Part 1 of 4

Written by Heather Garcia

In this four-part article, Michelle Lindsey and I will walk you through why the released FRQ questions for AP Lit are so valuable for classroom instruction, and we will explore each of the three released essays in a separate article. Our hope is that you will be able to use this four-part series as you begin thinking about planning for your AP Lit course for next year.

Looking for helpful AP English Literature resources? Check out our Summer Writing Workshops and our AP Teacher Courses.


Why are we excited?
AP Lit teachers impatiently wait for the release of the essay questions that our students were asked to respond to on the AP Lit exam, and thankfully College Board doesn’t make us wait but a few days. This is good news because as soon as those prompts are released, we can discuss them with our students, and our students can discuss them with us. It creates a celebratory atmosphere in the room as the year quickly spirals to an end once the exam is over. If you haven’t seen the prompts yet, you can find them here.

Why are these past Free Response Questions valuable?

  • They provide us a glimpse into the mind of College Board so we can prepare appropriately for the exam each year.
  • When we use these past questions in our lesson plans, they help students familiarize themselves with College Board’s style of questioning, which creates comfort heading into the test in May.
  • They expose students to a broad spectrum of literary excerpts and poems that they may not have read otherwise.
  • It gives classes a common reading experience and reference points throughout the year so students can say “Hey, this poem is like the one about the Juggler from College Board”, and then a conversation can ensue.
  • College Board will eventually release a sample high, mid, and low scoring essay for us to use in our classrooms with our students, which allows students to apply the rubric and determine what College Board is looking for from students.

How can I incorporate them into my course next year?

  • Use the released prompts as weekly practice: You can rotate prompts out week by week or coordinate them to the units you are teaching according to the Course Exam Description provided by College Board.
  • Model your own prompts after College Board’s: If you want to use the content you were planning to teach anyway, say a particular poem that you love or an excerpt from a novel or play you are already reading, you can use the 2022 prompts as models as you create your own College Board-like prompts.
  • Incorporate them after each novel or play you read: The released Literary Argument prompts (question 3) can be used as discussion prompts, journal prompts, or timed essay prompts for novels or plays that you are already reading in class.
  • Encourage students to analyze the released student samples: Since College Board releases a high, mid, and low scoring essay for each essay prompt, those are great examples to offer students. Students can “peer score” them on the rubric or they can analyze them with partners to determine what works and what might need improvement to raise the score.

While this is not an exhaustive list of the ways you can use College Board’s released prompts, it is a place to get started, especially if you haven’t been using these released prompts in the past.

Keep reading for more on each released question!

2022 AP Lit FRQ 1: “Shaving” by Richard Blanco

Part 2 of 4

Written by Michelle Lindsey

Here is the order of confidence my student feel about their essays: Question 3 takes the lead, Question 1 is a close second, and then Question 2 might be miles and miles and miles away from both of them. To ease some of my anxiety, my students convinced me they did a solid job on this Question 1 prompt. They said they went through our writing process, annotated the poem, planned their essay, and dazzled the College Board.

I always tell my kids to read the poem first to gain some context about what it’s about. This poem, luckily, was pretty transparent. It’s about a guy thinking about the act of shaving, then thinking about when he’s actually shaving, and linking it all to his late father. It was accessible, which we all appreciate. What my students struggled to find was the complexity, which is unfortunate considering it’s worded right there in the prompt- therefore, it has to be there somewhere.

Here is the prompt for Question 1:

The Prompt: In Richard Blanco’s poem “Shaving”, published in 1998, the speaker writes about the act of shaving. Read the poem carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how Blanco uses literary elements and techniques to develop the speaker’s complex associations with the ritual of shaving.

I asked my students if they broke down the prompt into questions, and they promised they did. If they actually did the work, their questions may have looked like this:

  • What are the associations with the ritual of shaving?
  • What is complex about those associations?
  • How do we know? (can be answered in their body paragraphs)
  • Why do we care? (something I make them add to encourage them to talk about the theme as a common reading)

Once they have the questions isolated, they can begin to hunt down the information they need within the poem.

In stanza 1, our author compares the growth of his beard to silent, misty, blurry things. He uses a simile to compare the growth of his beard to the ocean steam and spiderwebs in the mornings. We can see this. We can visualize the foggy clouds lifting off water or the puffy, yet obscure spiderwebs that cling to wet grass in the mornings. We don’t see these things forming, the formation is silent much like the rose replenishing itself with water from the vase. These are soft similes comparing the mystery of stubble growth to the passing of his father, which ironically came up quite suddenly within the poem and apparently it crept up on the author in real life too.

Looking at the two ideas paired together, the mysterious growth of beard hair, which is symbolic of manhood, and his father’s life passing them by, readers can begin to see the association between the act of shaving and something our narrator missed out on with his father.

Stanza 2 shifts to when he is actually shaving. So, now we have manhood and our narrator navigating something he was never shown how to do. He catches glimpses of his father literally and figuratively with the memory of the father shaving and his “legacy of black whispers” on his own face. This stanza doesn’t have the soft imagery as the first one. The diction is harsher with words like “masquerade”, “blade”, “dead pieces”, and “black seeds”. Readers gain a little more insight into the emotion behind the poem in stanza 2 and the idea that the association between shaving and his father might not be a pleasant one as we learn the father “never taught me how to shave.”

Stanza 3 has a bit of an epiphany but not an entirely happy one as he talks about how quickly everything can vanish. One morning he wakes up with a beard that, however long it took to form, can be easily erased with the swipe of his blade. Obviously, this connects with the unpredicted passing of his father.

Once my students navigate their way through the poem, they’re supposed to go back and answer those questions they formed from the prompt:

  1. What are the associations with the ritual of shaving? A: Our narrator associates the ritual of shaving with the passing of time and life (and his father).
  2. What is complex about those associations? A: Although he begins the poem in a calm manner, it is evident that our narrator (or author) still has unresolved grief he is still managing.
  1. How do we know? A: Stanza one has the calm similes and imagery- yet slight undertones of the unknown and stanzas 2 and 3 have the tone shift (but I would save these ideas for my body paragraphs).
  2. Why do we care? A: We care because life is a cycle, like shaving, life grows and is then cut off and more life grows after that.

Here is what my thesis might look like:

Blanco associates the ritual of shaving with the passing of time and life. He recognizes there is a beauty in the growing of life, symbolized by the beard, but also grief towards that life-ending in order to remind readers that life itself is cyclic.

I would follow up my introduction with a paragraph about stanza 1 and the calm atmosphere and then my next body paragraph would be about the grief evidenced in stanzas 2 and 3. I would probably only have two body paragraphs because I let the answers to the questions from the prompt drive my essays.

This isn’t perfect. After these questions were released, I also heard about ten different interpretations from my kiddos. I embrace their diverse thinking and as long as they can write their ideas with conviction and solid evidence, they’ll be ok.

The 2022 AP Lit FRQ 2: Examining Linda Hogan’s People of the Whale

Part 3 of 4

Written by Heather Garcia

Those few days between students testing and when the AP Literature FRQ questions are released seem infinite. I can’t be the only one checking the website obsessively just hoping they will drop those little gems a bit early – right? (Right?)

Now that they are public, they are open to scrutiny, and for question two, there was a lot to analyze.

For context, or for those of you who haven’t read the prompt yet, here is what College Board was asking the students for question two, the Prose Analysis Essay in 2022. 

The following excerpt is from Linda Hogan’s novel People of the Whale, published in 2008. In this passage, the narrator described two events that occur in a community: an infant’s birth shortly followed by an octopus’s walking out of the sea. Read the passage carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how the author uses literary elements and techniques to develop a complex characterization of the community.
In your response you should do the following:
● Respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents a defensible interpretation.
● Select and use evidence to support your line of reasoning.
● Explain how the evidence supports your line of reasoning.
● Use appropriate grammar and punctuation in communicating your argument.

After looking at this prompt, there is a lot to unpack before moving into analyzing the passage.

Here are the questions I know I need to answer as I read the passage, based on the above prompt:

  1. How would I define this community and how it is characterized?
  2. Why or how is it complex?
  3. What literary elements or techniques are being employed to create this characterization?

These questions can lead to a rough outline of the essay to write, but first, we need to really examine the excerpt provided from People of the Whale. Students may choose to do this in chunks, taking one paragraph at a time and really examining it through the lens of the questions above. Or, they may read the passage as a whole first to get an overall gist of what the excerpt is about and then go back and look deeper at each of the paragraphs.

Regardless of the approach they take, this excerpt is one of the longer ones that College Board has put out in recent years, and there is a lot of depth within the excerpt to pull from as students write.

After reading through the Prose Analysis Essay Excerpt, we can answer the questions above. This is how I would respond to them, but keep in mind, that students may respond differently, as might you. That is okay. That, in fact, is to be celebrated because the readers from College Board do not expect (or desire) to read essays that are carbon copies of one another.

Here is how I would approach these questions:

  1. How would I define this community and how it is characterized?
    1. This community is closely connected and ruled by a combination of fear, superstition, and religion that clouds their perceptions of reality as they treat the octopus as a deity that consumed and enriches their lives despite their poverty.
  2. Why or how is it complex?
    1. The complexity arises because the people of the town do not all respond the same way to the octopus residing in the cave- causing tension and unrest amongst the community and many ultimately ended up worshiping the octopus out of fear or devotion. 
  3. What literary elements or techniques are being employed to create this characterization?
    1. Characterization of the community occurs through the use of mounting tension within the narrative, through the use of personification of the octopus, and through the various reactions of the townsfolk (selection of detail).

My thesis statement for this prompt might look like this:

This community is characterized primarily by its reaction to the octopus, which they treat as a deity to both pray to and fear, emphasizing their desperation and also their faith in forces beyond themselves.

In the chart below you will see the lines that I would pull for evidence if I were writing this essay and how I would connect them to my thesis.

Excerpt from the 2022 Prose Analysis Essay PassageHow it connects to my thesis
“…the eye of it looking at them, each one seen as if each one were known in all their past, all their future.” (11-13)The community reveres this octopus as a wise creature, one capable of seeing into a person’s past and a person’s future, much as a deity or god would- and that is before it ever takes up residence in the cave. This is just as it is walking on land- emphasizing their willingness to call on superstition as a first reaction.
“…wanted to throw kerosene in the cave and burn it” (32)Since the octopus was regarded as a deity, some feared it and what it meant to their community, and their response was to kill it, to ruin not just the creature, but the fear of the unknown that it awoke in them.
“Its purpose was a mystery.” (36-37)This octopus is imbued by the community with a sense of purpose which elevates its position in the community, highlighting its god-like status and assuming it has a mission beyond mere shelter.
“And so the people thought it was holy and they left gifts outside the entrance to the black rock cave.” (39-41)The townsfolk begin to offer the few possessions they have, their most valued treasures, as offerings for the god-from-the-sea. They act as if this sacrifice to the octopus will cause it to show them favor
“…held her kicking baby up to it, to be seen by it. “Here is my son. You knew his grandfather. Watch over him.”Not only are offerings being made in the form of physical goods, but by holding up the baby in front of the cave, this mother is essentially offering her son or dedicating him to the octopus in exchange for protection for the baby. This behavior implies that the mother is willing to offer not just pearls or physical treasures, but she is willing to offer up her newborn son which emphasizes her desperation.

There are SO many ways to approach this excerpt, and hopefully, students were able to take the time to explore them as they were writing their essays, but even if time didn’t permit them to explore the passage as thoroughly as they might have hoped, there is no doubt that this Prose Analysis Essay question is rich in detail and provided many opportunities for interpretation and analysis.

2022 AP Lit FRQ 3: Accepting or Rejecting Hierarchical Structure

Part 4 of 4

Written by Michelle Lindsey

With AP Literature testing finally over and the College Board finally releasing the Free Response Questions, it’s time to talk about Question 3.

Fortunately for my kids, we had a class discussion recapping the novels we read throughout the year. We read Homegoing, The Nightingale, Clap When You Land, Twelfth Night, and then the kids had group novels they read. Some groups chose Fahrenheit 451, A Thousand White Women, and The Great Alone. Throughout the discussion, we recapped themes, major characters and their complexities, and powerful quotes. We ended by talking about common themes all the novels shared and we just so happen to talk about how all our novels challenge societal norms, political power, etc. So, it was perfect. But I know we got lucky with that prompt and not everyone was in our boat.

Of course, once the test was released, upon student request, I dissected the Question 3 prompt, and how I would have tackled this prompt.

The Prompt: Many works of literature feature characters who accept or reject a hierarchical structure. This hierarchy may be social, economic, political, or familial, or it may apply to some other kind of structure.
Either from your own reading or from the list below, choose a work of fiction in which a character responds to a hierarchy in some significant way. Then, in a well written essay, analyze how that character’s response to the hierarchy contributes to an interpretation of the work as a whole period do not merely summarize the plot.

Let’s start by breaking down this prompt into the sub-questions nested within:

  • What is the hierarchy within the novel?
  • Which character has a response to it?
  • How does that character respond?
  • What is the interpretation of the work as a whole?
  • What makes that response significant regarding that interpretation?

There are various ways this prompt can be broken down, but these seem like the main gist of the prompt.  I love this prompt, by the way.

Before students can begin answering these questions, they may have needed to look at the context the College Board gave them about the types of hierarchies in order to decide which novel to choose.

I provided some examples of the different hierarchies in the chart below. This is not an exhaustive list, but it certainly can be a good starting point if you plan on using this prompt next year as practice. I also explored these ideas with my favorite novel from this year.

Types of hierarchiesFamilialEconomicalPoliticalSocial
What it might look like in a novelSome family member(s) might have a higher or lower ranking than other members of the family- for whatever reason- or no reason at all.People with more money might have a higher ranking or power.


People with less money might have lower ranking or power

People with political power might have power over other groups.Some social groups might have a higher or lower ranking than other groups.
The NightingaleVianne certainly has a higher “rank” as she takes on the motherly role to try to keep Isabelle safe. Isabelle responds with complete rebellion and bitterness.The Nazis shut down the school where Vianne works, and she just silently accepts her dwindling meager savings out of fearObviously, the Nazi soldiers invade France and seize complete control over everything. Vianne accepts this in silent fear, at first. Yet, Isabelle is determined to be a martyr.Isabelle is described to be beautiful, and she catches the attention of a lot of young German soldiers. She responds with reckless rudeness and disdain.

After determining how these hierarchies exist within some of our novels, we could use these ideas to answer the questions nested within the prompt. Again, The Nightingale was my favorite novel of the year so I will use that one.

  • What is the hierarchy within the novel?
    A: Familial hierarchy and political hierarchy play the largest roles. I would mention both hierarchies to bring in some complexity
  • Which character has a response to it?
    A: Although both sisters respond to both hierarchies, Isabelle would be my focus because she feels she is at the very bottom of both hierarchies and has the largest character arch.
  • How does that character respond?
    A: She responds with rebellion, anger, and recklessness
  • What is the interpretation of the work as a whole?
    A: The entire novel focuses on fighting against injustice- in all different forms.
  • What makes that response significant regarding that interpretation?
    A: Isabelle is sick of feeling inferior to her sister and feeling disposable by the Nazis, so she decides to do something about it. She shows readers that a single person can truly make a big difference.

My thesis would look something like this: Isabelle fights desperately to get out of the bottom of the familial hierarchy with her sister and the political one with the Nazi regime. Her rebellion against the injustice she faces and sees others facing is lifesaving, and life-changing, despite both hierarchies telling her she is invaluable and could never make a difference.

I would then spend a body paragraph defending how Vianne made her feel like a burden and an outcast within her own family. I would include all sorts of specific examples of moments when Vianne causes Isabelle to feel invaluable. I would then argue how her rebellion saved her own life, not in a literal way, but in an emotional sense as she gained self-worth. That drive to prove her worth and ability to make a difference would lead me to the next paragraph.

My next body paragraph would focus on the political hierarchy and how the Nazis constantly made her, and the people in her community, feel disposable and worthless. There are numerous examples of this as well that I would include. I would then link that disposable feeling to her rebellion and all the airmen she saved as she took on the persona of “The Nightingale”, truly making a massive difference in the lives of not only the airmen and their families, but causing some serious turmoil within the Nazi regime.

Is this essay perfect? Probably not. But this essay is accessible and when I showed this essay structure to my students after their exam (and after it was legal), they weren’t afraid that their essays were too far from the mark. They felt confident they were on the right track. And, when I show this essay idea to my class next year, they won’t be intimidated by the tasks within the prompt.

And there you have it. The breakdown of every free-response question on the 2022 AP English Literature Exam. We hope this was helpful.

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.

Michelle Lindsey

Michelle Lindsey has been a high school teacher in Florida for nine years, and currently teaches AP® Capstone as well as literature and writing courses.

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