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 2020-2021 test date of Wednesday, May 5, 2021 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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
Example 2: Interpreting
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
That covers the 8 question types!
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)
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):
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.
You might even see something by this guy.
How Is the AP Literature Test Graded?
We will work with the scoring in class as a specific focus. This year, College Board has changed the AP scoring rubric, so we will be working specifically with the new rubric.
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:
- The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s writing center has a guide to close-reading.
- You can also check out this close-reading guide from the Harvard College Writing Center.
- The Purdue OWL has an article on steering clear of close-reading “pitfalls.”
And here are some for poetry:
- The University of Wisconsin-Madison also has a poetry-reading guide.
- There’s also an excellent guide to reading poetry at Poets.org, complete with two poetry close-readings.
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.
Don’t wander like a lonely cloud through your AP lit prep.
AP Literature Test Day Tips
Here are my top six 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.
**Adapted from prepscholar (AP Literature Exam advice)