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AP English Language & Composition

Overview of Test

The Advanced Placement English Language and Composition curriculum mirrors that of a one-semester introductory English course. Given the high variability of these introductory English courses from college to college, the College Board (the governing body of the Advanced Placement program) offers two “parallel” English exams—AP English Language & Composition and AP English Literature & Composition. They are designed to be equally rigorous, though they emphasize and test somewhat different skills. To find out more about the AP English Literature & Composition, refer to Veritas Prep’s guide. Even within the confines of the AP course in English Language & Composition, there is a great deal of variety. In general, the course focuses on skills such as reading and analyzing prose in a diverse range of rhetorical contexts. Moreover, it emphasizes the ability to compose expository essays that are clear, well structured, analytical, and argumentative based upon readings as well as students’ personal experiences. Students are also encouraged to examine how the rhetorical strategies and stylistic choices of a piece of writing relate to a composition’s context or an author’s purpose. Finally, there is a heavy emphasis placed upon the importance of language and vocabulary across different types of writing—historical speeches, autobiographical works, short stories or satire, to name just a few.
Number of Questions
% of Final Grade
Time Limit
Multiple Choice
Varies, approximately 55 questions
60 minutes
Reading Period for Synthesis Essay
15 minutes
Free Response
Typically 3 essays
120 minutes
The AP English Language and Composition exam is slightly over 3 hours long (195 minutes, including reading period), and is divided into two major sections. First is the multiple-choice section, which consists of roughly 55 questions based on passages of different lengths and formats, although there tends to be four or five passages. Then, students get 15 minutes to read through a series of documents that will be written about in the synthesis essay (more on that later). Finally, test takers have 2 hours to answer the three essay questions on the exam—approximately 40 minutes apiece.
For Section 1, one point is rewarded for each correct answer choice, though there is no guessing penalty, so it is highly advisable to answer every single question on the multiple-choice section. For Section 2, each essay is graded by exam readers (humans—specifically college and AP English teachers) on a scale of 0 – 9, during a weeklong session in June. They give each essay a score, and these scores are combined with the raw scores from the multiple-choice section and converted into a scale from 1 to 5. The percentage of students who received 4’s or 5’s declined somewhat in 2013, though the mean score has been relatively consistent throughout the past four years. This table shows the percentage of students who received each particular score on past AP English Language & Composition exams.
Mean Score
  1. Read a lot. Read a variety of works. The types of written works students will encounter during the AP exam are both highly varied and copious. While no curriculum can include works from every genre, format, time period, and author, the more variety of works a student reads throughout the year, the more familiarity they will have with common rhetorical strategies and uses of language. Not only will an awareness of these techniques help the student analyze writing effectively and compose standout essays with ease, but also it will improve students’ scores on the multiple choice section which directly tests their knowledge of English composition. Plus, if a student encounters an author he or she has read before, that’s certainly an added bonus.
  2. Not unlike the SAT Reasoning Test, the AP English Language and Composition exam does involve a fair amount of vocabulary. The words used to describe literary techniques and rhetorical flourishes come in handy in both the multiple choice and free response sections of the test. While you will learn many of these words naturally in a high school English class, some are more obscure and can be learned with a bit of memorization. This website has compiled words that have showed up on the exam in the past and provided succinct, helpful definitions: http://grammar.about.com/od/terms/a/APterms.htm
  3. Spend some time planning the essays before you write them. It is important to know exactly what a free response prompt is asking and how you plan to respond, because an off-topic essay is bound to receive a subpar score. On a related note, once you have come up with a clear thesis, stick to it like glue. It is distracting for a reader if a writer diverges from his initial thesis to go off on a tangent.
  4. Spend some time planning the essays before you write them. It is important to know exactly what a free response prompt is asking and how you plan to respond, because an off-topic essay is bound to receive a subpar score. On a related note, once you have come up with a clear thesis, stick to it like glue. It is distracting for a reader if a writer diverges from his initial thesis to go off on a tangent.
  5. Whenever possible, use close-reading techniques in your free response essays. An effective way to go about this is to analyze the language used by an author and try to understand how the language reflects a point being made. Strong essays often capitalize on an otherwise overlooked detail to illuminate the larger theme at hand.
  6. Take a side. Argumentation and rhetoric form a major part of the English Language and Composition curriculum, so a wavering essay or one that tries to argue that both sides are right tends to be relatively weak in the eyes of graders.
  7. Use strong, deliberately chosen language. Rather than a relatively meaningless verb such as “show” to prove a point (e.g. “the anecdote shows that…”), use more descriptive verbs such as “undermines,” “justifies,” “promotes,” or “resolves.” These can help guide your reader to understand the point you are trying to get across more efficiently and effectively.
  8. Analyze diction and syntax. Don’t just look at the words being used, but try to figure out the diction—how they are being used—and whether it bears any significance to the work as a whole. Look for patterns in the types of words used, for repetition can be used to emphasize a point or emotion. Moreover, look out for syntax—the way in which the words are ordered within sentences. Deviations from the typical subject-verb-object sentence structure can be used by authors to call attention to a specific component of the sentence and consequently, the idea associated with that component. Both diction and syntax can be keys to understanding the author’s tone, the way in which the writer’s feelings on a subject are expressed through a particular writing style.
Essay Type
Similar to the Document Based Questions on AP history exams, these essays involve multiple sources (often six or more) that can be brief pieces of writing, images or data tables. After reading through them, the student is asked to “synthesize” an argument based on at least three of the documents in response to a prompt. The sources are meant to be used as pieces of evidence to support the central argument rather than to be merely summarized.
Rhetoric Analysis
This essay is somewhat similar to the essay on the Writing section of the SAT Reasoning Test. It asks a somewhat broad question and asks the student to take a position on the issue in a well-formed essay. Students are free to use evidence from anything in their life—books, personal experience, historical movements, or films to support their argument. This essay is graded primarily on its rhetorical merit.
Argument on an Argument
Before writing this essay, the student reads a brief argument or criticism from an author, and then is asked to agree or disagree with the assertion from the author in an essay. The important aspect of this essay is to carefully analyze the strengths or weaknesses of the author’s rhetorical strategy and demonstrate how they affect the validity of the original assertions.
Read the following passage carefully before you choose your answers. This passage is taken from a nineteenth-century essay.
  1. Which of the following best describes the rhetorical function of the second sentence in the passage? (a) It makes an appeal to authority. (b) It restates the thesis of the passage. (c) It expresses the causal relationship between morality and writing style. (d) It provides a specific example for the preceding generalization. (e) It presents a misconception that the author will correct.
  2. Which of the following phrases does the author use to illustrate the notion of an unnatural and pretentious writing style? (a) “unconnected, slipshod allusions” (line 7) (b) “throw words together” (lines 8–9) (c) “gabble on at a venture” (line 22) (d) “get upon stilts” (lines 30–31) (e) “pitch upon the very word” (line 34)
  3. In lines 10–32 of the passage, the author uses an extended analogy between (a) language and morality (b) preaching and acting (c) writing and speaking (d) vulgar English and incorrect pronunciation (e) ordinary life and the theater
  4. In line 17, “common speech” refers to (a) metaphorical language (b) current slang (c) unaffected expression (d) regional dialect (e) impolite speech
  5. Which of the following words is grammatically and thematically parallel to “tone” (line 21)? (a) “solemnity” (line 21) (b) “pulpit” (line 21) (c) “stage-declamation” (line 21) (d) “liberty” (line 22) (e) “venture” (line 22)
  6. In context, the expression “to pitch upon” (line 34) is best interpreted as having which of the following meanings? (a) To suggest in a casual way (b) To set a value on (c) To put aside as if by throwing (d) To utter glibly and insincerely (e) To succeed in finding
  7. The ability discussed in lines 35–38 is referred to elsewhere as which of the following? (a) “theatrical cadence” (line 30) (b) “foreign circumlocutions” (line 46) (c) “fine tact” (line 51) (d) “professional allusions” (lines 54–55) (e) “universal force” (line 56)
  8. The author’s observation in the sentence beginning “It is clear” (lines 49–51) is best described as an example of which of the following? (a) Mocking tone (b) Linguistic paradox (c) Popularity of the familiar style (d) The author’s defense of Johnson’s style (e) The author’s advice to the reader
  9. In line 52, “those” refers to which of the following?
    1. “words” (line 45)
    2. “circumlocutions” (line 46)
    3. “associations” (line 46)
    (a) I only (b) II only (c) I and III only (d) II and III only (e) I, II, and III
  10. The author’s tone in the passage as a whole is best described as (a) harsh and strident (b) informal and analytical (c) contemplative and conciliatory (d) superficial and capricious (e) enthusiastic and optimistic
(Suggested time—40 minutes) In the following passage, the contemporary social critic Neil Postman contrasts George Orwell’s vision of the future, as expressed in the novel 1984 (written in 1948), with that of Aldous Huxley in the novel Brave New World (1932). Read the passage, considering Postman’s assertion that Huxley’s vision is more relevant today than is Orwell’s. Then, using your own critical understanding of contemporary society as evidence, write a carefully argued essay that agrees or disagrees with Postman’s assertion. We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. (1985) (Suggested time—40 minutes) Contemporary life is marked by controversy. Choose a controversial local, national, or global issue with which you are familiar. Then, using appropriate evidence, write an essay that carefully considers the opposing positions on this controversy and proposes a solution or compromise.