Image from picjumbo

Image from picjumbo

Taking AP English in high school, either Language and Composition or Literature and Composition, seems like a great idea until you take that first practice test for the actual exam.

If you’re like me, your thoughts probably run something like this:

  • “How am I supposed to know that the second author was agreeing with the first ironically? I’m not inside their head!”
  • “I got barely over half the multiple choice right. I might as well let my dog take this.”
  • “What the **** is a ‘litotes’?” (For the intellectually curious, a “litotes” is an ironic understatement affirming something by negating it. You won’t be happy if you forget this.)

Although the AP Lit test places a slightly greater emphasis on theme and content-based literary analysis than on language and rhetoric compared with the AP Lang test, there are a few general rules you can follow to prepare yourself for both, mentally and spiritually.

Budget Your Time

Time management! Your favorite parental refrain, I’m sure.

I hate to admit it, but at least this time (and let’s face it, most of the time), they’re right.

You get an average of 40 minutes to write each of three essays on an AP English exam. That hour-long multiple-choice section is no walk in the park either. On the language test, you get a 15 minute reading and planning period on top of the writing period for the writing section, but on the literature test, you’re pretty much left to your own devices for two hours.

If you’re not used to outlining an essay or at least structuring your ideas around a new prompt in 5-10 minutes, or if you’re physically slow at writing (like me!), this could result in a real time crunch. There’s nothing more stressful than walking away from a test having written only three half-essays, or, God forbid, one and a half essays and a big, ugly, blank space for #3.

There’s only one way to know if you’re at risk for running out of time and, if so, overcoming your barriers to finishing on time.

Yep, you guessed it. TAKE PRACTICE TESTS. Lots of ‘em. Keep practicing until you can get all three essays written in the time allotted, not once, but at least two or three times so you know it wasn’t just the fluke of an easy practice prompt.

Repetition is key, but so is studying. Wait, studying for an essay?

First, you need to know your essay format like the back of your crush’s head. If it’s the language test you know off the bat that you’ll need to write at least one argumentative essay, with persuasive points and counterpoints, and you should fully understand and memorize the outline for this in addition to a standard expository essay.

Secondly, know what to put in your essay.

Know Your Terms

This is especially important for the language test but it also comes up on the literature test, often when you least expect it.

You know what “litotes” means now, yay! How about aphorisms? Metonymy? Synecdoche?

Can you discern an ad hoc argument from an hominem argument? Can you explain why both actually aren’t logical arguments?

Chances are, any one of these will only pop up once in the multiple choice, but it looks really good if you can bring them into an essay and eloquently discuss how they serve as devices the author uses to communicate their point. You’re better safe than sorry knowing these than winging it on alliteration and rhyme alone (remember, AP is designed to be college-level).

Flashcards, Quizlet, your crazy aunt who happened to have memorized the dictionary, any of these will help you get your terms down pat.

Know What You Know (Huh?)

This should be obvious but if you’ve ever wracked your brain for examples on a prompt, you’re not doing it.

Pick a few novels, plays, and/or long poems (classical literature is best, i.e. stuff you’ve actually read in your AP English class or previous English classes) that have stuck with you from previous readings and review them.

Identify common ideas or themes, like fear of mortality, epic heroes, tragic heroes, moral development, coming of age, etc… that you can easily remember examples of from these texts and explain or draw parallels between in an essay. Having a ready list of examples, especially versatile ones you can apply to a variety of prompts, will make it much easier to pump out those body paragraphs come game time.


The two most important things you can do to prepare yourself is plan and practice. Plan how you’ll write your essays, how often and when you’ll practice, and make sure to devote plenty of time (again, 5-10 minutes is usually best) to actually planning out your essays before you write them. Practice your terms, practice what you know, and practice the exam itself until you feel confident enough to walk into this exam (relatively) fearless.*

*Paper cuts are a very rational fear and I will happily engage in thoughtful discourse with anyone who disagrees.

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the author

Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kate is currently adjusting to cooler climes as a first year at the University of Virginia. A prospective pre-med student, she enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics and contributes to her school newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, as a Health & Science writer. She mentors youth as a tennis coach and spends her free time on the piano, playing anything from Rachmaninov to the theme from The Chronicles of Narnia. An aspiring hiker, she hopes to one day complete a trek on every continent.

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