As we approach AP exam time, you’ll want to explore how to best prepare yourself for the AP English Literature free-response section of the exam. Free-response makes up 55% of your test score. In this section, you will write three essays regarding prompts from poetry, a selected passage, and a work of literary fiction you select.
Only 7.6% of AP English Literature students scored a 5, in 2016. Follow this AP English Literature study plan to improve your chances of a possible 5 on this year’s test. Included herein are best practices for studying, practice exams, and tips on writing extraordinary essays.
What is the format of AP English Literature?
The goal of the AP English Literature course is to familiarize students with complex literary works of fiction. Through analytical reading and a careful attention to detail, students learn critical analysis of creative writing. Writing is an integral part of the course and exam. Essay assignments focus on the critical analysis of provided literary works and can be expository, analytical or argumentative.
The exam takes 3 hours. It is comprised of three free-response essays and 55 multiple-choice questions. The free-response section accounts to 55% of your score.
You will be given two hours to complete three free-response essays. The first will be corresponding to a given poem. The second will be regarding an excerpt from prose fiction or drama. The third is centered around a literary work chosen by you, from a specified category.
Why is the AP English Literature Free-Response Important?
Scoring guidelines for the AP English Literature Exam show that essays are assigned grades from 1-9. A 9 is the best score possible. Each of your scores is then multiplied by 3.0556. This weighted score is added to your multiple-choice totals, and the sum is your score. Overall scores ranging 114-150 are required for a 5 on the AP English Literature Exam.
If you score a perfect 68 on the multiple-choice portion, you would need three solid 5’s on your essays to earn a 5, on your overall exam. Since, it’s unlikely for anyone to achieve a perfect multiple-choice score, you should aim higher on the free-response questions.
A reasonable goal to strive for, would be earning 7’s on your essays. This would allow you to earn a 5 for your overall score by answering 40 MCQs correctly.
What Content is Covered in the Free-Response Section of AP English Literature?
For the AP English Literature Free-response section you are required to write three essays. They may be argumentative, analytical or expository depending on instructions. This section tests your ability to read and interpret various literary works, as well as your ability to communicate your ideas in a stylized, coherent response.
The test questions and subject matter change yearly, however, the structure remains the same. There will be one poem, one passage from prose fiction (or drama), and one work that you choose from a given category. Each fictional work will be accompanied by a question that you must answer in your essay. These range from specific interpretation of a given line or literary device used, to overall understanding of a writer’s purpose, theme or style.
Literature represented may span the 18th to 20th centuries. Poets such as John Keats, Walt Whitman, and Gwendolyn Brooks are possible examples. In drama, you may see the likes of Samuel Beckett, Sophocles, or Tennessee Williams. And, in expository prose, you’ll find authors such as Gloria Anzaldua, George Orwell, or Edward Said.
How to Prepare for AP English Literature Free-Response
Managing your time, as the AP exams grow closer, is imperative if you want a perfect score. There are many resources available online to help get the most from your AP English Literature study plan, both on Albert.io and CollegeBoard. Whether you’re natural at writing and comprehending literature, or not, you’ll want to prepare for the coming exam. Here are some quick tips to help you get the most out of study sessions.
Practice Makes Perfect
You can find released exams and sample essays from previous years, on CollegeBoard. On Albert.io there are a multitude of helpful study resources including 15 Must Know Rhetorical Terms For AP English Literature, AP English Literature; 5 Essential Reads, and practice free-response essays for various works. If you’d like to follow a specific route the One Month AP English Literature Study Guide is helpful and comprehensive.
Focus on Critical Reading
Critical reading is essential for any AP English Literature review. It’s important to never skim through passages while studying. You will miss underlying themes and subtext which are important for answering the AP English Literature practice questions.
Always read at a normal pace in practice and during your exam. Repeat or elaborate passages to ensure you’ve understood them. Consider the following question as you read, “What is the meaning of this sentence, paragraph, stanza, or chapter?”
Utilize Your Syllabus
At the beginning of the year, collect as many of the books, poems and other works assigned for your AP English Literature course as you can. This will allow you to read at your own pace and save valuable time looking for assigned texts as they come up.
Take Notes as You Read
When reviewing any book, poem, essay or other literary work take careful notes which, can be used later. Include the exact title, author’s name and a paraphrasing of the preface or introduction. Also note important themes, styles, and content. When recording specific ideas related to a particular part include page, paragraph, and line number for easy re-examination at a later date.
Carefully Consider Principal Ideas
Take into account the key concepts in any reading assignment. What evidence or support does the author show? In the writings of journalists, identifying these ideas and reinforcing materials is easy. However, accomplishing the same task for a more subtle work, such as that of Sylvia Plath or F. Scott Fitzgerald, may prove challenging.
Explore the Context
Spending a short amount of time researching the context surrounding an author or their work can expand your understanding of issues they tried to address and how well they succeeded. For example, researching Berlin in 1935 will give you insight to better understand the motivations of Vladimir Nabokov, when he wrote The Gift.
Read out Loud
When reading complex passages or poetry it is helpful to read aloud. Often, this approach slows your reading and aids in your comprehension of underlying tones and themes.
Reread when Necessary
It is regularly advised to read a literary work more than once to fully understand complex issues and sophisticated expressions.
Consult Your Dictionary, Thesaurus or Encyclopedia
Take advantage of these invaluable resources at your local library or online to expand your knowledge of words and content that you are reading. Remember that many English and American texts require familiarity with the major themes of Judaic and Christian religious traditions and with Greek and Roman mythology.
Write, Review, and Rewrite Regularly
Writing quality essays takes practice. It’s not an innate ability we are born with. Proper use of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are just as important as understanding the literature you’re analyzing. Refer to How To Score Your Own AP English Literature Practice Essay to review and improve your writing. For an in depth review of free-response strategies turn to 3 Ways to Tackle AP English Literature Prompts. Use of the Albert.io AP English Literature free-response practice questions will be invaluable to your study plan.
How to Answer AP English Literature Free-Response Questions?
Here are some basic guidelines for writing a cohesive free-response essay. For more specific details on writing an exemplary response, check out How to Score Your Own AP English Language Practice Essay. Also, head over to 11 AP English Literature Test Taking Strategies for exam insight.
Understand the Subject Matter
Before you begin formulating your answer, read the prompt and any corresponding passage thoroughly. Ensure you fully comprehend what is being asked of you.
Outline Your Essay
Begin answering any free-response question with a quick outline of your planned essay. An effective introduction will include a thesis statement. Your thesis statement and supporting ideas should be clear and well thought out. Remember to structure your points and end with a conclusion which summarizes your answer.
Write Clearly and Eloquently
As you craft your response pay special attention to structure, vocabulary, and grammar. A well written essay is essential. Be certain to answer the presented question fully with supporting evidence from the passage provided. Ensure that your tenses are in line, pronoun use is not messy, and read your essay for fluidity as you go. Conclude by restating your thesis and summarizing your argument.
What are AP English Literature Free-Response Questions Like?
The following are actual free-response questions from AP English Literature Exams of the past years. You can find many more released questions and responses on CollegeBoard, for reference.
Example One is from the 2016 exam.
“In this excerpt from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Michael Henchard and his daughter Elizabeth-Jane are reunited after years of estrangement. During this separation, Henchard has risen from poor seasonal farm worker to wealthy mayor of a small country town, while Elizabeth has supported herself by waiting tables at a tavern.
Read the passage carefully. Paying particular attention to tone, word choice, and selection of detail, compose a well-written essay in which you analyze Hardy’s portrayal of the complex relationship between the two characters.”
When reading the passage, pay special attention to the relationship between the two characters. Note specific lines which give particular insight. Formulate your opinion and structure your essay to support it. A well-written response for this prompt would understand the many nuisances seen in this excerpt. Notable points to mention in an effective essay include the underlying hypocrisy of Henchard, the unhealthy relationship between the characters and the paradox wherein Elizabeth-Jane tries in vain to relate to her father, causing her own pain.
Take a look at some past responses for this prompt and the scores on CollegeBoard’s 2016 Scoring Guidelines.
Example two is from the 2015 exam.
“In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.
You may select a work from the list below or another work of equal literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”
Some of the choices given included Beloved, Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Letter, and The Crucible.
Select one of the given options or your own, based on your confidence that you remember and understand the plot, characters and details well enough to write a convincing and sophisticated essay. Examine how cruelty plays a role in the story, what that means for the victim and/or perpetrator, and any underlying themes which relate to cruelty. Use specific examples from the piece and support your argument clearly.
Take a look at a few past responses from this prompt and the scores on CollegeBoard’s 2015 Scoring Guidelines.
How can I practice AP English Literature Free-Response?
As you continue to prepare yourself for the AP English Literature free-response portion of the exam, take advantage of the many resources cited herein. Also, look on Albert.io for helpful AP English Literature practice questions, study tips and essay guides.
Don’t forget to check the quality of your writing as you practice by self-scoring your practice responses. Check out How to Score Your Own AP English Literature Essay for help.
Looking for AP English Literature practice?
Kickstart your AP English Literature prep with Albert. Start your AP exam prep today.
Are you taking the AP English Literature and Composition exam? If you’re taking the course or self-studying, you know the exam is going to be tough. Of course, you want to do your best and score a five on the exam. To do well on the AP English Literature and Composition exam, you’ll need to score high on the essays. For that, you’ll need to write a complete, efficient essay that argues an accurate interpretation of the work under examination in the Free Response Question section.
The AP English Literature and Composition exam consists of two sections, the first being a 55-question multiple choice portion worth 45% of the total test grade. This section tests your ability to read drama, verse, or prose fiction excerpts and answer questions about them. The second section worth 55% of the total score requires essay responses to three questions, demonstrating your ability to analyze literary works: a poem analysis, a prose fiction passage analysis, and a concept, issue, or element analysis of a literary work.
From your course or review practices, you should know how to construct a clear, organized essay that defends a focused claim about the work under analysis. Your should structure your essay with a brief introduction that includes the thesis statement, followed by body paragraphs that further the thesis statement with detailed, well-discussed support, and a short concluding paragraph that reiterates and reinforces the thesis statement without repeating it. Clear organization, specific support, and full explanations or discussions are three critical components of high-scoring essays.
General Tips to Bettering Your Odds at a Nine on the AP English Literature and Composition Exam.
Your teacher may have already told you how to approach the poetry analysis, but for the poetry essay, it’s important to keep the following in mind coming into the exam:
- Carefully read, review, and underline key to-do’s in the prompt.
- Briefly outline where you’re going to hit each prompt item–in other words, pencil out a specific order.
- Be sure you have a clear thesis that includes the terms mentioned in the instructions, literary devices, tone, and meaning.
- Include the author’s name and title of the poem in your thesis statement.
- Use quotes—lots of them—to exemplify the elements throughout the essay.
- Fully explain or discuss how your element examples support your thesis. A deeper, fuller, and focused explanation of fewer elements is better than a shallow discussion of more elements (shotgun approach).
- Avoid vague, general statements for a clear focus on the poem itself.
- Use transitions to connect sentences and paragraphs.
- Write in the present tense with generally good grammar.
- Keep your introduction and conclusion short, and don’t repeat your thesis verbatim in your conclusion.
The newly-released 2016 sample AP English Literature and Composition exam questions, sample responses, and grading rubrics provide a valuable opportunity to analyze how to achieve high scores on each of the three Section II FRQ responses. However, for purposes of this examination, the Poetry Analysis strategies will be the focus. The poem for analysis in last year’s exam was “The Juggler” by Richard Wilbur, a modern American poet. Exam takers were asked to analyze the following:
- how the speaker in the poem describes the juggler
- what the description shows about the speaker
- how the poet uses imagery, figurative language, and tone to convey meaning
When you analyze the components of an influential essay, it’s helpful to compare all three sample answers provided by the CollegeBoard: the high scoring (A) essay, the mid-range scoring (B) essay, and the low scoring (C) essay. All three provide a teaching opportunity for achieving a nine on the poetry analysis essay.
Start with a Succinct Introduction that Includes Your Thesis Statement
The first sample essay, the A essay, quickly and succinctly introduces the author, title, thesis, elements, and devices. The writer’s introduction sentences are efficient: they contain no waste and give the reader a sense of the cohesiveness of the argument, including the role of each of the analyzed components in proving the thesis. The specificity of the details in the introduction shows that the writer is in control, with phrases like “frequent alliteration,” “off-kilter rhyme”, and “diction evoking an almost spiritual level of power”. The writer leaves nothing to guesswork.
The mid-range B essay introduction also cites some specific details in the poem, like “visual imagery (of the juggler and his balls), figurative language (the personification of the balls interacting with the juggler), and tone (the playful mood of the first two stanza)”. However, the writer wastes space and precious time (five whole lines!) with a vague and banal recitation of the prompt. The mid-range answer also doesn’t give the reader an understanding of an overarching thesis that he or she will use the elements and devices to support, merely a reference to the speaker’s “attitude”.
The third sample lacks cohesiveness, a thesis statement, and organization. The sentences read like a shotgun spray of facts and descriptions that give no direction to the reader of the writer’s approach: how he or she will use the elements and details listed to prove a thesis. The short, choppy sentences don’t connect, and the upshot is something so commonplace as Wilbur describes a talented juggler, who is also a powerful teacher. That doesn’t respond to the prompt, which requires an argument about what the juggler’s description reveals about the speaker.
To sum up, make introductions brief and compact, using specific details from the poem and a clear direction that address the call of the prompt. Writing counts. Short, choppy, disconnected sentences make an incoherent, unclear paragraph. Don’t waste time on sentences that don’t do the work ahead for you. Cut to the chase; be specific.
Use Clear Examples to Support Your Argument Points
The A answer first supports the thesis by pointing out that alliteration and rhyme scheme depict the mood and disconnection of both the speaker and the crowd. The writer does this by noting how alliteration appears when the juggler performs, but not before. The student also notes how the mood and connection to the crowd cohere when the juggler juggles, the balls defying gravity and uplifting the crowd with the balls. Then, the writer wraps up the first point about description, devices, and elements by concluding that the unusual rhyme scheme echoes the unusual feat of juggling and controlling the mood of the crowd.
With a clear focus on attaching devices to individually quoted phrases and poem details, the student leads the reader through the first pass at proving the attitude of the poem’s speaker while commenting on possible meanings the tone, attitude, and devices suggest. Again, the student uses clear, logical, and precise quotes and references to the poem without wasting time on unsupported statements. Specific illustrations anchor each point.
For example, the student identifies the end rhyme as an unusual effect that mimics the unusual and gravity-defiant balls. Tying up the first paragraph, the student then goes on to thoroughly explain the connection between the cited rhyme scheme, the unique defiance of gravity, and the effect on the speaker. The organizational plan is as follows: point (assertion), illustration, and explanation.
The mid-range sample also cites specific details of the poem, such as the “sky-blue” juggler, a color that suggests playfulness, but then only concludes that euphony shows the speaker’s attitude toward the juggler without making that connection clear with an explanation. The writer simply concludes without proving that assertion. Without further explanation or exemplification, the author demonstrates no knowledge of the term “euphony”.
Sample C also alludes to the “sky-blue” juggler but doesn’t explain the significance. In fact, the writer makes a string of details from the poem appear significant without actually revealing anything about the details the writer notes. They’re merely a string of details.
Discussion is Crucial to Connect Your Quotes and Examples to Your Argument Points
Rather than merely noting quoted phrases and lines without explanation, the A response takes the time to thoroughly discuss the meaning of the quoted words, phrases, and sentences used to exemplify his or her assertions. For example, the second paragraph begins with an assertion that the speaker’s view of the world is evident through the diction used when describing the juggler and the juggler’s act. Immediately, the writer supplies proof by directing the reader to the first and last stanzas to find “lens,” “dusk”, and “daily dark”.
The selection of these particular diction choices demonstrates the writer’s knowledge of the term “diction” and how to support a conclusion the student will make by the end of the sentence that the speaker’s attitude toward the world around him is “not the brightest”. The writer gives a follow-up sentence to further convince the reader of the previous point about the speaker’s dim view by adding, “All the words and phrases used just fall flat, filled with connotations of dullness…”
Using the transition, “however”, the A response goes on to further explain that the juggler’s description contrasts with that of the speaker’s in its lightness, by again providing both specifically-quoted words and complete one or two full sentence follow-ups to the examples. In that way, the writer clarifies the connection between the examples and their use and meaning. Nothing is left unexplained–unlike the B response, which claims Wilbur uses personification, then gives a case of a quoted passage about the balls not being “lighthearted”.
After mentioning the term, the B essay writer merely concludes that Wilbur used personification without making the connection between “lighthearted” and personification. The writer might have written one additional sentence to show that balls as inanimate objects don’t have the emotions to be cheery nor lighthearted, only humans do. Thus, Wilbur personifies the balls. Likewise short of support, the writer concludes that the “life” of the balls through personification adds to the mystery and wonder–without further identifying the wonder or whose wonder and how that wonder results from the life of the balls.
Write a Brief Conclusion
While it’s more important to provide a substantive, organized, and clear argument throughout the body paragraphs than it is to conclude, a conclusion provides a satisfying rounding out of the essay and last opportunity to hammer home the content of the preceding paragraphs. If you run out of time for a conclusion because of the thorough preceding paragraphs, that is not as fatal to your score as not concluding or not concluding as robustly as the A essay sample (See the B essay conclusion).
The A response not only provides a quick but sturdy recap of all the points made throughout the body paragraphs (without repeating the thesis statement) but also reinforces those points by repeating them as the final parting remarks to the reader. The writer demonstrates not only the points made but the order of their appearance, which also showcases the overall structure of the essay.
Finally, a conclusion compositionally rounds out a gracious essay–polite because it considers the reader. You don’t want your reader to have to work hard to understand any part of your essay. By repeating recapped points, you help the reader pull the argument together and wrap up.
Write in Complete Sentences with Proper Punctuation and Compositional Skills
Though pressed for time, it’s important to write an essay with clear, correctly punctuated sentences and properly spelled words. Strong compositional skills create a favorable impression to the reader, like using appropriate transitions or signals (however, therefore) to tie sentences and paragraphs together, making the relationships between sentences clear (“also”–adding information, “however”–contrasting an idea in the preceding sentence).
Starting each paragraph with a clear topic sentence that previews the main idea or focus of the paragraph helps you the writer and the reader keep track of each part of your argument. Each section furthers your points on the way to convincing your reader of your argument. If one point is unclear, unfocused, or grammatically unintelligible, like a house of cards, the entire argument crumbles. Good compositional skills help you lay it all out orderly, clearly, and fully.
For example, the A response begins the first body paragraph with “In the first and last stanzas, no alliteration beyond ‘daily dark’ appears, evoking a tone that could hardly be described as cheerful”. The sentence, with grammatically-correct commas inserted to section off the lead-in phrase, “In the first and last stanzas,” as well as the dependent clause at the sentence’s end, “evoking a tone that…,” gives a road map to the reader as to the paragraph’s design: alliteration, tone, darkness. Then the writer hits all three of those with a complete explanation.
The next paragraph begins with a rather clunky, unwieldy sentence that nevertheless does the same as the first–keys the reader to the first point regarding the speaker’s view of the world and the devices and elements used to do so. It’s clear the writer tackles the speaker’s view, the juggler’s depiction, and diction choice–both as promised from the beginning in the thesis statement of the introductory paragraph and per the prompt. The writer uses the transition “In the first and last stanzas”, to tie the topic sentence to the examples he or she will use to prove the topic sentence; then the writer is off to do the same in the next paragraph.
So by the time the conclusion takes the reader home, the writer has done all of the following:
- followed the prompt
- followed the propounded thesis statement in exact order promised
- provided a full discussion with examples
- included quotes proving each assertion
- used clear, grammatically correct sentences
- wrote paragraphs ordered by a thesis statement
- created topic sentences for each paragraph
- ensured each topic sentence furthered the ideas presented in the thesis statement
Have a Plan and Follow it
It’s easier than it sounds. To get a 9 on the poetry analysis essay in the AP Literature and Composition exam, practice planning a response under strict time deadlines. Write as many practice essays as you can. Follow the same procedure each time.
First, be sure to read the instructions carefully, highlighting the parts of the prompt you absolutely must cover. Then map out a scratch outline of the order you intend to cover each point in support of your argument. Try and include not only a clear thesis statement, written as a complete sentence but the topic sentences to each paragraph followed by the quotes and details you’ll use to support the topic sentences. Then follow your map faithfully.
Be sure to give yourself enough time to give your essay a brief re-read to catch mechanical errors, missing words, or necessary insertions to clarify an incomplete or unclear thought. With time, an organized approach, and plenty of practice, earning a nine on the poetry analysis is manageable. Be sure to ask your teacher or consult other resources, like albert.io’s Poetic Analysis practice essays, if you’re unsure how to identify poetic devices and elements in poetry, or need more practice writing a poetry analysis.
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