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Studying for the AP English Literature and Composition Exam

Studying for the AP English Literature and Composition Exam

Mar 01, 2018

Choosing the right sort of books—and learning their major themes and literary devices—is the key to success on the annual English literature exam.

Thousands of well-read students take the AP English Literature and Composition exam each year. The exam consists of two parts:

  • Section I, with up to 55 multiple choice questions dealing with excerpts from prose, poetry, and non-fiction pieces (worth 45% of the overall score).
  • Section II, with three “free response” essay prompts (worth 55% of the overall score).

In Section II, students are given an excerpt of poetry and prose to analyze for their first two essay prompts. For the third essay prompt, students must choose a novel from a list of major works that the College Board provides, or choose another work “of comparable literary merit.”

So, the upshot is that your student has the ability to read major literary works ahead of the exam. But in order to be prepared for the essay prompt’s particular theme, students will still need to read widely.

Students should choose three to five thematically diverse novels that the student can become familiar with closely—from the novels’ characters and plots, to major themes and literary devices running throughout the works.

While there is no set reading list for the AP English Literature and Composition exam, the College Board has released the names of major poets and authors whose works students should focus on (see page 10 in the linked Course Description guide).

Studying for the exam gives students and tutors the opportunity to refine close-reading skills and writing essays under time pressure.

As an example of the types of works found in the free response section, check out the 2017 AP English Literature and Composition exam (recent years’ exams are available on the College Board website). The works draw from different periods of time and styles, which can give your student an idea of other works they might read in preparation for the exam.

Here is an idea of several works that students might read, and the major themes that the works exemplify:

Oedipus Rex

In this classic Greek work by Sophocles, the tragic hero Oedipus rescues the city of Thebes from supernatural assault, only to fall victim to his own pride and a fate outside of his control.

Major themes/literary devices: dramatic irony; fate versus free will; unknown origins; hubris (pride)

The Importance of Being Earnest

One of Irish playwright and author Oscar Wilde’s most celebrated plays, The Importance of Being Earnest pokes fun at late Victorian middle-class society and the masks that his high-society characters wear. In a classic twist on the old morality play, one of the characters, Ernest, has been hiding his true identity, only to reveal it at the end of the play, when he admits to learning “the importance of being earnest.”

Major themes/literary devices: all forms of irony (dramatic, verbal, situational); unknown origins; mistaken identity.

The Kite Runner

An example of non-Western literature, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini follows the lives of two boys, Hassan and Amir, growing up in Afghanistan. Readers challenges European views of the world, and exposes the reader to serious issues, such as sexual assault, victim blaming, and dealing with trauma.

Major themes/literary devices: betrayal and redemption; forgiveness; metaphor; foreshadowing.

The key to preparing for the exam is choosing the right sort of book, rather than the right book. In other words, there is no right book. Rather, by reading a variety of works and becoming familiar with their characters, plots, themes, and literary devices, students will be well prepared to tackle the AP English Literature and Composition exam.

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