Last Minute Study Tips for the AP English Language and Composition Exam


A couple things you can do that might bump you up to a level 4 or 5.

You can’t really cram for the AP English Language exam. Despite all the fancy terminology and resources The College Board might have in their database (such as videos like this), it’s a skill-based exam at the end of the day. The way it works is you go in on exam day and get your exam package and that’s it – those are your “study” materials, so to speak, right there in the package. You study them on the spot and apply your skills. So there’s no point in memorizing all the readings you may (or may not) have done in your AP course throughout the year, because you’ll be applying your skills to the writing samples you end up with on the exam.  And I’m not gonna lie to you – if you don’t have the skills by now, you’re kind of screwed.

I’m talking about your reading comprehension ability, your ability to synthesize other writers’ arguments, to write good sentences under pressure – these, among others, are the skills that have to be mastered before exam day. And it takes months if not years of training to build these skills.

So, assuming you’ve at least built these skills up to a borderline level 3 level, what else can you do to prepare for the exam, and possibly bump yourself up to a 4, or even 5?

Get out from under your rock and read the news

In his treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle told his students to “see the available means of persuasion in each case.” What does this mean? Basically Aristotle wanted his students to get good at recognizing debate situations and topics. He wanted them to recognize the arguments of all sides in a debate, to the point that they (his students) knew all the weaknesses and strengths that come with those sides. The goal was not to become invested in an issue; it was to recognize all available persuasive opportunities within it.

Aristotle’s advice to his students still applies to the AP Language exam today. It’s particularly useful for the “argument essay” you’ll have to write – this is the one where you get a broad prompt and no accompanying text. You’ll have to rely on your own life experience and awareness of different debate topics to answer it.

So read the news. What are the debate topics and issues of the day, and what are people saying about them? You can even check in on those political panels that happen on the major news networks, where these big shot official-looking people show up to offer insightful comments on issues at hand. Maybe it’s how to respond to climate change. Maybe it’s about international trade deals affecting local workers. Whatever it is, listen to what they’re saying and see the different points and counter-points they make against one another. Soak it all in with a sense of neutrality – remember, your goal is to be good at rhetoric aka persuasion, not to be an advocate for any of these issues. Of course you can personally take a side on a debate topic if you want – just don’t let it get in the way of “seeing the available means of persuasion.”

Once you know a situation, you can take a stance on it. And your stance will be all the stronger because you know what all the sides are saying, so you can respond with counterpoints accordingly.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m gonna say, and this is an unofficial, unscientific statistic, that 95% of the time it’s a bad idea to go looking for quality arguments in YouTube comments (and comments sections in general). So maybe don’t bother with that.

Do a mock exam (if you haven’t already) and readjust your time gauge

Hopefully by now you’ve done a mock exam to prepare for the real exam. What was the section on the exam that took you the longest? The suggested time allotments are outlined on the College Board’s website. As of the time of this posting, it should take you 40 minutes for the rhetorical analysis essay, 40 minutes for the open response essay (or “argument” essay, as the College Board calls it), 55 minutes for the synthesis essay (this includes a 15 min reading time), and 60 minutes to complete the 45 questions in the multiple choice section. Focus on the section you struggled with most – maybe you didn’t complete it or maybe it became a big time sink. Reflect on what happened – where in your question-answering process did you get blocked up?

This might come across as very obvious advice, but I’ve known many students that didn’t bother going back to the drawing board after they struggled with a section, even though they knew they had struggles! So try it again, maybe with a different approach. And maybe also communicate your struggles to your teacher, and see what they have to say.

Get serious about rhetorical devices

It’s not enough to merely identify a rhetorical device. Nor is it enough to identify it and say that the device “emphasizes” a writer’s point. This is obvious, and will make your exam grader sad, mad, or sad and mad combined. What your grader (and also just people in general) care about is the actual tangible experience that takes place when this emphasis happens. How the heck is the emphasis working??? Your grader wants to know.

For example, let’s say you’re talking about Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and you want to talk about the line where he says, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Do not say Martin Luther King’s mining imagery emphasizes his point. Instead, talk about how his mining imagery conveys a tedious, workman-like approach to rebuilding race relations in America.

Revisit a text you’ve already read

Hopefully you’ve taken an AP course, or maybe self-studied for one, or maybe you think you’re a scholastic baller who’s got the skills already, so why not go for the exam? Whichever of these categories you fall in, revisit a text you’ve read before, preferably something non-fiction, or just something where you know (through your prior work with the text) what the author’s argument is. Revisit it and check out the rhetorical strategies the author uses (whether it is a specific moment of logic, or a specific moment in his language, like a rhetorical device). Check out what the author did in that moment (pick just one moment! And make sure it’s specific! This is my teacher voice talking!), and practice describing the specific technique you see on the page, how the author uses it in the moment, and also how it ties to the author’s overall argument. In other words, get comfortable with shifting your scale from micro to macro – this is a skill you’ll need on the exam because it demonstrates your ability to work with a specific rhetorical strategy, as well as your ability to apply that strategy to a broader point, where the stakes of the argument matter.

It might be nice if you understand the way an ironic comment is working – but your understanding won’t carry much weight if you can’t tie that moment of irony to a larger point the author is making.

There’s gotta be more tips out there, but these are my four go-to strategies – I tell them to my students when our course ends. I now must include an obligatory line saying, “what last minute strategies do you have? Are they different from the ones above? Post them in the comments below!” so there you have it, go ahead and post them.



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