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Expert's Guide to the AP Literature Exam

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Aug 1, 2017 8:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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If you're planning to take the AP English Literature and Composition exam, you'll need to get familiar with what to expect from the test. Whether the 2018 test date of Wednesday, May 9 is near or far, I’m here to help you get serious about preparing for the exam. In this guide I’ll go over the test's format and question types, how it's graded, best practices for preparation, and test day tips. You’ll be on your way to AP English Lit success in no time!

 

AP English Literature: Exam Format and Question Types

The AP Literature Exam is a three-hour exam that contains two sections. First is an hour-long, 55-question multiple choice section, and then a two hour, three question free-response section. The exam tests your ability to analyze works and excerpts of literature and also cogently communicate that analysis in essay form. Read on for a breakdown of the two different sections and their question types.

 

Multiple Choice Section

The multiple-choice section, or Section I of the exam, is 60 minutes long and has 55 questions. You can expect to see 4-5 excerpts of prose and poetry. You will, in general, not be given an author, date, or title for these works, although occasionally the title of a poem is given. Unusual words are also sometimes defined for you.

The date ranges of works could fall from the 16th to the 21st century. Most works will be originally written in English, although you may occasionally see a passage in translation.

There are, generally speaking, eight kinds of questions you can expect to see on the AP English Literature and Composition test. I’ll break each of them down here and give you tips on how to identify and approach them.

 

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"Tiny books carried by ladies" is not one of the question types.

 

The 8 Multiple-Choice Question Types on the AP Literature Exam

Without further ado, here are the eight question types you can expect to see on the AP lit exam. All questions are taken from the sample questions on the “AP Course and Exam Description.”

 

Reading Comprehension

These are questions that test your ability to understand what the passage is saying on a pretty basic level. They don’t require you to do a lot of interpretation—you just need to know what is actually going on. You can identify these from words and phrases like “according to,” “asserting,” “mentioned,” and so on. Basically, words that point to a fairly concrete register of meaning. You can succeed on these questions by careful reading of the text. You may have to go back and re-read parts to make sure you understand what the passage is saying.

Example:

1Comprehension.png

 

Inference

These questions ask you to infer something—a character or narrator’s opinion, an author’s intention, and so forth—based on what is said in the passage. It will be something that isn’t stated directly or concretely, but that you can assume based on what is stated clearly in the passage. You can identify these questions from words like “infer,” and “imply.”  

The key to these questions is to not be tripped up by the fact that you are making an inference—there will be a best answer, and it will be the choice that is best supported by what is actually found in the passage. In many ways, inference questions are like second-level reading comprehension questions—you need to know not just what a passage says, but what it means.

Example:

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Identifying and Interpreting Figurative Language

These are questions in which you have to either identify what word or phrase is figurative language or provide the meaning of a figurative phrase. You can identify these as they will either explicitly mention figurative language (or a figurative device like simile or metaphor) or will include a figurative language phrase in the question itself. The meaning of figurative language phrases can normally be determined by the phrase’s context in the passage—what is said around it? What is the phrase referring to?

Example 1: Identifying

3Identifying_Figurative_Language.png

Example 2: Interpreting

4Interpret_figurative_language.png

 

Literary Technique

These questions involve identifying why an author does what they do: from using a particular phrase to repeating certain words. Basically, what techniques is the author using to construct the passage/poem and to what effect? You can identify these questions by words like “serves chiefly to,” “effect,” “evoke,” and “in order to.” A good way to approach these questions is to ask yourself, so what? Why did the author use these particular words or this particular structure?

Example:

5literary_technique.png 

Character Analysis

These questions will ask you to describe something about a character. You can spot them because they will refer directly to characters’ attitudes, opinions, beliefs, or relationships with other characters. This is, in many ways, a special kind of inference question since you are inferring the broader personality of the character based on the evidence in a passage. Also, these crop up much more commonly for prose passages than poetry ones.

Example:

 6character_analysis.png

 

Overall Passage Questions

Some questions will ask you to identify or describe something about the passage/poem as a whole: its purpose, tone, genre, etc. You can identify these by phrases like “in the passage,” and “as a whole.” To answer these questions, you need to think about the excerpt with a bird’s-eye view. What is the overall picture created by all the tiny details?

Example:

7Overall_Passage.png

 

Structure

Some questions will ask you about specific structural elements of the passage—a shift in tone, a digression, the specific form of a poem, etc. Often these questions will specify a part of the passage/poem and ask you to identify what that part is accomplishing. Being able to identify and understand the significance of any shifts—structural, tonal, in genre, etc—will be of key importance for these questions.

Example:

7.1Structure.png

 

Grammar/Nuts & Bolts

Very occasionally you will be asked a specific grammar question, such as what word an adjective is modifying. I would also include in this category very specific questions like the meter of a poem (i.e. iambic pentameter). These questions are less about the literary artistry and more about the fairly dry technique involved in having a fluent command of the English language.

Example:

8Nuts_and_Bolts.png

That covers the 8 question types!

 

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Keep track of these.

 

The AP Literature Free-Response Section

Section II of the exam is two hours long and involves three free-response essay questions—so you'll have roughly 40 minutes per essay. Note, though, that no one will prompt you to move from essay to essay, so you can theoretically divide up the time how you want (but be sure to leave enough time for each essay). The first two essays are literary analysis essays of specific passages, with one poem and one prose excerpt—and the final is an analysis of a given theme in a work selected by you, the student.

 

Essays One and Two - Literary Passage Analysis

For the first two essays, you’ll be presented with an excerpt and directed to analyze the excerpt for a given theme, device, or development. One of the passages will be poetry, and one will be prose. You will be provided with the author of the work, the approximate date, and some orienting information (i.e. the plot context of an excerpt from a novel).

Sample Questions (from 2011 Free Response Questions)

Poetry:

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Prose:

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Essay Three - Thematic Analysis

For the third and final essay, you’ll be asked to discuss a particular theme in a work that you select. You will be provided with a list of notable works that address the given theme below the prompt, but you can also choose to discuss any “work of literary merit.”

So you DO have the power to choose which work you wish to write an essay about, but the key word here is “literary merit.” So no genre fiction! Stick to safe bets like authors in the list on pages 10-11 of the Course and Exam Description. (I know, I know—lots of ‘genre’ fiction works DO have literary merit, and Shakespeare actually began as low culture, and so on and so forth. You may well find academic designations of “literary merit” elitist and problematic, but the time to rage against the literary establishment is not your AP lit test.)

Here’s a sample question (from 2011):

11Student_Choice_Essay.png 

As you can see, the list of works provided spans many different time periods and countries: there are ancient Greek plays (Antigone), modern literary works (like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible), Shakespeare plays (The Merchant of Venice), 19th-century Russian lit (Crime and Punishment), and so on.


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You might even see something by this guy.

 

How Is the AP Literature Test Graded?

The multiple-choice section of the exam comprises 45% of your exam score. The three essays comprise the other 55%. Each essay, then, is worth about 18%.

As on other AP exams, your raw score will be converted to a score from 1-5. You don’t have to get every point possible to get a 5 by any means—but the AP English Literature test does have one of the lowest 5 rates of all APs, with only 7.4% of students receiving 5s in 2016.

But how do you get raw scores at all?

 

Multiple-Choice Scoring

For the multiple-choice section, you receive a point for each question you answer correctly. There is no guessing penalty, so you should answer every question—but guess only after eliminating any answer that you know is wrong to up your chances of choosing the correct one.

 


Free-Response Scoring

Scoring for multiple choice is pretty straightforward. However, essay scoring is a little more complicated. Each of your essays will receive a score from 0-9 based on the College Board rubric. You can actually find question-specific rubrics for all of the released free-response questions for AP English lit (see “scoring guidelines”).

While all of the rubrics are broadly similar, there are some minor differences between each of them. I’ll go over the rubrics now—both what they say and what they mean for you.

 

Poetry Passage Analysis Rubric

Score

What the College Board Says

What it Means

9-8

These essays persuasively address the assigned task. These essays offer a range of interpretations; they provide a convincing reading and analysis of the poem. They demonstrate consistent and effective control over the elements of composition appropriate to the analysis of poetry. Their textual references are apt and specific. Though they may not be error-free, these essays are perceptive in their analysis and demonstrate writing that is clear and sophisticated, and in the case of a 9 essay, especially persuasive.

Your argument is convincing and it addresses all elements of the prompt. You interpret the language of the poem in a variety of ways (i.e. your analysis of the poem is thorough). Your essay is particularly well-written and well-organized. You appropriately reference specific moments in the poem to support your argument. A 9 essay is particularly persuasive.  

7-6

These essays reasonably address the assigned task. They are less thorough or less precise in the way they address the task, and their analysis is less convincing. These essays demonstrate an ability to express ideas clearly, making references to the text, although they do not exhibit the same level of effective writing as the 9-8 papers. Essays scored a 7 present better-developed analysis and more consistent command of the elements of effective composition than do essays scored a 6.

You address all elements of the prompt, but your analysis is not as complete or convincing as a 9-8 essay. You do make specific references to the poem and your writing is clear and effective, but not necessarily masterful.

5

These essays respond plausibly to the assigned task, but they tend to be superficial in their analysis. They often rely on paraphrase, which may contain some analysis, implicit or explicit. Their analysis may be vague, formulaic, or minimally supported by references to the text. There may be minor misinterpretations of the poem. These essays demonstrate some control of language, but they may be marred by surface errors. These essays are not as well conceived, organized, or developed as 7-6 essays.

You answer the prompt in a way that is not implausible or unreasonable, but your analysis of the poem is surface-level. You may paraphrase the poem instead of making specific references to its language. You may not adequately support your analysis of the poem, or you may misinterpret it slightly. Your essay is not a total mess, but not necessarily particularly well-organized or argued.

4-3

These lower-half essays fail to offer an adequate analysis of the poem. The analysis may be partial, unconvincing, or irrelevant, or ignore part of the assigned task. Evidence from the poem may be slight or misconstrued, or the essays may rely on paraphrase only. The essays often demonstrate a lack of control over the conventions of composition: inadequate development of ideas, accumulation of errors, or a focus that is unclear, inconsistent, or repetitive. Essays scored a 3 may contain significant misreading, demonstrate inept writing, or do both.

You do not adequately address the prompt. Your analysis of the poem is incomplete or incorrect, or you do not reference any specific language of the poem. Your essay is undeveloped, unclear, or poorly organized. A 3 essay either significantly misinterprets the poem or is particularly poorly written.

2-1

These essays compound the weaknesses of the papers in the 4–3 range. Although some attempt has been made to respond to the prompt, the student’s assertions are presented with little clarity, organization, or support from the poem. These essays may contain serious errors in grammar and mechanics. They may offer a complete misreading or be unacceptably brief. Essays scored a 1 contain little coherent discussion of the poem.

Only minimal attempt is made to respond to the prompt. Essay is disorganized or not supported by evidence from the poem. May contain numerous grammar and mechanics errors. May completely misinterpret the poem or be too short. A 1 essay barely mentions the poem.

0

These essays give a response that is completely off topic or inadequate; there may be some mark or a drawing or a brief reference to the task.

No real attempt is made to respond to the prompt.

-

These essays are entirely blank

You didn’t write anything!




Prose Passage Analysis Rubric

Score

What the College Board Says

What it Means

9-8

These essays persuasively address the assigned task. These essays make a strong case for the student’s interpretation. They may consider a variety of literary devices, and they engage the text through apt and specific references. Although these essays may not be error-free, their perceptive analysis is apparent in writing that is clear and effectively organized. Essays scored a 9 reveal more sophisticated analysis and more effective control of language than do essays scored an 8.

Your argument is convincing and addresses all parts of the prompt. You discuss a number of literary devices in your analysis and use specific and appropriate excerpts from the text as evidence in your argument. Your writing is clear, focused, and well-organized. A 9 essay has a particularly well-developed interpretation of the text and is better-written than an 8.

7-6

These essays reasonably address the task at hand. The writers provide a sustained, competent reading of the passage, with attention to a variety of literary devices. Although these essays may not be error-free and are less perceptive or less convincing than 9–8 essays, they present ideas with clarity and control and refer to the text for support. Essays scored a 7 present better developed analysis and more consistent command of the elements of effective composition than do essays scored a 6.  

You address all elements of the prompt. Your interpretation is coherent and you reference multiple literary devices in your analysis. You do reference specific moments in the text for support. Your essay is adequately organized and focused. However, your argument may be less convincing or insightful (i.e. more obvious) than a 9-8 essay.

5

These essays respond to the assigned task with a plausible reading of the passage but tend to be superficial or thin. While containing some analysis of the passage, implicit or explicit, the way the assigned task is addressed may be slight, and support from the passage may tend toward summary or paraphrase. While these essays demonstrate adequate control of language, they may be marred by surface errors. These essays are not as well conceived, organized, or developed as 7–6 essays.

You address the prompt, but your argument may be surface-level. You rely too much on summary or paraphrase of the text in your argument instead of using specific moments in the text. Your essay does have some elements of organization and focus but has some distracting errors.

4-3

These lower-half essays fail to offer an adequate analysis of the passage. The analysis may be partial, unconvincing, or irrelevant; the writers may ignore part of the assigned task. These essays may be characterized by an unfocused or repetitive presentation of ideas, an absence of textual support, or an accumulation of errors. Essays scored a 3 may contain significant misreading, demonstrate inept writing, or do both.

You do not adequately address the prompt, whether because your argument is partly unrelated to the task at hand or simply ignores elements of the prompt. Your essay is poorly focused and/or repetitive and has little textual support. A 3 essay significantly misinterprets the passage and/or is very poorly written.

2-1

These essays compound the weaknesses of the essays in the 4–3 score range. They may feature persistent misreading of the passage or be unacceptably brief. They may contain pervasive errors that interfere with understanding. Although some attempt has been made to respond to the prompt, the student’s ideas are presented with little clarity, organization, or support from the passage. Essays scored a 1 contain little coherent discussion of the passage.

Essay does not adequately address the assigned task. It may be very short or repeatedly misinterpret the passage. May be poorly written enough that it is hard to understand. These essays may be unfocused, unclear, or disorganized.

0

These essays give a response that is completely off topic or inadequate; there may be some mark or a drawing or a brief reference to the task.

No real attempt is made to respond to the prompt.

-

These essays are entirely blank

You didn’t write anything!

 


Student Choice Rubric

Score

What the College Board Says

What it Means

9-8

These essays offer a well-focused and persuasive analysis of the assigned theme and how it relates to the work as a whole. Using apt and specific textual support, these essays address all parts of the prompt. Although these essays may not be error-free, they make a strong case for their interpretation and discuss the literary work with significant insight and understanding. Essays scored a 9 reveal more sophisticated analysis and more effective control of language than do essays scored 8.

Your essay convincingly addresses the task in a way that is clear and focused. You reference many specific moments in the text in support of your argument. You build a strong case—with lots of evidence—in support of your interpretation of the text. Your argument shows a deep understanding of the text. A 9 essay has more complex analysis and is better-written than an 8.

7-6

These essays offer a reasonable analysis of the work of the assigned theme and how it relates to the work as a whole. These essays address all parts of the prompt. While these essays show insight and understanding, their analysis is less thorough, less perceptive, and/or less specific in supporting detail than that of the 9–8 essays. Essays scored a 7 present better developed analysis and more consistent command of the elements of effective composition than do essays scored a 6.

Your essay addresses the task adequately. Your interpretation of the text is apt and shows that you generally understood it, although your analysis may be more conventional or include less specific textual evidence than a 9-8 essay.

5

These essays respond to the assigned task with a plausible reading, but they tend to be superficial or thinly developed in analysis. They often rely upon plot summary that contains some analysis, implicit or explicit. Although these essays display an attempt to address the prompt, they may demonstrate a rather simplistic understanding and support from the text may be too general. While these essays demonstrate adequate control of language, they may be marred by surface errors. These essays are not as well conceived, organized, or developed as 7–6 essays.

Your essay addresses the prompt, but your argument may be very basic and/or rely too much on plot summary instead of true analysis of the text. Your essay may reveal that you do not thoroughly understand the text. Your essay may have some grammar/linguistic errors. Your essay is not especially well-organized or focused.

4-3

These lower-half essays fail to adequately address the assigned task. The analysis may be partial, unsupported, or irrelevant, and the essays may reflect an incomplete or oversimplified understanding of how a given theme functions in the text, or they may rely on plot summary alone. These essays may be characterized by an unfocused or repetitive presentation of ideas, an absence of textual support, or an accumulation of errors; they may lack control over the elements of college-level composition. Essays scored a 3 may contain significant misreading and/or demonstrate inept writing.

Your essay does not address the prompt. Your analysis shows that you either do not understand how to address the prompt, cannot build support for your interpretation, or do not understand the text. Your essay may be poorly organized, poorly written and/or repetitive.  A 3 essay significantly misinterprets the chosen work and/or is very poorly written.

2-1

Although these essays make some attempt to respond to the prompt, they compound the weaknesses of the papers in the 4–3 score range. Often, they are unacceptably brief or incoherent in presenting their ideas. They may be poorly written on several counts and contain distracting errors in grammar and mechanics. Remarks may be presented with little clarity, organization, or supporting evidence. Essays scored a 1 contain little coherent discussion of the text.

Your essay does not address the prompt. It may be too short or make little sense. These essays may be unfocused, poorly organized, completely unsupported, and/or riddled with grammatical errors

0

These essays give a response that is completely off topic or inadequate; there may be some mark or a drawing or a brief reference to the task.

No real attempt is made to respond to the prompt.

-

These essays are entirely blank

You didn’t write anything!

 

As you can see, the rubric for the poetry essay is focused more on poetic devices, and the rubric for the prose essay is focused more on literary devices and techniques. Both of those essays are very specifically focused on the analysis of the poem/prose excerpt. By contrast, the student choice essay is focused on how your analysis fits into the work as a whole.

To get a high-scoring essay in the 9-8 range, you need to not only come up with an original and intriguing argument that you thoroughly support with textual evidence, your essay needs to be focused, organized, clear, and well-written. And all in 40 minutes per essay! If getting a high score sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. The mean scores on each of the essays last year was around a 4 out of 9. That means, most essays were scored lower than a 5. So even getting a 7 on these essays is an accomplishment.

 

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If you write it down, it must be true!

 

Skill-Building for Success on the AP Literature Exam

There are several things you can do to hone your skills and best prepare for the AP Lit exam.

 

Read Some Books, Maybe More Than Once

One of the most important things you can do to prepare yourself for the AP Literature and Composition exam is to read a lot, and read well. You’ll be reading a wide variety of notable literary works in your AP English Literature course, but additional reading will help you further develop your analytical reading skills. You might check out the College Board’s list of “notable authors” on pages 10-11 of the “Course and Exam Description.”

In addition to reading broadly, you’ll want to become especially familiar with the details of 4-5 books with different themes so that you’ll be sure to be prepared to write a strong student choice essay. You should know the plot, themes, characters, and structural details of these 4-5 books inside and out. See my AP English Literature Reading List for more guidance.

 

Read (and Interpret) Poetry

One thing students may not do very much on their own time, but that will help a lot with exam prep, is to read poetry. Try to read poems from a lot of eras and authors to get familiar with the language. When you think you have a grip on basic comprehension, move on to close-reading (see below).

 

Hone Your Close Reading and Analysis Skills

Your AP class will likely focus heavily on close reading and analysis of prose and poetry, but extra practice won’t hurt you. Close-reading is the ability to identify which techniques the author is using and why they are using them. You’ll need to be able to do this both to gather evidence for original arguments on the free-response questions and to answer analytical multiple-choice questions.

Here are some helpful close-reading resources for prose:

And here are some for poetry:

 

Learn Literary and Poetic Devices

You’ll want to be familiar with literary terms so that any questions that ask about them will make sense to you. Again, you’ll probably learn most of these in class, but it doesn’t hurt to brush up on them.

Here are some comprehensive lists of literary terms with definitions:

 

Practice Writing Essays

The majority of your grade on the AP English Lit exam comes from essays, so it’s critical that you practice your timed essay-writing skills. You of course should use the College Board’s released free-response questions to practice writing complete timed essays of each type, but you can also practice quickly outlining thorough essays that are well-supported with textual evidence.

 

Take Practice Tests

Taking practice tests is a great way to prepare for the exam. It will help you get familiar with the exam format and experience. You can get sample questions from the Course and Exam Description, there are released College Board exams here, and we have a complete article on AP English Lit practice test resources.

Be aware that the released exams don’t have complete slates of free-response questions, so you may need to supplement with released free-response questions (see link in above section). Since there are two complete released exams, you can take one towards the beginning of your prep time to get familiar with the exam and set a benchmark, and one towards the end to make sure the experience is fresh in your mind and to check your progress.

 

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Don't wander like a lonely cloud through your AP lit prep.

 

AP Literature Test Day Tips

Here are my top 6 tips for taking the exam:

  1. On the multiple-choice section, it’s to your advantage to answer every question. If you eliminate all of the answers you know are wrong before guessing, you’ll up your chances of guessing the correct one.

  2. Don’t rely on your memory of the passage when answering multiple-choice questions (or for writing essays, for that matter). Look back at the passage!

  3. Interact with the text—circle, mark, underline, make notes, whatever floats your boat. This will help you retain information and actively engage with the passage.

  4. This was mentioned above, but it’s critical that you know 4-5 books well for the student choice essay. You’ll want to know all the characters, the plot, the themes, and any major devices or motifs the author uses throughout.

  5. Be sure to plan out your essays! Organization and focus are critical for high-scoring AP Literature essays.

  6. Manage your time on essays closely. One strategy is to start with the essay you think will be the easiest to answer. This way you’ll be able to get through it while thinking about the other essays.

 

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And don't forget to eat breakfast! Apron optional. 

 

Key Takeaways

The AP Literature exam is a three-hour exam: It includes one 55-question, hour-long multiple-choice section based on four-five prose and poetry passages, and a two hour free-response section with three essays—one analyzing a poetry passage, one analyzing a prose passage, and one analyzing a work chosen by the student.

The multiple-choice section is worth 45% of your total score and the free-response section is worth 55%. Essays are scored on a rubric from 0-9. Raw scores are converted to a score from 1-5.

Here are some things you can do to prepare for the exam:

  1. Read books, and be particularly familiar with 4-5 works for the student choice essays
  2. Read poetry
  3. Work on your close-reading and analysis skills
  4. Learn literary devices
  5. Practice writing essays
  6. Take practice tests!

On test day, be sure to really look closely at all of the passages and closely interact with them by marking the text in a way that makes sense to you. This will help on multiple-choice questions and the free-response essays. Be sure also to outline your essays before you write them!

With all this mind, you’re well on your way to AP Lit success!

 

What's Next?

If you're taking other AP exams this year, you may be interested in our other AP resources: from the Ultimate Guide to the US History Exam, to the Best 2016 Review Guide for AP Chemistry, to the Best AP Psychology Study Guide, we have articles on tons of AP courses and exams.

Looking for practice exams? Here are some tips on how to find the best AP practice tests.

We also have comprehensive lists of practice tests for AP Psychology, AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP US History.

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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