Successful Ap English Essays 2014

AP English Literature FRQs

If you were out on a hike and someone coming down stopped to tell you that the path to the right was flooded, would you make sure to avoid that path? If you walked on and another hiker said a mountain lion was spotted up ahead, would you find another way?

Of course.

And if you were about to take an exam and previous test takers showed up at your door offering to tell you how it went, would you take their advice?

Well, that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to heed the warnings, follow the good advice, and find the best path to make your way through the AP English Literature FRQ portion. We’ll look at actual prompts and essays from the 2014 exam along with the graders’ comments and tips. We’ll look at the good, the bad, and the ugly, because we can learn from all three.

We understand that this test may be intimidating to you right now. But as we go through each of the three questions, you’ll see you’re not alone. Students came before you and survived. And by looking at their successes and failures, you, too, will survive. At the end of this journey together, we’ll leave you with ways to improve your writing for a higher score and a list of errors to avoid losing points. If you’d like to, follow along with us on the CollegeBoard’s website.

2014 Free Response Question #1:

Most students open the first page of the AP English Literature FRQ portion and panic. The poetry question often strikes fear in even the most steely of test takers. Almost across the board this question scores the lowest of the three. But not in 2014.

In 2014, the first question averaged 4.16, ranking ahead of the second question. Let’s go through what test takers did right to conquer the shiver-inducing first FRQ.

The Prompt

First thing’s first. This should go without saying, but always read the prompt. And always read it first. In fact, read it twice, if not three times. We’ll discuss why.

We like to approach the prompt like a detective in search of clues. These clues will help you tackle the poem lying in wait for you. In the case of the 2014 AP English Literature FRQ #1, we learned the time period (sixteenth century) and the nationality of the poet (English). You may not necessarily see those clues on your exam, but if you do, take a moment to go through the file system in your mind. What do you know about England in the sixteenth-century? What other English poets did you read? What tools did you learn while studying similar poems? Maybe one of those will apply to this poem.

If you’re lucky enough to get a prompt that suggests specific devices to consider, like the 2014 exam did, don’t discard them. In this case, the devices were form, diction, and imagery. If we were taking this test we might read the poem and mark “F” for examples of form, “D” for diction, and “I” for imagery. Then we’d use these to create an organized outline. From there it’s only a matter of writing a strong thesis and you’re on a great track.

Let’s now look at what else we can do to gain points and avoid losing them!

The Good

The Good shows what we should do to score 9’s.

Find the Complexities

If your interpretation of the poem in the first part of the AP English Literature FRQ seems too easy, it probably is. Think about the poem as anything with layers – a cake, an onion, whatever you wish. But if you haven’t peeled anything back you’re most likely missing a deeper meaning or complexity.

The test graders were impressed with how this essay pointed out the paradox within the text. Don’t be afraid to note, as this test taker did, inherent confusions in a poem. It’s an opportunity to explain that confusion, which shows that you’re diving deeper. Always dive deeper!

Explain HOW Poetic Devices are Used

Merely identifying alliteration, rhyme scheme, or imagery is not enough to score a 9 on the AP English Literature FRQ. What the graders want to see is that you have an understanding of how that poetic device is used within the text.

Take the above as a great example of that. It references a specific line and explains how it is used. “Proves” is a great word to use. Also think about using “shows”, “demonstrates”, and “reveals”.

The Bad

The Bad shows us what we can avoid doing to go from 6 to a 9.

Be Formulaic and Repetitive

There is a difference between a well-organized essay and a formulaic essay. One scores a 9 and one scores a 6. Follow a structure like this: an opening paragraph with a thesis, then three paragraphs each with an argument that builds, and then a strong final paragraph. Beyond that, each essay should be organic, not formulaic.

Also, your three paragraphs needs to have different arguments, preferably ones that build upon one another. They should not be three different ways of saying the same argument.

Use Unfocused Language

The above sentence is hard to decipher much meaning from. And with hundreds of essays to grade a day, you can bet the the test grader didn’t have time to reread it to find out what the test taker meant to say.

Remember that what is on the page is what the readers read. They won’t know what you were trying to write. Even if it means slowing down, make sure your essay is focused and clear so you don’t lose points unnecessarily.

The Ugly

The Ugly shows us what to avoid at all costs. The Ugly are point killers.

Get Out That Label Maker

While this essay correctly labeled the structure of the poem as a Shakespearean sonnet, it does not take it the one step further and explain how that structure is used or what it tells us about the speaker. Compare this poorly-scoring example from the one above. Do you see any of the words we suggested to help you show how poetic devices are used?

“Prove”? “Show”? “Demonstrates”? “Reveals”?

Simply labeling poetic devices not only does not answer the prompt, but fails to show any mastery of those devices.

Tips from the Graders:

  1. Stay focused on the prompt, and only the prompt. Graders of the 2014 AP English Literature FRQ found that many students included extraneous points. Write a strong argument that answers that prompt and make every sentence further that argument.
  2. Focus on the difference between analysis and summary. Summaries or paraphrases should never be used on the FRQ portion. Analysis is key.

2014 Free Response Question #2:

If given the choice between analyzing poetry or prose, which would you choose? Given the historically higher scores on the prose question, most would avoid poetry. However, on the 2014 AP English Literature FRQ portion is was the second question, the prose section, that scored the lowest. Let’s dive into what they found so challenging and learn from their mistakes.

The Prompt

It seems at first that we’re off to a good start. This prompt also includes some great clues on how to score the most points on your essay. It suggested that test takers consider point of view, selection of detail, and imagery to analyze “how the author reveals the character of Moses”.

Often in the prompt of the second free response question, you’ll see context for the excerpt you’re asked to analyze. For the 2014 free response question the students were only told it was from a novel called The Known World by Edward P. Jones and nothing more. But think about this: not receiving a clue about context is in itself a clue about context. If you don’t receive context in the prompt, as is the case here, this means that all the context you’ll need to answer the prompt is within the text. So don’t worry if you don’t see information about the text. You’ll have everything you need.

An easy way to focus in on what the prompt wants is to reword this as a question. In this case, we would ask ourselves: how does the author reveal the character of Moses? Remember, you’re making an argument.

Let’s see what arguments the 2014 test takers made and how we can improve upon their efforts.

The Good

The Good shows what we should do to score 9s.

Use Logical Structure for Your Essay

Remember what we said earlier about how there is a difference between a well-structure essay and a formulaic one? Here is a perfect example of that. Most students used a formula of simply point one, point two, point three. The test takers were impressed that this essay decided to order the body paragraphs by the chronology found in the excerpt. It helped the test taker build on their argument logically and resulted in a high score.

When you’re taking your test, make sure you take a few minutes before you start writing to outline your essay. Look it over and see if the argument flows logically. If it doesn’t, pausing for a moment to rearrange will make a huge difference in your score.

Create a Compelling Conclusion

The test takers found this essay’s thesis in the first paragraph particularly compelling : “the power of nature overwhelms [Moses’] bond with his fellow man”. However, what earned this test taker a high score was the above conclusion.

Practice managing your time so you always have time for a strong, well articulated conclusion. Many students run out of time and rush a conclusion, or exclude it altogether. Without a strong conclusion it’s hard to score above a 6.

The Bad

The Bad shows us what we can avoid doing to go from 6 to a 9.

Write Colloquially

When you’re talking with your friends we’re perfectly fine with you say “… he is getting some sort of insane high…” But as much as the test graders of the AP English Literature FRQ want you to succeed, they are not your friends. Remember that you’re supposed to be demonstrating college level writing and composition.

Keep your writing formal. The only “insane high” on your test should be your score.

Use Superlatives

This quite simply is a lazy way of writing. Try to avoid superlatives in your writing as a general rule, because they don’t mean anything. Think about it. What does it matter that the last paragraph is the most intense? Perhaps instead the test taker should have explained how the structure of the excerpt used increasingly tense diction to show the growing paranoia of the speaker.

Generalities and superlatives don’t add to your argument. So they won’t add to your score.

The Ugly

The Ugly shows us what to avoid at all costs. The Ugly are point killers.

Interpret Figurative Language Literally

Earlier we talked about finding the complexities in the literature you’re asked to analyze on the AP English Literature FRQ. This is an example of ignoring the complexities. This test taker unfortunately read this image as literal when the graders pointed out that it was actually figurative. Not only did this mean the test taker misidentified a literary device, but they also failed to understand the deeper meaning. These in combination result in an ugly score.

Practice identifying when speakers use literal versus figurative language so you can spot it on your test.

Create a Poor First Impression

A bad first paragraph, and more specifically, a bad thesis, is the equivalent of tying your ankles together before a race. Sure, you could still finish, but you probably won’t finish near the top and you’re just making it unnecessarily hard on yourself. If you practice only one thing before your exam, practice strong thesis statements.

Tips from the Graders:

  1. Work on finding more complexity in character analysis. The graders found that many students failed to see the different layers of the characters. A lot of essays included simple statements about the character’s personality or morality instead of complex analysis.
  2. Connect the literary devices to meaning within the passage. Do not just identify the literary device. The author used that device for a reason. Discover why and then write about it.

2014 Free Response Question #3:

The final question of the AP English Literature FRQ portion offers the most freedom in your answer. But many test-takers make the mistake of losing their focus and writing less tightly or formally. Remember that even this last question needs a strong argument, specific textual evidence, and a well-organized, eloquently written essay.

Don’t lose easy points on what should be the easiest question.

The Prompt

The 2014 AP English Literature FRQ #3 had many different components and many students missed a part and in turn failed to completely answer the prompt. An essay that does not fully answer the prompt, no matter how well-written otherwise, cannot earn all the points available. So when you see a prompt with multiple parts, we suggest writing them out in the margin to help organize yourself. Underline each part, circle it, or put a star next to it. Do whatever helps you visualize everything you need to hit.

We all know the first and last lines are the most important. The very last line of this prompt stated: Do not merely summarize the plot. It’s last, because it’s the greatest point killer. It’s last, because it’s a very common mistake. It’s last, because if you read the whole prompt it will be in the forefront of your mind. And that’s yet another reason to always read the whole prompt every time.

The Good

The Good shows up what we should do to score 9’s.

Dive Deeper

The graders were impressed with how this test-taker discussed multiple forms of sacrifice in selected literature. The above shows a focus on the sacrifice of health and safety, but the essay also went on to detail sacrifice of prosperity and, ultimately, life itself. This time of analysis goes above and beyond what the prompt calls for and the graders rewarded the test-taker’s efforts.

Especially in the final question of the AP English Literature FRQ, where everyone across the board scores higher, it’s important to find a way to distinguish yourself for those coveted 9’s. Dive deeper. Find just one more level to explore. Always push.

Start Strong

The best way to set your essay up for success is a strong opening paragraph and thesis. The test takers were impressed with this essay’s clear argument. We said starting poorly is like tying your ankles together. Well, starting strongly is like racing downhill.

The Bad

The Bad shows us what we can avoid doing to go from 6 to a 9.

Write Your Own Prompt

This essay focused primarily on a character’s magnanimity in the face of mistreatment, when the prompt asked for an analysis of a character’s sacrifice. It notes how Jane can forgive even after being treated so poorly, which may be true, but it does not directly answer the prompt.

No matter how eloquent, well argued, or thoroughly evidenced, if your essay doesn’t answer the prompt, it cannot score in the upper third.

Include Unnecessary Information

Similar to the point we made above, this is an example of extraneous information that does not add to any argument. This shows a lack of focus and a poor grasp of both the piece of literature and the themes within it. Especially on a timed test, every sentence, if not every word, needs to work hard for you. Every sentence needs to go toward furthering your argument with the best evidence from the text.

The Ugly

The Ugly shows us what to avoid at all costs. The Ugly are point killers.

Demonstrate a Lack of Control Over College Level Composition

The above example contains multiple spelling errors, unclear prose, and incorrect grammar. Not only does this reflect poorly on the essay, but it makes it much more difficult for the grader to understand the meaning hidden underneath the mistakes.

Imagine that you yourself are a grader of the AP English Literature FRQ. You’ve been grading all day and come upon the above sentences. How much patience would you have to wade through that prose?

We understand the test is timed and this can add a lot of pressure to write quickly. But remember not to sacrifice clarity and accuracy.

Tips from the Graders:

  1. Don’t forget about the historical and cultural context of the novel or play that you decide to write on for the third question of the AP English Literature FRQ. Ignoring it can lead to oversimplification and even misunderstanding of plot and themes.
  2. Organize your essay in the most effective way. The graders encouraged test takers to consider ordinal, chronological, or climactic ordering, even on a timed five paragraph essay.

Now it’s Your Turn

We believe that one of best ways to improve your writing and analyzing skills is to take practice test after practice test. And yes, after practice test. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But nothing is better at seeing where your weaknesses are so you can strengthen them.

Now that you’ve taken a look at previous AP English Literature FRQ takers’ weaknesses, it’s the perfect time to take the test yourself. If you’re up for the challenge, set up conditions that will mirror those you’ll have on the day of your test. Clear your desk, turn off the tv and take off the headphones, and lock the door. The only reason your cell phone should be on is to use as a timer. Take it seriously and write with everything we’ve gone over together in mind.

Then take a look at the grading criteria, read the graders’ comments, and see how you’d stack up. Did you fall into any of the traps the 2014 students fell into? Did you use all the tips we learned from those who scored those 9’s? What areas can you improve on? And more importantly, how will you improve those areas?

Tell us in the comments below!

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Section I

Multiple Choice — 52 to 55 Questions | 1 Hour | 45% of Exam Score

  • Excerpts from non-fiction texts are accompanied by several multiple-choice questions

Section II

Free Response — 3 Free-Response Questions | 2 Hours, 15 Minutes (includes a 15-minute reading period) | 55% of Exam Score

This section has three prompts:

  • Synthesis: Students read several texts about a topic and create an argument that synthesizes at least three of the sources to support their thesis.
  • Rhetorical analysis: Students read a non-fiction text and analyze how the writer's language choices contribute to his or her purpose and intended meaning for the text.
  • Argument: Students create an evidence-based argument that responds to a given topic.

The total Section II time is 2 hours and 15 minutes. This includes a 15-minute reading period. The reading period is designed to provide students with time to develop thoughtful, well-organized responses. They may begin writing their responses before the reading period is over.

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