The AP English Literature and Composition exam is tough. Do you know how to score a five on the AP exam? Whether you’re self-studying or taking a class, you can succeed with enough preparation and a few solid tips. 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 the work or elements 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–in two hours.
Before the exam, you should know how to construct a clear, organized essay that defends a focused claim about the work, question, or element under analysis. You must write a brief introduction that includes the thesis, followed by body paragraphs that further the thesis with detailed, thorough support, and a short concluding paragraph that reiterates and reinforces the thesis 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 FRQ.
You may know already how to approach the Open FRQ, but don’t forget 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, element, and meaning.
- Include the author’s name and title of the prose or poetry selections in your thesis statement. Refer to characters by name.
- Use quotes—lots of them—to exemplify the elements and your argument points throughout the essay.
- Fully explain or discuss how your examples support your thesis. A deeper, fuller, and focused explanation of fewer points is better than a shallow discussion of more points (shotgun approach).
- Avoid vague, general statements or merely summarizing the plot instead of clearly focusing on the character, work, poem, or passage 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 English literature FRQ responses. However, for purposes of this examination, the Open FRQ strategies will be the focus. The open question in last year’s exam required test takers to analyze a character in a novel or play that deceives others. Exam takers had to respond to the following instructions:
- Choose a novel or play with a character who deceives others
- Analyze the deceptive character’s motives
- Discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole
- Write a well-written essay
- Don’t summarize the plot
For a clear understanding of the components of a model essay, you’ll find it helpful to analyze and 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 lesson for you: to achieve a 9 on the prose analysis essay, model the A essay’s strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the other two.
Start with a Succinct Introduction that Includes Your Thesis Statement
The first sample essay (A) begins with a packed first paragraph: the title, author, main character, the plot details revealing deceit, the motives for deception, and the deceit as a representation of capitalism’s detrimental effects. The focus of the analysis is clear from the start: insatiable greed for wealth and power drives the character’s deceit and reflects the endless consumerist insatiability of the Industrialist 1920’s American society.
By packing the introduction with the principal plot details to exemplify the character’s deceptions–lying, cheating, evading responsibility, and committing murder–the student lays the groundwork for proving all of the following:
- that the main character, Clyde, is deceptive
- how he is deceptive
- why he is deceptive
- how his deception affects other characters in the novel
- what the deception means in the larger context of the novel
With only two specific plot references–avoiding responsibility for the hit and run and socializing with the people only to get what he wanted (not for their friendship)–the writer demonstrates the weak and corruptible character, Clyde, susceptible to increasingly worse deceptions. The references are just enough to support the student’s assertions, and there’s no re-telling of the plot.
The mid-range B essay introduction also mentions the title, author, deceitful character (Mr. Rochester), who the deceiver deceived, and why (true love). However, the introduction lacks the larger import of the deception in the novel. The reader finds an analysis of the deceiver Rochester’s motivations and lessons learned about taking the easy way out, patience, and God’s will by the end of the essay. However, the connection between the deception and the meaning of the novel remains a mystery.
The third sample names the title, author, and characters of the novel–Miss. Havisham who deceives Pip and Estella. However, the nature of the deception and its meaning is missing. In fact, the wrong word choice confuses the reader (self-satisfying motives?). Moreover, the writer wastes time with an opening generalization about lies and deception that lends little to the task ahead and lacks good grammar and logic.
In sum, make introductions brief and compact yet completely covering all of the components of the prompt. Use specific details from the work that support a logical thesis statement or focus that clearly directs the argument and addresses the instructions’ requirements. Succinct writing helps. Pack your introduction with specific plot details, and don’t waste time on sentences that don’t do the work ahead for you. Be sure the thesis statement covers all of the relevant facts and overarching themes of the novel for a cohesive argument.
Use Clear Examples to Support Your Argument Points
The A answer begins the first supporting body paragraph with a reiteration of the focus on greed and a promise to exemplify that greed by Clyde’s behavior with women. Then, the A responder details the four trophy women, Clyde’s lies, and the damage of his lies (about his finances) and callused behavior (spending money) on others, like his pregnant sister, and on himself (lust for wealth and power). The examples support the claim that greed fuels Clyde’s lying, cheating, and immorality.
The second body paragraph likewise uses relevant examples. The second paragraph focuses not on Clyde’s greed but his second trait–one of the tools of his deceit–dishonesty. This time the writer explicitly ties in the novel’s larger contextual meaning critiquing capitalism with the example of the lover’s murder.
Again, with just enough details to inform the reader but not repeat the plot, the A essay exemplifies the effects of the deception and the larger capitalistic drives and influences on the main character’s morality–how it slipped from self-aggrandizing, exploitation, greed, and dishonesty, to murder of a pregnant woman. In doing so, the writer covers the second major component of the prompt: the deception’s role in producing meaning, the first being the motives for the character’s deceit.
The mid-range sample spends one and a half of two body paragraphs relating the plot details of Rochester’s marriage, his meeting Jane Eyre, and finally, Jane Eyre’s discovery of Rochester’s deceit: pursuing Jane Eyre’s love while hiding his marital status and thereby deceiving his wife too. The reader gets the character’s background, motivations, and intentions, but the writer doesn’t weave those details into an argument addressing the deception, its effects, and its meaning. It’s simple plot summary.
Unlike the A sample, the B sample includes too much of the general plot description and not enough specific plot details to exemplify the character’s deceitful acts and their meaning. For example, the writer concludes that the effect of the deceit is Jane Eyre’s loss of her “true self with God”. It’s unclear what this fact exemplifies in the paragraph since the responder merely deems it vaguely as a “negative effect”. It’s not an apt detail to show Rochester’s motive either.
Like the B essay, sample C also spends too much time plot summarizing. Paragraph 2 recaps how Miss Havisham lures in Pip into her undisclosed scheme. By paragraph 3, the reader understands that Pip was deceived by the Estella somehow through Miss Havisham’s doings. Since the details are few, and the writing is difficult to comprehend, the writer shows neither Miss Havisham’s motive nor the meaning of deception in the novel.
Discussion is Crucial to Connect Your Details and Examples to Your Argument Points
Rather than merely summarizing plot, as the B and C samples do, the A response spends time thoroughly discussing the meaning of the details used to exemplify his or her assertions. For example, the third paragraph begins with the point that Clyde’s dishonesty plays a crucial role in the novel’s critique of capitalism. The writer explains that the murder of his lover shows Clyde’s downward moral spiral from the beginning until the end of the novel. The moral decay, the student goes on to explain, results from wealth and a “greed-driven” capitalist society. The presentation of the assertion (moral decline), the example (the murder), and the meaning (capitalist greed rots the man’s morals) tightly connects by the explanation of how one thing ties to the other.
The A sample writer follows the same pattern throughout the essay: assertion, example, explanation of how the example and assertion cohere, tying both into the thesis about capitalist greed and moral decline. Weaving the well-chosen details into the discussion to make reasonable conclusions about what they prove is the formula for an orderly, coherent argument. The writer starts each paragraph with a topic sentence that supports the thesis set out in the introduction, followed by a sentence that explains and supports the topic sentence in furtherance of the argument.
On the other hand, the B response begins the final paragraph with a statement about Rochester’s selfishness without furthering that idea. The next sentence asserts that Rochester had no right to be disloyal to his wife, despite her lunacy, and the following sentences list other deceitful acts Rochester shouldn’t have committed. However, the reader gets no explanation of how these deceptions exemplify Rochester’s selfishness. One can assume, but the connections are not explicit. Likewise, the C sample provides no link between the fraud, which is unclear itself, and the plot details the test taker relates.
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.
The A response not only reiterates the point about capitalism’s damaging effects but places it in a new light by aligning it with Clyde’s fateful decline in the novel. The writer summarizes the deeds, attitudes, and motivation of the main character to repeat the thesis from the introduction with more elaboration: Dreiser’s novel (incorrectly spelled An American Tradgedy) warns readers about the spiritual decline of a culture that promotes the insatiable desire to have it all.
The B response attempts to tie up the motives and effects of the deceit in a shotgun of fact spraying without actually concluding. In fact, most of the substantive argument is in the last paragraph about Rochester’s reason for his deceit (his wife’s insanity) and what he learned (patience and God’s wishes). However, since the essay lacked focus throughout, the ending observations don’t round out the essay by a return to the beginning. It merely summarizes the character’s changes.
Write in Complete Sentences With Proper Punctuation and Compositional Skills
Though pressed for time, it’s important to write an essay with crisp, 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, focused 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. Excellent compositional skills help you lay it all out orderly, clearly, and fully.
For example, the A response begins the two body paragraphs with “one example” and “another example” to clarify to the reader not only the subject of each paragraph but their purpose–to exemplify a point. Those transitional expressions link the paragraphs to the preceding paragraph by referencing Clyde’s behavior in the third paragraph, which the writer previously discussed in the second paragraph. The third paragraph leaves off with Clyde’s unfaithful behavior with women, so the next paragraph connects with reference to another example of Clyde’s dishonesty. Transitions make the essay one seamless whole argument.
So by the time the conclusion takes the reader home, the high-scoring writer has done all of the following:
- followed the prompt
- followed the propounded thesis and returned to it in the end
- provided a full discussion with examples
- included details proving each assertion
- used clear, grammatically correct sentences
- wrote paragraphs ordered by the introductory presentation of the thesis
- created topic sentences for each paragraph
- ensured each topic sentence furthered the ideas presented in the thesis
Have a Plan and Follow it
To get a 9 on the prose analysis FRQ essay in the AP Literature and Composition exam, you should practice timed essays. Write as many practice essays as you can. Follow the same procedure each time. After reading the prompt, map out your thesis statement, paragraph topic sentences, and supporting details and quotes in the order of their presentation. Then follow your plan faithfully.
Be sure to leave time for a brief review to catch mechanical errors, missing words, or clarifications of any unclear thoughts. With time, an organized approach, and plenty of practice, earning a 9 on the open question is manageable. Be sure to ask your teacher or consult other resources, like albert.io’s Open question practice essays, for questions and more practice opportunities.
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Course Overview — a two-page PDF from the College Board
Course Description — the most comprehensive guide to AP Lit from the College Board
Poetry Essay Prompts – from Sandra Effinger (Ms. Effie)
Prose Essay Prompts – from Sandra Effinger (Ms. Effie)
Open-Ended Prompts (Q3) — a PDF of prior open-ended essay questions from the exam
Multiple Choice Question Stems — Have your students develop their own multiple choice questions
The Joy of Reading — one man’s love of reading with a dozen recommendations
Close Reading Strategies Video — an AP Literature teacher from Connecticut shares his strategy
Thug Notes — the entertaining way to review literature
How and Why We Read — John Green discusses the value of empathetic reading
Quick Write Prompts
How to Write a Thesis Statement — a five-minute video from Shmoop
An Exam Reader’s Advice on Writing — Conni Shelnut, an AP teacher since 1981, offers her best tips
Improving Practice — Sarah Brown Wessling from the Teaching Channel
Lesson Planning — 3 questions when lesson planning
Poetry Prompt – video advice from a Q1 reader
Prose Prompt – video advice from a Q2 reader
Open-Ended Prompt – video advice from a Q3 reader