The AP Language and Composition test is one of two English-focused AP tests offered by College Board, focused on, and I quote, “the development and revision of evidence-based analytic and argumentative writing and the rhetorical analysis of nonfiction texts.” Sound intimidating? Not to worry. That flowery description is just academic speak for writing persuasive essays and responses to literature.
The test itself is three hours and fifteen minutes long, but it’s broken into two parts, usually with a break in between. The first section is comprised of sixty minutes of multiple choice questions, which ask you to read several non-fiction passages and answer questions about them. This part of the exam is worth 45% of your total score.
The second section, entirely free-response, contains three essay prompts: Synthesis, Rhetorical Analysis, and Argument. I’ll break them up into sections to better explain them:
Synthesis starts with fifteen minutes of reading. You’ll be given several documents and asked to write an essay that synthesizes those documents into a coherent argument. If you’ve ever written a Document-Based Question (DBQ) for a history class, this essay is almost exactly like that, just without any of the history.
Rhetorical Analysis presents you with one non-fiction text to write about. Your goal is to pick it apart, thoroughly and efficiently, analyzing how the writer’s language choices contribute to his or her purpose and intended meaning for the text. This is where a developed vocabulary of literary devices will be your best friend. (That’s an example of personification, by the way.) I’ll get to that in a sec.
Argument was my personal favorite. I call it the “choose-your-own-adventure” of the exam. With one simple essay prompt and no documents to read, you’re free to write a persuasive essay that draws evidence from your own knowledge and experiences.
When I took AP English Language and Composition as a sophomore in 2013-2014, I aced the essays every time, but I struggled with critical reading, because to me, all the answers “sounded right.” Luckily, my teacher knew what she was doing. She drilled our class relentlessly; at one point, I think we were writing an essay every week and practicing multiple choice every day.
I came to realize that the answer will always be found in the text. That’s a useful strategy not only for this test, but also for the SATs, SAT II literature, and any other reading comprehension exams you’ll ever take. If I was unsure about a question, I simply went back to the passage and underlined the answer. And when in doubt, I went with my gut. Unlike other standardized tests, this is one exam where you don’t want to review your answers too carefully. Although reviewing might help you catch errors in math, it only plants doubt in critical reading.
After dozens of practice exams, I walked into the real thing feeling well prepared. It was one of my first APs, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. In fact, the prompts that year were even sort of fun. (Of course, I’m a writing nerd, so I might be biased.) The other thing I was worried about was getting fatigued from writing three essays in a row, but the three prompts were varied enough to remain interesting. The multiple choice was tough, as I had expected it to be, but I knew my writing would make up for it. (You can score about a C on the multiple choice section and still get a 5 overall.) I left the exam feeling confident, and ended up getting a 5.
If you want to ace the AP Language and Composition exam, I’d recommend learning as many literary devices as you can. When I was studying, I referred to this list here.
Remember: learn, don’t just memorize. Familiarize yourself with examples of each literary device and know how to use it and identify it.
Literary analysis will also be so much easier once you develop a formula using the principles of SOAPSTone:
- S = Speaker. Who’s speaking to the reader? The writer? A fictional character? A third-person omniscient narrator?
- O = Occasion. What caused this to be written? There’s always a larger occasion, which is the overall trend or movement that surround the piece. In addition, there will be a smaller occasion, which acts as a trigger for this specific piece of writing.
- A = Audience. Who is this written for? How does that affect the meaning of the text?
- P = Purpose. Why is this being written? What is the author trying to achieve?
- S = Subject. In the simplest terms possible, what is the text about?
- Tone = What is the author’s attitude?
If you can include all that in your essay, you’re gold.
Read more about SOAPSTone here.
Also, practice practice practice your essays. College Board releases writing prompts from previous years, which you can find here. Read them, print them, and practice writing essays for them. Then compare your essays to the published essays to see what score you would get.
As for prep books, I never needed one for the class, but if your teacher can’t teach, you might want to check out CliffsNotes. I’ve never used it, but I’ve heard many good things about it. In a pinch, Princeton’s Review and 5 Steps to a 5 can help as well. However, Kaplan’s is generally believed to be much easier than the actual test.
Final study tips:
- Practice writing essays. No matter how many prep books you read, no matter how many words you memorize, you will never get better at writing unless you write. In the months leading up to the AP exam, set aside time to write at least one essay a week. If you’re Pinterest-inclined like I am, write the prompts on slips of colored paper and stick them in a mason jar on your desk. Not only will it look pretty, it’ll also remind you to pull a slip and practice writing.
- If you can’t spare the hour it takes to practice an essay, do ten-minute warm-up exercises instead. Read the prompt like you usually would, but instead of writing the essay, draft an outline, complete with a thesis and main points for body paragraphs.
- Do a few practice questions before the exam. Just like your muscles have to warm up before a sporting event, your brain needs to warm up before taking a major test. But don’t check the answers, because if you mess up, it can shake your confidence.
- The answer to multiple choice will always be within the text. Don’t infer or project your own opinions onto it; focus on what the passage is trying to tell you.
- Basic formula for literary essays: The author ______________ using _______________. The first blank will be something from SOAPSTone, usually purpose but sometimes tone, audience, or another aspect. The second blank will include literary devices from alliteration to synecdoche.
- Example: The author presents a persuasive argument for cigarettes using metaphor and elevated syntax.
Even if you don’t naturally excel at writing, you can get a 5 with enough discipline and determination. So what are you waiting for? Start writing essays and practicing multiple choice and reading long passages. (That’s anaphora, by the way.)
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