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ap lit prose essay tips

How to Write the AP Lit Prose Essay + Example

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What is the ap lit prose essay, how will ap scores affect my college chances.

AP Literature and Composition (AP Lit), not to be confused with AP English Language and Composition (AP Lang), teaches students how to develop the ability to critically read and analyze literary texts. These texts include poetry, prose, and drama. Analysis is an essential component of this course and critical for the educational development of all students when it comes to college preparation. In this course, you can expect to see an added difficulty of texts and concepts, similar to the material one would see in a college literature course.

While not as popular as AP Lang, over 380,136 students took the class in 2019. However, the course is significantly more challenging, with only 49.7% of students receiving a score of three or higher on the exam. A staggeringly low 6.2% of students received a five on the exam. 

The AP Lit exam is similar to the AP Lang exam in format, but covers different subject areas. The first section is multiple-choice questions based on five short passages. There are 55 questions to be answered in 1 hour. The passages will include at least two prose fiction passages and two poetry passages and will account for 45% of your total score. All possible answer choices can be found within the text, so you don’t need to come into the exam with prior knowledge of the passages to understand the work. 

The second section contains three free-response essays to be finished in under two hours. This section accounts for 55% of the final score and includes three essay questions: the poetry analysis essay, the prose analysis essay, and the thematic analysis essay. Typically, a five-paragraph format will suffice for this type of writing. These essays are scored holistically from one to six points.

Today we will take a look at the AP Lit prose essay and discuss tips and tricks to master this section of the exam. We will also provide an example of a well-written essay for review.  

The AP Lit prose essay is the second of the three essays included in the free-response section of the AP Lit exam, lasting around 40 minutes in total. A prose passage of approximately 500 to 700 words and a prompt will be given to guide your analytical essay. Worth about 18% of your total grade, the essay will be graded out of six points depending on the quality of your thesis (0-1 points), evidence and commentary (0-4 points), and sophistication (0-1 points). 

While this exam seems extremely overwhelming, considering there are a total of three free-response essays to complete, with proper time management and practiced skills, this essay is manageable and straightforward. In order to enhance the time management aspect of the test to the best of your ability, it is essential to understand the following six key concepts.

1. Have a Clear Understanding of the Prompt and the Passage

Since the prose essay is testing your ability to analyze literature and construct an evidence-based argument, the most important thing you can do is make sure you understand the passage. That being said, you only have about 40 minutes for the whole essay so you can’t spend too much time reading the passage. Allot yourself 5-7 minutes to read the prompt and the passage and then another 3-5 minutes to plan your response.

As you read through the prompt and text, highlight, circle, and markup anything that stands out to you. Specifically, try to find lines in the passage that could bolster your argument since you will need to include in-text citations from the passage in your essay. Even if you don’t know exactly what your argument might be, it’s still helpful to have a variety of quotes to use depending on what direction you take your essay, so take note of whatever strikes you as important. Taking the time to annotate as you read will save you a lot of time later on because you won’t need to reread the passage to find examples when you are in the middle of writing. 

Once you have a good grasp on the passage and a solid array of quotes to choose from, you should develop a rough outline of your essay. The prompt will provide 4-5 bullets that remind you of what to include in your essay, so you can use these to structure your outline. Start with a thesis, come up with 2-3 concrete claims to support your thesis, back up each claim with 1-2 pieces of evidence from the text, and write a brief explanation of how the evidence supports the claim.

2. Start with a Brief Introduction that Includes a Clear Thesis Statement

Having a strong thesis can help you stay focused and avoid tangents while writing. By deciding the relevant information you want to hit upon in your essay up front, you can prevent wasting precious time later on. Clear theses are also important for the reader because they direct their focus to your essential arguments. 

In other words, it’s important to make the introduction brief and compact so your thesis statement shines through. The introduction should include details from the passage, like the author and title, but don’t waste too much time with extraneous details. Get to the heart of your essay as quick as possible. 

3. Use Clear Examples to Support Your Argument 

One of the requirements AP Lit readers are looking for is your use of evidence. In order to satisfy this aspect of the rubric, you should make sure each body paragraph has at least 1-2 pieces of evidence, directly from the text, that relate to the claim that paragraph is making. Since the prose essay tests your ability to recognize and analyze literary elements and techniques, it’s often better to include smaller quotes. For example, when writing about the author’s use of imagery or diction you might pick out specific words and quote each word separately rather than quoting a large block of text. Smaller quotes clarify exactly what stood out to you so your reader can better understand what are you saying.

Including smaller quotes also allows you to include more evidence in your essay. Be careful though—having more quotes is not necessarily better! You will showcase your strength as a writer not by the number of quotes you manage to jam into a paragraph, but by the relevance of the quotes to your argument and explanation you provide.  If the details don’t connect, they are merely just strings of details.

4. Discussion is Crucial to Connect Your Evidence to Your Argument 

As the previous tip explained, citing phrases and words from the passage won’t get you anywhere if you don’t provide an explanation as to how your examples support the claim you are making. After each new piece of evidence is introduced, you should have a sentence or two that explains the significance of this quote to the piece as a whole.

This part of the paragraph is the “So what?” You’ve already stated the point you are trying to get across in the topic sentence and shared the examples from the text, so now show the reader why or how this quote demonstrates an effective use of a literary technique by the author. Sometimes students can get bogged down by the discussion and lose sight of the point they are trying to make. If this happens to you while writing, take a step back and ask yourself “Why did I include this quote? What does it contribute to the piece as a whole?” Write down your answer and you will be good to go. 

5. Write a Brief Conclusion

While the critical part of the essay is to provide a substantive, organized, and clear argument throughout the body paragraphs, a conclusion provides a satisfying ending to the essay and the last opportunity to drive home your argument. If you run out of time for a conclusion because of extra time spent in the preceding paragraphs, do not worry, as that is not fatal to your score. 

Without repeating your thesis statement word for word, find a way to return to the thesis statement by summing up your main points. This recap reinforces the arguments stated in the previous paragraphs, while all of the preceding paragraphs successfully proved the thesis statement.

6. Don’t Forget About Your Grammar

Though you will undoubtedly be pressed for time, it’s still important your essay is well-written with correct punctuating and spelling. Many students are able to write a strong thesis and include good evidence and commentary, but the final point on the rubric is for sophistication. This criteria is more holistic than the former ones which means you should have elevated thoughts and writing—no grammatical errors. While a lack of grammatical mistakes alone won’t earn you the sophistication point, it will leave the reader with a more favorable impression of you. 

ap lit prose essay tips

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Here are Nine Must-have Tips and Tricks to Get a Good Score on the Prose Essay:

  • Carefully read, review, and underline key instruction s in the prompt.
  • Briefly outlin e what you want to cover in your essay.
  • Be sure to have a clear thesis that includes the terms mentioned in the instructions, literary devices, tone, and meaning.
  • Include the author’s name and title  in your introduction. Refer to characters by name.
  • Quality over quantity when it comes to picking quotes! Better to have a smaller number of more detailed quotes than a large amount of vague ones.
  • Fully explain how each piece of evidence supports your thesis .  
  • Focus on the literary techniques in the passage and avoid summarizing the plot. 
  • Use transitions to connect sentences and paragraphs.
  • Keep your introduction and conclusion short, and don’t repeat your thesis verbatim in your conclusion.

Here is an example essay from 2020 that received a perfect 6:

[1] In this passage from a 1912 novel, the narrator wistfully details his childhood crush on a girl violinist. Through a motif of the allure of musical instruments, and abundant sensory details that summon a vivid image of the event of their meeting, the reader can infer that the narrator was utterly enraptured by his obsession in the moment, and upon later reflection cannot help but feel a combination of amusement and a resummoning of the moment’s passion. 

[2] The overwhelming abundance of hyper-specific sensory details reveals to the reader that meeting his crush must have been an intensely powerful experience to create such a vivid memory. The narrator can picture the “half-dim church”, can hear the “clear wail” of the girl’s violin, can see “her eyes almost closing”, can smell a “faint but distinct fragrance.” Clearly, this moment of discovery was very impactful on the boy, because even later he can remember the experience in minute detail. However, these details may also not be entirely faithful to the original experience; they all possess a somewhat mysterious quality that shows how the narrator may be employing hyperbole to accentuate the girl’s allure. The church is “half-dim”, the eyes “almost closing” – all the details are held within an ethereal state of halfway, which also serves to emphasize that this is all told through memory. The first paragraph also introduces the central conciet of music. The narrator was drawn to the “tones she called forth” from her violin and wanted desperately to play her “accompaniment.” This serves the double role of sensory imagery (with the added effect of music being a powerful aural image) and metaphor, as the accompaniment stands in for the narrator’s true desire to be coupled with his newfound crush. The musical juxtaposition between the “heaving tremor of the organ” and the “clear wail” of her violin serves to further accentuate how the narrator percieved the girl as above all other things, as high as an angel. Clearly, the memory of his meeting his crush is a powerful one that left an indelible impact on the narrator. 

[3] Upon reflecting on this memory and the period of obsession that followed, the narrator cannot help but feel amused at the lengths to which his younger self would go; this is communicated to the reader with some playful irony and bemused yet earnest tone. The narrator claims to have made his “first and last attempts at poetry” in devotion to his crush, and jokes that he did not know to be “ashamed” at the quality of his poetry. This playful tone pokes fun at his childhood self for being an inexperienced poet, yet also acknowledges the very real passion that the poetry stemmed from. The narrator goes on to mention his “successful” endeavor to conceal his crush from his friends and the girl; this holds an ironic tone because the narrator immediately admits that his attempts to hide it were ill-fated and all parties were very aware of his feelings. The narrator also recalls his younger self jumping to hyperbolic extremes when imagining what he would do if betrayed by his love, calling her a “heartless jade” to ironically play along with the memory. Despite all this irony, the narrator does also truly comprehend the depths of his past self’s infatuation and finds it moving. The narrator begins the second paragraph with a sentence that moves urgently, emphasizing the myriad ways the boy was obsessed. He also remarks, somewhat wistfully, that the experience of having this crush “moved [him] to a degree which now [he] can hardly think of as possible.” Clearly, upon reflection the narrator feels a combination of amusement at the silliness of his former self and wistful respect for the emotion that the crush stirred within him. 

[4] In this passage, the narrator has a multifaceted emotional response while remembering an experience that was very impactful on him. The meaning of the work is that when we look back on our memories (especially those of intense passion), added perspective can modify or augment how those experiences make us feel

More essay examples, score sheets, and commentaries can be found at College Board .

While AP Scores help to boost your weighted GPA, or give you the option to get college credit, AP Scores don’t have a strong effect on your admissions chances . However, colleges can still see your self-reported scores, so you might not want to automatically send scores to colleges if they are lower than a 3. That being said, admissions officers care far more about your grade in an AP class than your score on the exam.

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ap lit prose essay tips


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FRQ 2: Prose Analysis

6 min read • november 18, 2021



AP Lit: Prose Analysis

There are three types of free-response questions on the AP Literature exam . You will be given 120 minutes to read two pieces of text and write all three essays, so you should take approximately 40 minutes to write each one. The entire free-response section is worth 55% of your total exam score. 

Question 2 of the FRQ section will be a prose analysis prompt. You will need to read a given prose passage of 500 to 700 words and a prompt to guide your analytical essay about the passage. The prompt will help you figure out what to look for as you read the passage.

So we’re all on the same page, here is the most important definition you need to know that is commonly found in the essay prompts .

Analyze : examine the passage closely for details that help you interpret and explain the question topic (i.e. showing how a passage develops a character)

Prompt Structure

According to the AP English Literature and Composition Course and Exam Description, all prose analysis prompts will follow the same structure shown here:

The following excerpt is from [ text and author, date of publication ]. In this passage, [ comment on what is being addressed in the passage ]. Read the passage carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how [ author ] uses literary elements and techniques to [ convey/portray/develop a thematic, topical, or structural aspect of the passage that is complex and specific to the passage provided ].

Note: If you look for past FRQs, you will find specific literary devices that are given in older prompts that you might use to practice and guide your essay. These will not be given in 2020 and beyond.

Example: Reading the Passage

From the AP English Literature and Composition Course and Exam Description 

The following excerpt is from an 1852 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this passage, two characters who have been living on the Blithedale farm—a community designed to promote an ideal of equality achieved through communal rural living—are about to part ways. Read the passage carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how Hawthorne uses literary elements and techniques to portray the narrator’s complex attitude towards Zenobia.

See how the prompt asks about the “complex attitude towards Zenobia”?  This helps you to know how to approach the passage and how to annotate it as you read it.

It is helpful to underline or circle literary elements to prepare you to read the excerpt. The prompt will always tell you to look for the literary devices or elements that the author uses to create the thematic/topical/ structural aspect of the story.

Now that you know what you’re looking for, read the passage.  As you read, annotate for elements of the abstract topic that the author has created.  Make sure that you are also making connections between the topic and the literary devices.

In this prompt, you are directed toward Hawthorne’s use of characterization and can determine that he is delivering a message about it through his complex attitude, so as you read, you would annotate for not only the characterization of Zenobia but words showing how Hawthorne feels about Zenobia as well.

Annotate for:

figurative language  

shifts in tone, meaning or language

structure and form

diction and syntax that connect to the topic

dialogue revealing something about the characters

When you have read through the passage (twice if possible!), you will have an idea of what you want to write about. Then it is time to write your thesis .

Not to alarm you, but your thesis is the most important part of your essay. It establishes what you’re going to say, and whether or not you’re going to be able to back it up with textual evidence . It should be about a sentence long (it could be a couple, but no more), and clearly state:

the claim you’re making about the passage

that is directly about the abstract topic given

that can be supported by the literary devices in the text

your original interpretation of the passage that is not a summary

In the previous prompt, your thesis would clearly state your interpretation of the characterization and the complexity of the author’s attitude (or, why is it confusing/complex?), and probably the literary elements that created this complexity and understanding.

As you may know, the rubric for AP Lit essays has changed from a 9-point holistic rubric to a 6-point analytical rubric . A perfect score is broken down as follows:

1 point for your thesis

4 points for your evidence and commentary

1 point for sophistication

The rubric that College Board AP exam readers will use is one whole page per category, so that will be posted further down. For now, let’s dive into what each category means.

Thesis (1 Point)

You cannot earn a partial point for your thesis -- you either earn a point or you do not. If you write a thesis statement that interprets the passage according to the prompt in a way that is defensible according to the passage: 1 point. In other words, you write a claim that can be defended by the passage.  

If your thesis is too general, summarizes or describes the passage, or restates the prompt only , that will not earn a point.

Evidence and Commentary (4 Points)

You can earn up to 4 points for evidence and commentary . All of your evidence needs to be integrated and relevant, and all of your commentaries should connect your evidence to your prompt-based thesis.

If you write paragraphs that are unrelated to the prompt and/or the passage, you will earn a 0 in this category.

If you summarize the passage or describe its content, you will earn 1 point.  You will also earn one point if you refer to the literary techniques (that you found in your annotation) but do not explain them or connect them to the passage and your claim/thesis.

If you have some relevant evidence, connected weakly to some explanation and argument, you will earn 2 points.  This includes inaccurate commentary or misinterpreted evidence. 😕

You will earn 3 points for a solid job of selecting evidence and connecting it to your claim.  This means your line of reasoning is supported, and your evidence contains literary elements that you connect succinctly to the abstract topic you were given.

For consistent, persuasive support of your claim that uses significant and specific evidence, you will earn the full 4 points! You would have examined more than one literary device/technique’s use throughout the passage, and organized your essay in order to best defend your claim. (Pro tip: Try NOT to organize your essays with a paragraph per device, but instead write from the beginning of the passage to the end or some other way that emphasizes the structure of the passage. Each passage will have a different approach of attack!)

Sophistication (1 Point)

This point is new and very hard to pin down. It is only one point, which means you earn it or you don’t. But your sophistication in your essay can be found in your writing style, your claim and/or your support of your claim. Earning this point means that your argument was complex and nuanced as well as responded appropriately to the complexity of the passage. For example, you could show alternate interpretations or connect the prompt to a wider theme.


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5 Tips for Writing a Great AP Lit Essay

Nervous about the 'free response prompt' on AP Lit? Don't be. We broke it down into manageable steps!

Lisa Speransky

This year, if you’re taking the AP English Literature exam, you’ll be responsible for responding to three questions, which the College Board calls “free response prompts.” First , you’ll write a literary analysis of a poem. Second, you’ll write a literary analysis of a piece of fiction, which could be an excerpt from a play. Third , you’ll analyze a major literary aspect—a theme or a literary device, for example—of a literary work of your choosing.

The last of these prompts attracts perhaps the most attention and, by extension, produces the most anxiety among students. Anyone would admit that such a capacious (‘open, roomy’) question is challenging, especially when a year of AP Lit has taught you to focus on the details of the book you’re reading. And it certainly doesn’t help that this question comes at the very end of the essay, and you and your fingers are about as tired as they could possibly be!

But if you approach the prompt with enthusiasm, it can be the cherry on top of your exam, not the straw that breaks the camel’s back (getting creative with metaphors is always important in AP Lit!).

Here are five tips to help you write a great essay response to the third prompt on the AP Lit exam.

1. Select the perfect work.

Wait a minute—you can write about anything under the sun, as long as the College Board defines it as “a work of literary merit?” How is that even possible? In truth, your evaluators are using this prompt as a way to gauge your analytical abilities no matter the text. You’re not going to be judged for the work you select, as long as it’s substantial enough to ensure your analysis can be rich and meaningful. A good rule to live by: if a work pops into your head and you don’t immediately have at least a few different ideas for how to answer the prompt with it, toss it out of your brainstorming process. You want to find a work that is challenging and complex in order to show that you’re capable of effectively analyzing such works.

You have two main options for selecting the perfect work, both equally effective. The first is probably the most common: choose a book, play, or other literary work you read in AP Lit. Because you read it in class, you will almost surely be familiar with its themes and literary devices. Your second option is to pick a work you’ve read on your own, which could be anything from a novel you adored over summer break or the Shakespeare play you starred in at school. We recommend creating a short list of works you’d like to write about before you take your AP Lit exam, just to have your options at hand. As you’ve learned to do in class, consider each work’s rhetorical situation. This way, if you’re on the fence about whether a work is really “of literary merit,” you can ask your teacher or someone else in the know for an expert second opinion!

2. Practice really does make perfect.

You don’t know what the third free-response prompt will be, but you know that it will be! The College Board’s AP Lit exam page is only one of a gazillion easily accessible resources online that compile prompts from past years and devise hypothetical ones, too. These are great places to look. In the weeks leading up to the exam, we recommend selecting three to seven prompts—the more diverse in content, the better—and practicing with your list of works of literary merit. We recommend practicing with a work no more than two or three times—it’s great to know a text inside and out, but you don’t want to be a one-trick pony in case the prompt on the exam doesn’t lend itself to an essay about that text.

3. Outline, outline, outline!

Whether for AP exams , the SAT , or the ACT , you’ve heard the dictum a million times—outlines make better essays, even when your time feels extremely limited! When it’s time for the test, this can feel a little bit trite, but we challenge you to find one soul in the grand history of the AP English Literature exam who hasn’t benefited from creating even a rough outline. This is the place where your reasoning and organization come alive. We recommend devoting 5-7 minutes to your outline—the lower end if you’re confident you know the text inside and out and just need to nail down your claims and evidence, and the higher end if you need to jog your memory and give your thesis a bit more time to gestate.

What should your outline include? Keep it clear and concise. You definitely want to write your thesis; plan the topics of your body paragraphs, including potential topic sentences; and—a helpful, oft-forgotten third part—remind yourself why the work you’ve chosen is the best for the prompt. This last part won’t be formally integrated into your essay, but it’s extremely helpful as you try to stay focused and pointed while writing what can feel like an impossible broad essay.

Student holding pencil

4. Each paragraph is a new opportunity to be creative

The third free-response prompt, and the AP Lit exam in general, is extremely structured. It can feel downright constricting. The little-known truth about the last essay is that it’s the most creative part of the whole exam. You not only get to choose the prompt, but within the roughly five-paragraph structure of the essay you’re penning, you get to be quite creative with what you say in each paragraph. There are so many ways to explain to your readers how, say, a symbol illuminates an important theme in a text. We find this knowledge incredibly liberating; paired wisely with the organization that the outline and the essay require, this creative approach can lead to a top-notch essay.

Person marking paper

5. Proofread, but not just for the sake of proofreading.

We’ve all been there—time is nearly up, you’ve put the period at the end of your conclusion, and now it’s time to make sure you haven’t written an incoherent jumble of nothingness. This is the last, crucial step before handing in your AP Lit exam and never reading again (just kidding!)

Because you’re so exhausted from hours of test-taking, proofreading your third free-response essay can feel like a chore—a hurdle you have to jump to reach the finish line. But it can also be an opportunity to make sure your argument, your analysis, and your claims and evidence are coherent . We don’t mean that you should restructure your thesis—there isn’t time for that, and we’re sure it’s great, anyway!—but we encourage you to make sure that every sentence is as clear, concise, and (reasonably) creative as possible. Proofreading is the time to read every sentence with a fundamental question in the back of your head: What is this sentence doing, and what are the words that form it doing? If something feels like it’s not pulling its weight, don’t hesitate—change or delete it. Now that you’ve nailed the bigger picture, you must demand only the best from the details.



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Cruise to a 5 on the AP English Language & Composition Exam


AP® English Literature

The ultimate list of ap® english literature tips.

  • The Albert Team
  • Last Updated On: March 1, 2022

the_ultimate_list_of AP® English literature tips

Managing to score a 5 on the AP® English Literature and Composition exam is no easy task. In 2020, for example, only 12.5% of students earned a 5 on the test. But don’t let that statistic scare you! While such a number may make you want to throw in the towel, it is possible to ace this exam through hard work, preparation, and determination. In this post, we’ll break down tons of AP® English Literature tips for you to tackle your exam.

The AP® English Literature and Composition exam is designed to test your ability to think critically and analyze literary excerpts. The test is three hours long and consists of a multiple-choice portion (worth 45% of your grade) and a free response portion (worth 55% of your grade).

The best way to score a 5 on the AP® English Literature exam is to practice, practice, practice. And we’re here to help. Below, we’ve compiled an ultimate list of AP® English Literature practice tests, study guides, AP® Lit prose essay examples, test-taking strategies, and more. Think of this page as the ultimate AP® English Literature review.

If you’re looking for online solutions, use Albert . If you’re looking for old school review books, read this for the best AP® English Literature review books .

What We Review

Overall How To Study for AP® English Literature: 9 Tips for 4s and 5s

1. complete any and all summer work assigned.

AP® English Literature, as its title indicates, requires a lot of reading. Chances are, your teacher will provide you with a reading list and expect the required titles to be read when you walk into your first day of class. In some cases, you may even be assigned a report or project to be completed before you begin the class.

These summer assignments serve as crucial moments in the long and difficult process of developing yourself into a budding literary critic. If you take it seriously and complete a proficient assignment, it will show your teacher that you are in the course to learn. This attitude will make the school year a lot more bearable for both you and your instructor.

2. Read Thomas Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor

Foster’s book offers an accessible and entertaining gateway into the complex and often confusing world of literary criticism. Chapters include explanations and reviews of subjects like symbolism, theme, irony, context, and more.

It is an excellent way to begin getting yourself to think deeply about literature, and it offers clear examples of close- and critical reading. It also discusses a wide variety of classic literary works which will help familiarize you with what academics call the “canon.” (More on this in the next tip.) It’s very readable too. Buy it, read it, mark it up, and keep it by your side throughout the class.

3. Become familiar with the Western Canon

Often referred to simply as “The Canon,” the Western Canon is the body of high-culture literature, music, philosophy, and works of art that is highly valued in the West, i.e. the poems, prose passages, and drama selections that you will mostly see on the AP® Lit exam.

Cultivating a basic understanding of these texts and their authors will not only familiarize you with the history and development of the English tradition but also strengthen your understanding of the “conversation of literature,” the innumerable and complex ways that authors and their works speak to each other and interact. We recommend reading at least the first chapter of Harold Bloom’s book on the subject to get a basic understanding.

We also insist that you familiarize yourself with the various problems that the upholding of such a canon produces. During the 80’s and 90’s, a canon war of sorts took place among English departments, with progressives aiming to dismantle the canon on the grounds that it neglects many African-American, female, queer, and impoverished writers in favor of spotlighting “dead white males.” Understanding this friction will deeply enrich your understanding of literature and increase your chances of scoring a 5 on the exam.

4. Learn how to analyze text

Learn how to analyze text - AP® Lit Tips

Analyzing literary text comprises an incredibly large portion of the AP® English Literature course and exam. It’s important that you learn how to examine the text both as a whole and as a part. Analyze the setting, characters, and plot of the piece. However, it’s also imperative that you understand how to look deeper within the details. Deconstruct the text and examine its theme, look for literary devices, and motives. Do not merely summarize. Foster’s book from tip #2 is a great place to start developing your critical reading skills.

5. Develop a daily reading habit

This is literature! Therefore, you should become accustomed to reading…a lot! However, this does not necessarily mean that you have to aim to read an outrageous number of books or anything. You just need to at least make an attempt to read every day.

Get a subscription to a major publication like The New Yorker or The New York Times , or you can check out our comprehensive AP® English Literature Reading List for a list of essential works. As you read, try to dissect the depth of the text. After a few days of this, you’ll be surprised at how easy analysis can come to you once you train your mind to question everything.

6. Ask questions to seek clarity

Your teacher is there to help; it’s their job. If there’s anything you don’t understand, be sure to ask your instructor even if you feel embarrassed or shy. Understanding a concept you previously had trouble with is sure to be a huge weight off of your shoulders. Asking questions and literature go hand-in-hand. Some go-to’s include: 

  • “How did the author create that tone?”
  • “How do you properly weave evidence into your argument?
  • “What is the meaning of this word?”

7. Form a study group and meet either weekly or bi-weekly

Studying with other people provides opportunities to approach subject matter from different angles, and analyzing literature is all about understanding and engaging with various perspectives.

Everyone brings their own experience to the text, and what better way to learn about new perspectives than through a study group? Meet weekly or bi-weekly at a coffee shop or friend’s house, and maintain a focused but casual tone. Also, create a checklist of what to review with your group prior to meeting to provide structure to the meeting.

8 . Make flashcards of literary devices, terms, concepts, works, and more

The AP® English Literature exam consists of tons of questions involving literary devices, authorial intention, works and authors, and more, so it is imperative that you develop a strong understanding of the literary lexicon.

The easiest way to strengthen your vocabulary is to make yourself some flashcards with the most common literary devices, authors, works, and rhetorical techniques, and carve out at least 30 minutes per day to review. If you’d prefer to use an online resource, make some flashcards over at Quizlet !

9. Experiment with different study styles

Everyone has different preferences when it comes to studying. Maybe you’re a visual learner. Perhaps you like to listen to the material to really understand it. The best way to find out what form of studying helps you best is to experiment. Use flashcards one day, read and summarize material the next, take a practice exam after that, and then try a study group. Variety is key!

Now that you have a grasp on how to get through the actual coursework of your AP® English Literature and Composition class, it’s time to learn how to study for the exam at the end of the year.

First, we’ll take a look at some tips that are sure to help you ace the first portion of the AP® Literature exam: the multiple-choice section. This portion is worth 45% of your total score and it consists of several passages to read and 55 questions to answer, which you have exactly one hour to complete.

Let’s get started.

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AP® English Literature Multiple-Choice Review: 11 Tips

AP® English Literature Multiple-Choice

1. Choose a multiple-choice strategy: read the passages first or read the questions first

Most people are familiar with the classic shortcut when it comes to taking multiple choice tests—read the questions first, then scan the passages to look for the answers. This method of approaching the AP® English Literature exam can work. It can give you a more focused, determined approach on what to look for when reading the passage. But it can also be distracting to some.

On the other hand, you can read the passages first and then answer the questions. This is the more straightforward, perhaps more traditional way of approaching the multiple-choice section, and it works best for people who like to do things in logical, sequential ways. Work through a few practice exams, and then decide which works best for you and stick with it. 

2. Look deep within the text for implications and subtleties

Analyze the passages within the exam very carefully. There will undoubtedly be questions covering the tone of the passage, or the author’s purpose for writing it. Was it to inform or persuade the audience? To create a specific mood or tone? Perhaps the author used some literary devices like allusions or irony. Closely read the passages and you will have no problem identifying the answers to questions that are specific to the literature side of AP® English. Avoid interpreting the text at face-value.

3. Carefully read the questions and mark them up

If you don’t understand what the question is asking, you can’t possibly expect to know the answer. Take a deep breath and calmly read the questions, dissecting them completely by marking them up with underlines, circles, and more. If you’d like you could create your own system, where underlining represents, say, imagery, and circles represent irony, etc.

Sometimes, the writers of the test will throw in certain words or phrases that lead the question in a different direction. For example, the words “ EXCEPT ” and “ NOT ” are often used at the end of questions, and this can confuse you. Underline these keywords to force yourself to pay attention to them. 

4. Eliminate answer choices that are obviously incorrect

Ever since you were young, you’ve likely heard the helpful suggestion of deducing answers. If you’re familiar with the subject matter of the question, it should be easy to rule out at least one of the choices that you have determined not to be correct.

Physically mark out the answers you believe are wrong by crossing or exxing them out. It will help you to visually see which answers couldn’t possibly be correct, and it will make the multiple-choice questions much more manageable.

5. Reread parts of the passage that are pertinent to the AP® English Literature questions

If a certain question throws you slightly off, return to the passage to clear up your confusion. Most of the time, the answer can be found either directly inside the text or just outside of it through implication and metaphor.

You may even want to put a star, dash, or some other marking beside portions of the text that contain answers or key phrases or moments. That way, if you have extra time at the end of the test, you can go back and check your answers quickly.

6. Pay attention to time

Pay attention to time - AP® Lit tips

This is a timed exam. You have 60 minutes to complete 55 questions. This allows for an average of less than a minute per question when you account for time spent reading passages. You have absolutely no time to sit at your desk staring blankly at questions you don’t quite understand.

Luckily, there is no penalty for answers marked wrong—or answers not marked at all—on the AP® English Literature exam. This means you should definitely skip the questions you’re unsure of. Mark them in some sort of way so that it is noticeable that you haven’t answered them yet. Then, if you have some time at the end of the test, you can go back and see if you can come up with the answer. Alternatively, if you can’t seem to find an answer: guess!

7. Formulate summaries of the passages in the margins

If you are a fast worker, this tip may prove extremely helpful for you. A few of the multiple-choice questions may test your overall comprehension of the passages you read. In the margins of the page beside the passage, jot down a few bullet points outlining the plot progression as you read. This way you can refer back to your notes when answering questions rather than searching the entire text. Think of this strategy as you are creating a treasure map of the passage, drawing up a guide which will lead you to the hidden treasure.

8. Be wary of “All of the above” and “None of the above.”

There will be a few times where “all of the above” and “none of the above” appear as answer choices on the AP® English Language exam. These can be tricky. Remember that “all of the above” means that every single provided answer choice is correct, so if you are somewhat unsure of a single answer then be weary of “all of the above.” The same goes for “none of the above.” Be confident that all choices are either correct or incorrect.

9. Create a daily study routine and stick to it

You will not be able to score a 5 if you decide to cram the night or even week before the exam. Therefore, you must develop a daily study schedule as soon as the year begins. One way to do this is to set an alarm on your phone to remind you to study. Moreover, take the flashcards you’ve made with you wherever you go. Keep them in your wallet, in your purse, or even in your car. Whenever you have a moment of free time, instead of scrolling through Twitter or Facebook on your phone, run through a review of your terms. Ultimately, create your own AP® English Literature study guide. It’ll stick better in your memory and help your AP® Literature exam score in the long run.

10. Work through multiple practice exams

The most helpful and effective way to prepare for the multiple-choice portion of the AP® English Literature exam is by testing yourself. Prepare early in the semester for the test by taking practice exams. We offer tons of practice assessments with our AP® English Literature course and so does College Board , but if you’re more of a pen and paper person, you can use the recommended AP® Lit books here .

Shoot for one practice exam per month, and be sure to time yourself when working through the practice exams. This will help familiarize you with the ins and outs of the exam itself while simultaneously strengthening your test-taking skills. We can’t stress this tip enough. 

11. Don’t let your stress and anxiety overwhelm you

Sure, the AP® English Literature exam is a difficult and important test. And yes, it affects the amount of college credit you receive coming out of high school. But at the end of the day, it’s just a test. Anxiety and stress can severely affect your ability to function and think correctly. Take a deep breath periodically throughout the test. It’ll help calm your body and soothe your mind so you can concentrate better.

Now that you have some tips on how to tackle the multiple-choice portion of the AP® English Literature exam, it’s time to focus on the most challenging part: the free response portion. In this portion, you have two hours to complete three essays. This section tests your ability to analyze passages and dissect them to form logical interpretations to be illustrated in your essays.

Here are some tips for nailing the free response portion of the AP® English Literature and Composition exam:

AP® English Literature Free-Response Review: 13 Tips

AP® English Literature Free-Response Tips

1. Critically read and mark-up the question

The first step towards writing an awesome essay on the AP® Literature exam is reading (and understanding) the question. What are the authors of the test asking for specifically? As you read the question, underline, highlight, or circle key words and phrases. Think critically about what the question is asking of you. The scorers of the free response portion want essays that are clear and to the point. Simply restating the prompt will result in a huge deduction of points. Regurgitating the question will show the reader that you may not be confident in your ability to dissect passages. Avoid this by spending time with the question and marking the AP® English Literature prompts up.

AP® Literature FRQ

Here, the key words and phrases to underline are “analyze” and “portrayal” as they point you toward what you are to do and where you are to focus. Additionally, the prompt includes further areas to highlight including, “imagery, selection of detail, and tone.”

2. Develop a strong, well-developed AP® English Literature thesis statement

A well-written thesis is the basis of all successful essays. As mentioned previously, do NOT restate the question. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes students made in the 2019 exam involved moving from commentary (point by point observations) to more cohesive claims. In other words, students had difficulty strengthening their observations into arguments. Many times, this error stems from having a weak thesis statement. Think of your thesis as your essay’s central claim, its expression of its argument. Crafting a perfect thesis statement is indeed difficult, so if you find yourself totally lost, check out AP’s very own video lecture on the subject .

Here are examples of good and bad thesis statements over an essay concerning free speech: 

  • Bad Thesis: “This paper will consider the advantages and disadvantages of certain restrictions on free speech.” 
  • Good Thesis: “Even though there may be considerable advantages to restricting hate speech, the possibility of chilling open dialogue on crucial racial issues is too great and too high a price to pay.”

3. Structure the essay with a cohesive mode of organization

Organization is key to writing a great essay. If your analysis moves all over the place in a discursive manner, the reader will get angry, and you don’t want to make the reader angry. You should be greatly familiar with the basic five paragraph essay outline before taking the exam. While this outline isn’t necessarily set in stone (it can be adjusted, expanded, shortened, etc.), it does serve as a tried and true method of organization.

After you dissect the question, prepare an outline within the first few minutes of writing your essay. Perhaps even use a diagram, if you’re a visual learner. A clear and precise outline can help prevent rambling when answering the question in your essay.

4. Use high-level, academic vocabulary

Since this is an exam for an Advanced Placement English course, it is imperative that you use a vocabulary that reflects a higher level of education. Avoid slang, colloquialism, and vague language like, “sort of,” “kind of,” and “very.” These lower the professional and academic tone of your essay, and they will obfuscate your writing with ambiguity.

On the other hand, don’t go overboard with smarty-pants language that you don’t have control of. This will render your essay pretentious and unclear. To strengthen your academic vocabulary, you should make flashcards on Quizlet and develop a daily study habit. Check out our 15 Must Know Rhetorical Terms for AP® English Literature page , too.

5. Mark-up the passage and refer back to it

On the first two essays, you will be asked to read a passage and analyze it according to the instructions given in the question. Use the passage to your advantage. As you read mark it up by circling, highlighting, or underlining key words or phrases. One common misconception that occurred in the 2019 exam was students relying on plot summary instead of focusing more specifically on details or elements and explaining how these illustrate their points. To avoid this, frequently refer back to specific parts of the text.

6. Develop familiarity with many literary works to ace the third FRQ

The third free response question on the AP® Literature exam is more open-ended than the first two. AP® describes the FRQ as this: “An analysis that examines a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of literary merit selected by the student.” Essentially, you will respond to an open-ended prompt by selecting your own work of literary merit to analyze. Therefore, you must become familiar with a wide variety of texts that could help you answer the question. It’s important that you keep this particular essay question in mind as you work throughout the semester. Check out our Ultimate AP® English Literature Reading List!

7. Practice frequently using previous exams and consulting rubrics

As they say, practice really does make perfect. A good option for practicing free response questions involves searching the Internet for old exam rubrics. These show you exactly what the scorers are looking for in an essay. The AP® Literature section of AP® Central has several practice exams for your use. Take advantage of this and practice writing essays using different prompts from previous exams. We also offer practice exams filled with free response prompts that can help you develop your writing skills. 

8. Use a good writing utensil

Use a good writing utensil - AP® Lit Tips

Nothing is worse than getting halfway through an essay and having your pen run out of ink, or your pencil getting smudged. Often, readers prefer the look and clarity of black ink to colored ink or the graphite of pencil. Take that into mind when going into the free response portion of the exam, and have a handful of backup writing utensils at hand when you take the test. The Ticonderoga pencil is a tried and tested stalwart, and we recommend it. 

9. Pace yourself throughout the test

Before the free response portion begins, work out how much time you need to spend on each question. It may even be helpful to bring a watch to time yourself on each essay. Remember: there are three essay questions total: one literary analysis of a poem, one of a passage of prose fiction, and one analysis of a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of literary merit. You have a total of two hours, so we recommend that you spend 40 minutes per question. However, you also need to be sure that you are not rushing through the questions and leaving vital information out of your essays. Time yourself when you take practice exams, and go from there.

10. Write legibly

When facing the pressure of taking difficult tests, you might find yourself rushing through the essay questions because of time constraints. This often leads to messy handwriting that will give your scorer a headache. The clarity of your writing is necessary for a good score on your essay. If the reader cannot decipher your chicken scratch, how can they possibly score it? In order to perfect this skill before the exam, practice writing legibly under pressure during practice exams and other essays. 

11. Don’t leave any question blank

Although this may be acceptable for the multiple-choice portion of the exam, it is absolutely inexcusable for your essays. You only get three chances to prove your competency in the free response portion, and the section at large counts for 55% of your overall score. Some might say that the FRQ section is the most important portion of the exam because of its weight. Write, write, and write even if you are totally stumped by the prompt. Take advantage of this opportunity to show the readers how much you’ve learned from taking this AP® course.

12. Understand what the AP® readers are looking for

As we said earlier, rubrics are a great resource to use when preparing for the AP® English Literature exam. They reflect exactly how your essay will be scored. It’s vital to understand exactly what the readers are looking for in a good essay. This includes:

a) Thesis: This requirement emphasizes the importance of crafting an effective thesis statement. Students must respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents a defensible interpretation of the poem.

b) Evidence and commentary: This section assesses your ability to cite and analyze textual evidence. It stresses that you provide specific evidence to support all claims in a line of reasoning, and consistently explain how the evidence supports that line of reasoning. Additionally, you must explain how multiple literary elements or techniques in the poem contribute to its meaning.

c) Sophistication: This component of the rubric is tough because sophistication is not something you can simply check off. Ultimately, the scorer wants your essay to demonstrate sophistication of thought and/or develops a complex literary argument.

13. Listen to your teacher

This is perhaps the most important of all the AP® Lit free response tips. Over the course of the semester, your teacher will provide you with ample advice for the exam. Pay close attention to your teacher’s guidance, and frequently meet with them to discuss your progress.

Seriously, meet with your teachers and continue asking how you can improve, what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing so well, etc. If the information your teacher gives you wasn’t relevant, they wouldn’t waste their time giving it to you. Your instructor knows the exam; it’s only logical to follow their advice.

In the event that you have a bad teacher, consult online resources like us, and perhaps begin formulating relationships with other teachers who are known to be excellent. Moreover, meet with students who excel in the course, and try to form study groups with them.

The AP® English Literature and Composition exam is all about analysis of different literary works. Hopefully, these tips will help you tackle this massive exam with ease.

Study Tips from AP® English Literature Teachers

Tips Submitted by AP® English Literature Teachers

We asked a number of AP® English Literature teachers to share their favorite AP® Lit tips and have compiled them here for you to review.

AP® English Literature Multiple Choice Tips:

1. Debate the questions

Get students to debate the answers to AP® multiple choice questions without your help. After they “quiz” on a passage and the questions for it, ask them how they think they did. The answer is always mixed, so give them an option: Keep the score they currently have OR discuss the answers in a large group without teacher’s help and take that community grade. 

They always pick the latter. Participating in the discussion helps students practice justifying their answers (tell them you will keep track to make sure that everyone participates at least ___ time(s).) As you observe their process, you will gain all kinds of insight into students’ thinking process, they will learn from the ways their classmates explain their choices, and their scores are almost always 100! Thanks for the tip from Wendy R. from Weslaco East High School.

2. Brush up on your vocabulary

If you don’t understand the vocabulary used in the questions and/or answers, you will not be able to find the correct answer. There are many words with multiple meanings/nuances of meaning that will bring you to the wrong conclusion. Pay attention to the wording of the questions and answers! Thanks for the tip from Susan R. from Palm Beach Gardens High.

3. Consider Audience, Occasion & Purpose

Whether you’re speaking, reading or writing, you’re thinking: Audience, Occasion & Purpose. Who is the audience? What is the occasion? And what is the purpose of the author’s writing? Breaking down writing and literature into these three components can make the exam much easier and more digestible. Thanks for the tip from Mike L. at Tilton School.

AP® English Literature Free Response Tips:

1. Always remember to consider the author’s purpose

 Retelling what happened in the story is not an analysis. You must understand and relay why the author wrote it the way he/she did and what he/she is trying to tell readers! That’s crucial! Thanks for the tip from Kim F. from Tavares High.

2. Strive for originality

Think about the fact that the AP® readers have been looking at essays on the same topics for three days. What will you do to be original and stand out that will surprise the reader at 4:30 pm on day three? Brainstorm what everyone else will say before writing. Then, don’t write on those topics. Originality will hook your reader. Thanks for the tip from Mike G. from MPS.

3. Don’t just summarize the author’s devices or techniques

Focused writing on two or three aspects of the text (characterization, use of devices, etc) accompanied with analysis will generate a higher score than lightly touching on five to ten aspects. As a reader, we are happy that you can identify techniques, but what we are looking for is analysis. And, we also know that analysis is tough to achieve. Think deep about the text. What was the author trying to say about the human condition with this scene, with that image? Thanks for the tip from Matt U. at Liberty High.

4. Always answer the question: “So what?”

Yes, the writer used an extended metaphor, so what? Why did they choose that metaphor? How does that choice reflect the author’s intent? What effect does it create within the text and within the reader? Provide the reader with the “so what” to help drive your analysis deeper. Thanks for the second tip from Matt U. at Liberty High.

5. Students who read widely and regularly are far more prepared to write and communicate clearly with a deeper understanding than students who do not read

Reading expands knowledge, vocabulary usage, and comprehension, and it enables students to make connections within and between content areas which have real-world applications. Reading widely across genres will broaden your perspective, too. Thanks for the tip from Elizabeth B. from Harrison High.

6. Use something you’ve read in AP® Lit for the third question

While you may be tempted to analyze a novel you’ve read on your own for the third FRQ, you should stick to what you’ve read in class. You will have spent more time and analytical energy on those books and plays than you did on your own.. Prepare for Question 3 before the exam by reviewing everything you’ve read in AP® English Literature. Thanks for the tip from Erin M. at Mercy County Senior High.

7. Turn your words into pictures and your pictures into words

Meaning: If you have an idea, anchor it to something concrete. If you have something concrete, associate it with an idea. Be able to move back and forth between the abstract and the literal. Most if not all deep literature involves this sort of mental navigation, so it’s best that you become familiar with it. Thanks for the tip from Jeff T. at Lynden Christian High School.

8. Never be unacceptably brief

Even if the selection is difficult or slim, there’ll be something in it that all students can latch onto and dissect. Sometimes, even the smallest moments in literature are actually the biggest through moments of metaphor, symbolism, and more. So if you find yourself writing 1-2 sentence paragraphs, return to the smaller moments and think BIG!Thanks for the third tip from Bill O. from El Molino High.

9. Do not merely skim to point out literary devices

Zoom deep into the text to identify the device, explain in detail how the device is functioning and then zoom out to explain how it works to support the passage as a whole and how it connects to the universal human condition. Focus on two primary ideas (literary devices, elements of composition, etc…) for each essay in order to go deeper in analysis of each. This means the difference between writing a college level paper and writing a high school level paper. Thanks for the tip from Jodi G. from Saugus High. Thanks for the tip from Erin M. at Mercy County Senior High.

10. Deconstruct the prompt

Make sure you understand exactly what the prompt is asking you to do. Then use it as a focus for your annotation of the text on Q1 and Q2 and as a launching point for your notes and thesis for Q3. Spend a lot of time marking up and breaking down the prompt before you attempt the essays. Look for key words, phrases, action verbs, etc. Thanks for the tip from Erin M. at Mercy County Senior High.

11. Find a good literary timeline to conceptualize what you read in terms of the art movement and historical time period

Since the AP® Literature Exam is a test over, well, literature, knowing the historical progression of literature is vital. This is where a literary timeline comes in handy. Check out this one on Pinterest for a general idea. These can provide insight into the texts as well as help you remember what you have read. Thanks for the tip from Paul H. at Walled Lake Central High.

Wrapping Things Up: The Ultimate List of AP® English Literature Tips

Scoring a 5 on the AP® English Literature exam is a difficult feat to accomplish. However, with proper preparation, some hard work, and consistent practice, you can ace the exam. Remember that the AP® English Literature and Composition exam is designed to test your ability to read critically and deeply analyze literature. The test is three hours long and consists of a multiple-choice portion (worth 45% of your grade) and a free response portion (worth 55% of your grade).

To adequately prepare, you must develop an effective study routine. Make flashcards of common literary concepts and terms using Quizlet. Take practice exams either through Albert , and be sure to time yourself each time you take one of the tests. Finally, cultivate a daily reading schedule which incorporates literature (fiction or poetry, preferably for this exam). This will familiarize you with the wide and complex world of literature and sharpen your literary skills. We also offer tons of practice on various novels and essential works that can be super helpful, too.

After taking a few practice exams, identify which section of the test you are better or worse at. Do you ace the multiple choice but flunk the free-response questions? Whichever it is, be sure to practice and develop your weaker skills. Focusing on the components of the test that you consistently ace—though it may be tempting—will make your score lopsided. Again, we must reiterate: practice, practice, practice. 

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4 thoughts on “the ultimate list of ap® english literature tips”.

Ahhh….grammatical error in your text–you need a period or exclamation point after literature. (See below)

5. Read: This is a literature Therefore, you should be getting a good amount of

Thank you for catching that. We have fixed it!

These tips will be very helpful for me during this year of AP® Lit. I found tip 23 most important because I always take to much time on things like the intro that I don’t realize I’m wasting much of my time.

Thanks for sharing what you found most helpful, Antonio!

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How to Crush It on the AP® English Literature Exam Essays

by Heather Garcia

Many students are far too familiar with multiple-choice tests and they know, relatively, what to expect when they sit down to take one. Even though the AP ® English Literature Exam has multiple-choice questions that are a little more intense than other tests, it is still, at its core, a multiple-choice test. For many kids, that isn’t too scary. (But seriously, all literature and no non-fiction can be a bit daunting, especially when you hit those sonnets. Phew!)

When taking the AP ® English Literature exam, the part that intimidates many students is the Free-Response section. In other terms, the essay section. The AP ® English Literature exam has an essay section where you get the opportunity to show the readers, AP ® English Literature teachers and college professors from around the nation, what you can do. The readers are looking to see how well you read, how well you think, and how well you write in a timed setting. This is your chance to prove to the world (or to the readers) that you have thoughtfully prepared for this exam and you are ready for college-level literary analysis.

The AP ® readers are not expecting perfection in the essays you write. You are writing under a time constraint and the readers are completely aware of this. However, they do expect you to write three essays in two hours, spending approximately 40 minutes on each essay. The three essays are quite different, so it helps to start preparing early for each type of essay. Timed essay writing can certainly improve, but only with repeated practice and constructive feedback (or intense analysis of previously-scores samples).

The three essay types that you will be asked to write are: poetry analysis , prose analysis , and a literary argument .

For each essay that you write, it is my suggestion that you annotate the prompt. Read the prompt once. Then read it again and annotate how many separate tasks the prompt is asking you to perform. Sometimes you only need to identify the purpose and the devices being used. Sometimes there are four components of the prompt you need to address. Either way, number them so you can be certain when you are writing that you aren’t leaving anything important out.

Beyond that, each of the three essays requires a slightly different approach during the testing period. Below you will find specific suggestions for each one:

Poetry Analysis:

In this essay, you will be given a poem that you most likely have never read. I am surprised every year by which poem the test writers choose. They work diligently to ensure that they find poems that are rich in interpretive opportunities and that are not frequently included in textbook anthologies. They want students to have an interpretation that isn’t filtered through a textbook company or a teacher. They want thought and analysis from you, the student.

When you approach this essay, it is best to read and annotate the prompt, but also to give the poem a solid first read before you try to do any interpretation. On the first read-through, check to see if you can determine the tone, the purpose, and a general gist of what the poem is about. Then go back and re-read the prompt and poem again. In this read-through, you should start underlining and circling, making quick notes about what you notice so that you have fodder to write about. This should take you about 7-8 minutes.

The next step is to complete a quick, and I mean quick , outline. I use the word outline loosely. This could be a scribbled list of topics you want to cover with arrows pointing to the textual evidence you plan to use. It could be a brain map with lines and bubbles and arrows. It could be just placing numbers beside your annotations so you know what order you want to tackle them in. Regardless of the method you choose, it is important that you choose one. So many students think they are beyond pre-planning for an essay, and sadly, it shows. The essays lack the finesse that they could have had if they had taken the three or four minutes to jot down a map of where the essay was headed.

The final step is to write the essay. This part should take about 30 minutes. It may seem like an impossible task, but with a specific direction to head and with the poem already analyzed, the essay should flow smoothly. You aren’t writing a 200 page dissertation. You are writing a 2 to 4 page essay. In pen. In your best handwriting. Saving a few minutes at the end for proofreading. No problem. Right?

This is just the first essay. There are two more. (See why I said preparing early is key?)

Prose Analysis:

This essay is similar to the poetry essay in many respects. You will be given a passage that you most likely have never seen before, and you must respond to a prompt asking you about it. The main difference is that this excerpt will not be a poem. It will be an excerpt from a novel, a short story, or a play. Again, most likely one you haven’t read or even heard of, but that is half the fun.

Similar to the poetry essay, you will begin by reading the prompt and annotating it, but for this essay, you most likely won’t have time to read the passage in its entirety twice.

You will want to annotate and respond to the prompt as you go. Speed is as essential as analysis. You don’t want to spend more than 10 minutes reading and making notes. You need to save 3 or 4 minutes for a pre-write, just like you did with the poetry prompt. Then, you will spend about 25 minutes writing. Quickly. I like that this essay is in the middle of the Free Response section of the test because even though you can write the essays in any order you choose, if you keep this one in the middle, your brain is already in analysis mode, your hands are warmed up, but not yet beyond achy, and this essay can run smoothly.

Literary Argument:

This, by far, is my favorite essay. This essay asks you to respond to an open prompt about a novel you read and analyzed deeply. College Board asks that you write about books that are worthy of college-level analysis and that you only write about a single book, but other than that, the options are open. College Board will provide you a list of book titles that would fit the prompt, but you are certainly not limited to that list.

Even though this essay appears last in the test packet, I always encourage my students to write this essay first. My students usually spend the last couple of weeks prior to the exam reviewing specific scenes from their favorite novels, refreshing themselves on the themes, symbols, and how to spell the characters’ names (you think I am kidding, but some of those names are tricky). When they get to the essay section, they feel like their brains are going to explode with all of the information, so they write this essay first. They get it out of the way before the other passages fill them up with more themes and symbols to contend with.

When writing this essay, it is still important to annotate the prompt and to make a pre-writing plan, but there is no text to cite from. You only have your brain. When you choose the book to write about, ensure that you include the full title and the author’s name in the introductory paragraph. Without that the reader is just guessing at your book. And don’t worry if you choose an obscure book. Your reader will most likely have read it. And if not, they will pass the essay on to someone who has read the book.

DO NOT spend time summarizing the plot of the book you choose. It is a waste of time and space and does nothing to influence your score positively. Instead, assume the reader has read your chosen book, and use a phrase to ground them in the plot before jumping into analysis. Instead of giving three sentences to describe a scene, just say, “in the part where Jane and Rochester kiss under the chestnut tree” or “in the section of the play where King Lear cuts Cordelia out of her inheritance.” Nothing more is needed that that. The readers will jump right into the plot with you.

You have to remember that the readers are there to reward what you do well, not bash you on the moments where you might mess up. On test day, it is important to remember to have fun with each of the essays. If you are enjoying the process of writing them, the readers will enjoy the process of reading them. Find interesting perspectives, make cogent observations, and dazzle the readers with your insight and thought-provoking arguments. But leading up to test day…PRACTICE!

While the AP ® English Literature free-response questions can be challenging, practicing will ease your stress on test day!

Heather Garcia

Heather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP ® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden .

ap lit prose essay tips

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