Gain Based Synthesis Essay

Disclaimer: Please note that synthesis is no longer a component of the DBQ or LEQ rubrics for the AP Histories as of the 2017-2018 school year.

In this post, we will explore one of these points students will be looking to earn to help their chances at passing the APUSH exam this Spring: the Synthesis point.

What is the Synthesis Point?

According to the College Board, Synthesis refers to:

Historical thinking involves the ability to develop understanding of the past by making meaningful and persuasive historical and/or cross-disciplinary connections between
a given historical issue and other historical contexts, periods, themes, or disciplines.

(College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)

Synthesis is a crucial critical thinking skill that is featured in the newly redesigned course.  In my opinion, this is a great skill to actively address in the classroom.  Making connections between different time periods, events and various contexts throughout American history is something I have always attempted to do in my classroom, but the College Board explicitly defining this skill has made me much more cognizant and proactive in helping students see interconnectedness between our past and today.

The place it is most relevant in the course is as one potential point students can earn on both the Document Based Question (DBQ) and Long Essay Question (LEQ).  In order to earn the synthesis point, students must “extend the argument.”  This means that in addition to making an argument with a thesis and supported by evidence, students must do something beyond answering the specific prompt.  There are two different ways that the College Board has defined that students can “extend the argument:”

A. Make connections between a given historical issue and related developments in a different historical context, geographical area, period, or era, including the present. (College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)

The first way to earn the synthesis point is to take a part of the essay and compare it to something else that was covered in the course.  This could be something from another one of the nine time periods, another region or part of America, or a similar event.

B. Make connections between different course themes and/or approaches to history (such as political, economic, social, cultural, or intellectual) for a given historical issue. (College Board AP Course and Exam Description, AP US History, Fall 2015)

The second way essentially gives students the ability to add an additional category of analysis: If the question asks for political and economic factors, students could additionally discuss social factors for a particular issue or event.

Note: There is also an additional way in that AP European History and AP World History students can earn the synthesis point, by using another discipline like anthropology or government to explore a historical issue.  This third option is not open as a possibility for APUSH students.

Synthesis can technically happen at any time throughout the essay.  However, I encourage students to write their synthesis in a conclusion paragraph.  I think it makes the most sense there because going beyond the argument of the essay is a good way for students to tie up their thoughts, which typically occurs in the final paragraph.  It also ensures that students are thorough and don’t just treat the connection in a superficial way (more on this below).  Finally, it makes it less likely that their synthesis attempt will get confused with evidence they are using to build their argument.

Examples of Successful Student Synthesis Points

Regardless of which way students try to earn the synthesis point, one of the biggest pitfalls that students fall into is simply referencing the connection in a few words or a phrase without going into substantive depth.  Students need to go into detail explaining what the connection is and why there is a relationship between their essay and the examples they chose.

Comparing Different Time Periods and Events

For example, if students are writing an essay about the causes and effects of the abolitionist movement, they may write:

This is similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

This is not enough depth to be awarded a Synthesis point.  Students need to explain what the Civil Rights movement is: who are the main leaders, what were some of their goals, and/or what were successes and failures of the movement.  Students also need to be clear on why the abolitionist movement and Civil Rights movement are related.  What are similarities and differences?  What specific connections can be made between the two?  A better response would be:

Similar to the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s continued to promote better conditions and increased equality for African Americans.  Like David Walker and Nat Turner, some leaders of the Civil Rights era advocated for violence, including Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.  However, like the Free Soil Party and the orator Frederick Douglass, Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee supported peaceful and political tactics to bring attention to their goals of increased social equality and basic rights for African Americans.

Note the dramatic difference.  The first is an offhand vague reference that lacks evidence of a depth of understanding.  The second example has specific pieces of information that provide substantial evidence of a connection between the two movements.

Comparing Different Geographic Regions

In addition to referencing similarities between different time periods, students can earn the synthesis point by comparing geographic areas.  For example, if students are asked to identify the causes of industrialization before the Civil War, students could look at the lack of industrialization in the South in this same time period.  One example of a solid student example is below:

While the Northeast began rapid industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s, the South remained predominantly rural and agricultural.  Large cities were few and far between, and with the invention of the cotton gin, the plantation economy and an emphasis on farming and agriculture was reasserted.  The South shipped their cash crops to European and Northern factories, remaining mostly unindustrialized in the years before the Civil War. These economic differences created stark differences between the North and South on a variety of issues, including protective tariffs, which northern industrialists favored and southern consumer opposed. 

Making Connections to Different Course Themes

One effective strategy students can use to earn the synthesis point is to add an additional course theme (or category of analysis).  This works best when the prompt explicitly calls for specific themes.  For example, if a prompt calls for economic and political causes and effects of the Vietnam War, students could write an additional paragraph on social causes and effects.  A good response for students would include class tensions, war protesters, racial tensions in the armed forces, etc.  In this scenario, students could also reference specific social documents if it is a DBQ.  Again, it is crucial to make sure that students don’t do this in a drive-by sort of way, but go into depth with a variety of specific examples.

Strategies for Teaching Synthesis to Students

1. Make Connections Early and Often

Synthesis is all about making connections between different time periods and situations. After each unit or chapter, have students make 2-3 connections to something else they learned in the class.  For example when your class is studying the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1917, students could connect these laws to the United States Constitution’s freedom of speech and press, President Adam’s Sedition Act of 1798, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, or even the Patriot Act during the War on Terror.  This could be done formally as a written assignment, or informally as a warm-up or exit ticket as a formative assessment.  The more comfortable students are in making these connections, the better off they will be on the exam date.

2. Incorporating In-Class Activities

Making teaching Synthesis a part of your class time is crucial in observing student growth on this skill.  I have done a few activities that have been especially useful.  One is to find a news story that makes a comparison to historical events in the past (one recent piece compared Trump to Andrew Jackson) and ask students to discuss or debate on the similarities and differences (more on current events below).

Additionally, I printed out a variety of terms and events from the first semester cut them out, and randomly handed them out to students.  Students had to go around the room and try to figure out how their term was related to another students’ term.  Some inevitably were not really related at all, but it forced students to try to make connections between the various periods and subjects we focused on (many times beyond just basic surface-level stuff), which is essentially what synthesis is all about.

3. Assign Many DBQ and LEQ Assessments and Share Specific Examples

The more often students write DBQ’s and LEQ’s, the more comfortable students will get with the entire process and skill set involved, including Synthesis.  One thing that has been especially successful in my classroom is to collect a handful of student attempts at the Synthesis point and share them with students.  Students then get to examine them and look at effective and less effective attempts at earning Synthesis.  Often the best way for students to learn what to do or how to improve is to see what their classmates have done.

4. Review Historical Themes Throughout the Year

The College Board has broken all of the learning objectives into a handful of themes (identity, culture, politics and power, etc.) that are relevant throughout United States history.  By relying on these themes, students can see these connections throughout the year, making Synthesis more approachable for students.

For example, one theme I follow throughout the year is immigration and demographic changes.  By tracing America’s immigration from colonization to Irish and German in the 1840s to New Immigrants after the Civil War and so on, students are able to find ample opportunities to make historical connections throughout American history.

Additionally, being explicit about covering events through a variety of historical categories of analysis (political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual), allows students to see multiple factors that play a role in key events in American history.  For example, when covering the causes of US imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, breaking them down for students into economic factors (such as business markets), social factors (such as Social Darwinism and religious missionaries) and political factors (such as increased government and military power) is useful in helping student organizing their thoughts in a potential essay, as well as giving them some possible ways to go beyond the prompt in adding synthesis.

5. Make Connections to Current Events

I know what you are thinking, I have one school year (less if your school year starts in September) to get through 1491 to Present and now I am supposed to make this a current events class as well?  The answer is yes and no.  Will stuff from the news pages be content the students need to know for the exam: absolutely not.  However, it is a great opportunity for synthesis.

For example, examining the LGBT movement could offer some interesting comparisons for other reform movements in the past.  Looking at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a continuation of Social Security or Medicare could offer students a synthesis opportunity.  Examining similarities and differences between the Boston Tea Party and the Tea Party movement or how the 2016 election compares to some presidential races in the past allows students unique ways to earn their synthesis point.  I have found this approach makes the class more interesting and meaningful for students and allows students to observe that history has continuities and changes that evolve over time.

Any time changes happen, there is a temptation to be reactionary and reject them.  I have found that by being more deliberate about helping students make connections between historical events, their engagement and understanding has improved significantly.  Teachers always are fighting that battle between covering the content (which is daunting in an AP course) and helping students understand the “so what?” question.  Why does this matter to me?  By making connections, students can see that history does not every happen in a vacuum.  Our shared narrative is a series of events and ideas that continuously evolve and build off of each other.  When students gain a firm understanding of how the past impacts their lives today, it makes learning way more meaningful and fun.

Synthesis is tough for students at first, particularly because they have little to connect with in the first period, but especially as you enter second semester, it is a skill application that can be perfected and improved to maximize your students’ chances of earning that point and rocking the AP exam.

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Ben Hubing is an educator at Greendale High School in Greendale, Wisconsin.  Ben has taught AP U.S. History and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the last eight years and was a reader last year for the AP U.S. History Short Answer.  Ben earned his Bachelors degree at The University of Wisconsin-Madison and Masters degree at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


(mostly from Cassie Carter - with her kind permission)

What is a synthesis?
Two types of syntheses
Standards for synthesis essays
How to write synthesis essays
Techniques for developing synthesis essays
Thesis statements, introductions, conclusions, and quotations

A synthesis is a written discussion that draws on one or more sources. It follows that your ability to write syntheses depends on your ability to infer relationships among sources - essays, articles, fiction, and also nonwritten sources, such as lectures, interviews, observations. This process is nothing new for you, since you infer relationships all the time - say, between something you've read in the newspaper and something you've seen for yourself, or between the teaching styles of your favorite and least favorite instructors. In fact, if you've written research papers, you've already written syntheses. In an academic synthesis, you make explicit the relationships that you have inferred among separate sources.

The skills you've already been practicing in this course will be vital in writing syntheses. Clearly, before you're in a position to draw relationships between two or more sources, you must understand what those sources say; in other words, you must be able to summarize these sources. It will frequently be helpful for your readers if you provide at least partial summaries of sources in your synthesis essays. At the same time, you must go beyond summary to make judgments - judgments based, of course, on your critical reading of your sources - as you have practiced in your reading responses and in class discussions. You should already have drawn some conclusions about the quality and validity of these sources; and you should know how much you agree or disagree with the points made in your sources and the reasons for your agreement or disagreement.

Further, you must go beyond the critique of individual sources to determine the relationship among them. Is the information in source B, for example, an extended illustration of the generalizations in source A? Would it be useful to compare and contrast source C with source B? Having read and considered sources A, B, and C, can you infer something else - D (not a source, but your own idea)?

Because a synthesis is based on two or more sources, you will need to be selective when choosing information from each. It would be neither possible nor desirable, for instance, to discuss in a ten-page paper on the battle of Wounded Knee every point that the authors of two books make about their subject. What you as a writer must do is select the ideas and information from each source that best allow you to achieve your purpose.

Your purpose in reading source materials and then in drawing upon them to write your own material is often reflected in the wording of an assignment. For example, your assignment may ask that you evaluate a text, argue a position on a topic, explain cause and effect relationships, or compare and contrast items. While you might use the same sources in writing an argumentative essay as your classmate uses in writing a comparison/contrast essay, you will make different uses of those sources based on the different purposes of the assignments. What you find worthy of detailed analysis in Source A may be mentioned only in passing by your classmate.

Your purpose determines not only what parts of your sources you will use but also how you will relate them to one another. Since the very essence of synthesis is the combining of information and ideas, you must have some basis on which to combine them. Some relationships among the material in you sources must make them worth sythesizing. It follows that the better able you are to discover such relationships, the better able you will be to use your sources in writing syntheses. Your purpose in writing (based on your assignment) will determine how you relate your source materials to one another. Your purpose in writing determines which sources you use, which parts of them you use, at which points in your essay you use them, and in what manner you relate them to one another.


THE EXPLANATORY SYNTHESIS: An explanatory synthesis helps readers to understand a topic. Writers explain when they divide a subject into its component parts and present them to the reader in a clear and orderly fashion. Explanations may entail descriptions that re-create in words some object, place, event, sequence of events, or state of affairs. The purpose in writing an explanatory essay is not to argue a particular point, but rather to present the facts in a reasonably objective manner. The explanatory synthesis does not go much beyond what is obvious from a careful reading of the sources. You will not be writing explanatory synthesis essays in this course. However, at times your argumentative synthesis essays will include sections that are explanatory in nature.

THE ARGUMENT SYNTHESIS: The purpose of an argument synthesis is for you to present your own point of view - supported, of course, by relevant facts, drawn from sources, and presented in a logical manner. The thesis of an argumentative essay is debatable. It makes a proposition about which reasonable people could disagree, and any two writers working with the same source materials could conceive of and support other, opposite theses.


1. Remember that you are using your sources to support your ideas and claims, not the other way around.

2. Keep in mind that original thought and insightful analysis are required for a 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 paper; 2.5 and below evaluations tend not to present original ideas.

3. A 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 paper will create a "dialogue" between the essay author's ideas and her sources, and also among the sources themselves. 2.5 and below evaluations will often summarize one point at a time, with the essay author's idea stated at the end. If you imagine a synthesis essay as a room in which the synthesis writer is joined by the authors of her/his sources, the 4.0, 3.5, or 3.0 essay has everyone engaged in conversation or debate, with everyone commenting on (or arguing against) each other's ideas directly. In the 2.5 and below essay, each person in the room stands up in turn, gives a speech, and sits down, with little or no question and answer period in between or afterward.

4. Take special care to address your audience in an appropriate manner. Make sure you establish your credibility on the subject and that you provide sufficient information to make your argument (thesis) convincing.

5. Organize your paper logically:
A. State your thesis clearly and make sure that it reflects the focus of your essay.
B. Make sure your main points are clearly stated (use topic sentences), and connect each point to your thesis as explicitly as possible.
C. Divide paragraphs logically.
D. Provide appropriate transitions both within and between paragraphs.
6. Develop each main idea thoroughly. Use specific examples and source materials appropriately as support. Be sure to integrate source materials smoothly into your own writing using attribution phrases and transitions. Also be sure to avoid unnecessary repetition (repetition is often an organization problem).

7. Select words precisely. When in doubt, use a dictionary!

8. Make sure sentences are clear and unambiguous. Avoid passive voice. Double-check to see that sentences are adequately varied in length and style, and that there are no fragments or run-ons. Also proofread carefully to correct any other sentence errors.

9. Proofread carefully to identify and correct mechanical errors, such as errors in plurals or possessives, subject-verb agreement, shifts in verb tense or person ("you"), comma errors, spelling errors, and so on.

10. Quadruple check your MLA documentation. Are your parenthetical citations correct? Is your Works Cited list correct according to MLA style, and does it include all sources cited in your essay?

11. Be sure to give your essay a descriptive and attention-getting title (NOT "Synthesis," for goodness sake!!!).

12. Make sure your essay is formatted correctly and posted to your web site correctly.


  1. Consider your purpose in writing. Read the topic assignment carefully. What are you trying to accomplish in your essay? How will this purpose shape the way you approach your sources?
  2. Select and carefully read your sources, according to your purpose. Re-read the sources, mentally summarizing each. Identify those aspects or parts of your sources that will help you in fulfilling your purpose. When rereading, label or underline the passages for main ideas, key terms, and any details you want to use in the synthesis.
  3. Formulate a thesis. Your thesis is the main idea that you want to present in your synthesis. It must be expressed as a complete sentence and include a statement of the topic and your assertion about that topic. Sometimes the thesis is the first sentence, but more often it is the final sentence of the first paragraph.
  4. Decide how you will use your source material and take notes. How will the information and the ideas in your sources help you to fulfill your purpose? Re-read your sources and write down the information from your sources that will best develop and support your thesis.
  5. Develop and organizational plan, according to your thesis. (See Techniques for Developing Synthesis Essays immediately below.) How will you arrange your material? It is not necessary to prepare a formal outline, but you should have some plan in mind that will indicate the order in which you will present your material and that will indicate the relationships among your sources.
  6. Write the first draft of your synthesis, following your organizational plan. Be flexible with your plan, however, and allow yourself room to incorporate new ideas you discover as you write. As you discover and incorporate new ideas, re-read your work frequently to ensure that your thesis still accounts for what follows and that what follows still logically supports your thesis.
  7. Document your sources. Use MLA-style in-text citations and a Works Cited list to credit your sources for all material you quote, paraphrase, or summarize. For example, if I wanted to note in my essay the difference between name-calling and argumentum ad hominem as personal forms of attack, I would credit the article on "Politics: The Art of Bamboozling" fromWARAC by offering a citation that includes the author's last name and the exact page number where she discussed this notion (Cross 302). At the end of the essay, I would have a complete bibliographic citation for the "Politics" article.
  8. Revise your synthesis. Insert transitional words and phrases where necessary. Integrate all quotations so they flow smoothly within your own sentences. Use attribution phrases to distinguish between your sources' ideas and your own ideas. Make sure the essay reads smoothly, logically, and clearly from beginning to end. Check for grammatical correctness, punctuation, and spelling.


SUMMARY: The simplest - and least sophisticated - way of organizing a synthesis essay is to summarize your most relevant sources, one after the other, but generally with the most important source(s) last. The problem with this approach is that it reveals little or no independent thought on your part. Its main virtue is that it at least grounds your paper in relevant and specific evidence.

Summary can be useful - and sophisticated - if handled judiciously, selectively, and in combination with other techniques. At some time you may need to summarize a crucial source in some detail. At another point, you may wish to summarize a key section or paragraph of a source in a single sentence. Try to anticipate what your reader needs to know at any given point of your paper in order to comprehend or appreciate fully the point you are making.

EXAMPLE OR ILLUSTRATION: At one or more points in your paper, you may wish to refer to a particularly illuminating example or illustration from your source material. You might paraphrase this example (i.e., recount it, in some detail, in your own words), summarize it, or quote it directly from your source. In all these cases, of course, you would properly credit your source.

TWO (OR MORE) REASONS: The "two reasons" approach can be an extremely effective method of development. You simply state your thesis, then offer reasons why the statement is true, supported by evidence from your sources. You can advance as many reasons for the truth of your thesis as needed; but save the most important reason(s) for last, because the end of the paper is what will remain most clearly in the reader's mind.

STRAWMAN: When you use the strawman technique, you present an argument against your thesis, but immediately afterward you show that this argument is weak or flawed. The advantage of this technique is that you demonstrate your awareness of the other side of the argument and show that you are prepared to answer it. The strawman argument first presents an introduction and thesis, then the main opposing argument, a refutation of the opposing argument, and finally a positive argument.

CONCESSION: Like the strawman, the concession technique presents the opposing viewpoint, but it does not proceed to demolish the opposition. Instead, it concedes that the opposition has a valid point but that, even so, the positive argument is the stronger one. This method is particularly valuable when you know your reader holds the opposing view.

COMPARISON AND CONTRAST: Comparison and contrast techniques enable you to examine two subjects (or sources) in terms of one another. When you compare, you consider similarities. When you contrast, you consider differences. By comparing and contrasting, you perform a multifaceted analysis that often suggests subtleties that otherwise might not have come to your attention.

To organize a comparison/contrast analysis, you must carefully read sources in order to discover significant criteria for analysis. A criterion is a specific point to which both of your authors refer and about which they may agree or disagree. The best criteria are those that allow you not only to account for obvious similarities and differences between sources but also to plumb deeper, to more subtle and significant similarities and differences. There are two basic formulas for comparison/contrast analysis:

I. Introduce essay, state thesis I. Introduce essay, state thesis
II. Summarize passage A II. Introduce Criterion 1
  A. View on Criterion I  A. Passage A's viewpoint
  B. View on Criterion 2  B. Passage B's viewpoint
III. Summarize passage BIII. Introduce Criterion 2
  A. View on Criterion 1  A. Passage A's viewpoint
  B. View on Criterion 2  B. Passage B's viewpoint
IV. Discussion and conclusionIV. Discussion and conclusion

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