AP English Literature Exam

With graduation season upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the spring semester of my senior year of high school. So much was happening all at once; waiting for college admissions letters and studying for IB Exams filled my days. Lastly, there was AP English Literature. My high school had a combined AP/IB English IV class, so all the IB students were expected to take the AP Exam, too. And I did…and made a 3. Let’s just say that for an overachiever like me, it wasn’t my finest moment.


AP English Literature Exam -Magoosh


Now before you go running off to read the advice of someone who earned a higher score, hear me out. My literature prowess has come a long away since 2004. I even taught English for a few years at the high school level. But most importantly, I want to use this article to provide what I believe is the most powerful kind of advice: what I learned from my mistakes. No one is wiser than someone who has fumbled the ball during the big game.

So if you’re planning to take AP English Literature next year, or even if you’re just curious about what this exam entails, get comfortable. There’s a lot to learn.

As this article is long, here is a table of contents if you just want to learn something specific about the Exam:

  • How You’re Assessed on the AP English Literature Exam
  • Successful Time Management
  • Test Content: Section I
    • Multiple-Choice Questions
  • Test Content: Section II
    • Free Response Questions
  • The End

How You’re Assessed on the AP English Literature Exam

The AP English Literature Exam is a three-hour exam that assesses you on a variety of skills and abilities learned in your AP English Literature course. These skills/abilities, all taken from the official course description, are summarized below:


  • Read several works from the 16th to the 21st century.
  • In-depth study of a few works of literature.
  • Analyze the meaning of prose, poetry, and non-fiction texts.
  • Interpret and evaluate literature.
  • Respond to literature in a variety of ways: journaling, essays, and reaction papers.
  • Establish connections among different observations about a piece of literature.
  • Gain an awareness of different literary traditions.


  • Write analytical, expository, and argumentative essays.
  • Develop/organize ideas in clear, persuasive language.
  • Use a variety of sentence structures in one’s writing.
  • Logically organize ideas.
  • Maintain a consistent voice.
  • Edit previously written assignments.

Successful Time Management

In this section I will break down the length of the AP English Literature Exam, and offer suggestions on how to make sure you successfully finish each section of the test. First, a piece of recycled advice from my ACT articles: take multiple timed practice exams to become used to the exam’s format, content, and pacing. For students with a College Board account, a full-length test is already waiting for you. Also, since the test hasn’t changed in the last few years, older practice tests floating around online are still valid tools to help you prepare for test day.

Section I: Multiple Choice (55 Questions, 60 Minutes, 45% of Total Exam Score)

First, take a look at my article on ACT Time Management. The same basic rules apply to the AP Literature Exam’s multiple choice section. In short, as you have just over one minute per question, it’s a relatively easy task to track your time.

As AP English Literature is a 12th grade course, you should have already taken the SAT or ACT. One of the big advantages you have going into this exam is that some SAT/ACT skills can help you with the multiple choice questions. For example, many of the questions will refer to certain lines in the passage. Though a bit more difficult that your standard ‘treasure hunt’ questions on the SAT/ACT, reading the questions first and underlining any mention of specific lines can save you time as you analyze the passage later.

If you’ve never heard this advice before, here’s why reading the questions first is essential. Let’s say you read the text first. When you start with the questions, you’re going to waste time going back to the text. Also, the pressure you’re under will make you more likely to forget lots of essential information despite having just finished reading.

Break (10 Minutes)

Break is an important time during any AP Exam, and even if you’re a seasoned AP veteran, don’t waste it. Visit the restroom and drink a little water. But most importantly, eat something! Section II of the AP English Literature Exam takes a lot of brain power. Without a little bit of extra fuel, your brain may want to shut down early.

Section II: Free Response (3 Essay Questions, 120 Minutes, 55% of Total Exam Score)

The second part of the AP English Literature Exam is a 120-minute marathon consisting of three essay questions. Most students feel the time crunch in this section. Why? During this part of the Exam, it is your responsibility to ensure that you give 40 minutes to each essay. Some students (ex: me in 2004) spend too much time on the first two essays and end up and rushing at the end. That last essay represents approximately 18% of your final score. Don’t neglect it!

Like other timed writing tests, both being aware of your time and planning can solve a lot of time management issues. Here are some tricks you can use on test day:

  • Use the first 15 minutes of each essay to read/plan.
  • Use the last 25 minutes of each essay to write.
  • Once you’ve selected evidence, DON’T ADD MORE halfway through your essay. That will eat up more time. Substitution for a stronger piece of evidence is fine.
  • Set aside the last five minutes of each essay as a ‘wrap-up’ time.
    • During ‘wrap-up,’ skim your essay to make sure you’ve followed all the directions and included all your evidence. Having all these pieces in place is more important than any concluding paragraph.

Now that we’ve talked about time management, let’s discuss what to expect on the test.

Test Content: Section I (Multiple Choice)

If you have a good teacher, he/she will have used old AP English Literature multiple-choice questions on your unit tests. Though the actual exam will be different, practicing old exam questions is the best way to acclimate yourself to the exam’s difficulty level.

As for the questions, here’s what to expect. The fifty-five questions are grouped into approximately five sets of eleven. In each set, you will be asked to read a prose, poetry, or expository piece, and use the passage in combination with your skills/knowledge to answer the questions.

Test Content: Section II (Free Response)

Each of the three essays will ask you to do a different task:

  • Analyze a poem.
  • Analyze a passage of fiction.
  • Analyze a specific issue or element in a work of literature that you choose.
    • The test will provide a list of options, but you are free to choose another work as long as it has ‘literary merit.’

Though the first two essays will ask you to analyze two different kinds of texts, the time management steps we already went over will serve you well in both essays. In short, in your essay readers (college professors and AP English Literature teachers) are looking for three things: a clear thesis, strong evidence, and your analysis. Of course, make sure you read and follow all the directions!

I’ve already mentioned how the third essay can turn into a time crunch. To complicate matters further, the element of choice is a potential trap. My advice: unless you haven’t read any of the texts that are on the list, don’t choose your own. There are a couple of reasons why this is a good idea. The first is that your essay readers may not have read your choice. That makes their job harder. The second reason is that your readers, for whatever reason, may decide that your choice doesn’t have enough ‘literary merit.’ Now, I know this sounds unfair, especially if you can write a killer essay. Even so, readers are people, and bias might affect the score they award your essay. Finally, this was my mistake on the exam. Having used up too much time on my first two essays, I wrote a rushed essay on the lesser known works of British author Anthony Burgess. I don’t think my readers appreciated it. 🙁

The End

Like with all AP exams, once you start, it will be over before you know it. With the end of the year, graduation, and plans for the future, you might even forget all about your AP scores. Here’s a friendly reminder:

The College Board will release AP English Literature scores in early July.

With your post-high school plans already set in stone, your score might not seem like a big deal either way. Even so, a 4 or 5 will most likely earn you some college credit, and save you some money down the line. Take it from me: it’s really nice to start your freshman year of college by not having to take an Introduction to Literature course with 300 other students.

Even if a 4 or 5 isn’t in your future, AP English Literature will prepare you for the reading and writing all college courses will expect of you. For example, my freshman year at Vanderbilt was difficult, but not overwhelming because I had spent my senior year of high school taking courses that challenged me to the fullest.

Well, I hope this article has given you a taste of what the AP English Literature Exam will be like. Even if the exam is still a year or two in your future, it’s always a good idea to pick up a book. Just hold off on the Anthony Burgess until college. 🙂

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  • Thomas Broderick

    Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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