3 Types Of Essays On Ap English Exam Preparation

With the 2016 AP English Language and Composition exam approaching on Wednesday, May 11, it’s time to make sure that you’re familiar with all aspects of the exam. In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the test, do a deeper dive on each of the sections, discuss how the exam is scored, offer some strategies for studying, and finally wrap up with some essential exam day tips.

 

Exam Overview

The AP Language and Composition exam tests your rhetorical skills. Essentially, how do authors construct effective arguments in their writing? What tools do they use? How can you use those tools to craft effective writing yourself? That is the essence of rhetorical analysis.

The exam has two parts: the first section is an hour-long, 52-55 question multiple-choice section that asks you questions on the rhetorical construction and techniques of a series of nonfiction passages.

The second section is free response. It starts with a 15-minute reading period, and then you’ll have 120 minutes to write three analytical essays: one synthesizing several provided texts to create an argument, one analyzing a nonfiction passage for its rhetorical construction, and one creating an original argument in response to a prompt. You will have about 40 minutes to write each essay, but no one will prompt you to move from essay to essay—you can structure the 120 minutes as you wish.

In the next sections I’ll go over each section of the exam more closely—first multiple choice, and then free response.

 

The AP English Language and Composition Multiple-Choice

The multiple-choice section is primarily focused on how well you can read and understand nonfiction passages for their use of rhetorical devices and tools. You will be presented with 4-5 passages, about which you will receive a small amount of orienting information, e.g. “This passage is excerpted from a collection of essays on boating” or “This passage is excerpted from an essay written in 19th-century Haiti.” You will be asked somewhere from 10-15 questions per passage.

There are, in general, eight question types you can expect to encounter on the multiple-choice section of the exam. I’ve taken my examples from the sample questions in the “Course and Exam Description.” 

 

Magic eight-ball says there are eight types of multiple-choice questions!

 

Type 1: Reading Comprehension

These questions are focused on verifying that you understood what a certain part of the passage was saying on a concrete, literal level. You can identify these questions from phrases like “according to” “refers,” etc. The best way to succeed on these questions is to go back and re-read the part of the passage referred to very carefully.

Example:

 

Type 2: Implication

These questions take reading comprehension one step further—they are primarily focused on what the author is implying without directly coming out and saying it. These questions will have a correct answer, though, based on evidence from the passage. Which interpretation offered in the answers does the passage most support? You can identify questions like these from words like “best supported,” ‘“implies,” “suggests,” “inferred,” and so on.

Example:

 

Type 3: Overall Passage and Author Questions

These questions ask about overall elements of the passage or the author, such as the author’s attitude on the issue discussed, the purpose of the passage, the passage’s overarching style, the audience for the passage, and so on. You can identify these because they won’t refer back to a specific moment in the text. For these questions, you’ll need to think of the passage from a “bird’s-eye view” and consider what all of the small details together are combining to say.

Example:

 

Type 4: Relationships Between Parts of the Text

Some questions will ask you to describe the relationshipbetween two parts of the text, whether they are paragraphs or specific lines. You can identify these because they will usually explicitly ask about the relationship between two identified parts of the text, although sometimes they will instead ask about a relationship implicitly, by saying something like “compared to the rest of the passage.”

Example:

 

Type 5: Interpretation of Imagery/Figurative Language

These questions will ask you about the deeper meaning or implication of figurative language or imagery that is used in the text. Essentially, why did the author choose to use this simile or this metaphor? What is s/he trying to accomplish? You can generally identify questions like this because the question will specifically reference a moment of figurative language in the text. However, it might not be immediately apparent that the phrase being referenced is figurative, so you may need to go back and look at it in the passage to be sure of what kind of question you are facing.

Example:

 

Type 6: Purpose of Part of the Text

Still other questions will ask you to identify what purpose a particular part of the text serves in the author’s larger argument. What is the author trying to accomplish with the particular moment in the text identified in the question? You can identify these questions because they will generally explicitly ask what purpose a certain part of the text serves. You may also see words or phrases like “serves to” or “function.”

Example:

 

Type 7: Rhetorical Strategy

These questions will ask you to identify a rhetorical strategy used by the author. They will often specifically use the phrase “rhetorical strategy,” although sometimes you will be able to identify them instead through the answer choices, which offer different rhetorical strategies as possibilities. 

Example:

 

 

Type 8: Style and Effect

Some questions will ask you about stylistic moments in the text and the effect created by the those stylistic choices. What is the author evoking through their stylistic choices? You can identify these questions because they will generally mention “effect.”

Example:

Some very important stylish effects going on here.

 

The AP English Language and Composition Free Response

The free response section has a 15-minute reading period. After that time, you will have 120 minutes to write three essays that address three distinct tasks. Because the first essay involves reading sources, it is suggested that you use the entire 15-minute reading period to read the sources and plan the first essay. However, you may want to glance at the other questions during the reading period so that ideas can percolate in the back of your mind as you work on the first essay.


Essay One: Synthesis

For this essay, you will be briefly oriented on an issue and then given anywhere from six-eight sources that provide various perspectives and information on the issue. You will then need to write an argumentative essay with support from the documents. If this sounds a lot like a DBQ, as on the history AP exams, that’s because it is! However, this essay is much more argumentative in nature—your goal is to persuade, not merely interpret the documents.

Example (documents not included, see 2015 free response questions):

 

Essay Two: Rhetorical Analysis

In the second essay, you’ll be presented with an excerpt from a nonfiction piece that advances an argument and asked to write an essay analyzing the rhetorical strategies used to construct the passage’s argument. You will also be given some orienting information—where the passage was excerpted from, who wrote it, its approximate date, where it was published (if at all), and to whom it was directed.

Example (excerpt not included, see 2015 free response questions):

 

Essay Three: Argument

In the third essay, you will be presented with an issue and asked to write a persuasive essay taking a position on the issue. You will need to support your position with evidence from your “reading, experience, and observations.”

Example (from 2015 free response questions):

This doesn't look like a very well-constructed argument.

 

How The AP Language and Composition Exam Is Scored

The multiple-choice section of the exam is worth 45% of your score, and the free-response section is worth the other 55%. So each of the three free-response essays is worth about 18% of your score.

As on other APs, your raw score will be converted to a scaled score of 1-5. This exam has a relatively low 5 rate. Only 9.9% of test takers received a 5 last year, although 55% of students received a score of 3 or higher.

In terms of how the raw score is obtained, the multiple-choice section is similar to other AP multiple-choice sections: you receive a point for every question you answer correctly, and there is no penalty for guessing.

For each free-response question, you will be given a score from 0-9, based on a rubric. The rubrics all assess, in general, 3 major things: 

  1. How well you responded to the prompt: Did you completely and fully address all of the tasks presented in the prompt, without misunderstanding any of them?

  2. How convincing and well-supported your argument was: Do you take a clear position that is not overly basic, simplistic, or obvious? Can you comprehensively support your position with evidence? Is your evidence well-chosen and well-explained? Do you tie everything back to your main argument? Have you thought through the implications of your stated position?

  3. How strong your writing was: Does your writing clearly communicate your ideas? Are your sentences not just grammatically correct, but sophisticated? Do you have a consistent style and a strong vocabulary? Is your paper well-organized and logically arranged?

Each rubric broadly assesses these three factors. However, each task is also different in nature, so the rubrics do have some differences. I’ll go over each rubric—and what it really means—for you here.



Synthesis Essay Rubric

Score

What the Rubric Says

What This Means

9

Essays earning a score of 9 meet the criteria for the score of 8 and, in addition, are especially sophisticated in their argument, thorough in development, or impressive in their control of language.

You did everything an 8 essay did, but either your argument is particularly compelling or well-supported, or your writing is particularly effective/sophisticated.

8

Essays earning a score of 8 effectively address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by effectively synthesizing at least three of the sources. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and convincing. The prose demonstrates a consistent ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but is not necessarily flawless.

You thoroughly responded to the prompt, successfully using (and citing) at least three of the sources to support your argument. You supported your argument in a persuasive way.  Your writing is competent, although there may be some minor errors.

7

Essays earning a score of 7 meet the criteria for the score of 6 but provide more complete explanation, more thorough development, or a more mature prose style.

Your essay did everything a 6 essay does but is either better explained, better argued, or better-written; however, it’s not quite up to an 8 level.

6

Essays earning a score of 6 adequately address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by adequately synthesizing at least three of the sources. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and sufficient. The language may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but generally the prose is clear.

You responded to the prompt in a reasonable way. You used and cited at least 3 of the sources in creating your argument. You supported your argument in a reasonably persuasive way, although not as compellingly as an 8 essay. Your writing is generally understandable.

5

Essays earning a score of 5 address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by synthesizing at least three sources, but how they use and explain sources is somewhat uneven, inconsistent, or limited. The writer’s argument is generally clear, and the sources generally develop the writer’s position, but the links between the sources and the argument may be strained. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but it usually conveys the student’s ideas.

You did respond to the prompt. You used and cited at least 3 of the sources in creating your argument, but you did not use all of them particularly effectively. The connection between the documents and your argument is underdeveloped. Your writing is mostly understandable but may have errors.

4

Essays earning a score of 4 inadequately address the task in the prompt. They develop their argument by synthesizing at least two sources, but the evidence or explanations used may be inappropriate, insufficient, or unconvincing. The sources may dominate the essay’s attempts at development, the link between the argument and the sources may be weak, or the student may misunderstand, misrepresent, or oversimplify the sources. The prose generally conveys the student’s ideas but may be inconsistent in controlling the elements of effective writing.

You did not adequately respond to the prompt. You used and cited at least two sources, but you did not effectively link them to your argument. Your essay may summarize sources instead of truly taking a position, or you may have misread the sources. Your writing is not consistently clear.

3

Essays earning a score of 3 meet the criteria for the score of 4 but demonstrate less success in addressing the task. They are less perceptive in their understanding of the sources, or their explanation or examples may be particularly limited or simplistic. The essays may show less maturity in their control of writing.

Your essay did not adequately respond to the prompt. Your interpretation of the sources is incorrect or your argument is overly simplistic. Your writing is overly basic or unclear.

2

Essays earning a score of demonstrate little success in addressing the task in the prompt. They may merely allude to knowledge gained from reading the sources rather than cite the sources themselves. These essays may misread the sources, fail to develop a position, or substitute a simpler task by merely summarizing or categorizing the sources or by merely responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation. Essays that score 2 often demonstrate consistent weaknesses in writing, such as grammatical problems, a lack of development or organization, or a lack of control.

You barely addressed the prompt. You may not cite any sources directly, misunderstand the sources, never take a position, or write things that are not relevant to the prompt. Writing is very weak, including grammatical issues.

1

Essays earning a score of 1 meet the criteria for the score of 2 but are undeveloped, especially simplistic in their explanation, weak in their control of writing, or do not allude to or cite even one source

Your writing barely addressed the prompt. Explanations are extremely simple, writing is incredibly weak, or sources are not used or cited at all.

0

Indicates an off-topic response, one that merely repeats the prompt, an entirely crossed-out response, a drawing, or a response in a language other than English.

You made no attempt to respond to the prompt.

-

Indicates an entirely blank response

You didn’t write anything!

 

Time to synthesize this dough into some cookies.



Rhetorical Analysis Essay Rubric

Score

What the Rubric Says

What This Means

9

Essays earning a score of 9 meet the criteria for the score of 8 and, in addition, are especially sophisticated in their argument, thorough in their development, or impressive in their control of language.

You achieved everything an 8 essay did, but the quality of either your argument or your writing is exceptional.

8

Essays earning a score of 8 effectively analyze the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. They develop their analysis with evidence and explanations that are appropriate and convincing, referring to the passage explicitly or implicitly. The prose demonstrates a consistent ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but is not necessarily flawless.

You successfully and persuasively analyzed the rhetoric of the excerpt in a way that is strongly supported by specific examples in the text. Your writing is versatile and strong.

7

Essays earning a score of 7 meet the criteria for the score of 6 but provide more complete explanation, more thorough development, or a more mature prose style.

You achieved everything a 6 essay did, but your argument was either better explained or supported or your writing was of a higher caliber.

6

Essays earning a score of 6 adequately analyze the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. They develop their analysis with evidence and explanations that are appropriate and sufficient, referring to the passage explicitly or implicitly. The essay may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but generally the prose is clear.

You successfully analyzed the rhetoric of the excerpt, using appropriate references to the text. Your writing was generally understandable.  

5

Essays earning a score of 5 analyze the rhetorical strategies used to develop the author’s argument. The evidence or explanations used may be uneven, inconsistent, or limited. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but it usually conveys the student’s ideas.

You analyzed the rhetoric of the excerpt, although evidence from the passage may have been poorly used or deployed. Your writing is mostly understandable but may have errors.

4

Essays earning a score of 4 inadequately analyze the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. These essays may misunderstand the passage, misrepresent the strategies the author uses, or may analyze these strategies insufficiently. The evidence or explanations used may be inappropriate, insufficient, or unconvincing. The prose generally conveys the student’s ideas but may be inconsistent in controlling the elements of effective writing.

You did not analyze the rhetoric in the passage in a reasonable way. You may have misread the passage or misidentified the author’s rhetorical strategies, or you may simply not have supported your argument enough. Textual evidence may not be appropriate to the task at hand. Your writing is not consistently clear.

3

Essays earning a score of 3 meet the criteria for the score of 4 but demonstrate less success in analyzing the rhetorical strategies the author uses to develop his/her argument. They are less perceptive in their understanding of the passage or the author’s strategies, or the explanations or examples may be particularly limited or simplistic. The essays may show less maturity in control of writing.

A 3 essay has similar weaknesses to a 4 essay, but displays less understanding of the passage or the author’s intent. The writing may also be even more inconsistent or basic.

2

Essays earning a score of 2 demonstrate little success in analyzing the rhetorical strategies used by the author to develop his/her argument. These essays may misunderstand the prompt, misread the passage, fail to analyze the strategies used, or substitute a simpler task by responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation. The essays often demonstrate consistent weaknesses in writing, such as grammatical problems, a lack of development or organization, or a lack of control.

You barely analyzed the passage. You may have misunderstood the assigned task, seriously misread the passage or the author’s intent, or responded to something other than the prompt. Writing is consistently weak.

1

Essays earning a score of 1 meet the criteria for the score of 2 but are undeveloped, especially simplistic in their explanation, or weak in their control of language.

A 1 essay is has similar weaknesses to a 2 essay, but is even more poorly supported or poorly written.

0

Indicates an off-topic response, one that merely repeats the prompt, an entirely crossed-out response, a drawing, or a response in a language other than English.

You made no attempt to respond to the prompt.

-

Indicates an entirely blank response.

You didn’t write anything!

 

Examine your texts closely!

 


Argumentative Essay Rubric

Score

What the Rubric Says

What This Means

9

Essays earning a score of 9 meet the criteria for the score of 8 and, in addition, are especially sophisticated in their argument, thorough in their development, or particularly impressive in their control of language.

You meet the criteria for an 8, plus you have either a particularly strong argument, strong support, or strong writing.

8

Essays earning a score of 8 effectively develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and convincing, and the argument is especially coherent and well developed. The prose demonstrates a consistent ability to control a wide range of the elements of effective writing but is not necessarily flawless.

You persuasively address the prompt, using strong evidence to support your argument. Your writing is strong but not necessarily perfect.

7

Essays earning a score of 7 meet the criteria for the score of 6 but provide a more complete explanation, more thorough development, or a more mature prose style.

A 7 essay meets the criteria for a 6 essay but is either better-argued, better-supported, or more well-written.

6

Essays earning a score of 6 adequately develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence and explanations used are appropriate and sufficient, and the argument is coherent and adequately developed. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but generally the prose is clear.

You reasonably address the prompt, using reasonable evidence to support your argument. Your writing is generally good but may have some mistakes.

5

Essays earning a score of 5 develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence or explanations used may be uneven, inconsistent, or limited. The writing may contain lapses in diction or syntax, but it usually conveys the student’s ideas.

You do address the prompt, although the support for your argument may be sparse or not wholly convincing. Your writing is usually clear, but not always.

4

Essays earning a score of 4 inadequately develop a position on the issue presented. The evidence or explanations used may be inappropriate, insufficient, or unconvincing. The argument may have lapses in coherence or be inadequately developed. The prose generally conveys the student’s ideas but may be inconsistent in controlling the elements of effective writing.

You do not adequately address the prompt or form a strong argument. Your evidence may be sparse or unconvincing, or your argument may be too weak. Your writing is not consistently clear.

3

Essays earning a score of 3 meet the criteria for the score of 4 but demonstrate less success in developing a position on the issue. The essays may show less maturity in control of writing.

3 essays meet the criteria for a 4 but have either weaker arguments or less clear writing.

2

Essays earning a score of 2 demonstrate little success in developing a position on the issue. These essays may misunderstand the prompt, or substitute a simpler task by responding to the prompt tangentially with unrelated, inaccurate, or inappropriate explanation. The prose often demonstrates consistent weaknesses in writing, such as grammatical problems, a lack of development or organization, or a lack of coherence and control.

You barely addressed the assigned task. Your essay may misunderstand the prompt. Your evidence may be irrelevant or inaccurate. Your writing is weak on multiple levels.

1

Essays earning a score of 1 meet the criteria for the score of 2 but are undeveloped, especially simplistic in their explanation and argument, weak in their control of language, or especially lacking in coherence.

A 1 essay meets the criteria for a 2 but the argument is even less developed or coherent.

0

Indicates an off-topic response, one that merely repeats the prompt, an entirely crossed-out response, a drawing, or a response in a language other than English.

You made no attempt to respond to the prompt.

-

Indicates an entirely blank response.

You didn’t write anything!


 As you can see, the synthesis rubric is focused on how you used sources, the analysis rubric is focused on how well you analyzed the text, and the argument rubric is focused on the strength of your argumentative writing without outside sources.

Achieving a high score on an AP Lang and Comp essay is no easy feat. The average scores on essays last year were all under 5, with the Synthesis essay at about a 4.7 and the other two at just over 4. So even getting a 7 out of 9 is very impressive!

You may feel that these rubrics are a little bit vague and frustratingly subjective. And, indeed, what separates a 6 from a 7, a 7 from an 8, an 8 from a 9 may not be entirely clear in every case, no matter the pains taken by the College Board to standardize AP essay grading. 

That said, the general principles behind the rubrics—respond to the prompt, build a strong argument, and write well—hold up. If you can write strong essays in the time allotted, you’ll be well on your way to a score of 5 even if your essays got 7s instead of 8s.

So what can you do to prepare yourself for the frenzy of AP English Lit activity?

 

The best kind of frenzy is a puppy frenzy!

 

AP English Language Prep Tips

Unlike its cousin, the AP English Literature and Composition exam, the AP Language and Composition exam (and course) have very little to do with fiction or poetry. So some students used to more traditional English classes may be somewhat at a loss as to what to do to prepare.

Luckily for you, I have a whole slate of preparation tips for you!

 

Read Nonfiction - In a Smart Way

A major thing you can do to prepare for the AP Lang and Comp exam is to read nonfiction—particularlynonfiction that argues a position, whether explicitly (like an op-ed) or implicitly (like many memoirs and personal essays). Read a variety of non-fiction genres and topics, and pay attention to the following:

  • What is the author’s argument?
  • What evidence do they use to support their position?
  • What rhetorical techniques and strategies do they use to build their argument?
  • Are they persuasive? What counterarguments can you identify? Do they address them?

Thinking about these questions with all the reading you do will help you hone your rhetorical analysis skills.

  

Learn Rhetorical Terms and Strategies

Of course, if you’re going to be analyzing the nonfiction works you read for their rhetorical techniques and strategies, you need to know what those are! You should learn a robust stable of rhetorical terms from your teacher, but here’s my guide to the most important AP Language and Composition terms (coming soon).

  • If you want to review, there are many resources you could consult:
  • Another great resource for learning about rhetorical analysis and how rhetorical devices are actually used is the YouTube Channel Teach Argument, which has videos rhetorically analyzing everything from Taylor Swift music videos to Super Bowl commercials. It’s a fun way to think about rhetorical devices and get familiar with argumentative structures.
  • Finally, a great book—which you might already use in your class—is “They Say, I Say.” This book provides an overview of rhetoric specifically for academic purposes, which will serve you well for AP preparation and beyond.

 

Write

You also need to practice argumentative and persuasive writing. In particular, you should practice the writing styles that will be tested on the exam: synthesizing your own argument based on multiple outside sources, rhetorically analyzing another piece of writing in-depth, and creating a completely original argument based on your own evidence and experience.

You should be doing lots of writing assignments in your AP class to prepare, but thoughtful, additional writing will help. You don’t necessarily need to turn all of the practice writing you do into polished pieces, either—just writing for yourself, while trying to address some of these tasks, will give you a low-pressure way to try out different rhetorical structures and argumentative moves, as well as practicing things like organization and developing your own writing style.

 

Not the most auspicious start to an argumentative essay.

  

Practice for the Exam

Finally, you’ll need to practice specifically for the exam format. There are sample multiple-choice questions in the “AP Course and Exam Description,” and old free-response questions on the College Board website.

Unfortunately, the College Board hasn’t officially released any complete exams from previous years for the AP English Language and Composition exam, but you might be able to find some that teachers have uploaded to school websites and so on by Googling “AP Language complete released exams.” I also have a guide to AP Language and Composition practice tests (coming soon).

Once you’re prepped and ready to go, how can you do your best on the test?

  

AP Language and Composition Test Day Tips

Here are four key tips for test-day success.

 

You are one hundred percent success!

 

Interact With the Text

When you are reading passages, both on the multiple-choice section and for the first two free-response questions, interact with the text! Mark it up for things that seem important, devices you notice, the author’s argument, and anything else that seems important to the rhetorical construction of the text. This will help you engage with the text and make it easier to answer questions or write an essay about the passage.

 

Think About Every Text’s Overarching Purpose and Argument

Similarly, with every passage you read, consider the author’s overarching purpose and argument. If you can confidently figure out what the author’s primary assertion is, it will be easier to trace how all of the other aspects of the text play into the author’s main point.

 

Plan Your Essays

The single most important thing you can do for yourself on the free-response section of the AP English Language exam is to spend a few minutes planning and outlining your essays before you start to write them. Unlike on some other exams, where the content is the most important aspect of the essay, on the AP Language Exam, organization, a well-developed argument, and strong evidence are all critical to strong essay scores. An outline will help you with all of these things. You’ll be able to make sure each part of your argument is logical, has sufficient evidence, and that your paragraphs are arranged in a way that is clear and flows well.

 

Anticipate and Address Counterarguments

Another thing you can do to give your free responses an extra boost is to identify counterarguments to your position and address them within your essay. This not only helps shore up your own position, but it's also a fairly sophisticated move in a timed essay that will win you kudos with AP graders.

Address counterarguments properly or they might get returned to sender!

 

Key Takeaways

The AP Language and Composition exam tests your rhetorical skills. The exam has two sections. The first section is an hour-long, 52-55 question multiple-choice test based on the rhetorical techniques and strategies deployed in nonfiction passages. The second section is a two-hour free-response section (with a 15-minute initial reading period) with three essay questions: one where you must synthesize given sources to make an original argument, one where you must rhetorically analyze a given passage, and one where you must create a wholly original argument about an issue with no outside sources given.

You’ll receive one point for every correct answer on the multiple-choice section of the exam, which is worth 45% of your score. The free-response section is worth 55% of your score. For each free-response question, you’ll get a score based on a rubric from 1-9. Your total raw score will be converted to a scaled score from 1-5.

Here are some test prep strategies for AP Lang:

  1. Read nonfiction with an eye for rhetoric
  2. Learn rhetorical strategies and techniques
  3. Practice writing to deploy rhetorical skills
  4. Practice for the exam!
Here are some test-day success tips:
  1. Interact with each passage you encounter!
  2. Consider every text’s overarching purpose and argument.
  3. Keep track of time
  4. Plan your essays
  5. Identify and address counterarguments in your essays.

With all of this knowledge, you’re ready to slay the AP English Language and Composition beast!

 

Noble knight, prepare to slay the AP dragon!

 

What's Next?

Taking the AP Literature exam? Check out our ultimate guide to the AP English Literature test and our list of AP Literature practice tests.

Taking other AP exams? See our Ultimate Guides to AP World History, AP US History, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP World History, and AP Human Geography. 

Need more AP prep guidance? Check out how to study for AP exams and how to find AP practice tests. 

 

The AP Language and Composition exam tests your ability to not only read content, but also to analyze what you have read and draw conclusions to present in an argument. The test consists of two parts: multiple choice and free response.

These AP English Language tips can help you feel confident about scoring a 5 on the AP Language and Composition exam. Let’s get started.

AP English Language Course Study Tips

Before you learn how to study for the specific portions of the AP Language exam, it’s time to learn how to study for AP courses in general. AP stands for Advanced Placement; meaning, the courses are designed to challenge you more so than a regular high school class. It’s safe to say that it’s nearly impossible to pass the AP Language and Composition exam if you don’t have a grasp on how to study for a class as stimulating as an Advanced Placement course.

1. Become Familiar with AP Style Questions: Before you can even begin to study for the AP exams, you need to familiarize yourself with the overall format of the questions being asked on the exam. AP Central is a study aid website developed by the College Board, who writes the AP exam. Here, they have the formats of the questions being asked on specific AP exams. They even have copies of the questions present on previous AP exams. Take a look at the questions they have specifically for the AP Language and Composition exam on AP Central.

2. Complete Any Summer Work Assigned: Many AP English courses require you to read a few books over the summer vacation months. The teachers expect you to have read the content, and in some cases, they’ll even want you to complete a book report or project during the first week of class. It would be incredibly unwise to procrastinate and try to cram reading three or more books in the span of the last few weeks of summer. Not only will you stress yourself out, but you also will hinder your understanding of the content. If you plan on procrastinating and not doing what is asked by your AP teachers, be prepared for a rude awakening at the beginning of the school year in the form of a bad project grade. This can develop into your end of the year exam scores suffering.

3. Teach Yourself the Material: A good portion of Advanced Placement courses is based on teaching yourself the content. I can guarantee that you won’t understand every single concept covered in the hour or so that you’re actually in the classroom. When this inevitably happens, you’re going to feel lost and the subject matter becomes a little daunting. But the rest is up to you: you can either take it into your own hands and research the topic when you get home, or you can ignore the topic completely and hope you understand the next one. Here’s a hint: you should choose the first one. There’s a huge abundance of extra content out there for you to discover. Of course, there are the obvious choices like YouTube review videos and articles explaining the content you find a little hazy. However, there’s also an incredible amount of hidden gems around the Internet just waiting to be discovered.

Teachers don’t have time to cover every single tiny detail of content in the sixty minutes or so that they have you every day. At the end of the year, it’s up to you to make sure you understand everything to make a 5 on the AP exam.

4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills: A good portion of Advanced Placement courses is designed to test your ability to think critically. Critical thinking is a skill that will be extremely beneficial for you to acquire, not only for AP courses, but also for real life. To pass many AP courses, you need to understand that everything covered isn’t simply black and white. There are an incredible number of gray areas within the content that you need to learn to approach from every angle. If you keep an open mind and combine your observations as well as inferences you’ve made with the material, critical thinking will be a skill you’ll build with ease. This will drastically increase your odds of scoring high on AP exams.

5. Go to Class: Avoid missing your AP classes at all costs. If you’re not in class, how can you possibly expect to learn the content? You’re more likely to get behind on assignments if you miss class, which can become very stressful. Any amount of added stress can severely affect your understanding of vital concepts covered on the end of the year exams.

6. Form a Study Group: One of the most effective ways to study for any exam is to form a study group. Ideally, this group will contain members of all knowledge levels. Each person will bring something to the table—maybe you know more about symbolism than Susan, while Susan understands literary devices better than Ryan, and so on. Learning other people’s viewpoints on the subjects covered on the different exams will help you approach questions from every angle.

Now that you’ve followed the previous general Advanced Placement study tips, you can focus on studying specifically for the AP Language and Composition exam.

This part of this article will focus on the multiple-choice portion, which amounts to 45% of your overall score. So you could say that it’s pretty important.

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AP English Language Multiple Choice Tips

1. Prepare Early: The most important tip for acing any standardized exam is to develop good study habits. Prepare early. If possible, start at the beginning of the semester. Once you learn your first new topic or cover a key concept, review it that night. Then, when you learn your second, study that in addition to the previous learned concept. The process should go on throughout the semester which will be a surefire way to remember important content at the end of the year.

2. Test Yourself: If you’re one of the many high school students who don’t spend most of their time studying, preparing early, and following the system of the previous study tip, we understand. You have cheer practice, guitar lessons, homework and everything in between. Studying every single night may be a bit of a struggle. If this sounds like you, then the best option for studying for the AP Language exam is to test yourself. Periodically throughout the semester, look up practice exams to test your comprehension of the material.

3. Read the Passages FIRST: Everyone knows the classic shortcut when it comes to multiple choice tests—read the questions first, then scan the passages to look for the answers. This is a method of approaching the exam that is completely wrong. It will leave you without a deep understanding of what the passage is about. With less comprehension, you’re more likely to make mistakes and choose the wrong answer.

4. Read the Questions Thoroughly: This goes without saying. If you don’t have a good grasp on the content of the question, you’re going to get it wrong. Read the questions carefully and determine what it is asking, where in the text the answer can be found, and whether any of the choices provide a logical answer to the question.

Sometimes the answer to the questions can be complicated and rather unnerving. To avoid getting overwhelmed by this, try covering up the multiple choice answers with your hand or ignore them completely while you read just the stem of the question. Try to come up with an answer for the question before you even glance at the possible choices.

5. Reread Portions of the Text: When you have determined where in the passage an answer can be found, reread that portion. Dissect it thoroughly and from there, decide what the correct answer might be.

6. Use the Process of Elimination: This tip may be a little bit obvious. Ever since you were young, you’ve heard the helpful suggestion of deducing answers. If you’re familiar with the subject matter of the question, it should not be hard to rule out at least one of the choices that you have determined not to be the answer. Physically mark through the answers you believe are wrong. It will help you to visually see which answers couldn’t possibly be the right one. Be sure to take your time when deducing an answer. Sometimes the writers of the test will write two answer choices that seem almost identical. However, one of them will have the slightest difference that makes it incorrect.

It might also help you to circle or underline the terms or reasoning within the wrong answer choices that proves they are incorrect. This may help you further into the test. If you get stumped on a similar question, you may look back onto these incorrect responses. With this information, you can deduce which answers are incorrect and which are correct.

7. Skip Difficult Questions: Because the multiple-choice portion is timed, you may not have time to answer every single question if you are unsure of a few. The simplest way to clear your mind and focus on the easier question is to immediately skip the more difficult questions that require more critical thinking. Then, once you have answered all of the questions you feel more confident about, go back to the more difficult questions, if time permits.

8. Use Circles or Check Marks: Whenever you skip a question, be sure to circle its number. That way, when you’re going back through your test, the search time for unanswered questions will be cut drastically. Alternatively, you can put a check mark beside every question you have answered, leaving unanswered questions with a blank space beside the numbers.

9. When in Doubt, Guess: On the AP Language and Composition exam, like every other Advanced Placement exam, your score on the multiple-choice portion is based on the number of questions you answer correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers. So there’s no logical reason not to guess on questions you are stumped on.

10. Make Flashcards: For terms or concepts that are crucial for you to memorize, make flashcards. It may seem like an elementary study tip, but it truly works. Pay special attention to terms or concepts that you don’t fully understand.

11. Study before Bed: If you’ve made flashcards, a great time to study them, or really any notes you’ve taken, is before you go to bed. The brain remembers the most information right before you go to sleep. This is because when you’re asleep, it processes the most important memories of your day for storage. If you review right before bedtime, your brain prioritizes this information and stores it for quick access. Because of this, it’d be a good idea to study first thing in the morning, too. This will remind your brain that the subject you’re studying really needs to be remembered.

12. Focus on Your Weaknesses: When you don’t quite understand a concept as well as you should, be sure to take time to break it down. Run over it many times in your head and you can even research it for a better understanding. It’s crucial that you’re at least familiar with all concepts that are going to be covered on the exam.

13. Don’t Stress: This is easier said than done, we understand. But there is nothing worse than working your way through multiple choice questions and having your brain freeze because you’re stressed out. This makes it difficult to even read the question, let alone understand it.

14. Remember to Breathe: The best thing you can do when you get overwhelmed by the pressures of the exam is to take a deep breath. Have confidence that you know the material well enough to get through this portion with ease.

The next part of this article will focus on the seemingly daunting free response portion of the AP Language and Composition exam, worth 55% of your score. This portion consists of three different essays you must write within a two-hour period after a mandatory fifteen-minute reading period. Ultimately, these essays will assess your ability to quickly formulate arguments form inferences and analysis drawn from the sources provided to you. If you don’t understand early on how to go about following the instructions that are asked on the exam, you might find this portion more difficult than the multiple-choice section.

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Here are some tips to help you ace this portion of the exam:

AP English Language Free Response Question Tips

1. Understand the Question: Make sure you read the essay prompt many times and identify the key question being asked. Approach the question from each side of the possible argument that it poses.

2. Choose Your Side: Based on the evidence provided for you in the passages you’ve read, come up with an argument. It is often helpful to choose an argument that has more evidence and references to support it, even if you do not necessarily agree with every tiny detail.

3. Create a Thesis: Come up with a strong thesis statement that clearly and effectively approaches the topic and the argument you are presenting. Don’t bother regurgitating the prompt in your introductory paragraphs—the scorers will just assume you are filling space and it will make your argument seem weak and lacking confidence. Answer all of the questions asked by the prompt in your introductory paragraph and include the main point of your argument in your thesis.

4. Build a Strong Body: Once you have your thesis statement, construct body paragraphs around it. Be sure to mention how the supporting evidence you are citing within your essays relates back to your argument.

5. Be Specific: Ambiguity and vague sentences have no place within an AP Language and Composition exam essay. The readers of your essay expect you to be exact and to the point. They want you to prove a point to them, not dance around it aimlessly. The more specific you are with your information, the better.

6. Use Your Resources: You’re given sources for a reason. Use these to strengthen your argument and convince your audience of its legitimacy. Failing to use the resources provided to you will result in an incredibly low score. Why should you be given a high score when you couldn’t even follow the directions of the exam?

7. Develop a Tone: The tone of an essay is what sets the stage for your argument. If there is no tone, it makes the essay seem sloppy and poorly structured. The argument itself may even seem scattered and all over the place. The tone of your essay should reflect your side of the argument. If it doesn’t, how can the readers be expected to understand completely what side you are taking?

8. Learn How to Make Assumptions: A great deal of the scoring of this portion is based on the assumptions you make. The assumptions and inferences made from your sources are crucial. Use them to explain your viewpoints and strengthen your argument. Logical assumptions give interesting perspectives to the scorers of the essays. The use of inferences and assumptions in your essays also demonstrates your ability to think critically (as we discussed earlier).

9. Organize Your Thoughts: As you work through planning your argument in the essays, make sure you take time to organize your thoughts. This will strengthen your argument and the overall structure of your essay. If your essay is neat and clean, the scorers can easily find what they are looking for in a well-written argument.

10. Know the Fundamentals of Writing: If you are unfamiliar with the structure of an essay, you definitely need to learn it before the exam. Think of an essay as a skeleton: the introductory, body, and conclusion paragraphs are the bones; the actual muscle, tendons, and organs holding it together are the bulk of the essay. This is what you add to it, including arguments and supporting evidence.

11. Use Variety: If you write your essay with choppy, short sentences having a simple vocabulary, the reader is going to assume that you are not well-versed in the English language. This can severely hurt your score—especially considering you are taking an exam in AP Language and Composition. If anything, this course should make your writing shine and appeal to the scorer. You wouldn’t want the person grading your essay to assume that you are lacking in style and grammar.

12. Work Quickly: Although you want to keep all of these tips in mind, remember that this is still a timed portion of the exam. You don’t have much time to spend trying to make every single part of your essays perfect.

13. Develop Time Management Skills: Learning time management skills early on can help tremendously when it comes to timed exams. Practice taking timed exams frequently throughout the semester to build confidence and skill. This will really help when you’re forced to formulate multiple arguments for different essays in a limited amount of time.

14. Know the Rubric: Knowing the rubric is an incredibly strategic move in acing the AP Language and Composition essay portion. When you know what exactly it is the scorers usually look for, you can be at ease. This is because you know exactly what to put into your arguments to make for a high-scoring essay.

15. Develop a Good Attitude: Having a good attitude going into the course will show the teacher that you are there to learn. Teachers are more willing to help students that seem upbeat and overall well-rounded. This can also translate into confidence when it comes exam time.

16. READ!: This may seem obvious, but many students don’t understand how much reading is required for this course. AP Language and Composition covers writing styles throughout several centuries and it’s crucial to become familiar with all of them. Reading a few books for leisure in between assignments will help drastically in developing a writing style of your own as well.

17. Practice Dissection: No, don’t worry; you won’t have to know how to dissect a dead frog for the AP Language exam. However, it is a good idea to practice dissecting everything you read. When reading, ask yourself: Who is the audience in this piece? What is it that the author is trying to accomplish by writing this? What is the main idea? Is there any symbolism used in vague sentences?

18. Write Neatly: Legible writing is a scorer’s best friend. They are very busy people with thousands of essays to grade. They do not have much time trying to decipher your chicken scratch. The more the scorers can read, the more there is to grade.

19. Plan Out Your Essays: Even though the essay portion is timed, you should still take a few minutes to plan out your arguments. The last thing you want to do is confuse your readers by having a sloppy essay with little to no organization or planning. Plans help bring structure and life to your writings.

20. Avoid Clichés: Sure, a cliché may bring a sense of familiarity to your writing. But mostly, it just bores the reader. If you must use a common cliché phrase, try to change it up a bit by using synonyms for the verbs.

21. Be Specific: When writing your essays for the AP Language and Composition exam, be specific. The prompt may ask you to discuss the rhetoric devices used in a passage. Instead of just listing them, provide a brief description of each device and how it is used. This will display a sophisticated understanding of the material sure to impress the readers.

22. Stay on Topic: This goes hand in hand with number five. If you have planned out your essay well, you’ll be more conscious as to when your writing is deviating from the main topic. Periodically look back at the prompt as you are writing to make sure you’re answering everything required in your essay.

23. Stay Healthy: A healthy body leads to a healthy mind; they go hand in hand. Be sure to fuel your body and brain with water and a good hearty breakfast before your exam. Moreover, be sure to get enough exercise and eat healthy throughout the rest of the year. You’ll come to see both your mood and your school performance increase.

24. Learn How to Handle Stress: Stress can take a toll on each and every one of us. Learning how to handle it is a skill that is vital to every aspect of life, especially when it comes to school. Be sure to remember that your mental and physical health is more important than a score on a high school exam. Know your limits and take breaks when needed so you can assure a happy and healthy brain.

25.Be comfortable in uncertainty, for that will lead to clarity. The essence of all art, and literature is no exception, is that it dwells in the realm of ambiguity and multiplicity; this is what makes great art. Consider Moby Dick, especially the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” this is fundamentally the world of art. If students can only manage or see one answer, they will never be able to truly understand literature and will always succumb to superficial interpretations and debilitating stress. Thanks for the truly insightful tip from Dan B. from Holy Cross High School.

26. Say you have to read two articles, one in the San Francisco Chronicle and one posted on a blog. You know nothing about either author. You know nothing about the content (topic). Brainstorm about what credibility factors you can deduce before you even see the articles. Thanks for the tip from Mark M.

27. Multiple choice always presents a combination of easy, medium, and hard questions for each passage. Generally speaking, these questions follow the chronology of the passage, but they are all worth the same amount of points. Therefore, the best approach is to go for easy and medium questions first and skip questions that will require a significant amount of time up front. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.

28. When dealing with questions asking about things in context, the best approach is to return to the beginning of the sentence or the previous sentence and read the end of that sentence to understand its meaning. It may also be a good idea to read the sentence that follows as well. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.

29.If you’re running out of time, you should either scan the remaining questions and find the shortest questions or look for questions that contain the answer without requiring you to refer back to the text. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.

30. A great way to pace yourself is to take the number of multiple choice questions and to divide the number by two. Therefore, if you have 60 questions to answer and an hour to do so, you should be at question 30 by the 30 minute mark. You can also use this approach by dividing by the number of passages. Thanks for the tip from Fred B.

31.Create your own excitement about the prompt and what you have to say about it. If you can find a way to be passionate about it, you will write faster, easier, and better. After this year’s test one of my students said she remembered the tip and intentionally generated her own enthusiasm about her topics, so she came out feeling happy about what she wrote. She scored a 4. Thanks for the tip from Pam S.

32. Students need to enhance their vocabulary through adding quality verbs in order to read and write more effectively. This study should embrace the verb in both active and passive voice; likewise, the verb should be mastered for gerundive and participial uses. Thanks for the tip from Mike M.

33.Read credible newspapers daily. Connect current world events to classic essays and memoirs. Look for the connection between the human condition and the speaker’s purpose. Always ask why? Why that word? Why that tone? Why that call to action? Thanks for the tip from Bobbi C.

34. The two skills of the course are argument and rhetorical analysis.One bit of advice that is central to impart to students is the tenet “acknowledge complexity.” This is relevant in arguments (e.g. take time to address reasonable counter-arguments) and rhetorical analysis (e.g. a letter can be both threatening and conciliatory — check out Banneker’s letter to Jefferson from the 2010 test). Passing the AP English Language and Composition exam is never going to be easy. But with the right amount of studying, motivation, and understanding (along with these tips, of course), you should have more than what it takes to score well on this exam. Prepare early, be confident in your comprehension of the material, and watch yourself work through the exam with certainty. Thanks for the tip from Peter D.

Tips Submitted by AP English Language Teachers

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