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AP English Literature And Composition: A Complete Guide

AP English Literature And Composition: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|March 19 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


Have you ever wondered what it takes to excel in AP English Literature and Composition? This course is more than just reading and analyzing texts; it's a journey through a diverse world of literary masterpieces. Why choose this AP course? It's not just about enhancing your literary skills; it's about diving deep into the realms of critical thinking literary argument, and advanced interpretation.

But, is it really for you? This guide is tailored for high school students, parents, and teachers seeking to understand the essence of AP English Literature. We will walk you through its challenges, its syllabus, and the secrets to achieving a top score. With a blend of statistics, expert opinions, and effective strategies, this article is your roadmap to mastering AP English Literature and Composition.

Why Study AP English Literature and Composition?

Choosing to study AP English Literature and Composition can be a highly rewarding decision for high school students, offering several key benefits:

  • College Credit and Advanced Placement: One of the most significant advantages is the opportunity to earn college credit. Many colleges and universities recognize AP courses and exams, potentially allowing you to save on tuition costs and time. This aspect of AP English Literature can be especially appealing when considering the high costs of college education.
  • Enhanced Critical Thinking and Communication Skills: The course sharpens your ability to think critically and communicate effectively. Through engaging with diverse literary works, students develop skills in articulating complex ideas, both in discussion and writing. These skills are not only beneficial academically but are also invaluable in professional and personal settings.
  • Deep Literary Analysis and Understanding: AP English Literature encourages a deep dive into various literary genres, including novels, plays, and poetry. It emphasizes the analysis of themes, motifs, and literary devices, enabling students to appreciate literature at a more profound level. This analytical skill is crucial for understanding complex texts and ideas, a skill applicable in many academic and professional fields.
  • Exposure to a Variety of Literary Works: The course introduces students to a broad spectrum of authors and literary styles, enriching their understanding of different cultures and historical periods. This exposure broadens one’s perspective and fosters a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience as expressed through literature.
  • Preparation for College-Level Writing: The course’s emphasis on essay writing prepares students for the rigors of college-level writing. This includes developing skills in research, citation, and crafting well-structured, coherent arguments.

Overall, AP English Literature and Composition is more than just an academic subject; it’s a course that equips students with critical skills for both academic success as well as personal growth.

Number of students who gave AP English Literature and Composition Exams

Graph showing number of students who gave AP English Literature and Composition exams

Is AP English Literature Hard?

AP English Literature and Composition presents unique challenges, but its difficulty largely depends on your interests and strengths in writing essays reading and analyzing literature. However, it is ranked no. 6 easiest AP subject. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Depth Over Breadth: Unlike AP Language, which covers a broad range of topics, AP English Literature focuses more deeply on understanding and analyzing literature, using various lenses like characterization and literary devices.
  • Analytical Writing: In AP Literature, your essays will mostly be analytical, requiring close reading of texts to understand their themes or styles.
  • Reading Intensity: This course is reading-intensive, involving novels, plays, short stories, and poetry. The final AP Literature prompt is particularly challenging as it requires familiarity with a range of books for in-depth analysis.
  • Course Focus: The course is designed for those with a strong interest in literature and the humanities. It's less about arguing a point and more about dissecting literature to understand what makes it work.
  • Teacher and School Factors: The quality and approach of the teacher, as well as the course structure at your school, can significantly influence the difficulty level.

YearMean Score% of Scores 3 or Higher

Table showing mean scores of AP English Literature and Composition in past 5 years

While AP English Literature is challenging, it is also deeply rewarding for those passionate about literature. The course demands substantial reading and analytical skills, making it more suitable for students interested in humanities and fine arts.

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What does AP English Literature and Composition consist of?

AP English Literature and Composition is a comprehensive course and exam that focuses on enhancing students' abilities in critical analysis and appreciation of literature. Here's what the course and exam encompass:

Course Content: The course is designed to help students master the art of critical analysis of fictional literature. This leads to a deeper understanding of influential English writers and their contributions to literature. The curriculum covers various structures, styles, themes, and elements of literature, ultimately aiding students in becoming advanced writers. While there's no mandatory reading list, several works are commonly studied, such as "Great Expectations," "The Great Gatsby," "1984," and "To Kill a Mockingbird," among others​​.

Skills Development: The course emphasizes critical reading and analysis of texts, enhancing students' skills in areas like understanding character functions, setting, plot, narrative voice, and the use of literary devices. These skills are vital for textual interpretation and form a significant part of the exam's multiple-choice section​.

AP English Literature and Composition Syllabus

Table showing AP English Literature and Composition Syllabus

AP English Literature and Composition is not just about reading and discussing literature; it's an immersive experience that builds critical thinking, analytical, and writing skills through a rigorous study of various literary works and styles.

AP English Literature and Composition Exam Format

The AP Literature exam is composed of 2 main sections:

1. Multiple-Choice Section

  • Number of Questions: 55
  • Time Allotted: 1 hour
  • Exam Weightage: 45% of total exam score
  • Content: Linked to prose, poetry, or drama passages​​​​.

The questions are grouped into 5 sets, each preceded by a passage of prose fiction, drama, or poetry. The multiple-choice questions test students' ability to analyze these texts, with at least two prose fiction passages and two poetry passages included​​.

2. Free-Response Section

  • Number of Questions: 3
  • Time Allotted: 2 hours
  • Exam Weightage: 55% of total exam score
  • Content: Literary analysis of a poem, prose fiction, and a student-selected work​

What are the 3 essays for AP Lit?

The AP Literature and Composition exam's free-response section typically includes three types of essays:

  • Literary Analysis of a Specific Passage: This essay asks students to read a given passage of prose or poetry and then write an essay analyzing how various literary elements, like diction, imagery, syntax, tone, etc., contribute to the passage's meaning, mood, or theme.
  • Analysis of a Particular Theme or Technique in a Work: This essay requires students to discuss a particular theme, character, technique, or other element in a work of literature. Students are expected to choose an appropriate work, often from a provided list, and analyze how this element contributes to the overall meaning of the work.
  • Open-Ended Essay on a Topic of Choice: This essay allows students to choose a work of literary merit (usually from a given list) and discuss a specific theme, character, conflict, or other literary element in relation to the prompt. This essay is more open-ended and tests the student's ability to form a coherent argument about a literary work they have studied.

For each essay, students must demonstrate a deep understanding of literary elements and literary techniques used, and they need to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively. The specific prompts and passages change each year, but the general format and types of essays remain consistent.

  • Scoring Rubrics: The free-response questions are evaluated using analytic rubrics, focusing on the overall quality of the essay rather than just individual components such as grammar or organization.
AP English Literature and Composition Exam Weightages

Table showing AP English Literature and Composition Exam Weightages

This comprehensive exam format aims to test a wide range of literary analytical skills, from understanding themes and character functions to interpreting figurative language and plot structures in various literary forms.

When is the AP English Literature and Composition exam?

According to College Board, the AP English Literature and Composition exam is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8, 2024 and will begin at 8 AM local time. This exam is an opportunity for high school students to earn college credit by demonstrating their mastery of college-level literature and composition skills. Students taking this exam will be assessed on their ability to analyze and interpret literary texts and their ability to compose clear, coherent, and persuasive essays as discussed in this guide.

What is a good score in AP English Literature and Composition?

Defining a 'good' score in AP English Literature and Composition also depends on various factors, including individual goals and the requirements of colleges and universities. Here's an overview:

  • AP Exam Scoring System: The AP grading scale ranges from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score. A score of 3 is typically considered as passing, while a score of 4 or 5 is often seen as excellent.
  • College Credit and Placement: Many colleges and universities offer college credit or advanced placement for scores of 3, 4, or 5. However, this can vary significantly from one institution to another.
  • Statistical Context: According to the 2023 data, about 77.2% of students scored a 3 or higher on the AP English Literature and Composition exam. Achieving a score of 5, which only 14.9% of students attained, is particularly impressive and noteworthy​​​​.
  • Personal Academic Goals: What constitutes a 'good' score is subjective and can vary based on individual goals. For some students, achieving a personal best might be the target, while for others, it could be meeting the specific credit or placement requirements of their chosen colleges.

AP English Literature and Composition Grades Distribution

While a score of 3 or higher is generally seen as favorable and often aligns with college credit requirements, students should consider their personal academic ambitions, as well as the specific admission criteria of the colleges they are interested in. Aiming for a higher score can be particularly important for those seeking credit in more competitive programs or colleges.

AP English Literature and Composition Grades Distribution

Bar graph showing AP English Literature and Composition Grades Distribution 2021-2023

When aiming for a score in AP English Literature and Composition, it's crucial to consider personal objectives, college prerequisites, and the comparative difficulty of the exam, as reflected in the distribution of scores.

Best AP English Literature and Composition Resources

For students preparing for the AP English Literature and Composition exam, there are several valuable resources available to enhance study and understanding:

1. Prep Books:

2. College Board Resources:

The College Board, which administers AP exams, offers a comprehensive Course and Exam Description for AP English Literature and Composition. This document outlines the course content, exam structure, and skills required for the exam. The course content is divided into units that cover short fiction, poetry, and longer fiction or drama, with specific skills like analysis of character, setting, plot, and literary devices. The College Board also provides online resources for exam preparation, including past exam questions and AP Classroom materials.

3. High Quality Study Notes:

TutorChase's AP English Literature and Composition study notes are the best and an essential resource for exam preparation. They are well designed and structured for quick learning and help a lot of students every year achieve high scores.

These resources, when used effectively, can greatly aid students in preparing for the AP English Literature and Composition exam, helping them to achieve a better understanding of literary analysis and potentially a higher score on the exam.

How to get a 5 in AP English Literature and Composition?

Achieving a top score of 5 in AP English Literature and Composition involves a combination of strategic study, practice, and understanding of the exam format:

  • Understand the Exam Structure: Familiarize yourself with the exam's format, including the types of questions in the multiple-choice section and the requirements for the free-response essays.
  • Extensive Reading: Read a wide range of literature, including novels, plays, and poetry, from different periods and genres.
  • Develop Analytical Skills: Practice analyzing literary works for themes, character development, and use of literary devices.
  • Enhance Writing Skills: Regularly write essays and seek feedback to improve your writing style, structure, and argumentation.
  • Practice Past Exam Questions: Use previous exam questions and practice tests to familiarize yourself with the question types and timing.
  • Review and Revise: Continuously review literary terms, concepts, and techniques, and revise your study materials.
  • Seek Guidance: Utilize study guides, online resources, and possibly AP tutoring to enhance your understanding and preparation.

How to improve essay writing for AP English Literature?

To improve essay writing for AP English Literature, consider the following strategies:

  • Organize Your Ideas: Take time to plan your essay structure before writing.
  • Effective Use of Texts: Make pertinent use of given texts for analysis, quoting judiciously to support your observations.
  • Logical Analysis: Ensure your exposition of ideas is logical and coherent.
  • Reading and Writing Connection: Engage in active reading as it directly influences writing skills. The more you read, the more you absorb sentence structures and vocabulary to enhance your writing.
  • Writing as a Process: View writing as a process, including drafting, discussing, editing, and finalizing your work.
  • Grammar and Rhetoric: Pay attention to grammar, mechanics, and rhetoric to refine your writing.
  • Develop a Rich Vocabulary: Build a technical vocabulary related to literary analysis.

Remember, effective writing in AP English Literature involves not just presenting ideas but doing so in a structured, coherent, and stylistically sophisticated manner​.

Here is what an expert AP English Literature and Composition tutor recommends:

For AP Literature, "King Lear" by William Shakespeare is a great choice. It appeared for the 17th time this year on the exam. Other Shakespeare's works like Othello, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and Macbeth are also frequently included in the exam, so they are worth exploring as well.​

Opportunities with AP English Literature and Composition

Taking AP English Literature and Composition offers a range of benefits and opportunities for high school students, enhancing both their academic and personal growth:

Majors in Higher Education:

  • English and Literature Studies: Ideal for those interested in deep literary analysis and theory.
  • Comparative Literature: For students keen on comparing literary texts across different languages and cultures.
  • Cultural Studies: Offers a foundation in analyzing texts within cultural contexts.
  • Creative Writing: Enhances creative skills alongside critical analysis.
  • History and Philosophy: Useful for understanding historical texts and philosophical works.
  • Language Studies: Assists in developing a nuanced understanding of language and its use in literature.
  • Journalism and Media Studies: Provides skills for critical analysis of media and text.

Career Paths:

  • Teaching and Academia: Prepares for a career in teaching English or Literature.
  • Writing and Editing: Ideal for aspiring writers, editors, or content creators.
  • Journalism: Provides foundational skills for a career in reporting and writing.
  • Law: Enhances critical reading and argumentative skills useful in law.
  • Publishing: Suitable for careers in book, magazine, or digital publishing.
  • Public Relations and Communications: Assists in developing persuasive communication skills.
  • Cultural Preservation and Archiving: For those interested in preserving literary heritage.

Skills Development:

  • Analytical Thinking: Enhances the ability to critically analyze texts.
  • Writing Proficiency: Develops advanced writing skills for various formats.
  • Research Skills: Teaches how to conduct thorough literary research.
  • Interpretative Skills: Improves the ability to interpret and discuss complex texts.
  • Critical Reading: Focuses on deep reading and understanding of literature.
  • Argument Construction: Enhances skills in building and presenting arguments.
  • Cultural Awareness: Develops an understanding of diverse cultural contexts in literature.
Big Ideas covered in AP English Literature and Composition

Image showing ideas covered in AP English Literature and Composition

Common Mistakes to Avoid in AP English Literature and Composition Exam

To excel in AP English Literature and Composition and avoid common pitfalls, consider these tips:

1. Word Choice, Comparisons, and Figurative Language: Be adept at interpreting the impact of specific word choices, figurative language, and comparisons within the text. Understanding these elements is crucial for the AP Lit exam.

2. Theme Understanding: Have a solid grasp of the themes in the poetry or passages. This involves summarizing and articulating the core message and intent of all the rubrics and excerpts.

3. Paraphrasing Skills: Develop the ability to accurately paraphrase lines from the passage, as this tests your reading comprehension and grasp of the text's meaning.

4. Analysis of Literary Elements: Be skilled in analyzing various literary elements:

  • The narrator or speaker’s perspective and its influence on the text.
  • The characters and how they allow exploration of various themes.
  • The plot and structure, and their impact on the reader’s interpretation.
  • The role of symbols and motifs in contributing to the passage's meaning.

5. Technical Literary Knowledge: Occasionally, the exam will require technical knowledge like identifying parts of speech, verse forms, and poetic meters.

6. Essay Writing for Thematic Analysis: For the third essay, which involves thematic analysis, select a work of "literary merit" and ensure a deep understanding of the theme in question. It's important to choose works that are recognized for their literary value.

7. Preparation and Practice: Regularly practice multiple-choice questions and focus on improving areas where you face difficulties. For essays, practice writing under timed conditions and seek feedback to improve.

By being mindful of these common areas of focus and integrating regular practice, you can enhance your performance in the AP English Literature and Composition exam.

Conclusion on AP English Literature and Composition

AP English Literature and Composition offers a wealth of opportunities for high school students. From preparing for college-level coursework to developing critical thinking and advanced writing skills, this course is an essential stepping stone for those interested in humanities. With the rigorous examination format, scoring a 5 requires dedicated study, extensive reading, and practice in literary analysis and essay writing. The course not only prepares students for higher education majors such as English and Comparative Literature but also lays a foundation for various career paths in education, writing, law, and more. Embracing the challenges of AP English Literature and Composition can lead to significant academic and personal growth, equipping students with skills vital for success in both their academic and future professional lives.


Can AP English Literature help in SAT prep?

Taking AP English Literature and Composition can indeed help with SAT prep. The skills honed in AP English, such as reading comprehension, analysis of rhetoric, and essay writing, are directly applicable to the SAT, particularly the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections. Students often find that their SAT scores in these areas improve as a result of the analytical and writing skills developed in AP English Literature. This improvement is not just anecdotal; there are concrete examples of students experiencing significant increases in their SAT scores after taking AP English courses. The overlap in skills required for both the AP exam and the SAT makes AP English Literature a valuable course for students preparing for college entrance exams​.

What is the difference between AP English language and AP Literature?

AP English Language and AP English Literature have distinct focuses. AP Language centers on rhetoric and non-fiction, teaching students to analyze arguments and rhetorical strategies in various texts, including essays and articles. On the other hand, AP Literature focuses on analyzing literature and poetry, delving into fiction works like novels, short stories, and plays. It requires students to examine themes, character development, and literary devices. While both courses enhance reading, writing, and analytical skills, their emphasis and content differ significantly, catering to different academic and interest areas​

Can you self study AP English lit?

Yes, you can self-study for AP English Literature. It's a skills-focused course, not heavily reliant on content, making it suitable for self-study. The key to success is extensive reading and writing practice. You should familiarize yourself with various literary works, including novels, plays, and poems, and practice analyzing them. Regular study, such as dedicating 30 minutes to an hour daily to AP Lit-related activities, is recommended. Utilize resources like libraries, online study guides, and videos. Engaging with literary discussions, even through podcasts or online forums, can also be beneficial. Practice tests are crucial for understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Self-discipline and a consistent study schedule are essential for effective self-study in AP English Literature​

What do I need to know before AP Literature?

Before tackling AP English Literature and Composition, it's crucial to understand the exam format and the types of questions you'll encounter. The exam consists of a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. The multiple-choice questions will test your ability to interpret and analyze literary excerpts, while the free-response section requires you to write essays that demonstrate your analytical skills. Familiarity with a range of literary works, themes, and devices is essential. Additionally, honing your close reading and essay writing skills will be vital for success. Understanding the exam's structure and practicing with a variety of literary materials will prepare you for the types of questions and essays on the exam.

How many books should I read for AP Lit?

For the AP English Literature exam, it's recommended to be intimately familiar with four to five books, as this depth of knowledge is crucial for the essay portion of the exam. Beyond these, the more books you read, the better. This approach helps in gaining familiarity with different literary eras, genres, and enhances close-reading skills. While there isn't an official AP reading list, focusing on works of literary merit is essential. Selecting a diverse range of books in terms of themes, eras, and genres is beneficial. This strategy ensures preparedness for various possible essay topics and helps in building a strong foundation for literary analysis​

Is AP Lit all fiction?

AP Literature (AP Lit) focuses primarily on analyzing works of fiction. This includes fiction analysis a diverse range of literary forms such as poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. The course is designed to help students develop skills in interpreting these works and expressing their analysis in writing. It covers fiction from various periods and cultures, giving students a broad understanding of literary styles and themes. On the other hand, AP English Language and Composition, another AP English course, is more centered on non-fiction works, including essays, speeches, and news articles. So, while AP Lit is deeply rooted in fiction, AP Language explores a broader spectrum of texts, mainly non-fiction​​​​.

Why am I so bad at AP Lit MCQ?

Struggling with AP Lit MCQs often stems from not thoroughly understanding the passages or rushing through questions. To improve, focus on carefully reading and annotating passages, and pay close attention to each part of the question and answer choices. Remember, if any part of an answer is wrong, the entire answer is wrong. Also, manage your time effectively, and don't spend too long on difficult questions. Practice these strategies to improve your performance on these types of questions​

Should I do English lit or Lang?

Choosing between AP English Language and AP English Literature depends on your interests and goals. AP English Language focuses on analyzing non-fiction works and developing arguments, ideal for those interested in persuasive writing and rhetorical analysis. AP English Literature, on the other hand, involves analyzing works of fiction, including poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, making it suitable for those interested in literary analysis and interpretation. Essentially, AP English Language is akin to a college-level literary analysis course, while AP English Literature is like an introductory college-level literature course​​.

Is AP Lit a lot of reading?

AP Literature indeed involves a significant amount of reading. While there's no official College Board AP reading list, success in the course and on the exam is strongly tied to reading a wide range of novels, poems, and plays from different eras and genres. To prepare effectively, you'll need to become familiar with the language and styles of various literary works, enhance your close-reading and analytical skills, and be intimately familiar with at least four to five works for essay-writing purposes. The more you read, the better, as this will improve your familiarity with a broad spectrum of literature and enhance your skills for the exam​.

Is AP Lit harder than SAT?

Deciding whether AP Literature or the SAT is harder can vary depending on individual strengths and interests. Generally, the AP Literature test is considered more challenging due to its depth of analysis required on specific texts, including their themes, goals, and philosophical implications. AP Literature demands a deep understanding of a narrower range of literary works, whereas the SAT tests a broader range of reading and writing skills. The AP Literature exam requires students to engage in detailed analysis of prose, poetry, and specific literary works, making it more intense in terms of literary study compared to the SAT​.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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