The AP English Literature exam has three free response questions (FRQs). The third question is a prompt in which you can choose any book of “literary merit” to address the topic and explain how that topic reveals meaning in the work.
For example, the 2007 AP English Literature prompt states, “Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.”
- The introduction of your essay is actually important! As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
- Fortunately, the introduction does not have to be too long. Three sentences is an appropriate length.
- Avoid starting off your introduction by giving a synopsis of the book you have chosen. Rather, introduce the issue you are going to discuss. For example, if you were to address the 2007 prompt using The Great Gatsby, do NOT start off your introduction by saying, “In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the character Jay Gatsby deals with his past.” (This is just a rather boring way to start your essay, and it might make your introduction end up just being repetitive.) The introduction is supposed to introduce the topic of your essay, which is your theme.
- A better way to start off your essay would be making a general statement about the issue like, “Flashbacks are a device writers use to reveal the past experiences of a character.” However, you do not want to use a trite generalization like, “Many great novels deal with issues such as…” or “Since the dawn of time…”
- If you are able to, try using a hook, but do not stress over this if you can’t come up with something.
- The last sentence of your intro should be your thesis. It’s best to keep the thesis at just one sentence.
- The thesis MUST relate to all parts of the prompt. For example, this is a BAD thesis: “In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby does not see the reality of his situation because of his misunderstood interpretation of the past.” While this thesis does discuss the topic of the prompt (the past), it does not have a theme (what is the message of the work of literature?). A BETTER thesis would be: “In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is lost in his false perception of the past, revealing that the American Dream is a mirage.” This thesis includes the focus (the past) and a theme (that the American Dream is a mirage).
- The topic sentences should NOT just be summary of plot points. For example, this is a BAD topic sentence: “In Jay Gatsby’s past, Gatsby gains wealth through his experience with Dan Cody.”
- The topic sentence should be analysis that supports the thesis, e.g. “Gatsby’s past experience with Dan Cody leads Gatsby to have a false sense that one can buy one’s way into upper-class society.”
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The multiple choice section is machine scored. Students receive one point for each correct answer and are penalized a quarter point for each incorrect response. Each essay is read by a different reader. They score essays on a 0-9 point scale. The scores for the multiple choice section (45%) are then combined with the three essay scores. AP final grades of 1-5 are then derived from this composite score. Most scores of 3 will be allowed for credit in Composition I and scores of 4 & 5 will be allowed for credit in Composition II. Individual colleges and universities may vary.
Observations of the Chief Reader:
- Read each prompt of each question very carefully. Think about the implications of the question, begin thinking about how you will organize your response, and focus on what is asked.
- Often, students are asked to select a play or a novel to answer a particular question. Make sure they know that the work they have selected should be appropriate to the question asked. See to it that students have a fair range of readings that they feel familiar with, ones with which they can test the implications of the question and make the decision of the appropriateness of the work to the question asked. Without this flexibility they may force an answer that will come across as canned to the AP Reader.
- Remind students to enter into the text itself, to supply concrete illustrations that substantiate the points they are making. Have them take command of what they are writing with authority by means of direct quotation of pertinent information from the text, always writing into the question and never away from it. Help them to keep their point of view consistent, to select appropriate material for supporting evidence, and to write in a focused and succinct manner.
- Remind your students that films are not works of literature and cannot be used to provide the kind of literary analysis required on the exam.
- Advise your students that, when starting an essay, they should avoid engaging in a mechanical repetition of the prompt and then supplying a list of literary devices. Instead, get them to think of ways to integrate the language of literature with the content of that literature, making connections that are meaningful and telling, engaging in analysis that leads to the synthesis of new ideas. Pressure them into using higher levels of critical thinking; have them go beyond the obvious and search for a more penetrating relationship of ideas. Make them see connections that they missed on their first reading of the text.
§ Read the prompt. It hurts to give a low score to someone who misread the prompt but wrote a good essay. While readers try to reward students or what they do well, the student must answer the prompt.
§ Do everything the prompt suggests. This one suggested that the student “may wish to discuss” the character’s effect or action, theme, or other character’s development. Most of the top responses discussed the character’s effect in all three areas.
§ Think before you write. Don’t limit yourself to the supplied suggestions. Plan your response. You needn’t outline extensively, but a little organization will help you avoid extensive editing such as crossing out lines or, in some cases, whole paragraphs. It’s no fun for the reader to pick over the remains and try to decipher sentences crammed into the margins.
§ Make a strong first impression. Build your opening response artistically. Don’t parrot the prompt word for word.
§ Begin your response immediately. Don’t beat around the bush with generalizations such as: “There are a great many novels.” Here’s an example of a creative opening that immediately set up a central idea/thesis: “An illuminated photograph of a father who “fell in love with long distance” sits on the mantle of the Wingfield’s apartment in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.”
§ Use clear transitions that help the reader follow the flow of your essay. Keep your paragraphs organized; don’t digress.
§ Believe the prompt!! You are proving an assertion, not telling a story.
§ Don’t stick in a canned quote or a critic’s comment if it doesn’t fit. You will get a response, but not the one you want.
§ Write to express, not impress. Keep vocabulary and syntax within your zone of competence. Students who inflate their writing often inadvertently entertain, but seldom explain.
§ Demonstrate that you understand style by showing the reader how the author has manipulated the selection to create a desired effect. This indicates that you are aware of the creative process.
§ Maintain a sense of simplicity. The best student writer sees much, but says it very succinctly.
§ Let your writing dance with ideas and insight. You can get a 6 or 7 with a lock step approach, but the essays that earn 8’s or 9’s expand to a wider perspective.
§ Let you work stand on its own merit. Avoid penning “pity me” notes (“I was up all night,” “I have a cold,” etc.) to the reader. These notes demonstrate only that you did not use all the time you were given to write an effective essay.
§ Avoid the trite. We read so many essays, often poorly written, that we welcomed, even prayed for, a more original choice as long as it was substantial and not too obscure. This is not to say that there weren’t many great essays that used trite expressions. But reading 500 essays that begin with the same adage does wear the reader down.
§ Write legibly! If a reader can’t read half the words, you won’t get a fair reading even if your essay is passed to another reader with keener eyesight.
Classroom Practices Useful for the AP Exam:
Think Aloud: Being Aware of One's Own Thinking
Reading is an active process that engages the mind. The goal is to make you think metacognitively, to get you thinking about thinking, becoming aware of your level of understanding.
Being A Proficient Reader
Proficient readers expect text to make sense, and they know they must make meaning from the text. Such readers persevere even when text is complex, difficult, or inconsiderate.
Proficient readers know how to:
· activate relevant prior knowledge
· create visual and other images from texts during and after reading
· ask questions of the text, the author, and yourself during reading (questions may be literal, inferential, or thematic)
· draw inferences
· determine the most important ideas and themes in a text
· retell and synthesize what has been read
· use fix-up strategies when comprehension breaks down