What’s on the AP® English Language Exam?

The AP® English Language Exam will test students on their rhetorical, analytical, and writing abilities.

The actual test format for the AP® English Language Exam is fairly straightforward: you have three hours and 15 minutes to complete the exam. There are two sections to it. The first is comprised of excerpts from non-fiction texts with multiple-choice questions. The second is a free-response section made up of three prompts you must answer via essays.

In all, the structure looks like this:

SECTION I: Multiple choice

SECTION II: Free response

  • One hour
  • 52–55 questions that cover excerpts from nonfiction text
  • 45% of final exam score
  • Two hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute reading time
  • Three questions with prompts covering synthesis, rhetorical analysis, and argument
  • 55% of final exam score

Of course, there’s a bit more to the AP® English Language and Composition Exam format than this. That’s why we want to quickly go through how the exam works and what will be covered in it.

What’s on the AP® English Language and Composition Exam?

Many colleges and universities across the United States require that you take a rhetoric or writing class before you can graduate. However, if you take the AP® English Language Exam and attain a certain score, you give yourself the opportunity to fulfill those credits before you’re even accepted into college.

The exam is comprehensive when it comes to the English language, covering topics such as:

  • Rhetorical analysis of prose
  • Reading comprehension
  • Written argumentation ability
  • MLA, APA, and Chicago-style citation
  • Reputable sourcing
  • Synthesis of information from multiple texts

As mentioned above, the exam is split up into two different sections. Let’s go through each section now and break down what to expect.

Multiple choice

The first section you will take is the multiple-choice section. This will contain 52–55 questions that will test you about specific excerpts of nonfiction text provided on the test sheet.

There will be four or five passages that you’ll be tested on. Along with each passage, a piece of information such as “This passage is from Martin Luther King’s Letters from Birmingham Jail written in 1963” will be provided to orient you.

There are eight different types of questions to expect in this section. They are:

  1. Reading comprehension. These questions test your understanding of the text on a literal level.
  2. Implication. These questions test your ability to understand what the author is saying without outright saying it.
  3. Passage and author questions. These questions are about authorial intent as well as overall issues regarding the text.
  4. Relationships between text. These questions ask you to compare two different parts of the passage and draw conclusions about them.
  5. Interpretation of imagery. These questions ask you to interpret figurative language and imagery for meaning.
  6. Purpose of text. These questions ask you about how certain passages fit into the authorial intent.
  7. Rhetorical strategy. These questions challenge you to find why the author makes certain grammatical and rhetorical choices.
  8. Style and effect. These questions ask about different stylistic choices in the text and why the author made them.

BEST WAY TO PREPARE: Practice, practice, and practice some more. This section is all about reading comprehension and analysis, so the only way you are going to improve is by practicing reading passages as much as you can in the weeks and months before the test.

… But make sure you analyze your practice results! You should always study yourself as a test-taker and identify how specific types of passages, questions, or wrong answers are causing problems for you. Then look for ways to improve in those specific areas. Also, make sure that you are actively engaging with what you are reading. Ask yourself, “What is the author trying to say with this text? What are they doing with the language to further their argument? What imagery is being employed?” Only through active reading can you hope to be prepared for the multiple-choice section.

Free response

The second section is the free-response section—and it’s also worth the most points on the AP® English Language Exam. As such, AP® graders will likely be more focused on it than any other.

In the free-response section, you will receive prompts that cover three areas. They are:

  1. Synthesis. You will read multiple sources and craft an argument that cites at least three of the sources to support your argument.
  2. Rhetorical analysis. You will read a passage of text and then craft an analysis of the author’s intention as well as how the author’s choices in the text support that intent.
  3. Argument. You will craft an argument over a specific topic and support said argument with evidence.

THE BEST WAY TO PREPARE: As with the multiple-choice section, you will want to engage in as much active reading as possible. However, on top of all that, you will also want to practice your writing skills.

More specifically, you will want to know how to craft a persuasive argumentative essay. To practice, try choosing a topic you really care about and write persuasive letters to family, friends, or the community about that topic. Ask your teacher to grade your sample essays. Study the performance of students on past AP® Exams. The more your practice and hone your skills, the more you can improve. Only by doing can you learn how to write persuasively.