Kate Sundquist 6 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the English Language and Composition AP Exam

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is a great option for high school students looking to challenge themselves with academically rigorous coursework, and the possibility of receiving college credit makes AP classes an especially appealing option.

The English Language and Composition AP exam is the most popular exam taken year after year. In fact, in 2015 over 20% of the nearly 2.5 million students who took AP exams took the English Language and Composition test. It is most often taken by high school juniors, many of whom go on to take the English Literature and Composition AP their senior year. Plenty of seniors and even sophomores take this test too though, contributing to its popularity. If you are interested in taking the English Language and Composition AP Exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, look no further. The CollegeVine Ultimate Guide to the English Language and Composition AP Exam is here!          

About the Exam

The English Language and Composition AP exam is based primarily on the study of rhetoric, wherein an author attempts to persuade, inform, or motivate an audience using established techniques. The College Board encourages students who are interested in studying and writing various kinds of analytic or persuasive essays on nonliterary topics to take this course. It tests students on their reading comprehension, rhetorical analysis, synthesis of information, and written argumentation.

The English Language and Composition exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at 3 hours and 15 minutes from start to finish. It consists of two sections. The first section is one hour long and is comprised of 55 multiple-choice questions worth 45% of your score. The multiple-choice questions require that students read five passages divided between pre-20th, 20th, and 21st century non-fiction prose. The questions focus on identifying rhetorical devices from the passages and the general functions of and relationships between the devices. In 2007, questions were added that ask about citation information included in the passages as well.

The second section takes 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete and is comprised of 3 free-response questions worth 55% of your score. These prompts are each of a different type: one synthesis question, one passage analysis, and one argumentative essay.

The synthesis question asks students to consider a scenario and then formulate a response to a specific element of it using at least three accompanying sources for support. Sources used in the essay need to be cited to be considered legitimate.  The analysis question asks students to read a short passage and analyze and discuss various devices used by the author, such as strategies, argumentative techniques, or motivations. The argument question gives a position in the form of an assertion from a documented source and asks students to form their own argument to defend, challenge, or qualify it using supporting evidence. 

In 2016, 55.3% of the students who took the English Language and Composition exam received a score of 3 or higher. Only 10.6% of students who took the exam achieved the top score of 5, and 12.6% of students who took the exam scored a 1. Students who take their work seriously in the class and/or prepare seriously on their own, devoting significant study time and energy, will often find that the test is not as difficult as the results indicate.

A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the test can be found on the College Board course description, located here.

For tips on preparing for the exam, read on!

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

Though the College Board English Language and Composition AP website provides a number of sample test questions, it does not provide a complete sample test. You can find a practice test in many of the official study guides, and some even include a diagnostic test to act as your initial assessment. There is also one practice test available for free online here.

Once you have taken some kind of formative assessment, score it to identify your areas of strength and areas in need of improvement. It can be helpful to have a friend help to score your free response essays as these are a bit more subjective than the multiple-choice section. With an accurate formative assessment, you have a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.

Step 2: Know your material

In the case of the English Language and Composition AP, this means focusing on your reading and writing skills.

When reading, make sure to preview important elements such as the title, author’s name, and any other information available like table of contents or introduction. As you are reading, make sure to stop periodically to consider the main ideas and the way the author supports them. Underline important evidence as you go. Reread complex or important sentences.       

One consultant to the College Board writes about the SOAPSTone approach to reading which is an acronym for a series of questions that students should ask themselves when analyzing a piece of prose. The questions are:

Who is the Speaker?

What is the Occasion?

Who is the Audience?

What is the Purpose?

What is the Subject?

What is the Tone?

For more about using this technique, read about it on the College Board website.

Writing high quality free-response essays takes practice and time. Make sure to organize your ideas using a rough outline before you begin writing. Use direct evidence from the text to support your ideas, and quote judiciously with correct citations. As you’re writing, be aware of rhetorical elements and use them effectively.

For more specific information about the test, consider using a formal study guide, such as those published by Barron’s or Cliffnotes. Alternatively, there are many online study resources available. Some AP teachers have even published their own study guides or review sheets online. You can find one here and another here.

Another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one – their quality varies widely.      

Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice questions. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. There are some available here and more are available in the College Board’s course description.

Try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Keep in mind, the key to answering questions correctly is understanding the passage, so practice active reading skills as you’re tackling the multiple-choice questions. This includes underlining, mouthing words, and circling key points. Remember, the answer will always be found in the text.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Essays

As indicated on your exam, it is recommended that you spend 15 minutes reading the question, analyzing and evaluating the sources, and 40 minutes writing your response. Try to stick to this timeline when practicing your free response essays to see if it works for you. You do not have to follow it on exam day, but having a good idea of how much time it typically takes for you to plan and write will be an advantage.

As you tackle your open responses, identify what each is asking you to do.

When asked to synthesize, you know you will be taking pieces of evidence from multiple sources to form a single argument. Use specific examples and make them stand out by explicitly stating, “For example . . .” or “As Source C indicates in paragraph 3 . . .” Also be sure to cite your sources appropriately while writing.

When writing an analysis of rhetorical strategies used, first consider the elements of SOAPSTone as discussed above. Also consider the five canons of rhetoric. This means thinking about the author’s invention, arrangement, and style. Memory and delivery are obviously less apparent in written pieces, but their roles in a speech are still important. As you read, try to underline specific places that highlight relevant examples.   

Finally, when writing your own persuasive argument, support your ideas with concrete examples from current events, literature, etc. Try to vary your sources to build credibility and address counterpoints to craft an even stronger response.

As you prepare for the writing portion of your exam, be sure to review how your free responses will be scored.  The College Board supplies many released free response questions and authentic scored student responses with written explanations that are an invaluable tool for this.

Step 5: Take another practice test

Take another practice test to evaluate the progression of your knowledge, as well as identify persistent areas of weakness. Over time, you should begin to notice areas in which your studying should be increased and those which you are strong in. Repeat the above steps if time permits to incrementally increase your score.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the English Language and Composition Exam will be administered on Wednesday, May 10 at 8 AM.

For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).

For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?

If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.