How Hard is the AP English Language Exam?


It’s pretty hard. You will have to write 3 essays and answer 45 multiple choice questions in one sitting. One essay alone is enough to tire a writer out so yeah, it’s hard.

Obviously it’s not impossible though, and people do score level 3 and above every year (290, 071 students did in 2022). So how about I, an AP Language teacher, explain to you what exactly makes it a tough exam.

Pushes your writing stamina to the limit

Back in my undergrad days, I’d have to write these end-of-term in-class exams, which were always hectic. They would involve short answer questions, long answer questions, and usually one essay question at the end. I remember saving my thinking strength for that final essay question because I knew it would take the most brainpower, the most amount of critical thinking and connection-making between concepts. I hated in-class exams and I always felt dead after them. I also always had to use the bathroom very badly afterwards.

When I learned that the AP Language exam had not one, not two, but three essay questions, I immediately felt bad for my students and wondered how The College Board could be so sadistic.

But we don’t have time to lament the sadistic world we live in so why don’t I tell you about the three essays you’ll have to write.

You’ll have to:

  1.  write a synthesis essay that incorporates other writers’ ideas into your own unique idea (this essay includes a collection of readings you’ll have to research and consider),
  2. write a rhetorical analysis essay that makes an argument about the language choices in a given passage,
  3.  and write an open-response essay that answers a broad prompt (with examples).

All three essays will need to have intros, conclusions, body paragraphs, theses, etc. etc. That’s a lot of brainpower.

So if you’re like me and you’re one of those kids who never manages to finish an in-class essay early, who always milks every second they can to do the best job they can, and who always has to use the bathroom very badly afterwards because the test is so dang long and maybe you drank too much water to keep yourself hydrated, then you’re in for a tough time.

But it’s doable as long as you pace yourself and keep your cool – as long as you practice writing and arguing until it feels innate. If you feel yourself struggling to write every time you’re tasked with writing an essay (especially in-class, under time pressure), then it means you’re not ready. You need more practice before you take on the exam.

Multiple choice section will try to trick you

Many of the multiple choice questions will offer multiple true answers. So if, in a given question, all possible answer options are truthful, how do you know which one to pick? This dilemma is what makes the multiple choice section so hard.

The key is in finding the most correct answer. And to find the most correct answer, you need to be aware of the overall tone or vibe or argument of the reading passage. Let that tone or vibe or argument inform your choice of answer.

You may encounter some multiple choice questions where only one answer is true, but the other selections are so broad, vague, and confusing that it leaves your brain in a bored jumble. You may zone out and think about inappropriate hormonal things, or even faraway memories like the time your friend roofed a soccer ball.

In either scenario (whether it’s multiple true answers or the zone out), the multiple choice section is trying to trick you. And if you let it trick you, it will drain out your time and your brainpower, which you’ll need for the essay-writing section. So obviously drained out brainpower = bad score.

Graders won’t tolerate your BS

This is going to make me sound like an egomaniac, but AP Language teachers and graders really are cut from a different cloth. They are writing and prose fanatics, so you won’t have any luck BSing your way through the essays. I’m not sure if you have an English teacher who might give you a B even though you BS in your essays – but if you do this on the exam, you’ll fail.

What is BSing (bullshitting) exactly? It comes in many forms. One of the most common examples is using jargony, multi-syllabic language, like “render inoperative” rather than something more real and in-your-face, like “kill.”

Other times it may take the form of using broad, vague phrases that show a reluctance, on the writer’s part, to engage with the subject. Like let’s say you’re subject is supposed to be about the impact that a tough-on-crime policy might have on poorer neighborhoods. If the student is BSing, they might say something like “aspects of government policy can have impacts on certain neighborhoods.”

What aspects??? What policy??? What impacts???? Which neighborhoods???

If you write like this, your grader will actually get visibly upset and might even question their role in the universe itself, like what poor life choices did they make to end up with such bogus writing in front of them?

If you are a chronic BSer in your English classes, don’t even think about taking the exam until you kick the habit (or at least take an oath to kick the habit – this is commendable too).

No time to write good copies

Last of all, you can say goodbye to the luxury of the rough copy-good copy process that students often get in their English classes. This is where basically you get some time to write a rough copy of an essay, you give it to your teacher or a fellow student for an edit, you get the edited essay back and make some corrections and voila, you’ve got your good copy. The AP English Language and Composition exam is rough draft only! So you’ll have to write a good rough draft. It will need to be composed, well-written, fully argumentative, and brimming with potential.

So yes, on the one hand, this is tough to do. On the other, it does give you some allowance – the graders know you are writing a rough draft and will grade your essay according. A couple grammar or spelling mistakes or a one-off awkward sentence won’t really bring your score down. A big flaw in logic or a lack of argumentativeness, however, could be your downfall. So this goes back to the writing stamina issue – get a lot of writing practice in and get good at writing. Keep practicing until your rough drafts are good enough to stand on their own. Do not write sketchy rough drafts any more!

From what I’ve seen as an AP English Language and Composition teacher, these four reasons are what make the exam so difficult. Many students get this misconception that English is easy (due to lower standards in their regular English class), or that essays can be BSed, and these misconceptions often lead to their downfall. Get your practice in and increase both the amount you read and the difficulty level of your readings (and also, get a good AP Language teacher), and you may have a shot at a level four or five.



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