AP English Literature Exam

Do you know how to conduct a close reading of prose and poetry? Can you write effectively under time constraints? The AP® English Literature and Composition exam tests topics and skills discussed in your AP English Literature course. If you score high enough, your AP English score could earn you college credit!

Check out our AP English Literature Guide for what you need to know about the exam:

What’s on the AP English Literature & Composition Exam?

The College Board lists 6 Skill Categories that should be covered in your AP English Literature and Composition course, or as you prepare for the test:

  •  Character—Characters in literature show a wide range of values, beliefs, assumptions, biases, and cultural norms, and provide an opportunity to study and explore what the characters represent.

  • Setting—A setting and the details associated with it represent a time and place, but also convey values associated with the setting.

  • Structure—Structure refers to the arrangements of sections and parts of a text, the relationship of the parts to each other, and the sequence in which the text reveals information. These are all choices made by a writer that allow you to interpret a text.

  • Narration—Any narrator’s or speaker’s perspective controls the details and emphases that readers encounter; therefore, narration affects how readers experience and interpret a text.

  • Figurative language—Comparisons, representations, and associations shift meaning from the literal to the figurative. Figurative language can include word choice, imagery, and symbols. Simile, metaphor, personification, and allusions are all examples of figurative language.

  • Literary argumentation—How do you write about literature yourself? You develop your interpretation (using the first five of the Big Six!) and then communicate it. You need to develop a thesis—a defensible claim—and support it with textual evidence. 

The multiple-choice section of the AP English Literature and Composition exam will be testing your knowledge of the Big Six. Each one is weighted a certain amount in the multiple-choice questions.


AP English Literature & Composition Book List

There is no required reading or book list for the AP English Literature exam, but the College Board provides a list of authors and poets with whom you should be familiar and whose work is of the caliber and density that you are expected to understand. These lists include:

  • Poetry: W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Browning, George Gordon/Lord Byron, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Geoffrey Chaucer, Lucille Clifton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Billy Collins, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Joy Harjo, Seamus Heaney, George Herbert, Garrett Hongo, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Langston Hughes, Ben Jonson, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Andrew Marvell, John Milton, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander Pope, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leslie Marmon Silko, Cathy Song, Wallace Stevens, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Derek Walcott, Walt Whitman, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats
  • Drama: Aeschylus, Edward Albee, Amiri Baraka, Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, William Congreve, Athol Fugard, Lorraine Hansberry, Lillian Hellman, David Henry Hwang, Henrik Ibsen, Ben Jonson, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Molière, Marsha Norman, Sean O’Casey, Eugene O’Neill, Suzan-Lori Parks, Harold Pinter, Luigi Pirandello, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Sam Shepard, Sophocles, Tom Stoppard, Luis Valdez, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson
  • Fiction (Novel and Short Story): Chinua Achebe, Sherman Alexie, Isabel Allende, Rudolfo Anaya, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Raymond Carver, Willa Cather, John Cheever, Kate Chopin, Sandra Cisneros, Joseph Conrad, Edwidge Danticat, Daniel Defoe, Anita Desai, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich, William Faulkner, Henry Fielding, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Kazuo Ishiguro, Henry James, Ha Jin, Edward P. Jones, James Joyce, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Laurence, D.H. Lawrence, Chang-rae Lee, Bernard Malamud, Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Bharati Mukherjee, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Orhan Pamuk, Katherine Anne Porter, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, John Updike, Alice Walker, Evelyn Waugh, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, John Edgar Wideman, Virginia Woolf, Richard Wright
  • Expository Prose: Joseph Addison, Gloria Anzaldua, Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, James Boswell, Joan Didion, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Hazlitt, bell hooks, Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, Thomas Macaulay, Mary McCarthy, John Stuart Mill, George Orwell, Michael Pollan, Richard Rodriguez, Edward Said, Lewis Thomas, Henry David Thoreau, E.B. White, Virginia Woolf

AP English Literature Structure & Question Types

The AP English Literature & Composition exam takes 3 hours to complete and consists of two sections: a multiple-choice section and a free response section.

Timing

Number of questions

% of Exam Score

Section 1

60 minutes

55 multiple-choice questions

45%

Section 2

120 minutes
(40 minutes recommended per essay)

3 free response questions

  • Question 1: Poetry Analysis 
  • Question 2: Prose Fiction Analysis 
  • Question 3: Literary Argument 

55%

Multiple-Choice

AP English Literature multiple-choice questions are grouped in sets.  You will be given 5 passages or poems to read, with 8-13 multiple-choice questions to assess your reading comprehension. Each multiple-choice question has 5 answer choices (A through E). That’s a lot of reading then recalling, understanding, and interpreting. Use your time effectively and wisely! 

Free Response

In all 3 of the Free Response Questions, you will be given the same directions that explain precisely what the College Board is seeking: 

In your response you should do the following:
  • Respond to the prompt with a thesis that presents an interpretation and may establish a line of reasoning.

  • Select and use evidence to develop and support your line of reasoning.

  • Explain the relationship between the evidence and your thesis.

  • Use appropriate grammar and punctuation in communicating your argument.
Check out our AP English Lit Prep book for a comprehensive content review

How to Interpret AP English Literature Scores

AP scores are reported from 1 to 5. Colleges are generally looking for a 4 or 5 on the AP English Literature exam, but some may grant credit for a 3. (Here's a quick overview of AP credit policy.) Each test is curved so scores vary from year to year. Here’s how AP English Lit students scored on the May 2020 test:

Score

Meaning

Percentage of Test Takers

5

Extremely qualified

9.3%

4

Well qualified

17.3%

3

Qualified

33.5%

2

Possibly qualified

27.8%

1

No recommendation

12.2%

Source: College Board

How can I prepare?

AP classes are great, but for many students they’re not enough! For a thorough review of AP English Literature content and strategy, pick the AP prep option that works best for your goals and learning style.

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