Is AP English Literature and Composition Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide

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  • Works of fiction, drama, and poetry illustrate literary techniques and purpose.
  • Students can consider national and district-wide score distributions to gauge course difficulty.
  • Learners can showcase their writing and critical thinking skills and earn college credit.
  • The exam consists of a multiple-choice section and a free-response section.

As college admissions become increasingly competitive, high school students are taking a greater number of AP classes to demonstrate their academic capabilities. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of students taking AP exams increased by 43%.

Because of the rigorous nature of these classes, students must carefully consider which AP classes to take, evaluating which options will present a reasonable academic challenge. In 2020, about 334,000 students took the AP English literature and composition exam. Although AP English literature is popular, this course may not be appropriate or advantageous for all students.

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What Does AP English Literature and Composition Cover?

Students in AP English literature and composition analyze works of fiction, drama, and poetry from various time periods and literary movements. During their analysis, they may consider political and historical contexts. Students must read works critically and reflect on their reading through expository, persuasive, and analytical writing. Below, we detail some of the main course objectives.

  • Analyze language of diverse works of fiction, poetry, and drama
  • Interpret the author's purpose and the means they use to convey this purpose
  • Assess the literary function of characters, structure, narration, imagery, and symbolism
  • Develop and support original arguments and analyses through writing

What Determines the Difficulty of AP English Literature and Composition? 3 Key Factors

AP literature is a challenging class for many learners. Students can consider nationwide score distributions and district averages, as well as their own English literature capabilities, to gauge whether they are likely to succeed in this course.

The Pass Rate

Although the difficulty of the AP English literature exam is largely dependent on an individual's abilities and the quality of instruction at their school, students can use others' performance as a metric to assess the test's difficulty.

Compared to all AP exams, the AP literature exam has a lower pass rate than average. This suggests that it may be one of the harder AP tests. Only 9.3% of AP English literature test-takers received a perfect score of 5 in 2020, whereas 19.6% of all AP test-takers earned a 5 on their exams. By this measure, AP English literature and composition is more difficult than the average AP course.

AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
AP English Literature and Composition 60.1% 9.3%
All AP Classes 71.1% 19.6%

Source: College Board, 2020

However, looking at nationwide averages and pass rates can paint an incomplete picture of a given student's chances of passing or excelling at an AP course. Often, scores depend on an individual teacher's ability to cover course materials successfully.

The Course Material

Although AP STEM and history courses may require more memorization, AP English literature and composition is a very fast-paced English class. Students will likely have to complete large amounts of reading to keep up with the curriculum and comprehend archaic and dense texts.

Students also have to learn and demonstrate a working knowledge of literary concepts through frequent writing assignments. Writing assignments may be timed, in-class prompts or longer, more comprehensive essays.

Your Subject Skills

Ultimately, the difficulty of AP English literature depends on a student's capabilities and academic interests. Competence in reading comprehension and critical thinking is integral to succeeding in this course. This class may be a good fit for students who enjoy reading literature and drawing original conclusions about literary elements.

Students must memorize key concepts and identify them within a text. Learners should also be comfortable formulating written responses and original essays while analyzing literary concepts.

When Should You Take AP English Literature and Composition?

Many high schools offer AP English literature to juniors and seniors. Though certain schools may offer the opportunity to sophomores, this course may not be suitable for students who have less experience with the textual analysis and writing skills that an AP English literature course demands.

Students should also be careful about overloading their schedules with AP coursework. Although it can be tempting to build a transcript that will impress college admissions personnel, taking too many AP courses can be counterproductive. Students risk lowering their GPA or suffering burnout. Learners should be especially careful about pairing AP English literature with other reading- and writing-heavy classes like AP U.S. History or AP Language and Composition.

AP English Literature and Composition Exam: What You Need to Know

The AP English literature and composition exam consists of a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. The table below shows the distribution of scores from the May 2020 exam.

AP English Literature and Composition
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 31,030 9.3%
4 57,642 17.3%
3 111,903 33.5%
2 92,700 27.8%
1 40,705 12.2%

Source: College Board, 2020

How Is the AP English Literature and Composition Exam Structured?

Section one consists of 55 multiple-choice questions, divided into five sections. Each section consists of a fiction or poetry passage and 8-13 corresponding questions. Although the AP English literature exam changes each year, test-takers are always asked to analyze at least two poetry passages and two fiction passages.

Section two is composed of three free-response questions, in which students respond to short literary works. In questions one and two, test-takers analyze a work of poetry and fiction, respectively. They must identify literary elements within these pieces. In question three, students must construct an original argument about a piece and support their interpretation with evidence.

  • Section 1: 55 multiple-choice questions (1 hour)
  • Section 2: 3 free-response questions (2 hours)

How Is the AP English Literature and Composition Exam Scored?

The AP English literature and composition exam is scored on a scale of 1-5. A 5 represents a perfect score, and a 3 or higher represents a passing score.

The multiple-choice section represents 45% of the total exam score. Here, questions correspond directly with core analysis skills. For example, questions related to the function of character, function of setting, and function of narrator represent 16-20%, 3-6%, and 12-26% of the multiple-choice section score, respectively.

The free-response section represents 55% of the total exam score. Test-takers are graded on their ability to develop a logical thesis that corresponds with the prompt, identify appropriate evidence, explain the significance of their chosen evidence, and utilize proper punctuation and grammar.

Section 1 45%
Multiple-Choice Questions 45%
Section 2 55%
Poetry Analysis Question 18.3%
Prose Fiction Analysis Question 18.3%
Literary Argument Question 18.3%

Source: College Board, 2020

AP English Literature and Composition: What Score Do I Need for College Credit?

Students who do well on AP exams can qualify for college credit, eliminating the need to complete certain general education courses once in college. Although this can be hugely advantageous for students, every college has different criteria for what AP exam scores indicate adequate mastery of a given subject.

Although many colleges grant course credit for a 3 or higher, which is considered a passing score, some colleges may require students to earn a 4 or 5 to qualify for college credit.

Should I Take AP English Literature and Composition?

When considering whether AP English literature will be a suitable challenge, students should consider nationwide score distributions, school-specific pass rates, and their individual aptitude in the subject.

Students who have trouble comprehending works of poetry, drama, and prose fiction; generating original interpretations of literary works; or developing written responses in a limited time frame may find this course especially challenging.

Asking teachers and past students about the class is a great way to learn more about the difficulty level of AP English literature and composition at your particular school.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP English Literature and Composition

Is AP English literature and composition worth it?

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AP English literature is a fast-paced and intensive course. Although many high school students take multiple AP classes at once, students should be careful about scheduling AP literature alongside other reading- and writing-heavy classes. Taking on an unreasonably heavy course load can ultimately lower a student's GPA.

For some students -- especially those interested in textual analysis and written communication -- enrolling in AP English literature can be worth it. Students who do well on the AP English literature exam can also earn college credit and effectively reduce the number of general education courses they will need to take to earn their degree.

Do colleges care about AP English literature and composition?

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Colleges want to see that students embrace the academic rigor and accelerated pace presented by AP courses. Although the correlation between GPA and academic mastery can vary by high school, standardized AP exams allow colleges to gauge test-takers' capabilities with a more uniform assessment.

In the case of AP literature, a score of 4 or 5 reflects very well on a student's reading comprehension, critical thinking, and communication skills.

How many credits do you get for AP English literature and composition?

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In many cases, students who do well on their AP English literature and composition test may receive credit for an introductory-level English course, such as English 101. At most institutions, this is the equivalent of three or four credits. However, it is important to note that not all colleges allow students to use AP credits to "skip" foundational courses.

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