This year, if you’re taking the AP English Literature exam, you’ll be responsible for responding to three questions, which the College Board calls “free response prompts.” First, you’ll write a literary analysis of a poem. Second, you’ll write a literary analysis of a piece of fiction, which could be an excerpt from a play. Third, you’ll analyze a major literary aspect—a theme or a literary device, for example—of a literary work of your choosing.
The last of these prompts attracts perhaps the most attention and, by extension, produces the most anxiety among students. Anyone would admit that such a capacious (‘open, roomy’) question is challenging, especially when a year of AP Lit has taught you to focus on the details of the book you’re reading. And it certainly doesn’t help that this question comes at the very end of the essay, and you and your fingers are about as tired as they could possibly be!
But if you approach the prompt with enthusiasm, it can be the cherry on top of your exam, not the straw that breaks the camel’s back (getting creative with metaphors is always important in AP Lit!).
Here are five tips to help you write a great essay response to the third prompt on the AP Lit exam.
1. Select the perfect work.
Wait a minute—you can write about anything under the sun, as long as the College Board defines it as “a work of literary merit?” How is that even possible? In truth, your evaluators are using this prompt as a way to gauge your analytical abilities no matter the text. You’re not going to be judged for the work you select, as long as it’s substantial enough to ensure your analysis can be rich and meaningful. A good rule to live by: if a work pops into your head and you don’t immediately have at least a few different ideas for how to answer the prompt with it, toss it out of your brainstorming process. You want to find a work that is challenging and complex in order to show that you’re capable of effectively analyzing such works.
You have two main options for selecting the perfect work, both equally effective. The first is probably the most common: choose a book, play, or other literary work you read in AP Lit. Because you read it in class, you will almost surely be familiar with its themes and literary devices. Your second option is to pick a work you’ve read on your own, which could be anything from a novel you adored over summer break or the Shakespeare play you starred in at school. We recommend creating a short list of works you’d like to write about before you take your AP Lit exam, just to have your options at hand. As you’ve learned to do in class, consider each work’s rhetorical situation. This way, if you’re on the fence about whether a work is really “of literary merit,” you can ask your teacher or someone else in the know for an expert second opinion!
2. Practice really does make perfect.
You don’t know what the third free-response prompt will be, but you know that it will be! The College Board’s AP Lit exam page is only one of a gazillion easily accessible resources online that compile prompts from past years and devise hypothetical ones, too. These are great places to look. In the weeks leading up to the exam, we recommend selecting three to seven prompts—the more diverse in content, the better—and practicing with your list of works of literary merit. We recommend practicing with a work no more than two or three times—it’s great to know a text inside and out, but you don’t want to be a one-trick pony in case the prompt on the exam doesn’t lend itself to an essay about that text.
3. Outline, outline, outline!
Whether for AP exams, the SAT, or the ACT, you’ve heard the dictum a million times—outlines make better essays, even when your time feels extremely limited! When it’s time for the test, this can feel a little bit trite, but we challenge you to find one soul in the grand history of the AP English Literature exam who hasn’t benefited from creating even a rough outline. This is the place where your reasoning and organization come alive. We recommend devoting 5-7 minutes to your outline—the lower end if you’re confident you know the text inside and out and just need to nail down your claims and evidence, and the higher end if you need to jog your memory and give your thesis a bit more time to gestate.
What should your outline include? Keep it clear and concise. You definitely want to write your thesis; plan the topics of your body paragraphs, including potential topic sentences; and—a helpful, oft-forgotten third part—remind yourself why the work you’ve chosen is the best for the prompt. This last part won’t be formally integrated into your essay, but it’s extremely helpful as you try to stay focused and pointed while writing what can feel like an impossible broad essay.
4. Each paragraph is a new opportunity to be creative
The third free-response prompt, and the AP Lit exam in general, is extremely structured. It can feel downright constricting. The little-known truth about the last essay is that it’s the most creative part of the whole exam. You not only get to choose the prompt, but within the roughly five-paragraph structure of the essay you’re penning, you get to be quite creative with what you say in each paragraph. There are so many ways to explain to your readers how, say, a symbol illuminates an important theme in a text. We find this knowledge incredibly liberating; paired wisely with the organization that the outline and the essay require, this creative approach can lead to a top-notch essay.
5. Proofread, but not just for the sake of proofreading.
We’ve all been there—time is nearly up, you’ve put the period at the end of your conclusion, and now it’s time to make sure you haven’t written an incoherent jumble of nothingness. This is the last, crucial step before handing in your AP Lit exam and never reading again (just kidding!)
Because you’re so exhausted from hours of test-taking, proofreading your third free-response essay can feel like a chore—a hurdle you have to jump to reach the finish line. But it can also be an opportunity to make sure your argument, your analysis, and your claims and evidence are coherent. We don’t mean that you should restructure your thesis—there isn’t time for that, and we’re sure it’s great, anyway!—but we encourage you to make sure that every sentence is as clear, concise, and (reasonably) creative as possible. Proofreading is the time to read every sentence with a fundamental question in the back of your head: What is this sentence doing, and what are the words that form it doing? If something feels like it’s not pulling its weight, don’t hesitate—change or delete it. Now that you’ve nailed the bigger picture, you must demand only the best from the details.