As we approach AP exam time, you’ll want to explore how to best prepare yourself for the AP English Literature free-response section of the exam. Free-response makes up 55% of your test score. In this section, you will write three essays regarding prompts from poetry, a selected passage, and a work of literary fiction you select.
Only 7.6% of AP English Literature students scored a 5, in 2016. Follow this AP English Literature study plan to improve your chances of a possible 5 on this year’s test. Included herein are best practices for studying, practice exams, and tips on writing extraordinary essays.
What is the format of AP English Literature?
The goal of the AP English Literature course is to familiarize students with complex literary works of fiction. Through analytical reading and a careful attention to detail, students learn critical analysis of creative writing. Writing is an integral part of the course and exam. Essay assignments focus on the critical analysis of provided literary works and can be expository, analytical or argumentative.
The exam takes 3 hours. It is comprised of three free-response essays and 55 multiple-choice questions. The free-response section accounts to 55% of your score.
You will be given two hours to complete three free-response essays. The first will be corresponding to a given poem. The second will be regarding an excerpt from prose fiction or drama. The third is centered around a literary work chosen by you, from a specified category.
Why is the AP English Literature Free-Response Important?
Scoring guidelines for the AP English Literature Exam show that essays are assigned grades from 1-9. A 9 is the best score possible. Each of your scores is then multiplied by 3.0556. This weighted score is added to your multiple-choice totals, and the sum is your score. Overall scores ranging 114-150 are required for a 5 on the AP English Literature Exam.
If you score a perfect 68 on the multiple-choice portion, you would need three solid 5’s on your essays to earn a 5, on your overall exam. Since, it’s unlikely for anyone to achieve a perfect multiple-choice score, you should aim higher on the free-response questions.
A reasonable goal to strive for, would be earning 7’s on your essays. This would allow you to earn a 5 for your overall score by answering 40 MCQs correctly.
What Content is Covered in the Free-Response Section of AP English Literature?
For the AP English Literature Free-response section you are required to write three essays. They may be argumentative, analytical or expository depending on instructions. This section tests your ability to read and interpret various literary works, as well as your ability to communicate your ideas in a stylized, coherent response.
The test questions and subject matter change yearly, however, the structure remains the same. There will be one poem, one passage from prose fiction (or drama), and one work that you choose from a given category. Each fictional work will be accompanied by a question that you must answer in your essay. These range from specific interpretation of a given line or literary device used, to overall understanding of a writer’s purpose, theme or style.
Literature represented may span the 18th to 20th centuries. Poets such as John Keats, Walt Whitman, and Gwendolyn Brooks are possible examples. In drama, you may see the likes of Samuel Beckett, Sophocles, or Tennessee Williams. And, in expository prose, you’ll find authors such as Gloria Anzaldua, George Orwell, or Edward Said.
How to Prepare for AP English Literature Free-Response
Managing your time, as the AP exams grow closer, is imperative if you want a perfect score. There are many resources available online to help get the most from your AP English Literature study plan, both on Albert.io and CollegeBoard. Whether you’re natural at writing and comprehending literature, or not, you’ll want to prepare for the coming exam. Here are some quick tips to help you get the most out of study sessions.
Practice Makes Perfect
You can find released exams and sample essays from previous years, on CollegeBoard. On Albert.io there are a multitude of helpful study resources including 15 Must Know Rhetorical Terms For AP English Literature, AP English Literature; 5 Essential Reads, and practice free-response essays for various works. If you’d like to follow a specific route the One Month AP English Literature Study Guide is helpful and comprehensive.
Focus on Critical Reading
Critical reading is essential for any AP English Literature review. It’s important to never skim through passages while studying. You will miss underlying themes and subtext which are important for answering the AP English Literature practice questions.
Always read at a normal pace in practice and during your exam. Repeat or elaborate passages to ensure you’ve understood them. Consider the following question as you read, “What is the meaning of this sentence, paragraph, stanza, or chapter?”
Utilize Your Syllabus
At the beginning of the year, collect as many of the books, poems and other works assigned for your AP English Literature course as you can. This will allow you to read at your own pace and save valuable time looking for assigned texts as they come up.
Take Notes as You Read
When reviewing any book, poem, essay or other literary work take careful notes which, can be used later. Include the exact title, author’s name and a paraphrasing of the preface or introduction. Also note important themes, styles, and content. When recording specific ideas related to a particular part include page, paragraph, and line number for easy re-examination at a later date.
Carefully Consider Principal Ideas
Take into account the key concepts in any reading assignment. What evidence or support does the author show? In the writings of journalists, identifying these ideas and reinforcing materials is easy. However, accomplishing the same task for a more subtle work, such as that of Sylvia Plath or F. Scott Fitzgerald, may prove challenging.
Explore the Context
Spending a short amount of time researching the context surrounding an author or their work can expand your understanding of issues they tried to address and how well they succeeded. For example, researching Berlin in 1935 will give you insight to better understand the motivations of Vladimir Nabokov, when he wrote The Gift.
Read out Loud
When reading complex passages or poetry it is helpful to read aloud. Often, this approach slows your reading and aids in your comprehension of underlying tones and themes.
Reread when Necessary
It is regularly advised to read a literary work more than once to fully understand complex issues and sophisticated expressions.
Consult Your Dictionary, Thesaurus or Encyclopedia
Take advantage of these invaluable resources at your local library or online to expand your knowledge of words and content that you are reading. Remember that many English and American texts require familiarity with the major themes of Judaic and Christian religious traditions and with Greek and Roman mythology.
Write, Review, and Rewrite Regularly
Writing quality essays takes practice. It’s not an innate ability we are born with. Proper use of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are just as important as understanding the literature you’re analyzing. Refer to How To Score Your Own AP English Literature Practice Essay to review and improve your writing. For an in depth review of free-response strategies turn to 3 Ways to Tackle AP English Literature Prompts. Use of the Albert.io AP English Literature free-response practice questions will be invaluable to your study plan.
How to Answer AP English Literature Free-Response Questions?
Here are some basic guidelines for writing a cohesive free-response essay. For more specific details on writing an exemplary response, check out How to Score Your Own AP English Language Practice Essay. Also, head over to 11 AP English Literature Test Taking Strategies for exam insight.
Understand the Subject Matter
Before you begin formulating your answer, read the prompt and any corresponding passage thoroughly. Ensure you fully comprehend what is being asked of you.
Outline Your Essay
Begin answering any free-response question with a quick outline of your planned essay. An effective introduction will include a thesis statement. Your thesis statement and supporting ideas should be clear and well thought out. Remember to structure your points and end with a conclusion which summarizes your answer.
Write Clearly and Eloquently
As you craft your response pay special attention to structure, vocabulary, and grammar. A well written essay is essential. Be certain to answer the presented question fully with supporting evidence from the passage provided. Ensure that your tenses are in line, pronoun use is not messy, and read your essay for fluidity as you go. Conclude by restating your thesis and summarizing your argument.
What are AP English Literature Free-Response Questions Like?
The following are actual free-response questions from AP English Literature Exams of the past years. You can find many more released questions and responses on CollegeBoard, for reference.
Example One is from the 2016 exam.
“In this excerpt from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Michael Henchard and his daughter Elizabeth-Jane are reunited after years of estrangement. During this separation, Henchard has risen from poor seasonal farm worker to wealthy mayor of a small country town, while Elizabeth has supported herself by waiting tables at a tavern.
Read the passage carefully. Paying particular attention to tone, word choice, and selection of detail, compose a well-written essay in which you analyze Hardy’s portrayal of the complex relationship between the two characters.”
When reading the passage, pay special attention to the relationship between the two characters. Note specific lines which give particular insight. Formulate your opinion and structure your essay to support it. A well-written response for this prompt would understand the many nuisances seen in this excerpt. Notable points to mention in an effective essay include the underlying hypocrisy of Henchard, the unhealthy relationship between the characters and the paradox wherein Elizabeth-Jane tries in vain to relate to her father, causing her own pain.
Take a look at some past responses for this prompt and the scores on CollegeBoard’s 2016 Scoring Guidelines.
Example two is from the 2015 exam.
“In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.
You may select a work from the list below or another work of equal literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”
Some of the choices given included Beloved, Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Letter, and The Crucible.
Select one of the given options or your own, based on your confidence that you remember and understand the plot, characters and details well enough to write a convincing and sophisticated essay. Examine how cruelty plays a role in the story, what that means for the victim and/or perpetrator, and any underlying themes which relate to cruelty. Use specific examples from the piece and support your argument clearly.
Take a look at a few past responses from this prompt and the scores on CollegeBoard’s 2015 Scoring Guidelines.
How can I practice AP English Literature Free-Response?
As you continue to prepare yourself for the AP English Literature free-response portion of the exam, take advantage of the many resources cited herein. Also, look on Albert.io for helpful AP English Literature practice questions, study tips and essay guides.
Don’t forget to check the quality of your writing as you practice by self-scoring your practice responses. Check out How to Score Your Own AP English Literature Essay for help.
Looking for AP English Literature practice?
Kickstart your AP English Literature prep with Albert. Start your AP exam prep today.
It might have been a bummer to discover that the "critical" in "critical reading" did not mean you could yell things like, "Who's your daddy now, Dickens?" during a test, but cheer up, MacShmoopers.
Shmoop's guide to the AP English Literature exam will help you navigate the murky waters of literature... critically.
In this guide, you'll get review, drills, and practice exams while you learn...
- what the word "critical" actually means.
- how to decode—and beat—those pesky free response prompts.
- the fine art of memorizing the mysterious language of literary analysis.
Let's turn that Heart of Darkness into a heart of knowledge.
Terms of Literary Analysis
When practicing literary analysis, try this four-step process to break it down like the Fresh Prince:
- Identify the literary devices
- Understand the function of each device in the passage
- Analyze how effective that device is in playing its role
- Determine the tone and themes created by the literary devices
Imagery and Figurative Language
Using imagery and figurative language is like putting a powerful, sweaty athlete in formal wear, but for writing. It's not that we're turning sentences into fabulous paper dolls with various prom-themed outfits, of course. Without imagery and figurative language, the story is still there, and the characters are still creepy, endearing, or sad, but with them, the whole picture changes.
Everything is dressed up in its snazzy best, giving us stories and characters that make us wet ourselves with tears, laughter, or fear. As you may have noticed in class, imagery and figurative language play a huge role in literary analysis. Many questions on the exam go into the functions and effects of these particularly great pieces of language, but before we need to be able to pick out these items on sight before we can identify functions and effects.
Knowing the figurative language devices from the list of literary terms is half the battle. This will help you answer simple questions like "Which of these devices is used in the passage?" If this were the only type of figurative language question, though, we'd skip around the room and do some back flips, Olympic gymnast-style.
As it turns out, you'll also see more in-depth questions asking you to identify nuanced details. These typically involve aspects of figurative language like metaphor and personification, in which you'll need to identify both the literal and figurative elements of comparisons. Discussions of imagery will also appear here, since you'll need to know when something uses imagery as well as how to identify the type of image to boot.
Audience and Purpose
After looking at what is sure to seem a robust and inspiring list of literary devices and figurative language, we are left with the biggest question there is, after "Where does the TV remote go when I can't find it?" This question is, of course, "Why do we use any of this stuff?" Beautiful uses of language are absolutely meant to be just that: beautiful. As it turns out, these little beauties have brains—and a purpose—to boot.
The simple fact we face as analyzers of great literature is that the authors wouldn't have done it for no reason. These people aren't toddlers with finger paint and a leather couch (there's no reason for what's bound to happen there). They're illustrious writers! There is always a reason. Like we ourselves, each device and use of language has a greater, cosmic purpose...and it's more than just to beautify the surrounding words.
The exam will ask you in many cases to identify what particular bit of figurative delight you've encountered, but it will ask about its effect or function as well. In other instances, you could be asked about function on a larger scale. Sometimes this is about the organizational choices the author makes in general and the purpose of certain structures.
It would be foolhardy to think that anything doesn't have a purpose. On the other hand, it would also be foolhardy to think they have a porpoise.
Voice and Tone
Like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, tone is one of the AP English Literature exam's favorite things. Some questions come and go on this test, but tone questions are not on that list. The good news is that tone isn't typically devious or brain-numbing. It honestly wants to know the "feel" of the passage: is it dark, comedic, romantic, and so on. Since we're asking about feelings, you and your feelings are your biggest asset. Isn't that great to hear?
Mood, voice, and attitude are all closely related to tone, and these are similarly big picture questions. We might be asked to identify the overall mood, voice, or attitude, or perhaps the location of a shift, or a particular attitude of the author or character toward another character, idea, or other development. In the end, we're all just feeling feelings about feelings.
It's no secret that the passages appearing on this exam are far from "light" reading. There's no Oprah's Book Club selection here, though we wouldn't hate that, either. Classic literature isn't known for its readability, which is why the exam asks tons of comprehension questions. The classic comprehension test, as we know, is summarization. If we can read something and then restate the plot, or a characterization, or a theme in our own words, we have generally understood what we read.
Comprehension launches us into analysis, but understanding is a necessary foundation. Comprehension questions will ask you to identify summaries of certain parts of a passage, the implications of certain words, characterizations, comparisons, or just an important detail.
The goal of all of these is to ask, "Did you get it?" Well, did you?
Form and Structure
In recent years, structural questions on the exam have been growing rarer and rarer. They're (almost) exclusively about poetic formats. While there may only be one or two of these on the exam, knowing the various forms of poetry aids in racking up one or two more correct answers.
Form and structure questions may ask about meter or rhythm, or they may ask about the type of poem. (We can hope for a haiku, but it's unlikely.) Most poetic forms have at least a few characteristics that differentiate it from the other types, but process of elimination is frequently useful.
In prose, a form and structure question may ask about plot. Plot is notoriously difficult to pin down on these types of exams, though, because we don't have the entire novel in front of us—just a tiny piece. Regardless, knowing basic plot elements can't hurt, unless you hit yourself in the head with Freytag's Pyramid. That probably isn't super likely, though.
Diction and Syntax
Thankfully for everyone, vocabulary and grammar questions on the AP English Literature exam tend not to focus on scientific jargon, obscure verb tenses, or the nuances of semi vs. full colon. Usually, they ask for the meaning of certain words or various parts of speech in relation to another part. The most popular grammar option asks for referents or other connections, such as the subject of a verb phrase. We don't need to know about dangling prepositions or split infinitives or any other grammatical faux pas, though.
Sneakily, these questions are another way of testing comprehension of the passage, made necessary by the intensely complicated nature of some excerpts and authors who undeniably get a bit carried away.
What's the difference between the AP English Literature exam and the AP English Language exam?
While both are conducted in English, the AP English Language exam focuses primarily on argumentation (like rhetorical strategies, not arguing with your best friend over where to eat lunch). The AP English Literature exam, on the other hand, focuses more on literary analysis. Also, many students will take AP English Language in junior year and AP English Literature in senior year. There's that, too.
Do I need to be able to quote certain works in the essays?
It depends. Sorry.
If the text is given to you in the essay prompt, you must cite proof from the selection to support your response. For the open-ended essay, you're free to do what you like. You can't exactly memorize every work of literature throughout history word for word, but having a few well-chosen lines handy can give your essays the equivalent of literary jazz hands. Just make sure they're applicable.
Am I supposed to know every passage that comes up?
It is probable, nay—almost certain—that you won't know every excerpt appearing on the multiple-choice and free response sections. The realistic goal is that even if you don't know the passage from experience, you will know about something similar from that genre or period and be able to use that knowledge to choose or write a brilliant answer. It's all about careful extrapolation…and sometimes sheer luck.
Who are the graders?
We've heard rumors about a genetically modified wildebeest lodged at AP headquarters who does all the grading, but it turned out to be unfounded. A computer grades the multiple-choice questions, and a combination of AP English Literature teachers (25%) and college English Composition instructors (75%) grade all the essays from around the country.
Is there a reading list?
There's no specific reading list or requirement. It's possible that your English class has a reading list, but the exam itself does not have one. Cue your sigh of relief.
Important note: The exam allows the use any work of literary merit on the open-ended essay. However, be careful about the whole "literary merit" thing, especially when it comes to modern literature. The Kite Runner is considered a work of literary merit, but The Hunger Games is not. Lord of the Rings, yes. Harry Potter, not so much. Drawing this distinction may inspire impassioned arguments in defense of your favorite books, but the free response section isn't the place to do it.
Can I use highlighters on the test?
Sadly, no. Using highlighters to annotate while you read is an excellent comprehension strategy, but this test is the story of a student alone with his/her (dark) blue or black pen. On the multiple-choice section, your only friend is your #2 pencil. Also, is there a #3 pencil? A #1 pencil?
What are the odds of passing?
The AP English Literature exam is about preparation, strength of will, and the ability to work through a hand cramp. On the 2015 exam, 56 percent of the 401,076 students who took the test scored a three or better.
When do I get my scores?
Slow down, speed racer. You haven't even taken the test yet. These people have more than one million essays to grade, so scores won't be available online until summer. Set up an account to access your scores online and get ready to click refresh about 9,000 times.
Will I be penalized for wrong answers on the multiple-choice section?
There is no penalty for wrong answers. If you have no clue whatsoever what the answer might be, guess. If minute 57 of 60 rolls around and you still have 10 questions left—guess! Bubble like you've never bubbled before and you may squeeze a few more correct answers out of the deal.
What if I have bad handwriting?
This is a fine line. Technically, the exam graders are warned that under no circumstance should a student's work be penalized for messiness. However, if your handwriting is so bad that it reaches the point of illegibility and the reader can't read it at all, you have a larger issue.
Write quickly, but remember that you're writing it for someone else to read, not your mom who knew what you were saying even when you were two and babbling with a diaper on your head.
My school does block scheduling. Can I still take the AP English Literature test?
Yes. The AP exams are only given in May, though, so you will have a distinct disadvantage if you only take a one-semester block of AP English in the fall. Practice with Shmoop's drills and exams so you can go into your test with literary skills blazing like Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, rather than dull from winter holiday and whatever it is you do over spring break.
Will I get my test booklet back?
Your test booklet are not automatically sent back. For the low, low price of only $7, you can request it be mailed to you. Perhaps you want to frame and hang it above your bed. If it doesn't turn out so well, you may also want to throw it maniacally into the fireplace or shred it into bedding for your pet gerbil, Steven.
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