How to Prepare Kids for the AP Lit Test

Let’s start this blog off by first saying that I am no expert at teaching AP Literature and Composition. In fact, last year was my first time EVER teaching AP Lit. It was an absolute blast, and I hope I can teach the course for years to come. That said, my scores were pretty decent for a first year AP teacher, I think (okay, I’m going to go ahead and say they were even really good). I beat the national passing average by 25% and had the highest AP Lit scores my school has had in years. I worked my you-know-what off and nearly died in the process, but it seems to have paid off.

Here’s the national score breakdown by average:

5 6.8%     4 16.1%     3 29.9%     2 33.9%     13.3%

Here’s my school’s score breakdown by average (I wasn’t the only AP Lit teacher):

5 6.6%     12.2%     37.7%     2 36.8%     6.6%

Here’s my score breakdown by average:

5 10.9%     4 19.6%     47.8%     2 19.6%     1 2.1%

I’m really happy with my scores. My administration doesn’t put as much pressure on our test scores as some do, so I didn’t have that hanging over my head all year and could just focus on teaching. When I first started teaching, I moved to Texas and taught at a school where the emphasis on test scores was high. If you didn’t have high scores, then you were not doing a good job. I found myself surrounded by teachers who tried to teach to a test (understandably so, though). I didn’t focus much on the test there either, and my scores ended up being just fine, but I left as soon as I could. I decided to carry that philosophy over with me to teaching AP Lit this year. In fact, I barely taught the test at all. Why? Because we really have no clue what will be on the test. Seriously, if kids know how to read and read well and analytically, then they will be prepared. That’s the place to focus your energy! I’m not all about that “Multiple Choice Monday” life some AP teachers do. Like, yuck! I would hate it as a student, so I’m sure my students do, too. And they don’t need it if you teach them strategies for handling multiple choice questions (which will help them in college, too!).

Beginning of the Year

My students read How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Revised Edition) by Thomas C. Foster over the summer. This is their introduction to the kind of analytical reading that will be expected of them throughout the course. I read Foster’s original text in high school, and it helped transform me as a reader, so I think this text is paramount to helping students in this course. Student reactions to the text are mixed (they either love it or tend to hate it because they don’t like Foster’s tone), but they all admit that it’s beneficial and teaches them things about analyzing literature that they don’t already know.

During the first full week of school, my students also take a full AP Mock exam. If you’re an AP Lit teacher, make sure you have access to your Course Audit. The “Secure Documents” section of your Course Audit account includes multiple, full mock exams with scoring guides, score reports, and the 2016 practice exam even breaks down the multiple choice in three skills to focus on: comprehension, interpretation, and recognition of literary technique. You can do this with any of the tests on your own as well using the question stems in the multiple choice section (I prefer the 2014 practice exam). We do the multiple choice section on a block day and the FRQs on regular schedule days. I change the prompt for FRQ 3 to fit their choice summer reading novel (which they read in addition to How to Read Lit), so we don’t have to do another essay for the summer reading assessment.

After giving the mock exam, I quickly read through FRQ 1 and FRQ 2 and make notes to give feedback to the entire class on how to improve for that type of question (poetry or prose) for their next timed write. I spend a little more time on FRQ 3 and give specific feedback in the form of questions. For example, “How can you make your thesis more explicit? What, exactly, are you trying to argue?” This way, kids know they need to work on thesis development and make their argument clear in the thesis, and I don’t have to focus on giving 5 positive comments to every 1 negative comment (because they’re all questions to drive thinking).

Once I’m done grading the FRQs, I have my aide enter scores into a Google Spreadsheet to analyze the types of MC questions students are most struggling with. I’m going to skip this step this year, and I’m going to use the new Google Forms to have my kids enter their own MC results. For example, I will type “1” as the question, and kids will answer the multiple choice question of “Correct” or “Incorrect” under that number. That way, I get nice little pie charts for every question! They analyze their scores and set goals to focus on throughout the year based on the skills they struggle with most.

During my “Lit Fit” unit, a literary analysis bootcamp unit on short stories and poetry, we also talk about “The Unwritten Rules of Poetry.”

Then, we don’t explicitly talk about the AP Lit test again until after spring break . . . We do continue to give timed writes, and I do continue to give individual and whole group feedback and teach the kids how to give peer feedback, but I don’t talk about the test much here at all (other than scoring).


I think some of my kids were a little mad that I didn’t start preparing them for the test sooner (though, I kind of was, because I made them keep Major Works Data Sheets for everything we read and gave them multiple choice tests on what they were reading every now and then using AP question stems). If you don’t know how to write AP-style questions, just pull out a released exam and use the question stems there to create your own questions (you know that whole “mentor text” idea? This is using it yourself!). I went over the test using a Google Presentation on The AP Lit Exam that I made based on the notes that I took at my AP Summer Institute (APSI) training for new AP Lit teachers in July 2016. I might go over this at the beginning of the year (after the Mock Exam because I like to track growth between the beginning of the year mock and end of the year mock), but I haven’t decided yet. Maybe I’ll leave it up to the kids!

At the beginning of April, I give kids the same mock exam they took in August. This time around, I give individual feedback on EACH FRQ (they get a different prompt for FRQ 3 though), and they compare their scores and evaluate if they met their beginning of the year goals.

Lastly, for multiple choice practice once a week leading up to the test (only in April!), I pull from the 2009 released exam which came in my APSI Workshop Handbook. I hand out one excerpt and the accompanying ten questions to students. They spend 3 minutes reading and annotating the excerpt (I tell them when it’s been 3 minutes the first few times we do this) and then they spend the last 7 minutes answering the questions. They’re often surprised how much time they have left over. Once all the questions are answered individually, students get into groups of 4-6 and answer the questions as a group. If they all agree on the answer, they may move to the next question. If anyone disagrees on an answer, the group must go back to the excerpt and question and discuss until they come up with what they think is the correct answer. Once all groups have finished their discussions, I pull them together. Each group must share out the answer they got to each question, and we go through the questions, answers, and explanations one at a time. I don’t explain the answer if all groups got it right unless an individual student requests I explain something.

I also shared advice from the #APLitChat community over on Twitter (every Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET hosted by @TalksWTeachers) and showed the video advice from Susan Barber and company are a FANTASTIC resource. Check them out!

Poetry w/ Susan Barber (@susangbarber on Twitter)

Prose w/ Adrian Nester (@adriantnester on Twitter)

Free-Response w/ Jori Krulder (@JoriKrulder on Twitter)

Again, I am new at this and have never been to The Reading. If you’re a reader, please let me know if you have any other tips to add to my presentations!

If students want to study, they’re welcome to check out AP Lit test prep books from me, the school library, or our public library, or they may purchase their own. I don’t really have a favorite recommendation for kids to get, but I tend to use Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP English Literature and Composition Exam the most myself as a reference. I also like the 5 Steps to a 5 series.

Feel free to use my resources in your own classes. You can make a copy of them and change them however you see fit, but please don’t sell them.

What tips do you have for preparing students for the AP Lit exam? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear more ideas!




One thought on “How to Prepare Kids for the AP Lit Test

  1. Rachel Pfoutz says:

    Great blog, girl!!

    As for multiple choice, I tend to do the following throughout the year. Before I go into that though, I have to make clear (and I make this clear to my students) -I almost NEVER grade my students on “AP” multiple choice. This stresses students out so much and serves as such a deterrent for enjoying analysis I find. I emphasize that, for us, the m.c. serves as additional points of critical analysis. And practice makes us better at critical analysis. (Athletic team rankings are not scored or their practice scrimmages, those make them better at the “real thing”).

    So, what do I grade? See below.

    My most common m.c. activity, Group rotating discussions:

    -choose 6-8 m.c. questions for an excerpt we are reading (from a novel, play, poem, prose, etc.).

    -print each question on individual sheets of paper, 1 question per paper (with no a/b/c/d/e answers! You may have to rewrite question(s) a smidge if it’s an “all of the following except” ).

    -Attach to larger square of brainstorming paper. Put around the room at stations, and students rotate to each station.

    -students classify question type, brainstorm answers, provide multiple pieces of textual evidence, dialogue.

    -After, students (individually) will be given all of the questions, with the a/b/c/d/e, and complete.

    -(option can go back into groups to discuss a/b/c/d/e)
    -as a class, discuss right answers. Could also discuss the “nearly right” answers if appropriate vs. the “most right”.

    -what I grade: students pick 2-3 questions and, in an extended paragraph, justify the right answer. They type this up in a short Google doc and submit online.

    – occassionally, I may give students credit for their annotations of passage AND questions (listing evidence for their questions and options a/b/c/d/e).

    -my students most always submit their m.c. answers in a Google form after they wrote their answers on their paper. I share with them a template Google form that lists the question # and a/b/c/d/e. (I don’t even type in the questions or detailed answers so I can quickly copy the form for the next passage). This data provides me as with a snapshot of how the class is doing as a whole on specific question types/skills.


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