AP English Literature Tips and Test Taking Strategies

By April 12, 2019 September 13th, 2019 High School Study Tips
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We’ve compiled these AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies so you can learn more about how to excel. You’ll learn about how to get a 5 on your test throughout the different sections, where we’ll talk about everything from general study tips to the multiple choice section and each of the essay sections.

Anyone who has taken AP courses wants to make sure that they’re getting credit for them and you’ll be able to do that quite easily with the right AP literature study guide. Make sure you’re in the right place, however. This review is for the AP English Literature test, not the AP English language and composition test.

This test is hosted by College Board, which also provides a range of materials and practice tests and questions that you can review to get even more information. The test itself measures your comprehension of the topics that you’ve found within this course and helps colleges determine if you should be given credit without taking a future college course.

Each college determines what score is necessary in order to avoid taking one of their courses and there may be different requirements for waiving courses versus getting credit for them. Most colleges, however, will require at least a 4 and possibly a 5 in order to get any kind of recognition.

If you know where to look for the help, you’ll find that you can figure out how to pass a literature exam with no problems. We’ll take a look at some of the best tips we’ve found right here to give you the AP literature skills you need.

Looking for additional resources? Check out our guide on the best AP English Literature review books here.

AP English Literature General Study TipsGeneral How to Study for AP English Literature Tips

There are a number of different general AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies that are going to make it easier for you to study for this literature test. Each one is going to focus on some of the simple things that you might think you’d easily remember, but it’s those things that are the easiest to forget. In total, the test will take 3 hours, with 1 hour devoted to the multiple choice section and 2 hours dedicated to the essay questions. In total, this covers 58 questions (55 multiple choice and 3 essays).

  1. Hone your critical reading skills. In order to succeed in this test, you’re going to need to have some strong critical reading skills among your AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies. That means you need to be able to read through something and analyze it to understand all of its many parts and what the author was attempting to get through when they wrote it.
  2. Know how to break down characterization. You’ll need to know how to break down all of the different parts of a written piece, whether a piece of prose or a piece of poetry so that you can accurately and thoroughly explain everything that the author has done.
  3. Understand the elements of poetry. Knowing the different elements related to writing poetry of all different types is essential, and while it can be difficult, you’ll want to research how these elements work together and how they go into creating a poetical work.
  4. Read out loud. Reading out loud can allow you to really absorb the information because not only are you gathering it in your mind but you literally hear the words as well. This gives you two different parts of your body that are gathering the information and makes it more likely to stick long term.
  5. Consult a dictionary for terms. The various terms and elements associated with any kind of written work can be significant on this type of test so you’ll want to look closely at what their literal meanings are and make sure that you understand how they apply in different situations so you can use them correctly in defense of any topic.
  6. Find the best AP English Literature review books. Make sure you check out some of the top review books out there so you can make sure you’re getting a good understanding of the material that will be covered.

AP English Literature Multiple-Choice TipsAP English Literature Multiple-Choice Tips

The multiple choice section of the literature test covers a total of 55 questions and offers 1 full hour to answer them. This means you have a little over 1 minute per question, so you’re going to need to move quickly with your AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies in place in order to get through everything. It also counts for 45% of your score, which means you’ll need to score well on this section in order to get the 5 you’re looking for on your full test. Check out the AP literature multiple choice tips here.

  1. Practice test questions from legitimate sources. These AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies tell you not to just pull practice questions from anywhere. A lot of different websites and sources will claim that they have practice tests, but you want the ones that are from legitimate sources like College Board. These are actually going to prepare you for what the test will cover and what it will ask you.
  2. Identify the reasons that you’ve missed questions on your practice. When you do practice tests take a look at what AP literature multiple choice question types you miss most frequently. Are they all a specific type like inference questions or analysis questions? If they are then, you’ll want to spend a bit more time studying those particular types of questions to get better at them.
  3. Annotate the passage. As you’re reading, make sure you annotate the passage and make notes about what’s happening or what the main points are. You can write in your own notes or use boxes, circles, and stars or your own methods to highlight specific sections of the passage as you’re going through.
  4. Take notes on the passage. Taking notes means making sure that you understand each section of the passage and that you understand the passage as a whole. It allows you to go back after you start answering questions and figure out where you need to be looking in order to get the right answer.
  5. Read all the words to know what the question is asking. If you skim over a question or you don’t read it quite right, you could actually end up missing the entire point of the question. That means you could get the answer wrong even when you would have known the right answer. Read each word to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.
  6. Double check the context for any question that references a line or passage. If you get a question that references a specific line or passage make sure you go back and double check your answer. Even if you’re sure you know it you’ll only spend a couple of seconds reviewing and that couple seconds could mean getting a question right that you would have missed.
  7. Make an educated guess. If you don’t know the answer to a question, your best option is to make an educated guess. You don’t get penalized for having any wrong answers, so if you can narrow it down pick between the few options that are left and see what you can get. Even a 33% chance is better than no chance at all.
  8. If an answer is partly wrong, it is entirely wrong. If a single portion of the answer is wrong, the entire thing is wrong. You may feel like you’re getting tripped up by an only half-right answer. If any of it is wrong that means the whole thing should be thrown out, so make sure you cross it out and ignore it.
  9. The flashy answer isn’t always right. How often do you see questions where a couple of answers look long and fancy with big words, and then one of them seems way too basic? Well, those simple answers are right sometimes, so don’t discount them just because they seem too simple. Find out more about this right here.
  10. Read prose also for word choice and analogy. Often we read prose for overall meaning and context, but you should also read it for word choice and analogies. You may find connections that you wouldn’t otherwise, and there may be questions that relate to why an author chose a specific way of saying something.
  11. Read poetry also for overall meaning. Read through line breaks. Poetry is often read in a more stilted fashion, but you can miss the overall meaning if you don’t read through the line breaks once in a while. Make sure you’re paying close attention to the over-arching aspects of any poem.
  12. Research literary terms. If you don’t know your literary terms, like hyperbole and antecedent, you’re setting yourself up for problems. You could be asked to define these words or to locate them in a passage. Make sure you research as many as you can. Maybe create flashcards that will help you practice what they mean.
  13. Questions with multiple passages treat as true/false. If you get questions that offer several passages and ask you which ones express “x” or which ones are facts or anything at all read the question first, then the passages and then the answers. Don’t read the responses until after you have read the passages and decided which ones fit or you could end up with the wrong answer.

AP English Literature Essay TipsAP English Literature Essay Tips

There are some specific AP literature essay tips that you should understand for each section of the essay portion of your test, but there are also some critical general comments we’d like to go over. These will help you better understand what all of the essays should consist of and how they need (or don’t need) to be structured in order for you to get the full credit that you want on your test. You’ll have approximately 40 minutes for each essay, but this is actually grouped together as 2 hours, so you get to decide how you spend the time.

  1. Write legibly. The people responsible for grading your test are going to try their best to read your handwriting, but if they can’t, it could mean that you lose points even when you had the right information. You want to write as clearly as you can so it’s easy to read and easy to see that you have everything in there.
  2. Show organization by using paragraphs. Putting all of your writing into a single block is definitely going to be a problem, and it’s going to look like you don’t understand paragraphs or sentence structure or a lot of other crucial English language features. Putting your writing into paragraphs also makes it easier to read and easier to understand.
  3. You don’t need to write a 5 paragraph essay. Just because this is an essay doesn’t mean you need to write a full 5 paragraph essay as your AP lit essay structure. The standard system is out the window here, and you can write something shorter or combine some of the paragraphs and sections into smaller sections to cover the information needed.
  4. Don’t restate the prompt. Jump right into expressing your point and what you’re trying to argue instead of using the prompt to lead in. The person grading your test already knows the prompt, and they don’t need you to recap it for them. This is an important one of our many AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies when it comes to saving time.
  5. You won’t have time to outline. There isn’t a whole lot of time for any of these essays, and you want to make sure that you can get through them all. That means you won’t have the time to draft a full outline and then write up your essay in that formal style. You’ll need to freeform your thoughts and ideas into a cohesive structure as you go along.
  6. Put a thesis statement somewhere in the essay. Somewhere in the essay should be a thesis because you need to have a point to what you’re trying to say. You’re going to focus on the specific aspects that the prompt asks you for, but that’s going to require you to have some type of purpose behind it.
  7. Answer every portion of the prompt. Make sure you read the prompt carefully so that you can answer every piece of it. If you miss a section of the prompt in your answer, you will lose points. Answering every piece is going to give you a better chance of getting a higher score.
  8. Don’t summarize the passage. Don’t include a summary of the passage. The person grading your test knows what the passage says, and all you’re doing is using up space and time that you could be using expressing your point. Make sure that you keep any descriptions you do need to make as short and sweet as possible.
  9. Use quotes for analysis. Quotes are a great thing to add in because they let the reader know that you were paying attention and that you understand the purpose of the passage. Those quotes should be used in an analytical form rather than just being repeated into your text.
  10. Take notes as you read. While you’re reading, make sure that you jot down a few notes that will relate to your prompt or notes about some of the most essential points that are being shared. These will help you when it comes time to write the essay, so you don’t have to go through and reread the entire passage again.
  11. Understand the principal idea of the passage. You should know what the purpose of the passage is. Is it trying to tell you something? Is it trying to convince you of something? If you’ve finished reading it and don’t know what the author is trying to convey, then you need to go back and read it all over again.
  12. Practice writing each style of essay. Get some practice with each of these styles of essays. You want to be comfortable with the rules and the way each of them is written so that you can write them more quickly when it comes to test day. The more comfortable you are, the better you’ll be able to get everything out without taking too much time. You’ll also want to look at AP lit essay examples.

AP English Literature Open Question Essay TipsAP English Literature Open Question Essay Tips

The open question essay gives you the most freedom when it comes to any sort of essay question on this test. You actually get to prepare before you even get to the test and you’ll have plenty of options for what you want to prepare as well. You’ll have a total of 40 minutes to take this portion of the test, which will be enough if you’re careful, structured and well prepared. Make sure you know how to write an AP English Literature exam essay before you get in there. This is going to give you an edge on your overall score for the test because you can prepare as long as you want.

  1. Choose books you’ve read in their entirety. Don’t choose books that you’ve only read small (or even large) passages of. Make sure you’ve read each of them entirely so you can analyze even the small details and really get in-depth when you’re trying to express how the book relates to the prompt.
  2. Know which books you’re going to use before you get there. Choose the books you’re going to use before you get to test day. This allows you time to read through them again, study your notes on the main points and be fully prepared for how you’re going to approach the test question on the day of the test.
  3. Have 2 main options and something completely different as a backup. You should have at least 3 books fully prepared for test day. Two of them could be your favorites or ones that you enjoy best, even if they’re very similar (similar time period, same author, etc.). The third book should be entirely different, in case you get a prompt that will be difficult to answer with one of your favorites.
  4. Know the most critical scenes for each book you choose. Being unable to describe the pivotal scenes in your book is not going to help you in getting a good score. You should have an excellent understanding of what happened, how it happened and even why it happened. All of these details are going to help you in answering whatever the prompt may be.
  5. Reflect specific details from the book into your answer. Using small details and information that isn’t as well known or would require careful reading will prove that you’ve read the book and that you fully understand what’s happening in the story.

AP English Literature Poetry Essay TipsAP English Literature Poetry Essay Tips

This section of the test is going to consist of either 1 or 2 short poems that you’ll need to carefully analyze and evaluate in some way to answer the prompt. You’ll have a total of 40 minutes in which to use your AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies, so make sure you’re reading carefully, evaluating the poems and then answering the prompt wholly and concisely. Make sure you’re comfortable with reading and understanding different types of poetry before you get to test day.

  1. You must be perceptive and persuasive to get the highest score. The highest score, either an 8 or a 9, requires that you be perceptive and compelling. You need to be able to detect even the smallest details and information, and then you need to be able to convince the reader of your opinion related to that topic. Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to get this best score.
  2. Grammar is very important. You’re writing an English essay, so it’s likely no surprise that the grammar you use is essential. Try to remember your sentence structure, your parts of speech and definitely your commas. You’ll also need to remember things like spelling and paragraph structure. By writing with proper grammar, you’re going to have a better chance of a higher score.
  3. Use quotes within your essay. Read through the poems you’re given carefully and then make sure that you use specific quotes from those poems in the essay that you write. This shows that you’re genuinely analyzing the text and that you understand what is being said. It also shows how you can interpret the literal into more broad context.
  4. Don’t use vague statements. Vague statements make it sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about or like you’re filling up space with empty information. You definitely don’t want to be a space filler, so make sure that you use specific quotes, specific statements, and as much background information as you can.
  5. Keep the introduction and conclusion short. The introduction and conclusion are essential but not as important as the other information that you’re trying to get across. If there’s not a lot of time, these are the sections that you can take less time with. Keep them short and simple, and you’ll have more space for everything else, like the evidence in the next point.
  6. Be organized and use plenty of evidence. Keeping your essay organized makes sure that your point gets across easier. Using evidence makes sure that the reader understands where you’re coming from and can see that you understand the context and everything that’s happening in the poem.

AP English Literature Prose Essay TipsAP English Literature Prose Essay Tips

The prose portion of the test will require you to use your AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies to evaluate a single passage carefully. You’ll have a total of 40 minutes to complete this essay as well. Once again, being careful to read through the passage and the question entirely and making sure you manage your time well will help you to complete this essay on time and will make sure you’re fully prepared. You also want to keep an eye on your structure to make sure it fits what you’re trying to say.

  1. Evaluate the overall meaning and break down the elements of the passage. When you read the passage, you want to look at what the entire thing is trying to get across and then you want to break it down into smaller sections so you can understand each component. This will help you when it comes time to write your essay and evaluate what it’s all about.
  2. Annotate the passage as you read. If you make notes and annotate while you read you’re going to have an easier time of writing your essay later on. You’ll be able to skim back through your notes instead of rereading the entire text, and then you’ll be able to spend more time writing and less of your time trying to read through more of the text, a second time.
  3. Fully defend and explain your thesis. Make sure that your thesis is well thought out and that you express it, so the reader knows exactly what you’re trying to say. You should also defend it with as many points as you possibly can so that it’s clear you read and understood the passage that you’re using in your essay.
  4. Get in-depth with your evaluation. Getting very in-depth with your analysis shows an understanding of literature that will reflect well on your score. You want to make sure you show the reader that you can understand the literal as well as some of the more abstract concepts associated with the piece.

AP English Literature Test Day TipsAP English Literature Test Day Tips

When it comes to test day you want to make sure you have the right AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies to get you prepared and ready for anything that might come your way. This means making sure you’re going to be healthy, confident and ready to do your best so you can get the credit for all the hard work that you’ve put in. An AP test is going to be difficult, but if you know how to prepare yourself beforehand, it doesn’t have to be as difficult for you as it might for others.

  1. Eat a good meal. Eating right is always going to be an essential step. You want to make sure that you are full and that you are comfortable when you’re taking your test because getting hungry is going to set you up for trouble. If you’re hungry, you’ll have a harder time focusing on what you’re supposed to be doing or on the difficult task before you.
  2. Don’t study. Studying immediately before a test, cramming as most people call it, can actually cause you to forget more than it helps you to learn. That means you could be setting yourself up for trouble and you may find that you struggle even more with trying to remember what the main points are. By skipping studying for at least a day before the test, you give your mind time to really store that information you’re going to need.
  3. Get a good night’s sleep. Getting plenty of rest is essential because it helps you be more focused when you sit down at that desk for the test. If you’re tired, your brain will have a hard time remembering information. You may have a lack of concentration. You may struggle even to write, and you may feel like you’re groggy or ‘out of it.’ None of these things are going to help you get the grade that you want on your test.
  4. Relax. Taking a few minutes to sit back and relax is going to help you calm down and mentally prepare for what you’re going to be doing. Those 3 hours are going to feel entirely too short, so you want to be ready for them.
  5. Bring everything you need. It’s important to remember everything you’re going to need in order to take the test. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to take the test if you bring any materials that are prohibited and you may not be able to take the test also if you don’t bring all of the necessary materials. You are responsible for going over the list of items you can and can’t have and making sure that you do what you’re supposed to.
  6. Know when and where to be. Make sure you know when you’re supposed to be at the testing center, including what time the test starts and what time the doors open. You want to be there as early as you can so you can be sure to get in, get a seat and relax for a little while before the test begins. You’ll also want to make sure that you know exactly where the test is being held, including the physical address and the specific room. This information should be verified long before the test date and again just before the test date so you can be sure nothing has changed.

Hopefully, these 52 AP English Literature tips and test-taking strategies are going to help you when it comes to taking the AP exam. You want to do well, and that means you need to keep in mind things like specific vocab and literary terms, using quotes and annotating the passages as you go through them. These tips are going to help you write better, and they’ll help you write faster at the same time.

Need extra help? Check out our guide on the best AP English Literature review books here.

Or, if you’re taking the SAT Subject Test in Literature, check out our guide on those best review books here.


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