Hey-o! Welcome back to the most lit 🔥 subject out there! Today we will be talking about the meat of the AP exam: the essays. The Free Response Questions (or FRQs) consist of 3 full-length essays in which you will be given 2 hours to complete (roughly 40 minutes per essay). This section counts for 55% of your overall score, so it is pretty important. Let’s look at a full breakdown of how these essays work and how you can do your best on them!
Remember, the full title of this course is AP English Literature and Composition. The exam wants to test your ability both to read/understand literature, but also how effectively you’re able to analyze and write about it. These essays gauge just that.
One essay requires you to read a poem and discuss the use of language, development of themes, tone, literary devices, or any other way the author could have deliberately authored a work.
The prose essay functions the same way, with the only exception being that you would read a passage of prose instead of poetry (duh).
The last essay is the “literary argument” essay. The exam will provide an open-ended prompt, and you will answer using any work that you’ve read (this can be a novel or a play) to develop and discuss the idea presented in the prompt.
The poetry and prose essays are very similar in concept, with their only difference being the kind of literature as a stimulus. Therefore, these essays may resemble each other a little bit, maybe not in content, but in formatting and argument.
The literary argument essay uses the same rubric (more on that later!), so there will be some similarities in that essay as well. In the poetry and prose essays, you can directly cite the text to use within your argument. This becomes more difficult within the literary argument essay because you will not have your chosen text next to you and available for reference, so citations will be along the lines of discussing certain events within a plot.
The best way to start your essay is simply to start it. Using a fancy hook, tagline, or attention-getter is great if you can think of one, but you should not waste your time on this. It is more important to begin your intro and establish a line of reasoning. It is a good idea to include a thesis statement within your introduction as well.
A strong thesis statement alone will earn you a point, according to the rubric, and while this thesis statement does not have to be in a specific place in the essay, it makes the most sense to place it within your introduction.
The goal would be to discuss three ideas throughout the essay:
- three separate devices used by the author to answer the prompt
- three different examples from the text to support the literary argument prompt
Using only two can yield a high-scoring essay, but sometimes it is better to use three if possible to add more complexity throughout. Being able to discuss how these three devices/ideas connect is a great way to earn the complexity point.
Just keep writing, just keep writing, just keep writing! Image courtesy of Giphy
You can organize the essay in whatever way works best for you. Some people like to write a body paragraph for each point they make. Others prefer to combine talking points within a body paragraph, depending on how many they include. The organization of the essay does not matter as much as long as there is a system.
Readers do not want to see a brain dump of information; writing a well-organized essay that follows one line of reasoning will fare a lot better for you and your score. You should end the essay with a conclusion, although that is not a requirement to score well, so don’t freak out if you run out of time.
Readers will grade each of your essays separately using the same rubric. This rubric is simple to follow, comprised of 6 points (making the entire essay section worth merely 18 points).
It is pretty easy to remember how the rubric works. Just remember 1-4-1!
Just keep it up there in that big ol' brain of yours! Image courtesy of Giphy
Students will earn one point just for including a defensible thesis. The thesis does not have to be in the introduction paragraph; most students just find that this works best organizationally to introduce the main topics and then to dive into more detail.
You can write your thesis anywhere within the paper. Some students will even find themselves writing a thesis within their conclusion.
There are four possible points within this category. To earn all four points in this category, readers are looking for specific evidence to support the thesis presented, as well as consistent commentary and the inclusion of multiple literary devices/techniques discussed throughout the essay.
However, don’t feel overwhelmed if that criterion feels like a lot to incorporate simultaneously; these points are not all-or-nothing. Maybe one of your body paragraphs is not as strong compared to the previous one. This will not cost all of your evidence and commentary points, but maybe your reader would award you 3 points instead of 4. It is possible to score anywhere within the range of 0-4 points here.
Incorporating complexity throughout your essay can earn you one extra point for sophistication. There are a few different ways you can accomplish this, but remember that there is no real gauge for this, so it is entirely up to the reader to decide whether or not to award this point to your essay. Here’s what the College Board’s rubric has to say about the complexity point:
- Identifying and exploring complexities or tensions within the passage.
- Illuminating the student's interpretation by the situation it within a broader context.
- Accounting for an alternative interpretation of the passage.
- Employing a style that is consistently vivid and persuasive.
Again, these guidelines are not objective, which makes it a little more difficult to purposefully aim for. It is never a bad idea to think about sophistication while writing, but students should actively attempt to earn the other 5 points, as the complexity point is more likely to come naturally.
You can see the full, outlined rubric for each essay here: AP Lit Essay Rubric
The best way to get better at writing essays is to practice doing it. After doing it enough, you’ll find a rhythm to it, and develop your method of organization. You should also utilize the help of your teacher and/or peers, and ask them to give you feedback on practice essays. This will give you a better idea of how you can improve so you can write three incredible essays when it comes to test day!