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AP English Literature and Composition Exam

How to Ace the AP English Literature and Composition Exam

For high school students who are looking to expand their knowledge and increase their chances of getting accepted to some of the world’s top colleges and universities, AP courses such as the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam have always been an incredible option.

In fact, the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam is one of the most popular AP exams among students who both enroll in the corresponding course at their high school and for students who self-study at home and take the exam with the rest of their fellow high school students.

In fact, last school year, a total of approximately 330,000 students to the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam, which puts it in the top three for the favored AP exam behind only the English Language exam and the United States history exam.

Whether you are planning on taking the corresponding course in school or are more inclined to simply self-study at home and take the exam, we at IvyCollegeAdmit want to make sure that students all over the United States are as best prepared for the exam for when it finally arrives.

Part of being best prepared for the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam not only includes studying and mastering the actual material of the exam but also includes knowing what the exam is formatted like, best ways to study and prepare, and more!

So, without more delay, let’s start breaking it down together!

What can students expect to cover in the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam?

The AP English Literature and English Composition Exam and the course teach and challenge students to learn how to read carefully and master the art of critical analysis in fictional literature which ultimately leads to a much deeper understanding of the ways in which some of the English language’s most famous and impactful writers have brought profound meaning, enjoyment and impact to readers.

Students will also learn about the many different structures, styles, themes, and elements of literature and English. In the process, they will become accomplished and advanced writers as well.

While there is not a required reading list in order to score a perfect 5 out 5 on the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam, there are a number of authors that the College Board has provided in previous AP Literature and English Composition course description.

Some of the most common works that are studied in the course include:

  • Great Expectations
  • The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

The cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Students should not expect to have to read all of these books, and technically none are required in order to take the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam but is enrolled in the course at school, students will absolutely read several of these books as a part of their coursework.

Format of the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam

The interesting thing about every AP exam is that the content of the exam is not the only thing that tests the students. In fact, the format of each AP exam is also something that the students who are most determined to succeed and score a perfect 5 out of 5 also study up and prepare for.

That is the case for the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam, which is actually one of the longer AP exams available. In all, the exam is made up of two different sections. The first section is the multiple-choice section, while the second section is a free-response.

Let us at IvyCollegeAdmit break down what to expect in both sections for you!

Multiple Choice

The first section of the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam will include 45 total multiple-choice questions and every student will get one hour to complete the entire section. The questions are grouped up into five sets of questions that will include anywhere from eight to 13 questions that are linked to a single bit of poetry or prose writing.

The purpose of the multiple-choice portion of the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam is to test the student’s ability to analyze and deconstruct English and literature in five different ways. They are as follows:

  • Understand and break down word choice, comparisons, and figurative language
    • This is one of the types of questions that students taking the exam are very likely to confront multiple times and is one of the most popular.
    • These questions will test a test taker’s ability to answer questions related to a word’s meaning, or the meaning of an entire phrase. Students will also be asked how specific words can impact the meaning of the rest of a greater sentence. Finally, students will need to be able to understand and peg the figurative language within a sentence.
  • Understand the theme of a poem or prose passage
    • Students will also be expected to be able to summarize and explain what a given excerpt from a poem or prose passage is saying. Whether it be about love, conflict, human nature, and more. These can be quite varied and will test the student’s ability to analyze literature at a deep level.
  • Explain and reformulate selected lines from a passage
    • In these types of multiple-choice questions, students will be asked to explain and paraphrase a passage that is provided to them. This will test their ability to understand both basic and complex styles of writing that may rely heavily on metaphor.
  • Explain the function of multiple different factors regarding a poem or prose passage
    • In these types of questions, students will be asked to explain the function of many different factors including:
      • The narrator or speaker – students must be able to know analyze and break down the narrator’s ability to control perspective and emphasize important details to impact the reader’s experience.
      • Characters – students must be able to understand how characters allow readers to explore many different lessons within great works of literature such as values, belief systems, biases, societal norms, and more.
      • Structure of plot and story – students must be able to understand what story the author is intending to tell based on the arrangement of the work including text, sequence, and how these two interact to impact how the work is understood and interpreted.
      • Symbolism and motif – students must be able to accurately describe the purpose of symbolism and use of motif within works of literature.
      • Parts of speech, verb forms, and poetic rhythm/meters – finally, students may encounter a number of questions that will test their ability to identify technical aspects of speech. Students will also be expected to be able to explain the different aspects of poetic meter.

Below are samples were taken from an official AP English Literature and English Composition Exam:

Sample questions taken from an official AP English Literature and English Composition Exam

Free Response

Following the multiple-choice section of the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam, students will then dive into the final section of the exam. A two hour and 15-minute trial in which they will be asked to read prompts and answer three different questions that are related to those prompts.

The prompts that students will be expected to answer include:

  • A deep literary analysis of a poetic work
  • A deep literary analysis of a work of prose fiction or play
  • A deep analysis in which the student is able to examine a specific, issue, ides, concept, element, or a literary work that the student themselves selects.

One of the most interesting aspects of the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam is that this section is graded by college and AP lit teachers who follow a standardized rubric. This means that, to a certain extent, the grading of the free-response section is subjective. Of course, the standardized grading rubric has been created to take as much subjectivity out of the grading process as possible, however.

Below are samples were taken from an official AP English Literature and English Composition Exam:

A sample of a free-response question

How to prepare

Now that you have a basic understanding of the format of the exam itself, let’s break down the very best ways in which you can prepare for the exam at home. Whether you are taking the course at school or are self-studying for the exam, here are some of the best tips that we at IvyCollegeAdmit have found.

First, analyze your ability and understanding

The very first step the excelling at nearly every AP exam is to first take a practice version of the exam in order to see where you currently stand. There are some fantastic options out there where you can find great examples of sample multiple-choice and free-response questions. Additionally, you will be able to find official examples of the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam from previous school years that you can use to test your ability as well.

From there, you will want to identify the areas of the exam that you are already strong at, as well as identify the places that you need to work on. The best way to do this is to take the exam and then compare your answers to the answer key that is provided with the sample or past exam that you have used. This will not only serve as a way to identify places that need work but will also help serve as a valuable learning experience for you.

Then, make sure you are mastering the material

Unlike many AP exams, the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam does not allow a person to rely on memorizing equations that can help students get to the right answer. Instead, students will have to train themselves to master the material and the lessons of the English language in order to approach the exam with as much knowledge and confidence as possible. There are practices that students can carry out throughout the studying process in order to improve their chances of earning that elusive 5 out of 5 scores.

The first way to improve your chances is to make sure that you are behaving as an active, critical reader when you are reading books, plays, and poems. Treat everything you read like an opportunity to sharpen your critical reading and thinking ability so that it is almost second nature by the time that the exam actually arrives.

You will also want to write a lot. According to the College Board, the goal for all students taking the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam is to become a “practised, logical, clear, and honest” writer. In order to succeed on the exam, you are going to be able to map out your ideas and arguments ahead of time so that you can get to writing and mapping out your introductory paragraph and thesis as clearly as possible before defending your argument. Also, if you feel like you may need to, make sure that you are testing yourself on grammar, vocabulary, correct sentence structure, and more.

If you are looking for resources that you should use to make sure that you are getting the most out of your critical reading and writing practice, don’t hesitate to purchase and refer to some of the most popular study guides on the market. Similarly, there are also a number of online resources and even smartphone apps that you can use to study while you are on the go.

Return to practice tests

As the exam day approaches, you are going to want to set aside the studying material and instead focus heavily on practicing questions that are in the format of questions that you may very well see on the actual day of the exam.

The best resources for multiple-choice questions are the study guides that you have. In fact, before you purchase any study guide, make sure that they come with an ample amount of sample questions that you can use to test your growing knowledge and skills.

When you are reviewing your answers by cross-referencing with the key that is provided, make sure that you are keeping track of the kinds of questions or topics that seem to get in your way. That way you will know what information you need to put extra emphasis on as you continue to study.

With that being said, make sure that you do not end up ignoring the topics that you are comfortable with. You do not want any of your strengths to become a weakness simply because you stop studying it. When it comes to practicing for the free-response section of the exam, make sure that you are focusing heavily on your writing skills and making sure that you can form cohesive and clear to understand arguments and ideas within your writing. It is your job to make sure that your writing is great and will earn great marks from the college or AP Lit professor that is grading your specific exam.

Another great way to improve your chances of getting a great score is to understand that standardized scoring. Simply, each free-response essay is graded on a scale from 0 to 6 points. Points are awarded for three elements of the response essay: Thesis, Evidence and Commentary, and Sophistication. Gaining a deep understanding of what earns top scores in each section will give you the knowledge you need to construct your free-response answer in the best way possible.

High school student fills out an answer sheet of a practice exam

Take another full practice exam

As the exam day really nears, you will want to make sure that you are not only taking sample questions but actually taking the time necessary to take a full sample exam. Not only that, but you will want to be sure that you are timing yourself using the time that you will get on the day of the exam. This will allow you to get used to how to manage your time in both sections so that you can answer all of the questions to the very best of your ability.

Scoring distribution

After reading all of this, one of the last things you may want to hear is probably that the AP English Literature and English Composition Exam is one of the hardest AP exams to ace, but we at IvyCollegeAdmit would not be doing our job if we didn’t tell you!

Here is a breakdown of last year’s scores:

A breakdown of last year's Sample questions taken from an official AP English Literature and English Composition Exam scores

Still, do not let this dissuade from taking the exam if you are interested in doing so. It is a great challenge, but it can also render some pretty fantastic rewards.

Good luck!

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