Does the thought of spending an hour answering multiple-choice questions on complex prose and poetry passages strike fear into your heart? The challenge of the AP Literature multiple-choice is enough to give even the most adept reader hives, but don't stress! This fully-updated guide will serve as your complete roadmap to success on the AP English Literature and Composition multiple-choice section.
First, we'll go over what the multiple-choice section looks like—the nuts and bolts. Then, I'll reveal the eight types of multiple-choice questions you can expect to encounter, and how to succeed on them. Next will come study tips, multiple-choice practice resources, and finally things to remember for test-day success!
2020 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
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AP Literature Multiple-Choice Section Overview
AP English Literature and Composition section one is the multiple-choice section. You'll have 60 minutes to answer 55 questions about four to five literary prose and poetry passages.
The date of composition of AP Lit passages could range from the 16th to the 21st century, however, you generally won't be provided with the author, date, or title for any passages (poetry being an occasional exception with respect to title). Most passages come from works originally written in English, although there might occasionally be a translated passage from a notable literary work in a foreign language.
The multiple-choice section is worth 45% of your total exam score. You receive a point for each correctly answered question. Since there's no penalty for guessing on this exam, you should answer every multiple-choice question, even if you have to guess. However, you should only guess after you eliminate any answers you know are wrong. That's the general overview. But what kinds of questions can you expect to see?
The 8 Types of Multiple-Choice AP Lit Questions
There are eight question types you may encounter on the AP Lit exam. In this section, I'll go over each question type and how to answer it. All questions are taken from the sample questions in the "AP Course and Exam Description." Passages for these questions are available there as well.
#1: Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension questions test whether you understood what the passage was saying on a literal, concrete level. You don't need to flex your interpretation or analysis muscles here—just report what the passage is saying.
You can spot these questions because they usually use words and phrases like "according to," "asserting," and "mentioned." The best strategy for these questions is to go back and re-read the portion of the text associated with the question to make absolutely sure that you are reading it correctly. You may need to read a little before and/or after the moment mentioned to orient yourself and find the most correct answer.
The lines the passage is referring to say, "Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range / The long numbers that rocket the mind / Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind, / unable to fear what is too strange."
This question is asking why people won't listen to the prophet when he talks about the dangers of weapons. Which of the answers makes the most sense?
Choice (A), "human beings are interested in weapons," might be a tempting choice simply because that's a common theme and message of many works. But nowhere in the passage does it say that humans are interested in weapons! Eliminate it.
Choices (B) and (C) can also both be eliminated because this part of the passage says nothing about nature or love, even indirectly.
Choice (D) may also be tempting simply because it's another common theme in literature—that people don't listen to repeated warnings. But again, there's not really anything in the passage to support that.
This leaves (E), "people cannot comprehend abstract decisions of power." This lines up nicely with the passage, which says that the "hearts" of the people are "unable to fear what is too strange." (E) is the correct answer.
The people in this poem have hearts of stone.
These questions take you one step beyond simple reading comprehension and ask you to make an inference based on the evidence in the passage—you may be asked about a character or narrator's implied opinion, the author's attitude, etc. This will be something that isn't stated directly in the passage, but that you can assume based on what is actually said in the passage. These questions generally use words like "infer" and "imply."
There are two keys to answering these questions: first, as always, go back and read the part of the passage the question is concerned with. Second, don't be tripped up by the fact that you are making an inference—the best answer will be most supported by what is actually written in the passage. Inference questions are like second-level reading comprehension questions—you need to know not just what a passage says, but what it means.
The first sentence of the passage reads, "Certainly the religious and moral ideas of the Dodson and Tullivers were of too specific a kind to be arrived at deductively from the statement that they were part of the Protest population of Great Britain."
Which choice is the most reasonable inference about the Dodson and Tulliver religious ideas based on the first sentence?
Choice (A) says "the narrator is unable to describe them with complete accuracy." This might be true, but there's nothing in the first sentence to support this inference—the narrator says that their ideas are "too specific," not they the narrator can't describe them accurately. Eliminate Choice (A).
Choice (B), "they have no real logical foundation" may also be true, but can't be inferred from the sentence, which gives no indication of whether their beliefs are logical or not.
Choice (C) may be tempting—the idea that they cannot be appreciated by anyone who doesn't share them might seem to dovetail nicely with the fact that they are "too specific" for the mainstream Protestant population. But is this the best choice that's most supported by the passage? Let's keep it in mind but consider the remaining answers.
Choice (D) posits that the beliefs of the Dodsons and Tullivers "spring from a fundamental lack of tolerance." This is a leap that is not supported by what the first sentence actually says; eliminate it.
Choice (E) says that their beliefs "are not typical of British Protestants in general." The sentence says that their beliefs are "too specific" for one to know them simply because the Dodsons and Tullivers identify as British Protestants, which implies that their beliefs in fact do not "match up" with mainstream British Protestant beliefs.
Choice (E) is the inference most supported by the passage, then—even more supported than Choice (C). So, (E) is the answer. Remember, multiple answers may seem like they could be correct, but only the best answer is the correct one.
Do you think appropriately ornate churches are also important to the Dodsons and Tullivers?
#3: Interpreting Figurative Language
These questions ask you to interpret what figurative language means in the context of the passage. They're are identifiable because they will either outright mention figurative language or a figurative device, or there will be a figurative language phrase in the question itself.
Once again, the most important thing you can do to be successful on these questions is to go back and re-read! For figurative language, the meaning is very much dependent on the phrase's context in the passage. Consider what is said around the figurative phrase and what the phrase is referring to.
This questions asks you to interpret what the figurative phrase "that live tongue" means. To orient you in the poem, these stanzas are advising the prophet to "speak of the world's own change" (13).
The poem states, "What should we be without / The dolphin's arc, the dove's return, / these things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken? Ask us, prophet, how we shall call / our natures forth when that live tongue is all / Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken."
In the context of the poem, right the narrator asks what we are without "that live tongue," the poem speaks of how we "see ourselves" in "the dolphin's arc" and "the dove's return." These are images of nature. The best interpretation of "that live tongue," then, is answer (A), as a metaphor for nature. In essence, the stanza means, "Ask us, prophet, how we shall know ourselves when nature is destroyed."
The dolphin's arc.
#4: Literary Technique
These questions ask why the author uses particular words, phrases, or structures. Essentially, what purpose do such choices serve in a literary sense? What effect is created? These questions often include words like "serves chiefly to," "effect," "evoke," and "in order to."
Of course to approach these questions, re-read the part of the passage referred to. But also ask yourself, why did the author use these particular words or this particular structure? What is being accomplished by this specific literary "move"?
This stanza containing the repetition of "ask us" reads: "Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose / Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding / Whether there shall be lofty or long-standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close."
So what is the effect of repeating "ask us, ask us"? Choice (A) says it suggests the prophet is causing much of the world's misery. There's nothing in the stanza—or even the entire poem—to suggest this, so we can eliminate it.
Choice (B) says it represents a sarcastic challenge. This stanza doesn't read as sarcastic, though, but very serious—eliminate (B).
Choice (C) says it suggests the speaker is certain of the answer the prophet will give. This doesn't really make sense because the speaker isn't actually asking the prophet questions, but telling the prophet what questions to ask. Eliminate (C).
Choice (D) says it makes the line into perfect iambic pentameter. You can eliminate this one without even worrying about what syllables are emphasized because a perfect line of iambic pentameter has 10 syllables and this line has 11. This leaves (E)—the effect is to provide a "tone of imploring earnestness." Given that the speaker seems to be begging the prophet to ask particular questions, this fits. (E) is the correct answer.
#5: Character Analysis
Character analysis questions will ask you to identify something about a character—their opinions, attitudes, beliefs, relationships with other characters, and so on.
In many ways this is a special type of inference questions, because you are inferring broader traits of the character based on the evidence presented in the passage. As you might expect, character questions are asked much more frequently for prose passages than poetry ones.
The key here is to pay attention to everything that is directly stated about the character(s) in the relevant parts of the passage. Like in an inference question, there will be an answer that best fits with the evidence in the passage.
These lines read, "Their religion was of a simple, semi-pagan kind, but there was no heresy in it—if heresy properly means choice—for they didn't know there was any other religion except that of chapel-goers, which appeared to run in families, like asthma."
Choice (A) purports that this part of the passage draws attention to the Dodson sisters' devotion to certain rituals. No rituals are mentioned here; (A) can be eliminated.
Choice (B) says these lines point to their "untroubled complacency." The passage states that they didn't know of any other religion. If they don't know, we can reasonably infer that they are not troubled by their own religion. Keep (B) in the running.
Choice (C) purports they have "deep religious conviction." This seems like a bit of a leap; all the passage really states is that their religions if "semi-pagan," but not heretical because they simply don't know any other religion other than "chapel-goers" which seems to be tied to family lineage. We can't reasonably infer that they have strong religious conviction from this. Eliminate (C).
Choice (D) states that they have "disturbed consciences." Again, nothing in the passage makes this a reasonable conclusion; if they don't know there could be other religious traditions, why would they be disturbed by their own?
Choice (E) says they have a "sense of history and tradition." This might be a tempting choice because they point to the fact that the religion of "chapel-goers...appeared to run in families." But that's not their religion, so this isn't a well-supported inference.
Thus, Choice (B) provides the most reasonable inference about the Dodson sisters and is the correct answer.
Quite a character.
#6: Overall Passage Questions
These questions will require you to take a "bird's-eye view" of the passage and identify or describe a characteristic of the passage as a whole: its purpose, tone, genre, and so on. These can be difficult because you can't simply go back to a specific place in the passage to find the best answer; you need to consider the passage overall.
Consider the overall picture created by the tiny details. I strongly recommend marking up texts for main themes, purpose, tone, etc on the first read-through so that you can consult your margin notations for these kinds of questions.
It is clear through even a quick scan of this passage that the narrator goes on at length about the Dodsons, so we can surmise that the narrator is most concerned with something about the Dodsons. We can eliminate (B) and (C), then, as they don't say anything about the Dodsons.
So what about the Dodsons is the narrator most concerned with? The first sentence mentions their "religious and moral ideas," but then describes their "semi-pagan" but not heretical religion. We then see "the religion of the Dodsons consisted in revering whatever was customary and respectable" (22-23), followed by a long list of what that is.
The rest of the passage similarly describes what the Dodsons believe is important, from being "richer than was supposed" to doing right thing "towards kindred." It is clear, then, that the narrator is most concerned with describing the values of the Dodsons, which aligns with choice (A).
These questions ask about specific structural elements of the passage. Often you'll be asked about shifts in tone, digressions, or the specific form of a poem.Sometimes these questions will point to a specific part of the passage/poem and ask you to identify what that part of the passage is accomplishing within in the larger excerpt.
This is another question type where marking the passage on your first read-through will be very helpful—be sure to mark any shifts in structure, tone, genre, etc as you read, and any structural elements that seem unusual or significant.
Lines 1-34 describe an image of the narrator playing his lute for his love. Lines 34-43 establish that the narrator is about to introduce an idle thought (yes, this is a loquacious poem). Lines 44-48 read: "And what if all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd, / That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps / Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, / At once the Soul of each, and God of all?"
So what's the narrator saying here? He is wondering if "all of animated nature" (so all living things) are just harps, and thought is the strings being played. This is clearly metaphorical, and the third footnote for the passage tells us that "lute" is a synonym for "harp." So the answer is (D)—this part of the passage functions as a "metaphorical application of the image of the lute."
It's a harp! No, it's a lute! No, it's both!
#8: Grammar/Nuts & Bolts
Very rarely, you will be asked a question on the grammar of a part of a passage—like identifying what word an adjective is modifying. Very specific questions about the meter of a poem (i.e. iambic pentameter) would also fall into this category. These questions are not so much about literary artistry and more about the dry technique requisite for a fluent command of the English language.
The section of the poem concerned reads, "Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon, / Whilst through my half-clos'd eye-lids I behold / The sunbeams dance, like diamond, on the main, / And tranquil muse upon tranquility."
What a mouthful! If we can untangle this sentence, figuring out what "tranquil" is modifying will be fairly easy. First, though, we can eliminate all answers that call "tranquil" an adverb, because the adverb form of "tranquil" is "tranquilly." Eliminate (B) and (E).
In the sentence, we have that the speaker ("I") is beholding the sunbeams dancing. Then we have "and" followed by another verb in "muse." How do we know "muse" is a verb here? Because otherwise the clause "and tranquil muse upon tranquility" has no verb and makes no sense. Since "muse" is a verb, it can't be modified by an adjective, so eliminate choice (D). This leaves (A) and (C). Does it make sense for "sunbeams" to muse upon tranquility? Not particularly; it makes much more sense for the speaker (I) to muse upon tranquility. Choice (A) is the correct answer.
So are these sunbeams dancing?
How to Prepare for AP Literature Multiple Choice
I have several tips on how you can best position yourself for success on the AP Lit multiple-choice section.
Read a Variety of Literary Works and Poems
Because the passages on the AP Literature multiple-choice section come from a variety of eras, genres, authors, and styles, it's important to familiarize yourself with a wide variety of English literary styles so that you will feel comfortable with the passages and able to parse what they are saying without becoming overwhelmed.
Read a lot of everything: prose of course, but poetry in particular, as many students are less familiar with poetry already and poetry can be fairly opaque and hard to analyze. As a starting place for things you could read, check out our AP Lit reading list guide.
When you start to feel comfortable with the language of many eras and styles, it's time to work on honing your close-reading skills.
Hone Your Close Reading Skills
Your ability to read closely—to read passages not just for comprehension but with an eye for how the author uses literary technique—is paramount on the multiple-choice section. You will practice on close-reading prose and poetry in class, but extra practice can only help you.
When you're doing all of your reading from different eras and genres, think about what the author is doing and why he or she is doing it. What techniques are being deployed? What motifs and themes are there? How are characters portrayed?
If you're stumped as to how to go about this, here are some prose close-reading resources:
- You can get close-reading guides online from The University of Wisconsin-Madison's writing center and the Harvard College Writing Center.
- The Purdue OWL also has an article on steering clear of close-reading "pitfalls."
Here are some close-reading resources for poetry:
- Here's a poetry reading guide from The University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- You should definitely check out this truly excellent guide to reading poetry from Poets.org, which comes complete with two poetry close-readings.
Learn Literary and Poetic Devices
You'll want to be familiar with a 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. Check out our guide to the 31 literary devices you need to know, complete with definitions and examples.
Complete Practice Questions and Take Practice Multiple-Choice Sections
To succeed on the multiple-choice section, practice taking multiple-choice questions! This may seem like a no-brainer but it's still very important nonetheless. Set aside time to take a sizeable number of practice questions every week.
Keep track of what kinds of questions are easy for you—do you identify the theme every time?—and which ones are hard—stumped by similes? This will help you figure out if there are any skills or concepts you need to brush up on.
You should also take a complete multiple-choice practice section at least once, twice if you are able. You could do this as part of a complete practice test (which I recommend) or do it separately. But taking a multiple-choice section under AP-like conditions will help you feel prepared, calm and collected on test day.
As prepared as a Regency belle who has snagged an officer!
AP Literature Multiple-Choice Practice Resources
There are a variety of practice resources available that you can use to hone your multiple-choice skills for the AP English Literature and Composition exam. The gold standard for the best multiple-choice practice questions is the College Board. This is because they write the AP exam, so their practice questions are the most like the real AP multiple-choice questions you'll see on test day. They offer both complete released exams and sample questions.
Even once you run out of official College Board practice questions, there are still unofficial resources you can use to hone your multiple-choice skills. In this section I'll go over both.
See below for three potential sources of official College Board questions.
Released College Board Exams
There are three official released College Board Exams. Each have a complete multiple-choice section of 55 questions. Here are the links!
- 1987 AP English Literature and Composition Exam
- 1999 AP English Literature and Composition Exam
- 2012 AP English Literature and Composition Exam
Sample Questions from the Course and Exam Description
The AP English Literature Course and Exam Description has 19 practice multiple-choice questions!
Your AP teacher may also have copies of old AP exams that you can use for practice. Ask and see!
In my mind, all English teachers look like they came from the 19th century.
In addition to the multiple-choice practice questions provided by the College Board, there are also several places online where you can get unofficial multiple-choice practice questions. However, they aren't all worth your time in terms of quality. I'll go over the best ones here. For an even more robust list, check out our complete list.
Albert offers multiple-choice quizzes divided into prose, poetry, and drama categories. You are given the title, date, and author of the work--which you will not receive on the real AP exam. Like the Varsity Tutors quizzes, Albert offers questions that test similar skills as the AP exam, but the questions are worded differently.
McGraw-Hill has a 25-question multiple-choice "diagnostic quiz" for the AP English Literature exam. The questions are difficult and are pretty good imitations of AP questions. You may even be able to get more than 25 questions out of this site because every time you open a new test window, you'll receive 25 randomly selected questions from their question pool.
One slightly annoying thing to note if you use this resource is that the passages open in another window. As with the Barron's test, you will receive the author and the title for each passage.
You will not, however, receive an atmospheric picture of the setting.
Another solid option for getting more practice multiple-choice questions is a good review book. You want to make sure it's high quality—I recommend Barron's for the AP Literature exam in particular, as their questions do resemble real AP questions in difficulty and writing style.
Test Day Tips for AP Lit Multiple-Choice Success
Don't rely on your memory of the passage when answering questions. Always look back at the passage, even if you think the answer is obvious!
Interact with the passages—circle, mark, underline, make notes, whatever floats your boat. This will help you retain information and actively engage with the passage. Especially mark areas where there seems to be some kind of transition or change, as it's highly likely that you will be asked questions about these transitions!
It may also be helpful for you to jot some quick notes on the overall theme or motif of the passage/poem once you reach the end. This will help you on questions about the passage overall.
If you're having trouble making sense of a passage, skip it and move on to the next one. Odds are when you come back to it later, you'll find it much easier to understand. And if you don't, at least you didn't waste too much time puzzling it out before you answered the questions about other, easier passages.
Acing the AP Lit Multiple Choice: Key Takeaways
The first section of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam is an hour-long, 55-question multiple-choice test about four-five literary and prose passages. This section is worth 45% of your total exam score.
There are eight kinds of questions you can expect to see on the multiple-choice section:
#1: Reading Comprehension
#3: Identifying and Interpreting Figurative Language
#4: Literary Technique
#5: Character Analysis
#6: Overall Passage Questions
#8: Grammar/Nuts and Bolts
Here's how to best prepare to crush the multiple-choice sections:
#1: Read a variety of literary works and poems, from all of the eras and genres covered by the test!
#2: Hone your close-reading skills so you can identify what writers are doing and why they are doing those things.
#3: Learn literary techniques and terms and how to identify and apply them!
#4: Practice for the exam by taking practice sections and practice questions.
There are a variety of official and unofficial resources available to practice. The best are College-Board official, but once you run out of those, there are also high-quality unofficial resources available.
Here are some test-day tips to help you hit an English Lit home run:
#1: Always look back at the passage when answering questions—don't rely on memory!
#2: Interact with the passages as you read through them, including marking significant moments and structural or tonal shifts in the text.
#3: You may also wish to write a couple of quick notes about the overall theme(s) and motifs of the passage at the end, to refer to when answering overall passage questions.
#4: If the language of a passage is hard to parse, skip it and come back later. Odds are it will make much more sense the second time around, and if it doesn't, at least you didn't waste time that you could have spent answering easier questions.
And then you lived happily ever after.
Need more resources for AP English Literature? See our complete guide to the AP Literature Exam, our complete list of AP English Literature practice tests, and our AP English Literature Reading List.
Also taking AP Language and Composition? We have an expert guide to AP Lang and Comp, a comprehensive list of AP Language and Composition practice tests, and a list of 55 AP English Language terms you must know.
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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.