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Test Prep

AP® English Literature and Composition

A Tale of One Test


It might have been a bummer to discover that the "critical" in "critical reading" did not mean you could yell things like, "Who's your daddy now, Dickens?" during a test, but cheer up, MacShmoopers.

Shmoop's guide to the AP English Literature exam will help you navigate the murky waters of literature...critically.

In this guide, you'll get review, drills, and practice exams while you learn...

  • what the word "critical" actually means.
  • how to decode—and beat—those pesky free response prompts.
  • the fine art of memorizing the mysterious language of literary analysis.

Let's turn that Heart of Darkness into a heart of knowledge.

The Sections

Terms of Literary Analysis

When practicing literary analysis, try this four-step process to break it down like the Fresh Prince:

  1. Identify the literary devices
  2. Understand the function of each device in the passage
  3. Analyze how effective that device is in playing its role
  4. Determine the tone and themes created by the literary devices

Imagery and Figurative Language

Using imagery and figurative language is like putting a powerful, sweaty athlete in formal wear, but for writing. We don't mean that we turn our essays into fabulous paper dolls with various prom-themed outfits. What we mean is that without imagery and figurative language, the story is still there and the characters are still creepy or endearing or sad, but with them, the whole picture changes.

Everything is dressed up in its snazzy best, giving us stories and characters that make us wet ourselves with tears, laughter, or fear. As you may have noticed in class, imagery and figurative language play a huge role in literary analysis. Many questions on the exam will go into the functions and effects of these particularly great pieces of language, but before we need to be able to pick out these items on sight before we can identify functions and effects.

Knowing the figurative language devices from the list of literary terms is half the battle. This will help you answer simple questions like "Which of these devices is used in the passage?" If this were the only type of figurative language question, though, we'd skip around the room and do some back flips, Olympic gymnast-style.

As it turns out, you'll also see more in-depth questions asking us to identify nuanced details. These will typically involve aspects of figurative language like metaphor and personification, in which you'll need to identify both the literal and figurative elements of comparisons. Discussions of imagery will also appear here, since you'll need to know when something uses imagery as well as how to identify the type of image to boot.

Audience and Purpose

After looking at what is sure to seem a robust and inspiring list of literary devices and figurative language, we are left with the biggest question there is, after "Where does the TV remote go when I can't find it?" This question is, of course, "Why do we use any of this stuff?" Beautiful uses of language are absolutely meant to be just that: beautiful. As it turns out, these little beauties have brains—and a purpose—to boot.

The simple fact we face as analyzers of great literature is that the authors wouldn't have done it for no reason. These people aren't toddlers with finger paint and a leather couch (there's no reason for what's bound to happen there). They're illustrious writers! There is always a reason. Like we ourselves, each device and use of language has a greater, cosmic purpose...and it's more than just to beautify the surrounding words.

The exam will ask you in many cases to identify what particular bit of figurative delight you've encountered, but it will ask about its effect or function as well. In other instances, you could be asked about function on a larger scale. Sometimes this is about the organizational choices the author makes in general and the purpose of certain structures.

It would be foolhardy to think that anything doesn't have a purpose. On the other hand, it would also be foolhardy to think they have a porpoise.

Voice and Tone

Tone, like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, is one of the AP English Literature exam's favorite things. Some questions come and go on this test, but tone questions are not on that list. In fact, you'll probably encounter more tone questions than anything else.

The good news is that tone isn't typically devious or brain-numbing. It honestly just wants to know the feel of the passage: is it dark, is it comedic, is it romantic, and so on. Since we're asking about feelings, you and your feelings are your biggest asset. Isn't that great to hear?

Mood, voice, and attitude are all closely related to tone, and these are similarly big picture questions. We might be asked to identify the overall mood, voice, or attitude, or perhaps the location of a shift, or a particular attitude of the author or character toward another character, idea, or other development. In the end, we're all just feeling feelings about feelings.

Literary Comprehension

It's no secret that the passages that show up on this exam are, um…not "light" reading. There is no Oprah's Book Club selection here, though we wouldn't hate that, either. Classic literature is not known for its readability, which is why the exam will ask lots of comprehension questions. The classic comprehension test, as we know, is summarization. If we can read something and then restate the plot, or a characterization, or a theme in our own words, we have generally understood what we read.

Comprehension launches us into analysis, but understanding is a necessary foundation. Comprehension questions will ask you to identify summaries of certain parts of a passage, the implications of certain words, characterizations, comparisons, or just an important detail.

The goal of all of these is to ask, "Did you get it?" Well, did you?

Form and Structure

Poetry is always the sad panda of the AP English Literature exam. Almost nobody wants to see poetry come up, and even fewer people actually want to talk about pentameters or stanzas or whatever it is that enjambment means. Honestly, we feel bad for poetry, because it rocks. Poetry structures are like wonderful games of Jenga in which everything has its place, unless someone wanders by and knocks it all over. Don't be that guy.

In recent years, structural questions on the exam have been growing rarer and rarer. They are all almost exclusively about poetic formats, and while you may only encounter one or two of these, knowing the various forms of poetry will benefit you tremendously in racking up one or two more correct answers.

These questions may ask about meter or rhythm or simply ask you to identify the type of poem. You can hope for a haiku, but it's unlikely. Most poetic forms have at least a few characteristics that differentiate it from the other types, but you may find yourself using the process of elimination here more so here than on other questions.

In prose, a structure question may ask about plot. Plot is notoriously difficult to pin down on these types of exams, though, because we don't have the entire novel in front of us—just a tiny piece. Regardless, knowing basic plot elements can't hurt. Unless you hit yourself in the head with Freytag's Pyramid, but that probably won't be super likely.

Diction and Syntax

Thankfully for everyone, vocabulary and grammar questions on the AP English Literature exam will not focus on scientific jargon or obscure verb tenses or the nuances of semi vs. full colon. Usually, it will ask you to identify the meaning of certain words or various parts of speech in relation to another part. The most popular grammar option is to ask for referents or other connections, such as the subject of a verb phrase. We don't need to know about dangling prepositions or split infinitives or any other grammatical faux pas, though. Hallelujah!

Sneakily, these questions are another way of testing our comprehension of the passage, made necessary by the intensely complicated nature of some excerpts and authors who undeniably get a bit carried away.


What is the difference between the AP English Literature exam and the AP English Language exam?

The primary difference in these two exams is that, while both are conducted in English, the AP English Language exam focuses more on argumentation (like rhetorical strategies, not arguing with your best friend over where to eat lunch), while the AP English Literature exam focuses on literary analysis. If you prefer analyzing the theological implications in "For I will Consider My Cat Jeoffry" to the persuasive strategies in, say, this speech nobody's ever heard of, AP English Literature is for you.

Many students will take AP English Language in junior year and AP English Literature in senior year. That's another difference.

Do I need to be able to quote certain works?

It depends. Sorry.

If the text is given to you when writing an essay, you must cite proof from the selection (see: prose and poetry essays in the free response section). For the open-ended essay, you're free to do what you like. Obviously you can't memorize every work of literature throughout history word for word (or can you?), but having a few well-chosen lines handy, from things like Shakespeare or the Bible or classic I Love Lucy episodes (okay, maybe not the last one ) can give your essays the equivalent of literary jazz hands. Just make sure they're applicable.

Am I supposed to know every passage that comes up?

It is probable, nay—almost certain—that you will not know every single excerpt that appears in the multiple choice and free response sections. The realistic goal is that even if you don't know the passage from experience, you will know about something similar from that genre or period and be able to use what you know to craft a brilliant answer. It's all about careful extrapolation…and sometimes sheer luck.

Who are the graders?

We've heard rumors about a genetically modified wildebeest lodged at AP headquarters who does all the grading, but it turned out to be unfounded. A computer will actually grade your multiple-choice questions, and AP English Literature teachers (25%) and college English Composition instructors (75%) will grade all 1,103,886 essays from around the country.

367,962 students took the test in 2011 and, multiplied by three essays per person, this amounts to a lot of red—or not red—pens.

Is there a reading list?

There is no specific reading list or requirement. It is possible that your English class will have a reading list, but the exam itself does not have one. Cue your sigh of relief.

Important note: The AP exam will allow you to use any work of literary merit on the open-ended essay. However, be careful about the whole "literary merit" thing, especially when it comes to modern literature. The Kite Runner is considered a work of literary merit, but The Hunger Games is not. Lord of the Rings, yes. Harry Potter, not so much. We know that drawing this distinction may inspire several of you to mount impassioned and cogent arguments in defense of your favorite books, but the AP free response section is not the place to do it.

Can I use highlighters on the test?

Sadly, no. Using highlighters to annotate while you read is an excellent comprehension strategy, but this test is the story of a student alone with his/her (dark) blue or black pen. On the multiple-choice section, your only friend is your #2 pencil. Also, is there a #3 pencil? A #1 pencil?

What are the odds of passing?

Unlike Vegas where the odds are stacked against you and the house always wins, the AP English Literature exam is about preparation and strength of will…and the ability to work through a hand cramp. In 2011, almost 60 percent of the 367,962 students who took the test scored a 3 or better.

When do I get my scores?

Slow down, speed racer, you haven't even taken the test yet. These people have more than one million essays to grade, so scores won't be available until the summer. Starting from 2013, the College Board will no longer mail you your score. Go here to set up an account; as soon as scores are available, usually in July, you will be able to access them.

Will I be penalized for wrong answers on the multiple-choice section?

You absolutely will not be penalized for wrong answers. If you have no clue whatsoever what the answer might be, guess. If minute 57 of 60 rolls around and you still have 10 questions left—guess! Bubble like you've never bubbled before and you may squeeze a few more correct answers out of the deal.

What if I have bad handwriting?

This is a fine line. Technically, the AP Board is admonished that under no circumstance should a student's work be penalized for messiness. However, if your handwriting is so bad that it reaches the point of illegibility and the reader can't read it at all, you have a larger issue.

Write quickly, but remember that you're writing it for someone else to read—and not your mom who knew what you were saying even when you were in the two-year-old babbling phase and running around with your diaper on your head.

My school does block scheduling. Can I still take the AP English Literature test?

Yes. The AP exams are only given in May, though, so you will have a distinct disadvantage if you only take a one-semester block of AP English in the fall. Practice with Shmoop's drills and exams so you can go into your test with literary skills blazing like Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, rather than dull from winter holiday and whatever it is that you do over spring break.

Will I get my test booklet back?

Your test booklet will not automatically be sent back to you. However, for the low, low price of only $7, you can request it from the AP Board if you want to perhaps frame it to hang above your bed. If it doesn't turn out so well, you may also want to throw it maniacally into the fireplace or make it into bedding for your gerbil, Steven.

AP is a registered trademark of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.