Are you considering taking an AP English class at some point during high school? You might have noticed that AP offers two English courses – AP English Literature and Composition and AP English Language and Composition. (Those titles are a mouthful, so we’ll just refer to them as AP Literature and AP Language in this post.)
So what are some of the differences between the two classes? Is one class harder than the other? Should you take both or just choose one? In this guide, we'll explain the similarities and differences between the two courses to help you decide which option is best for you.
AP Literature vs. AP Language Overview
Some schools offer AP Literature and AP English Language as a sequence, with AP Language and Composition as a sophomore or junior course, and AP Literature as a junior or senior course.
But some schools only offer the courses during senior year, and students have to choose between them. Or your school might not have strict requirements at all, and you might be wondering if you should take both, one, or none.
First we will reveal which course is more difficult. Then we'll discuss the similarities between the two courses as well as the differences. Finally, we will ask you some guiding questions to help you decide between the two classes.
Which Is Harder: AP Literature or AP Language?
You’re probably wondering...out of the two AP English courses, which one is harder?
Well, it turns out both AP Literature and AP Language are not super easy to pass, and quite difficult to get a 5 (the highest score) on. (For more on AP test scoring, see our post.) Both exams have low pass rates and very low 5 rates.
AP Literature has a pass rate of about 52%, while AP Language's pass rate is about 55%. This makes them the making them the 7th and 10th lowest-passed AP exams in 2017 (out of the 38 total exams).
Their 5 rates are also low. AP Language has a 9.1% 5 rate. AP Literature has just a 6.8% 5 rate. To put that in context, on other AP exams, it’s typical for between 10% and 20% of students to earn a 5.
There are a few factors that could explain why both AP English exams have low pass rates and low 5 rates.
The first is the fact that they are both very popular exams. AP Language is the number one most popular AP exam – nearly 580,000 students took the test in 2017 alone! AP Literature is the third most-popular AP exam, with over 400,000 exams taken in 2017.
This means that both tests have a very wide pool of exam-takers, which suggests there might be more students who take the exam who are unprepared.
However, the fact that their 5 rates are so low suggests that both exams are more difficult than average to do well on.
Given that the difference in pass rates is so small between the two tests, it’s unlikely one AP English class is dramatically harder than the other. Which test is harder for you will depend on your strengths and weaknesses, as both AP English classes have different readings and goals.
Instead, to figure out which exam is best for you, we'll compare the two classes and the content they cover. First, we will note how the classes are similar, and then we will explain what makes each AP English class unique.
What’s the Same for AP Language and AP Literature?
So what are the similarities between AP Literature and AP Language? We will compare both the AP tests and the classes.
The exam format is very similar for both AP English classes.
The first part of AP Literature has 55 multiple-choice questions, and the first part of AP Language has 52-55 multiple choice questions. On both tests section I is worth 45% of your total score. These questions mainly have you read passages and analyze them. The AP English Literature questions focus on literary devices, character, and theme while the AP English Language questions focus on rhetorical strategies and tone. However, both tests include comprehension questions and require you to be able to read complex passages quickly and understand them.
The second part the exam is worth 55% and has three essay questions. This means that both exams also require very fast writing skills. You need to plan, outline, write, and edit three essays in two hours, or in about 40 minutes per essay.
Both exams also require you to be able to very quickly read and analyze a text by writing an essay, since the essay questions often ask you to analyze a piece of writing.
The only major difference in exam format is that the AP Language exam has a 15-minute reading period before the free-response section, while AP Literature does not. This is to give you time to prepare for the synthesis question, which is unique to the AP Language test. The synthesis question has you incorporate several different sources into a coherent argument.
To sum up, the format of the two AP English exams is very similar. You can expect the AP exam for either class to be quite challenging.
Both AP English classes are English courses and thus will mainly consist of reading and writing assignments.
In particular, both emphasize writing clear, analytical essays. This is very different than just summarizing a book or writing your own stories like you might have in done previous English classes. Since both classes are meant to teach the same skills as an introductory college English class, the emphasis is on analyzing and writing about texts, rather than just reading, summarizing, and creating your own work.
However, even though the exam and class formats are quite similar, the subject matter they tackle is very different. Next we will explore which makes each AP English course unique.
What Sets the Two Classes Apart?
There are some key differences between AP Language and AP Literature. This means that one AP English class might be more useful for you than the other. In this section we'll explain five of the main differences between the two classes.
Looking at examples of actual prompts for both classes can also help you get a sense of how they differ. For AP Language, you can read all of the recent past free-response topics here, and you can read all the recent past AP Literature free response questions here.
Difference 1: AP Language Is Broader Than AP Literature
The main difference between the two courses is that AP Literature focuses mostly on analyzing literature and poetry, while AP Language has a much broader scope.
AP English Language and Composition teaches you to deconstruct arguments and rhetorical strategies in mostly non-fiction works. Non-fiction is a broad term, and can include journalism, memoirs, essays, satire, comics, and even photography. In other words, you will read (and watch!) material that is likely much more far-reaching than your past English classes.
For AP Lang, you will also do lots of writing, learning to maximize your argument and/or effectiveness across different forms, from persuasive essays to memoir writing. As an example, in my AP Language course, our writing assignments included persuasive essays, reports on current events, memoir writing, and keeping a nature journal, a la Henry David Thoreau in Walden. (If you don’t know who that is, you probably will after taking AP Language!)
For AP Literature, the works you read will be much less broad. They will be primarily literature, although the class will also include some poetry. You'll primarily be reading novels and plays, and the texts you read will be less broad compared to what you read in AP Language.
Difference 2: AP Literature Is More In-Depth Than AP Language
AP English Literature teaches you to read and analyze works of literature and poetry with different lenses - for example, characterization, tone, or description. In that sense, it has less breadth but more depth than AP Language. You will work to discover a work’s theme or intent via use of literary devices, as opposed to analyzing its argument or effectiveness.
Your essays for AP Literature will be mainly analytical. For example, you will explain how a novel achieves a certain tone by closely analyzing quotations. In most cases, you won’t be arguing for a point or saying how good or bad something is. You will simply read literature closely and try to figure out what makes it tick.
For AP Language, you typically won't be diving so deep into one source; you'll instead be making broader comparisons and arguments for a variety of texts. You won't be referring to specific quotes as often as you would in AP Lit because you're taking more of a high-level look at the texts.
Difference 3: AP Language Is More Applicable for Other Subjects Than AP Literature
The skills you learn in AP Language are broadly applicable to not only the humanities, but to the social sciences as well. If you’re interested in political science, sociology, or economics, the skills you learn in AP Language will be directly applicable to your college coursework.
AP Language is also a good choice if you are interested in natural science or engineering, since learning to break down arguments and read non-fiction texts will likely be more helpful in your chosen field than analyzing poetry and literature. In any field, having strong writing skills is very helpful.
The essays on the AP Language exam are designed to “test your skill in composition and require close reading, thoughtful rhetorical analysis, and purposeful argumentation.” As we mentioned above, AP Language has a synthesis prompt that requires you to pull together several different sources and write a cohesive argumentative essay. The synthesis prompt is similar to the Document-Based Question you’ll find on AP history exams.
For AP Literature, you'll gain writing skills useful in any field, but this class has a very specific humanities/fine arts focus. You'll be studying primarily fiction texts, including poetry and literature. You'll spend more time studying how literary pieces are composed and how literary devices are used.
Even if you rarely read newspapers anymore, you might encounter them in AP Language!
Difference 4: You'll Likely Do More Reading in AP Literature
You'll have to do a fair amount of reading for both classes, but AP Literature is generally a more reading-intensive course. For AP Literature, you need to read several books just to prepare for the AP exam, so expect regular reading assignments. For example, my class read several novels, including very long ones like Crime and Punishment, as well as plays, short stories, and poetry. We also had to read six full-length books the summer before the class even started.
You'll also be doing reading for AP Language, but the readings will often be shorter, and many won't be full-length novels or plays. If you're worried about having enough time to complete the required reading, it's an important factor to consider when deciding between the two classes.
Difference 5: The Final AP Literature Prompt Is Especially Difficult
Many students find the final prompt on the AP Literature exam to be especially challenging. For the last prompt, the AP Literature test does not give you relevant quotes or summaries of the works you can write about. This means you have to be familiar with at least a few books and be able to write about them without having the books with you when you take the exam.
As an example, here is the 2014 open response prompt:
The prompt gives you a wide variety of books and plays that you could write about, but also allows you to analyze any work of “comparable literary merit.” (Twilight isn’t going to cut it.) But the prompt doesn’t give you any more info than the work’s title – you need to be able to supply the evidence from that particular work based on memory. Some students memorize important quotes and page numbers to be prepared for this question, but this isn't essential if you have a strong grasp of the plot, characters, tone, themes, motifs, and so on. Furthermore, to write these essays well, you need to know literary devices, like allegory and hyperbole, to name a couple, and be able to use them as evidence.
In contrast, the AP Language exam provides most of the sources for you to analyze. Just one essay asks you to consider outside sources, but it doesn’t require specific books, and in fact allows you to draw from your own experience.
Again, this shows that you'll have to do a lot more reading for AP Literature so that you have a wide pool of books you can potentially use for the final essay prompt.
How Do You Decide Which AP English Class to Take?
Both AP English classes have key similarities – like exam structure – and differences, like the type of reading you’ll do. So how will you pick which one to take? Consider each of the following factors before making your decision.
What Are You Planning on Majoring In?
As a general rule, AP Language has a broader focus and will be more directly applicable to your work in various college majors, while AP Literature is a great choice if you are interested in the arts or humanities.
For example, if you know for sure you want to pursue engineering in college, then AP Language is probably the best choice. You’ll pick up some writing skills but not be overloaded with tons of reading – saving you time for other challenging courses in math and science.
But if you know you want to study the humanities – including philosophy, history, English or World Literature – the depth of reading you’ll do in AP Literature will give you a solid base of knowledge to build on in college.
But what if you have no clue what you want to study in college? Keep reading!
What Do You Like To Read?
AP Literature and AP Language have very different focuses and reading lists. So think about what you tend to enjoy reading! If you like the reading for a class, you are much more likely to complete it all and be interested in the assignments – meaning you’ll get a better grade.
For example, if you follow the news, read lots of blogs or magazines, and enjoy non-fiction books, you’ll probably enjoy the AP Language reading. If you read fiction books for fun and enjoy writing your own stories, you might prefer AP Literature. Sure, you won’t be doing lots of creative writing, but studying what makes literature great will help you be a better writer.
Who Teaches These Classes at Your School?
Preferences and future major aside, your experience in the class will really depend on how it’s taught at your school and how good the teacher is.
If you can, get a syllabus from both of this year’s classes. There isn’t required reading for either course, although AP Literature has many suggested authors, so teachers have a lot of freedom in designing their reading lists. You might be much more interested in one class’s reading than another, and that will help you decide.
You can also ask upperclassman and your guidance counselor about the reputation and pass rate of the different classes at your school.
Chances are, both AP English teachers will be pretty good, if not excellent. But if, for example, everyone raves about the AP Literature class and say that they learned a ton and loved the teacher, consider taking it even if you’re leaning towards AP Language. Never underestimate the effect of an amazing teacher!
Is It Possible to Take Both AP Language and AP Literature?
If you really can’t decide, see if it’s possible to take both classes.
Colleges want to see that you are taking a challenging course load based on what’s available at your school. That could mean fitting in both AP English courses, but if that causes you to have to sacrifice other AP classes or an extracurricular, taking one is plenty.
Again, this will also depend on your intended major. For example if you’re a future engineer, taking both AP English classes won’t vastly strengthen your college applications, while fitting in both AP Calculus and AP Physics will. But if you are interested in the humanities, it would make sense to take both.
Personally, I took both AP English classes: AP Language in 10th grade, and AP Literature in 11th grade. They were both challenging, but I liked taking them in that order, since Language was broader and gave me an introduction to writing AP essays. I was able to use the skills I developed in Language to do well in Literature.
For me, Literature was more challenging, mainly because I had to know a few books and plays inside and out to be ready for the free-response section of the AP test. I found both test’s multiple-choice sections equally challenging.
I found the skills I built in both classes to be incredibly useful to me across a range of college classes – from economics to political science to English.
Don't choose just one path!
Bottom Line: AP Lang vs AP Lit
Both AP English classes will improve your writing skills. Both AP English classes have challenging exams. The main difference between the two is what types of reading they focus on.
Hopefully reading about the two classes gave you an idea about which one you are leaning towards. If not, make an appointment to talk to your guidance counselor to discuss which class is best for you.
Whether you decide to take AP Literature, AP Language, or both, you might also be wondering how many AP classes total you should take in high school. See our guide to choosing the right number of AP classes.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.