have found that the answers that typically get full credit are not the longest, but those that can draw upon previously created schema of HOW government works and apply that knowledge in the question.  


Here are some of my best tips and strategies to review with your students as they review how to complete an FRQ.  


  • Answer each bullet point individually. Each FRQ is a series of three to four questions, sometimes with multiple points. By using bullet points, it not only makes it easier on the grader, but it helps students clearly frame their responses. Even if they accidentally mislabel or put an answer from one part of the question in another, they can still earn full credit.  


  • Read the question carefully. This may seem obvious, but students often overlook the question and fail to discern exactly what the question asks of them. For example, many times words such as “not” or “except” are pivotal to correctly addressing the prompt. Understanding what the question wants you to do is a critical skill that will not only help on the AP® exam, but in learning in general.  


  • Use clear writing. By using concrete examples to elucidate a point, one’s writing can become clear and concise. When students use an example, they should clearly explain how it is relevant to the prompt being asked. A clear, concise prompt is more likely to earn credit than a rambling, vague, or unclear response that is filled with anecdotes.  


  • Not all FRQ questions will ask students to do the same thing. Be sure to understand the action verb that will appear and what it means. Here is a list of the most common action verbs, and what one would be expected to do with each of them. 
    • List/Identify— For this, students will be asked simply to determine which traits, characteristics, or political phenomenon are at play. For example, students might be asked to list traits that a President looks for in nominating a Supreme Court justice. Simply stating race, gender, or ideology would be sufficient in this response.
    • DefineThis will require that students draw upon prior knowledge to determine the meaning of a word. Previous examples, include defining the rule of four or gerrymandering. 
    • Describe/DiscussThis involves looking at a political occurrence and describing the key events that shaped the event. When you describe something, it is often answering the “what happened.” This type of question is most often used in describing data trends such as increases or decreases in voting or use of the presidential veto over time.
    • ExplainThis requires students to show a relationship between political phenomena. Students should discuss logical conclusions they reach alongside inferences they make and patterns they notice over time.  For example, students might explain the connection between gerrymandering and polarization in American politics. 
    • Compare/ContrastThis type of response would ask students to note the similarities and differences between two political concepts or phenomenon. For example, students might be asked to identify a difference between the House and Senate. Students might want to discuss the use of the Filibuster in the Senate, the power of the Speaker of the House compared to the Senate President, or the individuality emphasized in the Senate relative to the House due to its size. 
    • EvaluateThis requires a thesis statement. In general students will be asked to evaluate something given a set criterion. Generally, the use of relevant examples will help to strengthen arguments.


Below is a sample FRQ (which I accessed from College Board®) from the 2019 AP exam. 


This question requires you to compare a Supreme Court case you studied in class with one you have not studied in class. A summary of the Supreme Court case you did not study in class is presented below with all the information you need to know about this case to answer the prompt.  


In the 1950s, Pete Hernandez, a Mexican American agricultural worker, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison by an all-white jury in Jackson County, Texas. Hernandez’s defense claimed that people of Mexican ancestry had been discriminated against in Jackson County. They pointed to the fact that no person of Mexican ancestry had served on a jury in 25 years and that the Jackson County Courthouse itself practiced segregation in its facilities. The five jury commissioners, who selected the members of the grand jury, testified under oath that they selected jurors based only on their qualifications and did not consider race or national origin in their decisions.  


In the ensuing case, Hernandez v. Texas (1954), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Hernandez, deciding that evidence of discrimination against Mexican Americans existed in Jackson County and that the Constitution prohibits such discrimination. 


Based on the information above, respond to the following questions.  


  1. Identify the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment that was used as the basis for the decision in both Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954).
  2. Explain how the facts in both Brown v. Board of Education and Hernandez v. Texas led to a similar decision in both cases.
  3. Explain how an interest group could use the decision in Hernandez v. Texas to advance its agenda.”


In Part A, the question is simply asking students to draw on their schema from Brown v. Board of Education and connect this to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  


In Part B, students are expected to connect Brown to Hernandez. By first identifying how Brown was caused by discrimination in schools, students will get the first point. Students could then connect this to the discrimination which occurred in Jackson County, demonstrating how discrimination against potential Mexican American jurors led to an equal protection clause violation. 


Finally, in Part C, students are asked to apply their knowledge of interest groups and techniques that interest groups use. Students could consider lobbying of elected officials using the Hernandez case, amicus curiae in future litigation, or even pursing litigation in future cases. The point is that the student must use the outcome of the case in the context of the goals of the interest group.  


Hopefully this breakdown helps you guide your students as you review for the AP® exam.


Best of luck! 



Pat Sprinkle is a 13th year history teacher at the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, teaching AP® U.S. History and AP® U.S. Politics and Government. Pat is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Columbia University. Pat has served as a member of the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Humanities Center, and the National Constitution Center. In addition, Pat was a 2013 James Madison Fellow along with a 2021 C-SPAN Fellow. Pat lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife, son (Franklin), and dog (Lyndon).