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Free Response Essay

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Designed to test both your reading and writing abilities, free response essays are a series of three distinct tasks. One requires you to synthesize an argument from three separate sources, another requires you to analyze the rhetoric of a passage you are given, and you will be asked to craft your own argument in the third.

The essays require you to identify and explain the claims, evidence, rhetorical strategies, and reasoning that you encounter in texts, as well as to produce well-written and supported arguments of your own.

Free Response Essay Definition

"Free response" is a term used to distinguish exam questions that require a written answer. These are different from other question types, such as those which involve multiple-choice or matching. A free response essay requires you to take a position and present evidence and argumentation in support of it.

The free response section of an exam includes three separate questions, each of a different type:

  1. Synthesis

  2. Rhetorical analysis

  3. Argument

All of the free response questions require you to present a written argument. The synthesis and rhetorical analysis questions require you to read and analyze (usually non-fiction) textual sources. The synthesis question also asks you to synthesize (or bring together) information from three or more sources.

If you have 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete the free response component of the exam, 15 minutes should be spent reading the texts associated with each question. This leaves two hours of writing time or 40 minutes per essay question.

The free response section: a series of three essay questions that asks you to synthesize an argument from multiple sources, analyze a given passage, and defend your own position in an argument. It usually takes 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Free Response Essay Paper Pencils Eraser Lightbulb StudySmarterMake sure to bring pencils to your exam! Pixabay.

Free Response Essay Uses

A free response essay is designed to test the skills you have practiced throughout your English language or literature course. These skills are divided into four categories: rhetorical strategies, claims and evidence, reasoning and organization, and style.

Rhetorical Strategies

This includes your ability to identify and understand an author's purpose and audience, as well as the central message, beliefs, and values expressed in their text. It also includes your ability to demonstrate this understanding in your own writing, including the use of appropriate introductions and conclusions. These skills test your understanding of questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of the text? Why was it written, and what is its message?
  • How do rhetorical devices, such as diction, metaphor, simile, or anecdotes, help the writer convey that message?
  • Who is the text's intended audience? What assumptions about the background, beliefs, or experiences of the audience does the writer make? How does the writer try to persuade the audience?

Claims and evidence

This category of skills includes your ability to both identify and produce a thesis statement, as well as include the factual claims and evidence that are used in support of it. It also includes your ability to recognize and produce counter-arguments and qualifications that might modify and complicate an argument. Skills involving claims and evidence include the ability to answer questions such as:

  • What, where, and how are claims made in the text? What kind of data does a writer use to support their claim (statistics, historical facts, anecdotal evidence, academic studies, etc.)?
  • What is the thesis of the text? Where and how is it stated and defended?
  • How are claims in the text qualified? Does the writer consider possible biases or unreliability in their sources of evidence? Do they mention or explain any facts or evidence that seem to go against their central argument?

Qualifying: Also known as hedging, qualifying is a way of acknowledging the complexities of the issue you are examining.

By showing that a view you disagree with may be partially correct or that you are aware of your own argument's limitations, you show an awareness that issues are not black and white.

Here are some common formulations you could use to qualify your argument:

  • While (the claim I disagree with) has some merit, it can be argued that (my claim) explains the issue better.
  • Although (the claim I disagree with) makes some astute points, it does not explain the issue as well as (my claim).
  • Despite the fact that (my claim) explains this issue, it is limited (by several factors).

Reasoning and Organization

Similar to the category above, these skills include your ability to identify the support for a thesis or produce your own support, but this time through the use of reasoning and argumentation rather than facts and evidence.

Reasoning and organization skills include the ability to answer questions such as:

  • What are the premises and conclusions in the text, and how are they stated? How do they make use of factual claims and evidence? Is it sound reasoning, or is there a problem with the logic?
  • How does the writer structure their argument? Do they make use of any linguistic devices like repetition, parallelism, paraphrase, and synonym, to help make their point?
  • How are ideas organized in the text? Is there a logical progression from one idea to the next?

This category includes your abilities to write clearly and effectively using conventional rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation and to carefully choose your words to modify the tone and style of your writing. It also includes your ability to recognize and explain how another writer does these things.

Style skills include the ability to answer questions such as:

  • How do word choice and syntax affect clarity, tone, and perspective in the text? Does word create precision or ambiguity?
  • How are sentences arranged in order to convey ideas in the text? How does the organization of the text emphasize certain ideas?
  • How does the writer use punctuation in order to help clarify their message? Does punctuation help to organize the writer's thoughts? Does it help them emphasize certain ideas while introducing others as supplementary?

There are three types of free response essays: Synthesis, Rhetorical Analysis, and Argument. The first two require you to respond to texts that are provided in the prompt, and the third requires you to develop your own argument based on a given topic. Each of them will take about 40 minutes to write.

  • The synthesis question requires you to combine information from multiple sources in an argument.
  • The rhetorical analysis question requires you to understand and explain how a writer uses language.
  • The argument question requires you to state and defend your own argument in response.

Synthesis Essay

The synthesis essay involves combining information from at least three different sources (six or seven will be provided in the prompt) to craft an argumentative essay. You will be given a question, for example, whether television has had a positive or negative effect on democratic elections or what the advantages and disadvantages of wind farms are, and a series of texts with relevant information or arguments related to that question. After reading through the texts provided, you will need to develop a thesis statement that can be supported with evidence from these texts.

Rhetorical Analysis Essay

For this essay, you will be given a single text, often a speech by a political figure, that you will need to analyze. Your analysis should pay close attention to the text's central message and intended audience, the reasoning and evidence used to support it, and how rhetorical devices such as diction and tone may modify it. It is essential to quote parts of the text as evidence to support your understanding of it.

Argument Essay

In this essay prompt, you will be provided with a claim or an idea. You will need to take a clear stance for or against the claim or idea. You will need to support your stance using evidence from your own experience and education. Clear reasoning, effective use of diction and syntax, and adherence to conventions of grammar, spelling, and punctuation will also be taken into account in scoring your argument essay.

Free Response Essay Brain Colors StudySmarterA free response essay can have many creative elements, Pixabay.

Free Response Essay Format

There is no strict free response format in terms of word count, the number of paragraphs, or what those paragraphs should contain, but there are some features that any high scoring essay must have, including a thesis statement, details and argumentation, and nuance and sophistication.

Thesis Statement

Each essay needs to have a clear thesis statement somewhere in the introductory paragraph. Your thesis should be a claim that can be backed up with evidence and reasoning.

  • For the synthesis question, the thesis statement should also give some indication of which sources you will make use of and how you will use them.
  • For the rhetorical analysis question, your thesis should clearly state what kind of rhetorical devices you will be analyzing.
  • For the argument question, you should clearly state your position and give an indication of what kind of evidence and reasoning you will use to back it up.

Details and argumentation

While you're free to organize your essays in whatever way you think is most effective, it is essential that you have convincing evidence in each of them.

  • For the synthesis question, this means referring to specific details from the sources that you are given. Always cite your sources.
  • For the rhetorical analysis question, this means using brief quotations from the text that demonstrate the point you are making.
  • For the argument question, this means using any kind of evidence that you have at hand, the more specific, the better. The importance and relevance of your detailed evidence should be clearly presented and logically explained.

Nuance and Sophistication

For each essay, you should try to explore complexities, tensions, and possible counter-arguments for each position. Your own writing should be clear and make use of literary and stylistic techniques that enhance its persuasiveness throughout the essay.

Format Example of Free Response Essay

While there is no requirement that you organize your essay in any particular way, the classic 5 paragraph essay with an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph is always a fail-safe method.

  • Paragraph 1: IntroductionHere, you can briefly give any background information or context that you think is relevant before you include the most important part of your introduction: the thesis statement, which comes at the end of this paragraph.

  • Paragraph 2: The First Body Paragraph This should begin with a topic sentence that is clearly related to and supports your thesis statement. After the topic sentence, you should provide clear details, examples, and argumentation that support your topic.

  • Paragraph 3: The Second Body Paragraph This will have the same structure as paragraph 2 but with a different topic (again, one that is related to and supports your thesis statement).

  • Paragraph 4: The Third Body Paragraph This will have the same structure as paragraphs 2 and 3 but with a different topic (once more, it must relate to and support your thesis statement).

  • Paragraph 5: ConclusionHere you can briefly re-state your main argument, reiterating the most important points using different language. Think of this as a final opportunity to clarify your position.

Free Response Essay - Key Takeaways

  • There are three types of free response essay questions: synthesis, rhetorical analysis, and argument.
  • The synthesis question requires you to combine evidence from multiple given sources in an argument.
  • The rhetorical analysis question requires you to demonstrate an understanding of how an author uses language to achieve their purpose in a text that is provided for you.
  • The argument question requires you to state and defend your own argument relative to a statement or position that is given to you.
  • There is a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes to write the three essays. This is broken down into 15 minutes of total reading time and 40 minutes of writing for each essay.

Frequently Asked Questions about Free Response Essay

The free response essay is used to test your understanding of rhetorical situations, claims and evidence, reasoning and organization, and use of style. These are the key skills.

A free response essay is any question on a standardized test that requires a long written response. On some tests, there are three separate free response essay questions: synthesis, rhetorical analysis, and argument essays.

There is no set format for a free response essay but it is common to use the five-paragraph essay format.

There are three types of free response essay:

  1. The synthesis essay, which requires you to read through 6–7 sources and write an argument making use of at least 3 of them
  2. The rhetorical analysis essay, which requires you to read a passage supplied to you and demonstrate your understanding of how the author uses language.
  3. The argument essay, which requires you to defend your own position on a given view or statement using your own evidence.

Regardless of question type, a free response essay needs to be well-organized with a thesis statement and supporting paragraphs. You should make use of evidence using specific details, and use reasoning and argument to the best of your ability.

Final Free Response Essay Quiz


How many free response essay questions are there?

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What is the total time given to complete the free response essay component of the exam?

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2 hours and 15 minutes

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Which of the following does every free response essay need to have?

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A thesis statement

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Which of the skills below are NOT tested in the free response essay?

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Summarizing and Paraphrasing 

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How can you add nuance and sophistication to your essay?

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By addressing counter-arguments and opposing evidence

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What set of skills does an awareness of the purpose and audience of a text belong to?

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Rhetorical skills

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What set of skills does an awareness of the reliability of source information belong to?

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Claims and evidence

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What set of skills does the ability to identify premises and conclusions belong to?

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Reasoning and organization

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What set of skills does an awareness of how word choice affects tone, mood, and perspective belong to?

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Show question


Which essay question requires you to make an argument using information from at least three separate sources?

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the synthesis question

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Which essay question requires you to state and defend an argument using your own knowledge and experience?

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The argument question

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Which essay question requires you to identify and explain the effects of an author's use of language?

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The rhetorical analysis question

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