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

February 2, 2022

If you’re preparing for an AP English Literature exam, chances are you’re already enrolled in an AP English Literature course. For those who are looking ahead, let’s start with some information about the two AP English options. After that, we’ll take a deeper dive into studying for AP English Lit.

The College Board offers two different exams that may be referred to as “AP English:” AP English Literature and Composition and AP English Language 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 Literature and Composition course focuses on understanding and evaluating works of literature, whereas the English Language and Composition course is focused more on critical reading and writing skills through the lens of crafting an argument.

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 free-response questions. The first two FRQs will provide you with an excerpt, which you will be asked to analyze. Each question will call out a particular element or technique, such as a theme or a literary device, and you will need to evaluate the author’s usage of that element. The third FRQ will provide you with a theme and will ask you to discuss its use in a composition of your choice.

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 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. It’s not enough to simply give an answer. You’ll need to explain it—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 to complete your three essays; the time will not be broken up for you. Because you have to self-regulate, it’s important to practice with a time limit of 40 minutes per essay to get used to the proper pacing.

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. Make sure you play to your own strengths.

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 literature in order to succeed on the AP English Literature and Composition exam!

Be prepared. Have a few broad, go-to literary terms that you feel comfortable discussing. If you have trouble coming up with topics for your essays, you can fall back on these terms. Remember that you will also be asked to choose a work of literature to discuss in the third FRQ. You should have a mental “inventory” of a few different pieces that you are prepared to write about. You can make your choice based on the question on test day.

Get comfortable with poetry. Many students find poetry to be especially challenging. Practice makes perfect! Try reading a poem a day and taking a minute to decipher the meaning, or to discuss it with a tutor or study buddy. Pay special attention to the items typically tested on the poetry FRQ: literary elements, techniques, and language that conveys themes.

Use flashcards. Literary terms are crucial for the Literature exam—the Princeton Review book provides a good list of the most important ones. We recommend that you create flashcards for any key terms that you don’t have perfectly memorized yet. If you come across unfamiliar terms as you work through practice tests, add them to your flashcard deck! A good vocabulary is also very helpful for the exam. Reading is a great way to help build your vocabulary. Remember to add a card to your deck every time you come across an unfamiliar word.

Practice FRQs 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 FRQs 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 Literature 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 couple of 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 their 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.