Your Complete Guide: AP English Literature and Composition Exam

13/03/202412 minute read
Your Complete Guide: AP English Literature and Composition Exam

If you're gearing up to take the AP English Literature and Composition exam, your literary prowess, we've got your back.

In this complete guide, we’ll explain what the AP English Lit exam will test you on, shed light on the format and duration, explain how the exam is graded, and most importantly, provide you with expert tips to ace it!


What’s on the AP English Literature and Composition Exam?

You can anticipate what the AP English Literature and Composition exam will test you on by looking at the skills the AP English Literature and Composition course aims to teach you.

Here are the skills you’ll learn on The AP English Literature and Composition course:

  • Explain the function of character.
  • Explain the function of setting.
  • Explain the function of plot and structure.
  • Explain the function of the narrator or speaker.
  • Explain the function of word choice, imagery, and symbols.
  • Explain the function of comparison.
  • Develop textually substantiated arguments about interpretations of part or all of a text.

The foundation of the AP English Literature and Composition course rests on a set of big ideas. These ideas aren’t just concepts; they're the pillars that you build your understanding on.

Here are the big ideas of The AP English Literature and Composition course as defined by the College Board:

  • Character: Characters in literature allow readers to study and explore a range of values, beliefs, assumptions, biases, and cultural norms represented by those characters.
  • Setting: Setting and the details associated with it not only depict a time and place, but also convey values associated with that setting.
  • Structure: The arrangement of the parts and sections of a text, the relationship of the parts to each other, and the sequence in which the text reveals information are all structural choices made by a writer that contribute to the reader’s interpretation of a text.
  • Narration: Enduring Understanding NAR-1: A narrator’s or speaker’s perspective controls the details and emphases that affect how readers experience and interpret a text.
  • Figurative Language: Comparisons, representations, and associations shift meaning from the literal to the figurative and invite readers to interpret a text.
  • Literary Argumentation: Enduring Understanding LAN-1: Readers establish and communicate their interpretations of literature through arguments supported by textual evidence.
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What’s the Format of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam?

The AP English literature and composition exam is split into sections:

Section 1: Multiple Choice

  • Duration: 1 Hour
  • Total questions: 55
  • 45% of exam score

The multiple choice section is computer-graded, and it makes up 45% of your total exam score.

The 55 questions in this section consist of:

  • 5 passages of prose fiction, drama, or poetry of varying difficulty.
  • 5 sets of questions for each passage, with 8–13 questions per set.

The multiple-choice section will always include at least 2 prose fiction passages (including drama) and at least 2 poetry passages.

Section 2: Free Response

  • Duration: 2 Hours
  • Total Questions: 3
  • 55% of exam score

In this section, you’ll write three different essays in response to three free-response prompts. These three prompts combined make up more than half your exam weight.

The 3 prompts are from the following categories:

  • A literary analysis of a given poem
  • A literary analysis of a given passage of prose fiction (this may include drama)
  • An analysis that examines a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of your choice.

In responding to the third prompt, you should select a work of fiction that’s appropriate to the question. The College Borad lists a general rule for this: use a work that is similar in quality to those you have read in your AP class.

AP English Literature and Composition Format
SectionDurationStructureScore Weight
Multiple Choice 1 hour- 5 passages of prose fiction, drama, or poetry of varying difficulty. - 5 sets of questions for each passage, with 8–13 questions per set.45%
Free Response2 hours3 prompts from the following categories: - A literary analysis of a given poem - A literary analysis of a given passage of prose fiction (this may include drama) - An analysis that examines a specific concept, issue, or element in a work of your choice. 55%

How Long Is the AP English Literature and Composition Exam?

The exam is 3 hours long. The first section is 1 hour long, and the second section is 2 hours long.

How is the AP English Literature and Composition Exam Scored?

Your total score is scaled down to be a number from 1 to 5, similar to a letter grade.

To put this into context, let’s compare AP scores to its closet letter grade equivalent: 

AP English Literature Exam Scores
AP CSP Exam ScoreQualificationClosest Equivalent College Grade
5Extremely well qualifiedA+ or A
4Very well qualifiedA-, B+, or B
3QualifiedB-, C+, or C
2Possibly qualified-
1No recommendation-

To increase your chances of getting credit at a top university, you’ll need a score of 4 or 5 - that’s the score most schools accept to grant college credit.

The multiple choice section is graded by a computer, and it’s worth 55 points in total, 1 point per question. These points are then scaled down to equal 45% of your total score.

On the other hand, the free response section is worth 18 points, with 6 points allocated to each of the 3 questions.

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Expert Tips and Material to Prepare For the AP English Literature Exam

1. Understand the scoring rubrics and guidelines

Before diving into preparation, we recommend you familiarize yourself with the scoring rubrics and guidelines provided by the College Board.

Understanding how your essays will be evaluated can significantly impact your approach to studying and writing.

Take the time to dissect these guidelines, paying close attention to what examiners are looking for in your responses.

You can read the rubrics and guidelines from the College Board here:

2. Review the Chief Reader Report 

The Chief Reader Report from previous years can be a goldmine of insights. This report offers valuable feedback from experienced AP Literature teachers who have evaluated student responses. 

By reviewing these reports, you can gain a deeper understanding of common mistakes, successful strategies, and areas where students often struggle. Learning from others' experiences can help you refine your own exam-taking skills.

You can read the Chief Reader Reports here:

3. Study past exams

Practice makes perfect, and there's no better way to prepare for the AP English Literature Exam than by tackling past exam questions.

Dive into previous years' exams and familiarize yourself with the format, types of questions, and the literary works covered. Pay attention to the themes, characters, and literary devices commonly examined in these questions.

Practice dissecting passages, analyzing poetry, and crafting insightful essays under timed conditions to build your confidence and proficiency.

  • You can view all past exams here. 

4. Take practice exams

In addition to studying past exams, we recommend you simulate the exam experience as closely as possible by taking practice exams. Set aside dedicated time to complete full-length practice tests under timed conditions.

This will not only help you gauge your readiness but also improve your time management skills and endurance for the actual exam day.

  • You can find practice exams from the College Board here. 

5. Interact with the text

When preparing for the exam, don't just passively read through texts. Engage with them actively by circling, underlining, and highlighting key passages, literary devices, and themes.

Resist the temptation to rely solely on your memory when answering questions. Instead, return to the text and examine it closely for evidence to support your interpretations. 

By developing a habit of close reading and textual analysis, you'll be better equipped to tackle any question that comes your way on exam day.

6. Read books and poems, more than once

To excel in the student-choice essay section of the exam, it's essential to have a deep understanding of a variety of literary works. 

Read books and poems multiple times, each time focusing on different aspects such as characterization, imagery, symbolism, and themes.

By revisiting texts and gaining new insights with each reading, you'll be better prepared to write a strong, well-supported essay that demonstrates your literary analysis skills.

7. Work with a tutor

If you're feeling overwhelmed or struggling to grasp certain concepts, consider working with one of our expert tutors who specialize in AP English Literature. 

A qualified tutor can provide personalized guidance, targeted practice, and valuable feedback to help you improve your skills and confidence, and we have some of the best teachers in the world tutoring at Crimson!

What Makes Crimson Different

Crimson students are 7x more likely to gain acceptance to their dream college!

Remember, you don't have to navigate this journey alone. Crimson provides a comprehensive suite of services, from academic mentoring and test prep to essay assistance, extracurricular guidance, and career mentoring, ensuring a holistic approach to your college preparation journey.