Tips for Taking the AP Exams: AP English Language and Composition

February 1, 2022

If you’re preparing for an AP English Language exam, chances are you’re already enrolled in an AP English Language course. For those who are looking ahead, let’s start with some information about the two AP English options. Following that we’ll continue with an in-depth look at AP English Language.

The College Board offers two different exams that may be commonly referred to as “AP English”: AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition. Some high schools offer the AP English Language course for juniors and AP English Literature for seniors, while others offer both for seniors. The courses are not designed to build upon one another, so there is no need to worry if you haven’t had the option to take Lang before Lit. If you are choosing between the two, you’ll want to consider your college plans and consult your guidance counselor to select the option that will best supplement your college application.

Both AP English courses place a strong emphasis on analyzing texts, and both exams require students to develop written arguments based on their analyses and interpretations. However, the English Language and Composition course focuses on critical reading and writing skills through an argument lens, whereas the English Literature and Composition course is focused more on understanding and evaluating works of literature.

Know The Test Format

As with any standardized test, it’s important to be aware of the format in advance of test day. You should know, for example, that the AP English Language and Composition exam includes both a multiple-choice section and an essay section.

About the essays. The first essay is focused on Synthesis. You will be given several sources and asked to use them to support your thesis on a particular topic. The second essay, which tests Rhetorical Analysis, will provide a passage and ask you to analyze the author’s rhetorical choices. For the third essay, Argument, you will be given a brief summary of a debated subject’s two opposing sides, and you will have to choose and defend a position.

Know What’s Expected

In order to ensure you earn all the credit you deserve for your work on the FRQs, you’ll need to be aware of the rules and expectations.

Each of your FRQ answers should have a clear thesis. Noting this instruction is critical for getting full credit! Scorers will deduct points if your response does not have a defensible thesis—and simply restating the prompt or summarizing the idea in question doesn’t count. Your thesis does not have to be placed near the beginning of your response, nor does it have to preview the structure of the essay (though many students will be in the habit of writing essays this way, and that’s fine).  Your thesis does have to be based on evidence from the passage, and it should be fairly concise—either a single sentence, or a few clustered closely together.

Be sure to provide evidence. To earn full credit for an FRQ response, you will need to provide evidence that is both specific and relevant to your thesis. Make sure you include enough evidence to support all of the claims you make as you build your argument.

Remember to provide commentary, too. This is your opportunity to really explain your answer—to show, not just tell. Don’t trust your reader to connect the dots. Instead, make sure that they can’t fail to understand how your evidence connects to your overall argument. The scorers are actually looking for your commentary, so don’t be afraid to give it to them!

Follow grammar rules. The scorers know that you are working within a time limit and that each of your responses will essentially be a first draft. They are not expecting your writing to be perfect. However, they are required to deduct points for errors that negatively impact their understanding of your argument. Try to avoid any room for confusion, and if you’re not sure how to spell a word that has homophones, consider finding a synonym.

Know the Best Practices

Your experienced Summit tutor will have many helpful strategies to share with you. Below are a few of our favorites.

Make sure to practice your pacing. You are given two hours and fifteen minutes to complete three essays; the time will not be broken up for you. Because you have to self-regulate, it’s important to practice and get used to the proper pacing. Keep in mind that you will have several texts to read before you can start writing your Synthesis essay, so you may need to dedicate more time to that piece.

Prioritize based on your strengths. All multiple-choice questions are equally weighted (each is worth 1 raw score point). You won’t get any extra credit for struggling with a particular question, so be sure that you are spending your time wisely to get to the most accessible questions first.

Always guess aggressively on the multiple-choice section. It’s important to be aware that there is no penalty for wrong answers. For any multiple-choice questions that you don’t feel great about, use process of elimination where possible and always put something down. You won’t lose any credit for getting it wrong, and you might earn the point.

Know Your Stuff

Finally, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that you need to really know your English in order to succeed on the AP English Language and Composition exam!

Do some brainstorming in advance. The topic for the Argument essay (which is always third) will generally be very broad, which makes it possible to defend your response with a wide variety of examples. Save time on test day by working out a few ideas in advance and making sure you’re prepared to write about them. You can pull examples from your own life or from things you’ve read, or you can even make something up.

Use flashcards. A strong vocabulary is very helpful for this exam. Making flashcards is a good way to build vocabulary—add a card to your deck every time you come across an unfamiliar word.

Get comfortable reading a variety of texts. You will encounter many different kinds of writing on the AP English Language exam, so make sure you’re getting appropriate exposure. Opinion pieces, scientific writing, and historical texts are just a few genres you should be bringing into your comfort zone.

Practice essays throughout the year, consistently, whether or not your teacher is assigning them. You need to hone your skills in order to score well, which means you need to have seen these questions in advance. Winging it just won’t do. You can find practice essay questions to study from online. Don’t forget to study the sample answers and the reasoning behind the points they would have earned. This is a great learning opportunity.

Leverage available material. Although the official AP English Language material provided by the College Board is limited, there are plenty of reputable sources for additional material. Khan Academy and the Princeton Review are a few great examples. And, of course, don’t be afraid to ask your teacher or your Summit tutor for further practice—they’ll be delighted to share other resources.

Taking and performing well in AP courses help students demonstrate their readiness for the rigors of college-level work. Many institutions report that a student’s successful AP experience favorably impacts admission decisions.

Whether you’re looking for ongoing AP subject support throughout the school year or the opportunity to review with an expert and prepare for the AP exam in May, we can help. Contact us about AP tutoring and exam prep.