How is the AP® English Literature Exam scored?

The AP® English Literature and Composition Exam assesses your ability to utilize critical analytical skills, as well as your aptitude to make insightful examinations of various literary techniques.

When it comes to how it’s scored, though, it’s not as straightforward.

That’s why we want to break down the scores you need to get on your AP® English Literature and Composition Exam, how the test format impacts that, and even how you can roughly estimate your own score.

Let’s jump in.

How the AP® English Literature and Composition Exam works

Many colleges and universities across the United States require that you take a writing class before you can graduate. However, if you take the AP® English Literature Exam and attain a certain score, it is possible you could qualify for credit toward that writing requirement—meaning, you may be able to save time and money by not having to sit for the class once you get to college.

When it comes time to take the exam, you can expect the same format and structure. You’ll have three hours to complete the exam.

The AP® English Literature Exam is split into two sections: Section I and Section II.

Section I is a 55-question multiple-choice section which counts for 45% of your exam score.

The multiple-choice section includes five sets of 8 to 13 questions per set, with each set of questions constructed around a preceding passage of prose fiction or poetry of varying difficulty. You should expect at least two prose fiction passages and at least two poetry passages in this section.

The multiple-choice section addresses the six big ideas of the AP® English Literature course, and is designed to test for certain skill categories including your ability to:

  • 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

Section II of the AP® English Literature Exam is the free-response section, and counts for 55% of your overall exam score. In this section, you will have two hours to answer three prompts as handwritten essays. Each of the free-response questions will address the following topics, always in the same order.

Question 1: Poetry Analysis

You will be presented with a passage of poetry of approximately 100 to 300 words, and given a prompt in connection with that passage. You are expected to demonstrate well-written analysis of the passage by responding to the prompt with a thesis that presents your own interpretation, using appropriate evidence to develop and support your line of reasoning.

Question 2: Prose Fiction Analysis

You will be presented with a passage of prose fiction of approximately 500 to 700 words, and given a prompt in connection with that passage. You are expected to demonstrate well-written analysis of the passage by responding to the prompt with a thesis that presents your own interpretation, using appropriate evidence to develop and support your line of reasoning.

Question 3: Literary Argument

You will be presented with a literary concept or idea, along with a list of approximately 40 literary works. You are required to select a work of prose fiction either from your own reading or from the provided list and analyze how the literary concept or idea described in the question contributes to an interpretation of the work as a whole. You are expected to respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents your own interpretation and use of appropriate evidence to develop and support your line of reasoning.

Each one of these free-response essays will be scored out of 6 points. This is important to note, as it is a new scoring system as of fall 2019.

Here’s what the structure of the exam looks like broken down by section and question type, along with how much each section impacts the ultimate score:

  • Section I: Multiple choice
    • 55 questions that cover excerpts from short fiction, poetry, and longer fiction or drama
    • One hour
    • 45% of final exam score
  • Section II: Free response
    • Three questions with prompts covering synthesis, rhetorical analysis, and argument
    • Two hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute reading time
    • 55% of final exam score

Before we explain how each section is scored, let’s take a look at the scores you can get for your entire exam.

How to find the score you need on the AP® English Literature Exam

Each AP® Exam is scored on a scale of one to five. The higher your score, the better it is for you.

Check out the table below for a breakdown of what each score means.

AP® Score

What it means


Best. The highest score you can get on your AP® Exam. This score typically guarantees college credit or placement out of a required course at colleges that accept AP® Exams.


Excellent. While not the highest, this is still a very good score. You’ll usually get college credit with it.


Very Good. This is often called a “passing” score and is the usual threshold for colleges to give you credit, though not at the most competitive colleges.


Okay. Even though this is not a “passing” score, it can still reflect some significant improvement over the course of a year.


Not the best. We all have to start from somewhere!

When it comes to AP® English Literature and Composition, you’ll want to aim for a score of three or higher. Many colleges will give you college credit or placement out of a required course if you score within that range.

It varies from school to school though. So, if you want to know the score that a specific school will accept in exchange for credit, you’ll need to check with the school’s registrar’s office to find out information about AP® credit for English Literature and Composition. Often, you can find this information on the school’s website. You can also check out the College Board’s search tool for AP® credit policies.

NOTE: Colleges sometimes change their requirements for awarding college credit or offering placement out of required courses. So always check in with the college to make sure you have the most relevant and recent information.

How the AP® English Literature Exam is scored

The multiple-choice section is scored via computer. When the computer analyzes your answers, it does not deduct points if your answer is incorrect or unanswered. You read that right. You only stand to gain points when you answer questions. It is always in your best interest to answer every question and leave nothing blank.

The free-response section is a bit more complicated, however. Rather than using a computer, the free-response section is scored by actual humans. This occurs during an event called the AP® Reading, an annual convention in June during which thousands of college professors and AP® teachers nationwide convene to help judge and score AP® essays.

The free response essays are each scored on a scale of 0–6, with 6 being the best score you can get and 0 being the worst.

Combined, the raw points you get from both sections give you your composite score. It’s your composite score that determines your scaled score of 1–5.

Bottom line: Graders are looking for essays that showcase a strong command of the English literature, the ability to craft compelling and well-sourced arguments, and the ability to analyze text for its rhetorical structure.

When you can find out your score

In 2020, all AP® Exams will take place from May 4th through May 15th.

The English Literature and Composition exam will take place on the morning of Wednesday, May 6, 2019 at 8:00 a.m. Exams will take place at designated AP® test-taking facilities unless you have approved exemptions from the College Board (e.g., if the test is administered outside the United States).

After the exam, you get to spend several long weeks before you find out your score in July 2020.

NOTE: No specific information has been released yet about when the scores will be made available to students and parents. So be sure to check back to Marco Learning over the next few months to stay updated.

As mentioned above, all of the free-response answers for every AP® Exam are judged during the AP® Reading. That convention of thousands of professors and AP® teachers all over the country takes place in the first two weeks of June. Once your free-response question is judged and scored, the College Board needs to compile all the scores before they’re ready to be released.

The best piece of advice once you take your exam is to simply relax. There’s no use sweating over your exam once you’re finished. What’s done is done.

More importantly, be sure to take some time to be proud of your accomplishment. You just invested a lot of time studying and learning valuable information that you’ll be able to carry with you to college and beyond. That’s something you earned regardless of what the score says.

Once you get your score, and you got a good score—congrats! You just earned potential college credit and saved yourself substantial time and money.

If your score wasn’t what you were hoping for, don’t worry. You can always retake the AP® Exam the next year. Check out our resources to help you the next time around.

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