What’s Tested on the AP English Language and Composition Exam?

April 10, 2024
AP English What's Tested on the Exam?

Putting it simply, the AP English Language and Composition exam tests your reading and writing skills. Understanding the words in five passages doesn’t guarantee success, however. Rather, top scores are awarded to anyone who can do two additional things: 

  1. Correctly answer 23–25 questions related to the rhetoric used in the passages. You’ll also be given 20–22 writing questions, which ask you to “read like a writer,” meaning you’ll be asked to decide which of several potential revisions of text in a passage is best. 
  2. Write three well-organized and insightful essays, each with a different purpose. 

To succeed in both these tasks, you need to know something about rhetoric, such as how an author’s choice of details contributes to the meaning of the passage or in what ways the structure of a passage relates to its content. 

You’ll also need to be well acquainted with such concepts as theme, tone, diction, syntax, allusion, imagery, paradox, irony, satire, and a variety of other rhetorical devices that you’ve probably studied in English classes. 

Finally, you should know how to draw on your experience, reading, or observation to write an argument that supports, opposes, or falls somewhere in between an opinion expressed in a given statement.

Structure of the AP English Language and Composition Exam

The exam lasts three hours and 15 minutes. For the first 60 minutes you’ll read a handful of relatively short nonfiction passages and answer 45 multiple-choice questions about them. During the remaining time you’ll write essays in response to three questions. 

Outline of the AP English Language and Composition Exam

Total time: Three hours and 15 minutes 

Section I: One hour (45 percent of total score) 

45 multiple-choice questions about several nonfiction prose ­passages. About half relate to reading and rhetoric, the other half to writing. 

Section II: Two hours and 15 minutes 

Three essays (55 percent of total score) 

Essay 1:   Take a position on an issue presented in a short passage. In your essay, synthesize or incorporate material from at least three of several given sources that comment on the issue.

Essay 2:   Write a rhetorical analysis of a given passage. 

Essay 3:   Argue for or against an opinion expressed in a statement or short passage, or take a stand somewhere between the two extremes.

Multiple-Choice Questions on the AP English Language and Composition Exam

The multiple-choice reading questions on the AP English Language and Composition exam can be about virtually anything that the author of a passage has done to convey meaning or create an effect. For instance, you may be asked about why the passage has been structured in a certain way, the purpose of a particular word or phrase, the function of a certain paragraph, or how a specific idea contributes to the development of the passage as a whole. 

To answer some questions, you need a sense of sentences, including how sentences function in a passage; how sentences of different lengths, structure, and type (simple, compound, complex, compound complex) relate to tone and meaning. To answer other questions you may need to understand the author’s purpose in writing the passage. Another question may ask about individual sentences and their function in the passage. Other questions about sentences may offer five versions of a given sentence and ask you which one would be best in the context. You should be aware of the uses and effects of subordination, coordination, and parenthetical ideas. You may also be asked about word order, tone, diction (word choice), transitions, repetition, parallelism, and figurative language. 

Questions that are related to writing focus on the best way to express ideas in a given context. For instance, you may be asked to decide which one of five different sentences would be best to introduce the topic of a given paragraph, or which version of a sentence might serve best as a transition between certain paragraphs of the passage. You may also encounter ­questions that ask you to rearrange the order of sentences in a paragraph, or which sentence would be most persuasive in refuting a particular idea, or what the author intended to accomplish by making a particular comparison or by arranging the sentences in a particular sequence.

Certainly, you know how many decisions you must make when writing an essay for school—or anything else, for that matter. Well, when you take the AP exam, you’ll be asked to analyze decisions made by authors and sometimes choose which of five alternatives is best. 

One final hint: The order of multiple-choice questions usually coincides with the progress of each passage. Neither the passages nor the questions are presented in order of difficulty.

Essay Questions on the AP English Language and Composition Exam

The prompt for the first essay question consists of a statement about an issue of concern in today’s world. Accompanying the statement are several published documents—they are called sources—related to the issue, each less than a page long. One source will be an image—a photo, map, cartoon, or other visual presentation also related to the issue. Another may be a graph, a chart, a table, or another image requiring a quantitative interpretation. Fifteen minutes are allotted to read the sources. Then you are expected to write an essay that takes a position on the issue and incorporates, or synthesizes, at least three of the sources into your discussion. In AP terminology, this essay goes by the name synthesis essay. 

A second question consists of a prose passage about a page long and an assignment to write an analysis essay that discusses the rhetorical strategies used by the author of the passage. 

The third question calls for a written argument. The prompt consists of a brief passage that expresses an opinion on a particular subject. Your essay must support, refute, or qualify the opinion stated by the author of the passage.