An example being last years synthesis prompt, asking about the most important factors or issues to consider when deciding on space exploration. The response recieving a 9 was a kid who said that human desire and greed was all that natters, and the authors of the sources were foolish for saying otherwise. Before writing, should I ask myself "what are the graders expecting?" and write something else?
That depends. Is the shock value only for shocks sake? If you have a unique perspective that can be supported with facts and details then by all means this would be acceptable, as long as there are not other things to dispute your argument. After all the qualities of good writing are the same regardless of where you live or who you are.
I agree with everything said above as well. In fact, I would encourage you not to focus your attention on being "shocking" as much as to focus your attention on being innovative in your approach to supporting an effective argument. "Shocking" wears off in a few seconds. Crafting an effective argument in an innovative way resonates in the mind of your reader for a much longer duration of time.
I agree with the above posters, particularly on the point of arguing well. I think that the so-called "shocking" essays that receive 9s are actually those that use the most creative evidence well. Having said that, don't ever take a position because you think it's what someone wants to read. Take a position because you have the most effective argument and evidence to support it. Otherwise, as poster #3 mentioned, your essay will fail miserably. One of my favorite examples comes from just this year, in a colleague's AP Language class. They were responding to the open-ended "dissent" prompt (from 2009 I think), and one of the top students (most likely next year's valedictorian) chose to argue dissent by producing a comic strip instead of an essay. The teacher looked at it & told him not to turn it in to her. He wasn't arguing for a position, or providing evidence (except for his own work)-he simply thought that changing the medium would be "shocking" enough to earn him a higher score. It wasn't.
AP readers want to see unique, creative thinking...but they really want to see a strong argument backed by effective evidence. Always address that first.
I agree with Stultz. However, when I've given similar advice to full classrooms, I often find I have one or two students miss the most key part of it (which Stultz probably assumes is understood): be sure you can PROVE your argument logically. It is true that if I've read 15 essays that all basically say the same thing and get one that is drastically different, I initially feel a higher score than the others. But there are certainly those essays that take an extreme position and let it flop. I'm always terribly disappointed when that happens.
Consider this: the graders are HUMANS. They get tired and bored and hungry while reading. But they also are TEACHERS. They want to reward not punish. They are looking for what you do WELL.
Don't take a shocking position just to be shocking. Take the position you feel you can most strongly defend. And if that position feels boring or cliche to you, spice it up with a few shocking details.
Remember, there is more than one way to be unexpected. If you are merely seeking to impress or be different, it will be obvious. But if you truly are one who thinks outside the box and you've had enough writing practice, you are probably already not at risk of being typical.
As a potential grader of the AP Language essay tests, I'm not sure what a shocking position is. Your topic is chosen for you, whether it be space exploration, Title IX, or violence in the media, so that can't be shocking. And you only have three positions to take: affirm, refute, or qualify. None of these are shocking.
Your reasons may be shocking: shockingly good or bad. I've seen both. Shockingly good reasons are, as you say, human desire and greed. As a grader, I think that's interesting and unique, a different angle, thinking outside the box. Shockingly bad reasons are, frankly, boring and cliched: "to go where no man has gone before" or to find E. T. or some such silliness.
Here's my advice for this prompt and most others: most students will agree with the prompt, especially space exploration. So, you might want to refute or, better yet, qualify. AP English teachers like to see student writing that shows duality, that can reconcile paradoxes, that can see the problems and solutions for both sides. I encourage students to qualify, as it is perhaps the most academically mature position.
As a grader, we see hundreds of essays. After a while, they start to blur together. You don't want yours to be one that blurs. A blurry essay takes a safe position and it uses vague and repetitive logic, structure, and language. Take some risks to separate yourself from the 4s and 5s.
Thanks for all of your input; would you then advise that I use part of the reading period to interpret the evidence? Say, use half to think of a creative, yet arguable approach, and the other half to outline? (7, and 8 min. respectively)