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.

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