How to Write the AP Lit Poetry Essay
To strengthen your AP Literature Poetry Essay essay, make sure you prepare ahead of time by knowing how the test is structured, and how to prepare. In this post, we’ll cover the structure of the test and show you how you can write a great AP Literature Poetry Essay.
What is the AP Lit Poetry Essay?
The AP Literature exam has two sections. Section I contains 55 multiple choice questions, with 1 hour time allotted. This includes at least two prose fiction passages and two poetry passages.
Section II, on the other hand, is a free response section. Here, students write essays to 3 prompts. These prompts include a literary analysis of a poem, prose fiction, or in a work selected by the student. Because the AP Literature Exam is structured in a specific, predictable manner, it’s helpful to prepare yourself for the types of questions you’ll encounter on test day.
The Poetry Essay counts for one-third of the total essay section score, so it’s important to know how to approach this section. You’ll want to plan for about 40 minutes on this question, which is plenty of time to read and dissect the prompt, read and markup the poem, write a brief outline, and write a concise, well-thought out essay with a compelling analysis.
Tips for Writing the AP Lit Poetry Essay
1. Focus on the Process
Writing is a process, and so is literary analysis. Think less about finding the right answer, or uncovering the correct meaning of the poem (there isn’t one, most of the time). Read the prompt over at least twice, asking yourself carefully what you need to look for as you read. Then, read the poem three times. Once, to get an overall sense of the poem. Second, start to get at nuance; circle anything that’s recurring, underline important language and diction, and note important images or metaphors. In your annotations, you want to think about figurative language, and poetic structure and form. Third, pay attention to subtle shifts in the poem: does the form break, is there an interruption of some sort? When analyzing poetry, it’s important to get a sense of the big picture first, and then zoom in on the details.
2. Craft a Compelling Thesis
No matter the prompt, you will always need to respond with a substantive thesis. A meaty thesis contains complexity rather than broad generalizations, and points to specifics in the poem.
By examining the colloquial language in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool”, we can see the tension of choosing to be “cool”. This raises important ideas about education, structure, and routine, and the consequences of living to be “real cool”.
Notice how the thesis provides a roadmap of what is to follow in the essay, and identifies key ideas that the essay will explore. It is specific, and not vague. The thesis provides a bigger picture of the text, while zooming in the colloquial language the speaker uses.
A good thesis points out the why as much as the what. Notice how in the above example, the thesis discusses language in the poem as it connects to a bigger message about the poem. For example, it’s not enough to discuss Emily Dickinson’s enjambment and hyphens. A good thesis will make a compelling argument about why those infamous Dickinson hyphens are so widely questioned and examined. Perhaps a good thesis might suggest that this unique literary device is more about self-examination and the lapse in our own judgement.
3. Use Textual Evidence
To support your thesis, always use textual evidence. When you are creating an outline, choose a handful of lines in the poem that will help illuminate your argument. Make sure each claim in your essay is followed by textual evidence, either in the form of a paraphrase, or direct quote. Then, explain exactly how the textual evidence supports your argument. Using this structure will help keep you on track as you write, so that your argument follows a clear narrative that a reader will be able to follow.
Your essay will need to contain both description of the poem, and analysis. Remember that your job isn’t to describe or paraphrase every aspect of the poem. You also need lots of rich analysis, so be sure to balance your writing by moving from explicit description to deeper analysis.
4. Strong Organization and Grammar
A great essay for the AP Literature Exam will contain an introduction with a thesis (not necessarily always the last sentence of the paragraph), body paragraphs that contain clear topic sentences, and a conclusion. Be sure to spend time thinking about your organization before you write the paper. Once you start writing, you only want to think about content. It’s helpful to write a quick outline before writing your essay.
There’s nothing worse than a strong argument with awkward sentences, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Make sure to proofread your work before submitting it. Carefully edit your work, paying attention to any run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, commas, and spelling. You’d be surprised how many mistakes you’ll catch just by rereading your work.
Common Mistakes on the AP Literature Poetry Essay
It can be helpful to know what not to do when it comes time to prepare for the AP Literature Poetry Essay. Here are some common mistakes students make on the AP Literature Poetry Essay:
1. Thesis is not arguable and is too general
Your thesis should be arguable, and indicate the central ideas you will discuss in your essay. Read the prompt carefully and craft your thesis in light of what the prompt asks you to do. If the prompt mentions specific literary devices, find a way to tie those into your thesis. In your thesis, you want to connect to the meaning of the poem itself and what you feel the poet intended when using those particular literary devices.
2. Using vague, general statements rather than focusing on analysis of the poem
Always stay close to the text when writing the AP Literature Poetry Essay. Remember that your job is not to paraphrase but to analyze. Keep explicit descriptions of the poem concise, and spend the majority of your time writing strong analysis backed up by textual evidence.
3. Not using transitions to connect between paragraphs
Make sure it’s not jarring to the reader when you switch to a new idea in a new paragraph. Use transitions and strong topic sentences to seamlessly blend your ideas together into a cohesive essay that flows well and is easy to follow.
4. Textual evidence is lacking or not fully explained
Always include quotes from the text and reference specifics whenever you can. Introduce your quote briefly, and then explain how the quote connects back to the topic sentence after. Think about why the quotes connect back to the poet’s central ideas.
5. Not writing an outline
Of course, to write a fully developed essay you’ll need to spend a few minutes planning out your essay. Write a quick outline with a thesis, paragraph topics and a list of quotes that support your central ideas before getting started.
To improve your writing, take a look at these essay samples from the College Board, with scoring guidelines and commentary.
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