The AP English Language and Composition test is one of the most popular AP exams. In 2021, 476,321 students took the AP Language and Composition exam, making it the single most popular AP exam nationwide. AP Lang is most often taken by high school juniors, many of whom go on to take the AP English Literature and Composition exam their senior year. Plenty of seniors and even sophomores take this test too, contributing to its popularity.
If you’re planning to take the AP Language and Composition exam, check out our top tips to help you achieve the high score that will earn you college credit.
Table of Contents
Know the AP Lang Test Format
To paraphrase, knowing is half the battle. Before you dive into your AP Language and Composition test prep, take time to understand the test itself. Learn the format and timing of the exam and how it’s scored. You also want to set yourself a realistic score goal based on the data.
Section 1: Multiple Choice
- 45 Questions
- 1 hour
- 45% of your exam grade
The multiple choice section consists of four non-fiction reading passages, each 300-600 words in length. Passages will vary in style, genre and date of publication. The passages are 300-600 words in length. You may find a 19th century essay, a treatise on architecture, a speech from a well-known politician, and an autobiographical reflection on the author’s childhood.
Remember that the purpose of AP English Language and Composition is to stretch your ability to recognize, analyze and reproduce good writing. So the passages may not be easy to understand upon first reading. They may contain technical or archaic vocabulary, visual metaphors or complex arguments.
Following each passage, you’ll answer roughly 11 questions. On 23-25 questions, you’ll read and analyze a non-fiction text. For the remaining 20-25 questions, you’ll be asked to “read like a writer,” and offer edits on the text.
The College Board changed the multiple choice section starting with the 2020 exam. It used to contain 55 questions. Passages were longer, and more questions required you to analyze vocabulary in context.
Unfortunately, the College Board has not released the 2020 or 2021 AP Language multiple choice sections. The only official practice questions that exist are located in the AP English Language and Composition Course and Exam description, starting on page 115. Review these questions carefully, as they serve as your very best guide to what the new exam is like.
Section 2: Free Response
- 3 Questions
- 2 hours 15 minutes (includes a 15 minute reading period)
- 55% of your exam grade
Each of the three essays tests a different skill set. Students must respond to each of the three essays. Unlike the AP World History or AP U.S. History exams, for example, the AP Lang exam does not offer students an option between Question A or Question B. That said, students shouldn’t feel particularly stuck. Each question offers wide latitude to respond in many different ways. There is no single “right” answer.
Synthesis Essay: Students read 6 or 7 passages and then craft an argument based on the documents. As with the 4 passages in the free response section, the passages will vary in style, length and genre. For example, you might see a newspaper article, statistics from a textbook, a speech, or an Internet opinion piece.
Rhetorical Analysis: You read a single non-fiction text and analyze how the author’s use of language contributes to the overall argument. Here, you will evaluate literary techniques such as tone, vocabulary, visual imagery, metaphor, storytelling. Those devices will serve as evidence that feeds into your original thesis.
Argument: You will create an argument based on a topic for debate. The topic will be one that elicits multiple (sometimes strong) viewpoints from different people. While you will need to marshal evidence in support of your position, the topic is always one of general interest and does not require any specialized prior expertise.
Is the AP Language and Composition Exam Hard?
In general, it’s hardest to get a top score of 5 on the most popular AP exams. That shouldn’t be surprising, if you think of it statistically. Specialized exams, such as AP Calculus BC, attract fewer students because they have pre-requisites. What’s more, exams such as BC Calc or AP Physics C seem intimidating. That further deters students. In fact, fully three times as many students took the AP Lang exam as took Calc BC.
As a result, the students taking these low-enrollment exams tend to be highly motivated. Further, they often have experience with previous AP exams. In contrast, the most popular AP exams attract a wide range of students. And many of them may be taking the first or only AP course of their high school career.
Results of 2021 AP Lang Exam
Taken together, it’s not surprising then that in 2021, only 8% of students achieved a 5 on the AP English Language and Composition exam. Out of 37 AP exams, only 6 exams had a lower percentage of students achieve the top score. In comparison, 38% of students reached the top score on BC Calculus.
But those statistics shouldn’t discourage students from taking the AP English Lang exam. While achieving the top score requires diligent study, a passing score is within reach of most students. Fully 57% of students received a 3 or higher on the 2021 exam.
As a reminder, many colleges offer college credit for a score of 3 or higher.
That’s good news for all those students wondering whether they should take the AP exam. If past results are any guide, a good score is within reach.
What’s the Easiest and Hardest Parts of the AP Lang Test?
Of course, every student is different. What one student finds vexing, another calls a cinch. So it’s important to recognize your individual strengths and weaknesses. That said, the College Board helpfully analyzes all questions on the exam and reports on which questions — in general — students get right or wrong.
Here are the results:
Multiple Choice Section: Author’s Argument is Easier to Recognize than Style
Not surprisingly, students were most likely to answer questions correctly when they related to an author’s argument. In contrast, questions that related to the author’s style or the use of rhetoric proved more difficult.
For that reason, when you see words and phrases such as tone, rhetorical argument, comparison or contrast, you are likely in the realm of the hardest questions. Equally, questions that require you to evaluate a particular quotation from the passage or ask WHY the author used specific language are questions on the author’s style.
Free Response Section: Thesis is No Problem, But Don’t Forget the Evidence and Sophistication
Students receive a score of 0 to 6 on each essay. The College Board evaluates essays according to a very clear rubric. Students receive one point for a thesis statement. They receive 0 to 4 points for the use of evidence. Finally, they may garner a sixth “sophistication” point for offering a well-written and thoughtful argument that effectively deploys evidence.
On all three essays, at least 90% of students earned the thesis point. That’s no surprise, given that it typically requires a single sentence in your introductory paragraph.
Roughly two-thirds of students received 2 or 3 evidence points. On each essay, fewer than 5% of students received 0 evidence points. Equally, only 14-26% of students received all four evidence points.
Finally, 6-14% of students received the sophistication point. In particular, students seemed to find it more difficult to attain that higher level of writing on the argument essay. That’s not particularly surprisingly, given that the argument essay does not provide any documents or passages that students can rely upon when building their own position.
In short, know the scoring rubric so that you can pick up those precious fifth and sixth points. It’s no surprise that the sophistication points correspond closely with those students who ultimately receive a 5 on the exam.
Now that you know the format of the exam and the types of questions that trip students up, let’s look at some strategies to get you ready for test day.
Use Practice Tests to Assess Your Readiness
There is no better way to study for the AP Language exam than with official practice exams. Fortunately, the College Board releases free response questions going back to 1999 on its website! What’s more, it offers sample student essay responses. Study these carefully to learn what it takes to achieve the full 6 points, and what pitfalls lead you to a lower score of 2 or 3.
For the multiple choice section, you can find any number of sample test questions online. Or you can invest in a study guide. Remember that the College Board has released a scant 17 official questions for the new multiple choice section. Many teachers keep old paper-based copies of past AP Language exams, so you might have a low-tech resource at your fingertips.
But if not, don’t fret. Even unofficial multiple choice practice will ready you for the types of questions and passages you’ll see on test day. You’ll still refine several key test-taking skills. Namely, you’ll learn to read efficiently a wide variety of passages and grasp their meaning and rhetorical style. You’ll also come to recognize the types of questions you’ll see again and again: about tone, authorial intent, use of language and structure of argument.
Take A Practice Test at Home: Follow these Simple Steps
Once you’ve assembled the right materials, take a full-length practice test to assess your initial knowledge. Be sure to replicate test-day conditions. Find a quiet space. Stick to the allotted time. Avoid interruptions and honor the short 10-minute break between the two sections of the exam. Finally, silence your phone and keep your “tools” to the allowed paper and pencil. You don’t need a proctor to create a realistic test environment. You can self-proctor at home.
Once you have taken some kind of formative assessment, score it to identify your areas of strength and areas for improvement. Ask a teacher or friend to score your free-response essays. The good news is that the essay scoring rubric is so transparent that a classmate or knowledgeable adult should have no trouble giving you a fairly accurate score. With an accurate baseline, you’ll have a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.
Later, as test day approaches, take another practice test to evaluate your progress and identify persistent areas of weakness. Over time, you should begin to notice areas that require further study and those which you are strong in. Repeat the above steps if time permits to incrementally increase your score.
Be Ready to Analyze Passages
In the case of AP English Language and Composition, this means focusing on your analytical reading skills and the principles of good writing.
Find Context Clues in the Passage Introduction
Whether you’re tackling the multiple choice or essay sections, your first step is reading and understanding the passage(s). But to grasp the author’s intent, you need to consider the context. On the AP Language exam, each passage begins with a brief one or two-sentence introduction. The introduction may include the title of the article, the author’s name, the date and source of publication.
To the savvy student, that sparse introduction offers a treasure-trove of important information. Is the passage an early 20th century speech from a noted suffragette? Or is it a blog written last year on a celebrity news website? Your expectations for tone, style and authorial intent will vary dramatically if you study these content clues intently.
Use the clues to predict what the passage will be about. Anticipate the author’s motivation. Predict the style of writing or subject matter. Will you see vocabulary or a writing style that feels dated or less familiar? Is the subject matter one that you know well? Or one that perhaps bores you?
You’ll be surprised how much information you can glean before you take your first step into the passage. Know the context and be on the lookout for your personal areas of difficulty.
SOAPSTone: The Questions to Ask As You Read the Passage
As you read, make sure to stop periodically to consider the main ideas and the way the author supports them. Underline important evidence as you go. Reread complex or important sentences.
Consider using the “SOAPSTone” approach to reading. It’s an acronym that will help you remember the questions to ask when analyzing a piece of prose. The questions are:
- Who is the Speaker?
- What is the Occasion?
- Who is the Audience?
- What is the Purpose?
- What is the Subject?
- What is the Tone?
AP Language exam passages are long. It’s not easy to sustain your attention. Particularly when you’ll be reading no fewer than 10 passages over the course of the exam. Fortunately, the SOAPSTone questions offer you a ready-made structure to keep you reading actively.
With this method, you’ll never again finish a passage and think: “What did I just read?!”
Master Multiple Choice Strategies
A clear upside of multiple choice questions is that there are a finite set of possible answers. On the AP Lang exam, that universe is limited to five. It’s up to you to use rigorous process of elimination to whittle five choices down to one right answer.
Sometimes, the answer will come to you easily. You’ll be certain and you’ll move on. Other times, you’ll agonize over the question, wondering what it’s even asking. Or you’ll hesitate between two choices, both of which seem right.
The good news is that multiple choice strategies are as old as standardized tests. That means there are only so many ways that a test-maker can “trick” you. It also means there are many tried-and-true strategies for mastering process of elimination.
Process of Elimination: There is One and Only One Right Answer
Remember that no test-maker wants to be embarrassed. They don’t want an ambiguous answer choice to discredit the integrity of their test. So, before the College Board releases any question, you can be sure they ask themselves whether a student could reasonably argue that a second answer choice is correct.
If there’s any chance of two right answers, the test-makers will modify the question. The change may be subtle, or it may be dramatic. But you can be sure that before you see your AP Lang exam on test day, there will be one and only one right answer to each multiple choice question.
So let’s look at some strategies that can take the anguish out of those close-call questions.
Re-read the Question Until You Know What It’s Asking For
That sounds obviously. But if you’re pressed for time, tired, bored or stressed, it’s easy to skim the question. And that’s when you miss important information. Be on the lookout for words that subtly or dramatically change the meaning of the question. Those words or phrases include:
- EXCEPT: There’s a reason it’s always in all capital letters. Don’t wonder why four of the five answers seem good. Look for the answer that’s the out one out.
- “Best described as” or “best interpreted as”: When you see the modifier “best,” it essentially means the right answer is only an approximation of the original. Look for answers that are close, but don’t expect the right answer to be a one-to-one translation.
- “In context” or “In this passage”: These modifiers suggest that a word or phrase might have a different meaning or intent in other contexts. For example, sweeping can refer to an activity with a broom or a majestic vista.
Make sure you answer the question. When in doubt, ask yourself: What’s the goal of the question? Are there any words in the question that change its meaning or intent?
Predict the Right Answer
So now you’ve read the passage actively and scrutinized the question carefully. With those two steps, you should have a pretty good sense of what the right answer could be. Before you read your five options, take a beat to formulate your own ideal answer. If the question asks about the author’s tone, bring to mind words YOU would use to describe it.
For example, if cheerful, airy and lively jump to the forefront, when you look at the answers, you’ll be able to eliminate sarcastic and dreary without a second thought.
The predictive technique is another method for active reading. It keeps your mind engaged and forces you to truly digest the question before you jump to the answers.
Eliminate the Obviously Bad Answers
Of your five choices, there will almost certainly be one or two that are wrong. In fact, there are several ways an answer can be totally, completely and utterly wrong. Be on the lookout for:
- Irrelevance: Does the answer have nothing to do with the passage or question?
- Exaggerated Language: Beware of words that imply a strong negative or positive opinion (“worst,” “best,” “deplorable, etc.) or that demonstrate black-and-white thinking (always, never). In writing, ambiguity and complexity is the norm, and this type of extreme language can imply a lack of sophisticated analysis — the opposite of what the AP Lang exam seeks!
Beware the Tempting But Wrong Choices
Once you’ve eliminated the bad answers, you may be left with two or three options. Sometimes, you’ll be stuck between two options. But never forget. There’s ALWAYS only one right answer. But how do you eliminate the bad apple?
First, look for disqualifying words. A single word can change a right answer into a wrong answer. The spoiler might be an adjective or adverb that changes the whole meaning of the sentence. It might be an inaccurate piece of information.
Or, as mentioned above, it might be immoderate language. For example, perhaps the author expressed cautious optimism about a new government policy. If the answer says the author “extolled’ the political choice, then it’s wrong.
Keep in mind, the key to acing your multiple choice questions is active reading. Incorporate the SOAPStone method and vigorous process of elimination into your test-taking arsenal and there’s no standardized test you won’t master!
Practice Free-Response Essays
You’ll tackle three separate essays during the free response section of the AP Language and Composition test. Each essay requires its own strategies, so let’s look at tips for how to tackle each of the writing samples you’ll produce.
First, Pace Yourself
The free response section lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes. That’s a long time. More brutal still, it comes after a full hour of reading and multiple choice questions. So you may be tired. And with fatigue come careless errors, sloppy work or lapses in attention. So cope ahead and know that you’ll need to build stamina for this three-hour exam.
That’s why practice tests are so important. You don’t want the first time you’ve sat for two-plus hours of cramp-inducing essay writing to be on test day.
It’s also important to plan your time wisely. Remember that the College Board recommends that you spend an extra 15 minutes on the synthesis essay. You’ll spend 15 minutes reading the 6 or 7 passages and the remaining 40 minutes writing. Spend longer and you could run out of time and energy on the third essay.
Know the Essay Scoring Rubric
You can earn up to 6 points per essay. As you may recall, the testers don’t just hand out those top scores. So it’s important to understand their expectations.
Thesis: One Point for an Interesting Point of View
This is the easiest point to earn, so don’t squander it. Make sure you right a clear thesis. Don’t bury the lead or leave your readers wondering where they can find your point of view. Keep the thesis upfront in the introductory paragraph. It’s often positioned in the second sentence, after a brief introduction. Make sure your thesis is interesting and actually takes a position or makes a meaningful observation. Imagine you’re having a conversation with your reader. Ask yourself what you could say that would surprise them or make them think differently about an issue.
Evidence: Earn All Four Points
Too many students loose ground on the evidence points. But there’s no reason not to earn all 4 points for this criterion.
So what is evidence and how do you use it?
Evidence is any information from the passages themselves that support your thesis. Given that the AP Language exam tests your understanding of the architecture of good writing, evidence in this instance consists of specific reference to the text itself.
Your options for evidence are abundant. You can include quotations, cite specific word choices, metaphors, or comparisons. You could also note the author’s use of a fact or statistic to advance an argument, highlight language that reveals the author’s tone or perspective on the subject.
To receive four points, it doesn’t mean. you cite four (and only four) distinct pieces of evidence. Rather, the scoring is qualitative. That is, a student must demonstrate three separate skills to earn all four points:
- Provide specific evidence to support each claim in your thesis.
- Explain how each piece of evidence reinforces and advances your argument.
- Identify several rhetorical choices in the passage and explain how they advance or detract from the author’s message, argument or intent.
Keep these three points in mind as you identify evidence for your essay.
In short, it’s not enough just to cite examples from the text. To receive all four evidence points, you need to dig deeper and analyze the SO WHAT? Why is that piece of evidence important? How does it advance your argument about the author’s prose.
Finally, when writing your own persuasive argument, support your ideas with concrete examples from current events, literature, etc. Try to vary your sources to build credibility and address counterpoints to craft an even stronger response.
Revisit the SOAPSTone approach. Key your evidence to how a particular rhetorical choice speaks to a given audience (A) or reinforces the author’s intended tone (T).
Sophistication Point: How to Demonstrate the Complex Understanding That Earns You the Sixth Point
A mere 6% of students earned the elusive sixth point on the argument essay in 2021’s AP English Language and Composition exam. So what does it take to be one of them?
The College Board’s guidelines state quite generally that the student must demonstrate a “complex understanding” and a “sophistication of thought.”
But how do you do that?
At a minimum, be sure you meet the criterion to earn the first five points. First, take care to write an insightful thesis statement. A complex thesis may even span two sentences, which gives you more real estate to elaborate on an idea with multiple parts (the College Board says that’s just fine).
Second, make sure that you deploy specific evidence tethered to the passage. Avoid generalities and course correct if you find yourself making a statement unsupported by textual evidence. Then, make sure you explain the SO WHAT for each piece of evidence. How does this piece of text advance your argument. And why should the reader care?
If you’ve accomplished all that, you’re well on your way to the sixth point. But there’s more.
Sophisticated thought doesn’t shrink from complexity. The most complex and intriguing arguments celebrate it.
Remember the black-and-white thinking that signals the wrong multiple choice answer? The same is true on the free response section. Own the fact that in life, as in writing, there’s usually not a single correct answer.
There’s a good reason why most students fail to achieve the sixth point on the argument essay. They advocate a single line or reasoning, without acknowledging the validity of opposing viewpoints. For example, on the 2021 AP Lang exam, the prompt asked students to opine on the value of striving for perfection. An essay that responded with either a strictly affirmative or strictly negative response — however strong the evidence and reasoning — might not achieve full marks.
Instead, the student who embraces ambiguity might craft the following thesis:
What is perfection? People spend their whole lives striving for perfection: more money, more fame, a fitter physique. But that effort may also be the road to depression, anxiety and a life lived without internal purpose. On the other hand, it is not enough just to throw up our hands and abandon all efforts towards self-improvement. That’s the recipe for a feckless and unsatisfying life. Perhaps the best middle ground comes with the idea of perfectibility. We strive for self-improvement, coupled with the awareness to understand that the joy comes in the effort, not in seeking an impossible destination.
Here’s another acronym to bear in mind as you strive for the sixth sophistication point: OTOBOTO (On the one hand,….But on the other hand). True, the best arguments espouse a clear position. But it’s also true that the best writers also recognize that their point of view or conclusions may not be the only valid position out there.
Focus on a Clear Well-Organized Essay, Not Fancy Prose
Your test readers know that you only have 40 minutes to write each essay. No one expects you to produce Shakespeare.
Avoid fancy phrasing, showy vocabulary or elaborate introductory paragraphs. Your readers will be reading hundreds of essays over the course of the AP evaluation process. Go easy on them. Make your argument as clear and straightforward as possible.
At a minimum, that means taking the time to organize your essay. The five paragraph essay may not win you a Nobel Prize for Literature. But on your AP English essays, it may be your best shot to earn a perfect 18 points.
Before you dive into writing, take five minutes to organize your five paragraphs. Craft an insightful thesis, and then identify three interesting, separate points that support, reinforce, or add complexity to that thesis.
Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Then, add two or three sentences that include evidence and commentary on the text. Finally, offer a mini-conclusion sentence. That’s the SO WHAT of your paragraph.
Each paragraph should lead your reader further down the road of your argument. It’s not enough to offer three separate examples of the same rhetorical technique. Instead, dedicate each paragraph to a separate, but related phenomenon.
Don’t belabor your conclusion. But it’s also not enough to simply paraphrase your thesis statement. If you think of your essay as a road, your conclusion is the destination. In one sentence, explain how you arrived at your final analysis.
In fact, your test readers won’t penalize you too harshly if you don’t have a conclusion. They understand that time is short and what they really want to see if a strong thesis, clear evidence and insightful commentary. The scoring rubric does not require a conclusion to earn six points.
Writing Great AP Essay Responses Takes Practice
Writing high-quality free-response essays takes practice and time. Take advantage of the dozens of official AP essay questions on the College Board website and practice. Use the above techniques to refine your approach and swap essays with a classmate to get feedback.
Great writing is art, but you’ll find that with a little practice, writing a solid AP English essay is well within your reach.
Get a good night’s sleep and eat a nutritious breakfast in the morning. Relax and know that you have studied well, and go into your test with confidence. If you find yourself nervous, try practicing some deep breathing exercises while you wait to begin.
If you are looking for guidance during your AP test prep, our tutors take an individual approach to each student when creating a custom AP exam prep program. Get in touch with us today!