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AP English Literature & Composition

Overview of Test

The Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition curriculum mirrors that of a one-semester introductory English course with a focus on literary works and poetry. 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. Unlike the Language exam, this exam does cover poetry, which some students find challenging relative to the other material. Also, whereas the AP English Language & Composition exam focuses more heavily on rhetorical strategy and language use, the AP English Literature & Composition exam emphasizes the complexities of literary analysis and subjectivity inherent to literature. To find out more about the AP English Language & Composition, refer to Veritas Prep’s guide.
While still encompassing the great variability in English curricula, AP English Literature and Composition has a more structured set of requirements than its counterpart. The course aims to teach “experience of literature, the interpretation of literature and the evaluation of literature,” which, put into less abstract terms, means the process of becoming an active reader—one who is able to continuously analyze textual detail, connecting different observations, and forming insights and inferences based upon this process. The ability to demonstrate your critical analysis clearly and carefully is just as important as the process of active reading itself to the AP English Literature and Composition curriculum. Students taking the test are expected to write clearly and to not just demonstrate their understanding of literature, but to be incisive and deliberate in doing so. Rather than shrouding arguments in weak or overly complicated language, students are expected to write with logical structure and take ownership of their interpretations by explaining their validity. With regard to preparation, this exam requires that students have read a canon of literature that is as broad as it is deep. There is no required reading list, but at the very least, students should have read some works in the forms of poetry, drama (plays), fiction (novels or short stories), and expository prose. For a list of suggested works that are of appropriate complexity and difficulty, browse pages 52 and 53 of this College Board handout:http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap-english-course-description.pdf
Number of Questions
% of Final Grade
Time Limit
Multiple Choice
Varies, approximately 55 questions
60 minutes
Free Response
Typically 3 essays
120 minutes
The AP English Language and Composition exam is 3 hours long and is divided into two major sections. First, the multiple-choice section, which consists of roughly 55 questions based on passages of different lengths and formats, though there tends to be four or five passages. Then, test takers have 2 hours to answer the three essay questions on the exam—leaving approximately 40 minutes for each.
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. The readers 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 5’s declined slightly 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. Take thorough notes. While you’re reading on the exam, whether in the Multiple-Choice or in the Free Response sections, taking notes is a great way to remind you to read actively and closely. It enables you to pick up on subtle clues in the literature that might be missed in a casual read-through. Moreover, jotting down whatever you view as notable (no pun intended) about the text enables you to locate important words or phrases more quickly later on.
  2. 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 literary techniques, motifs, and themes. Not only will an awareness of these techniques help the student analyze writing effectively and compose standout essays with ease, but also they will improve the student’s score on the multiple choice section which directly tests their knowledge of English literature. Plus, if a student encounters an author they’ve read before, that’s certainly an added bonus.
  3. Make connections. While you should use the provided literature as evidence (for the first two essays), it is beneficial to link your argument to some political, historical, or personal theme. In increases the stakes of your essay and demonstrates that you are able to place a literary work in a global context. This technique can turn a good essay into a great essay!
  4. Make a quick outline and feel free to be creative in your structure. A major component of the AP English Literature and Composition course is the ability to craft the essay in a natural and logical way. This often means moving past the “sandwich” style essay so often taught in high school—introduction, a few body paragraphs, and a conclusion. While this conventional structure can work sometimes, it is ideal if you can structure your essay based on the logical flow of your ideas.
  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. Some final notes on strong analytical essays:
    1. Include clear transitional phrases. They help the reader (and you) know where you’re going with your argument
    2. Integrate quotations into your sentences as smoothly as possible.
    3. Spelling and grammar still apply on the AP. Even though you are being graded directly on the holistic quality of your essay, the readers are human—that is, they are subjective judges, and tiny errors can detract from the content of your essay, lowering your score.
    4. Don’t stray from your thesis. Staying on topic throughout your writing process will make for a logical, well-organized, and readable essay.
    5. Refer to these notes from the AP’s head reader: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/exam/exam_tips/4053.html
Essay Type
Poetry Analytical Essay
This essay requires that the student close read and analyze a piece of poetry. Alternatively, the prompt may ask the student to compare aspects of two poems.
Prose Analytical Essay
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.
“Open Question”
The prompt for this essay will ask the student to respond to a literary though somewhat broad question or statement. Though open-ended, you must use evidence from your own reading experience. No passages will be provided for you on the exam, so your memory is your source material. The exam does provide a list of relevant and adequately sophisticated works to choose from, though the test taker is free to use literature not included on this list.
Read the following passage carefully before you choose your answers.
  1. The chief effect of the first paragraph is to: (a) foreshadow the outcome of Papa’s meeting (b) signal that change in the family’s life is overdue (c) convey the women’s attachment to the house (d) emphasize the deteriorating condition of the house (e) echo the fragmented conversation of the three women
  2. The narrator reveals the family’s fundamental feeling for the house and its location primarily through: (a) depiction of earlier scenes of family stress (b) direct allusion to family ancestors (c) analysis of the family’s respectability (d) evocation of ordinary sensor y pleasures (e) description of onerous family chores
  3. Helen’s comments about “this old house” and her friends (lines 25–28) are best described as (a) an effort to be witty (b) a true and sad observation (c) a weak rationalization (d) a sarcastic attack on Mama (e) an obviously fervent hope
  4. Maud Martha decided to say “nothing” (line 30) chiefly because (a) her family’s fate depended on a momentous decision being made that particular day (b) she was very fearful of Helen’s wrath and was loath to contradict her (c) for once she found that she agreed with what Helen was saying (d) looking at the robin, she was entranced and did not wish to break the spell (e) she could not understand the heavy burden Papa had to carry
  5. Which of the following most clearly distinguishes Maud Martha’s attitude from that of Mama and Helen? (a) Maud Martha is reluctant to accept the impending misfortune, whereas Mama and Helen try to accommodate it. (b) Maud Martha wants to shield Papa, whereas Mama and Helen want to urge him to fight. (c) Maud Martha is eager to move to South Park, but Mama and Helen are reluctant to move. (d) Maud Martha is enraged at Mama, Helen, and Papa for quietly accepting misfortune. (e) Maud Martha believes more in the power of God to change things than do Mama and Helen.
  6. The “mistake” mentioned in line 43 was to (a) assert that a fire in November made any difference (b) recall a pleasant memory about their home (c) remind the others how exhausting the firing was (d) suggest that life at home was uncomfortable (e) exaggerate the extent to which Harry and Maud Martha could help
  7. Lines 44–51 imply that life at South Park, compared with life at home, is (a) restricted and artificial (b) elegant and richly decorative (c) humorless and self-indulgent (d) comfortable, warm, and peaceful (e) nearly the same in most details
  8. Maud Martha’s mother looks at Maud Martha “quickly” (line 65) because she (a) feels that Maud Martha is being unusually agreeable (b) thinks fleetingly that her daughter is mocking her (c) is unusually preoccupied with the impending return of Papa (d) wants to see whether Maud Martha is trying to hide her embarrassment (e) has no more time to deal with Maud Martha’s ill temper
  9. The landmarks that Papa passes on his walk home (lines 71–72) are carefully noted primarily in order to (a) provide background atmosphere for the family’s more elevated social position (b) suggest that the family is much like the other families in the neighborhood (c) provide a contrast to Papa’s anguish resulting from his meeting (d) foreshadow the weight of the news Papa is carrying home to them (e) emphasize the high degree of suspense and tension the three women feel
  10. The final paragraph of the passage (lines 86–89) reveals primarily that Helen (a) is still little more than a naïve adolescent (b) has a basically superficial personality (c) has renewed feelings of confidence and pride (d) is fiercely protective of her parents and family (e) is determined to put a good face on an unfortunate situation
  1. C
  2. D
  3. C
  4. A
  5. A
  6. B
  7. A
  8. B
  9. E
  10. C
  1. Read carefully the following poem by the colonial American poet, Anne Bradstreet. Then write a well-organized essay in which you discuss how the poem’s controlling metaphor expresses the complex attitude of the speaker.
    The Author to Her Book
    Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
    Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
    Til snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
    Who thee abroad exposed to public view;
    Line (5)
    Made thee in rags, halting, to the press to trudge,
    Where errors were not lessened, all may judge.
    At thy return my blushing was not small,
    My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
    I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
    Thy visage was so irksome in my sight;
    Yet being mine own, at length affection would
    Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
    I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
    I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
    And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
    I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
    Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
    In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
    But nought save homespun cloth in the house I find.
    In this array, ’mongst vulgars may’st thou roam;
    In critics’ hands beware thou dost not come;
    And take thy way where yet thou are not known.
    If for thy Father asked, say thou had’st none;
    And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
    Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
  2. Choose a novel or play that depicts a conflict between a parent (or a parental figure) and a son or daughter . Write an essay in which you analyze the sources of the conflict and explain how the conflict contributes to the meaning of the work. You may base your essay on one of the following works or choose another of comparable literary quality.
    All My Sons Antigone As I Lay Dying Beloved The Brothers Karamazov Fathers and Sons The Glass Menagerie Go Tell It on the Mountain Hard Times Henry IV The Homecoming King Lear The Little Foxes Long Day’s Journey into Night The Mill on the Floss Mrs. Warren’s Profession The Oresteia Our Mutual Friend Persuasion The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie A Raisin in the Sun Romeo and Juliet Sons and Lovers Their Eyes Were Watching God Tom Jones Washington Square Wuthering Heights