Kate Sundquist 6 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the English Literature and Composition AP Exam

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The English Literature and Composition exam is one of the most popular AP exams among self-studiers and enrolled students alike. In 2016, over 400,000 students took the English Literature and Composition AP exam, accounting for over 15% of all students who took APs. Only English Language and U.S. History are more popular for exam takers. If you are interested in taking the English Literature and Composition AP exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.

About the Exam

The English Literature and Composition AP course engages students in careful reading and critical analysis of fictional literature. In this course or in your own studying, you will deepen your understanding of the ways in which writers provide both meaning and pleasure to their readers. You will consider structure, style, theme, and smaller-scale elements such as figurative language, imagery, symbolism, and tone. Although there is no required reading list, College Board does provide a list of prospective authors in its course description. Regardless of which specific titles are read in preparation for the exam, students should be familiar with works from both British and American authors written from the 16th century to the present.   

This is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours. It is comprised of two sections. The first section is one hour long and is composed of 55 multiple-choice questions worth 45% of your score. The multiple-choice questions require that students read short passages of prose and verse and answer specific questions relating to the author’s use of literary devices. The second section takes two hours to complete and is comprised of three free-response questions worth 55% of your score. These prompts are each of a different type: one is a literary analysis of a given poem, one is a literary analysis of a given passage of prose fiction, and one is an analysis that examines a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of literature that the student selects.

The English Literature and Composition AP exam is a tough one to crack. In 2016, 54.6% of students who attempted it received a score of 3 or higher. Only 7.4% of students received the top score of 5, while 12% scored a 1 on the exam. This makes it among the hardest AP exams on which to receive a top score.

Keep in mind that credit and advanced standing based on AP scores vary widely from school to school. You can find Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities here

Take a look at the full course description to help guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the test on College Board.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

Start your studying by taking a formative assessment. 

To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use them to study, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge. The College Board English Literature and Composition AP website provides two complete exams with scoring guides. You can also find practice tests in many of the official study guides, and some even include a diagnostic test to act as your initial assessment. You can also find a copy of the 2012 exam here and another practice exam with answer key and explanations of each question available 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, since they 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 Literature and Composition AP, this means focusing on your reading and writing skills.

When reading, take care to go slowly and reread important or complex sections. Pause often to consider meaning, context, and intent. Become an active reader, underlining and taking notes as you go. Remember that the importance of the text comes not only from the author, but also from how the text affects you, the reader. Pay attention to how you feel and why you feel that way. Consider whether your response is the one intended by the author. If you do not believe it is, ask yourself what the author may have intended you to feel, and why. Visit the College Board’s Reading Study Skills for more information.         

Prepare for the writing section of your exam by writing frequently. According to College Board, the goal is to become a “practiced, logical, clear, and honest” writer through the writing process. This means that you will plan, draft, review, redraft, edit, and polish your writing again and again. To be a successful writer on your exam, you will need to organize your ideas ahead of time, use your text wisely to support a clearly stated thesis, and provide a logical argument. Finally, you should pay close attention to your use of grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. Visit the College Board’s Writing Study Skills for more information. 

For more specific guidance about test preparation, consider using a formal study guide.  One good choice is Barron’s AP English Literature and Composition, 6th Edition. This study guide contains a review of test topics covering details test takers need to know about poetry, fiction, and drama, and includes five full-length practice tests. Some users do criticize it for providing few examples of scored student essays, but plenty of those are available on the College Board scoring examples page. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP English Language & Composition Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 is another solid choice containing a summary of test strategies and a focused review of course content. 

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.

Finally, 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. One that does receive good reviews is the McGraw Hill 5 which also saves you some money by covering 14 different AP subjects.      

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 in College Board’s course description.

Try to keep track of which concept areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Keep in mind that 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, and often the question will tell you exactly where in the text to look for it.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Essays

Focus on your writing skills. Use a rich vocabulary, varied sentence structure, and logical progression of ideas. Make sure that your words flow easily from one to the next. According to the College Board’s scoring criteria, a poorly written response, no matter how factually accurate, may never score more than 3 out of the 9 available points per question.   

You should also strive to write a thoughtful and persuasive analysis of the literature. Begin by writing a quick outline to structure your piece. Make sure that your introduction leads to a clearly stated thesis and use supporting paragraphs to build this argument. Use quotes judiciously in your answers and focus on writing with sophistication and clarity.

The best way to prepare for these free-response questions is through repeated exercises analyzing short prose passages and poems, and through practicing with open analytical questions. 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 free response questions and authentic scored student responses with written explanations from previous exams that are an invaluable tool for this. The most effective way to use these is to read and respond to the prompts first, then review the student samples and scoring explanations. Use this feedback to practice another prompt and repeat the cycle until you are confident that your responses are as strong as the top scorers’. 

Step 5: Take another practice test

As you did at the beginning of your studying, take a practice test to see which areas you’ve improved in and which still require practice.

If you have time, repeat each of the steps above to incrementally increase your score.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the English Literature and Composition AP Exam will be administered on Wednesday, May 3 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 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.     

For more about information about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?

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.