Part of effectively preparing for the free response section of the AP English Literature exam is accepting at least this one old truism: practice makes perfect. However, you can up the ante by adding just one more word to that statement. In truth, perfect practice makes perfect.
You should ensure that you practice responding to sample prompts in as precise a manner as possible. How do we measure our precision here? Good question. By examining the AP English Literature rubric for the free response section, the pertinent skills on which your success depends become evident.
Read on for a brief analysis of English Literature rubric, an outline of a sample response with an examination of the pertinent skills at work in the sample, and a discussion of possible strategies that you can use to score your own practice essays.
The AP English Literature Rubric
First of all, I believe the best way for us to analyze the AP English Literature rubric itself is by unpacking the important information found in the 9-8 scoring range. We should aim high here. The very fact that this range defines the highest percentile grades means that essays receiving 8 or 9 marks have everything needed—and a little more than that—to ace this portion of the exam.
So, I’ll unpack the information and compartmentalize it. The top-tier section of the AP English Literature rubric states that the best essays “demonstrate the writer’s ability to discuss a literary work with insight and understanding and to control a wide range of the elements of effective composition.” That’s a little abstract for our analysis, but luckily there’s more concrete information that we can focus on.
A top-tier essay covers an appropriate work and the appropriate elements within that work. Appropriate is subjective though. Carefully consider how the literary work you’ve chosen helps you respond to the prompt. The piece you’ve selected should allow you to make many specific, apt references. These references and their purpose in proving your thesis should be clearly explained in a logical manner. The rubric warns against including “plot summary that is not relevant to the topic,” so make sure, again, that the material is appropriate.
The bottom line is that there are some concrete requirements we can plainly see in the rubric that will not only allow you to analyze your own writing, but that will also inform the way you practice writing for the AP English Literature exam. Let’s get down to some perfect practice.
Sample Free Response Outline
The following example prompt comes from the 2013 AP English Literature free response section.
“…Select a single pivotal moment in the psychological or moral development of the protagonist of a bildungsroman. Then write a well-organized essay that analyzes how that single moment shapes the meaning of the work as a whole.” For clarification, bildungsroman is German for “novel of formation,” or a coming-of-age story.
Let’s use A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which is a title included in the prompt. We’re sure it’s appropriate because it’s a story of a nineteenth-century Irish Catholic boy growing up to become a writer, a coming-of-age story in which a boy grapples with heady questions of morality and self and eventually finds peace as an adult. The protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, spurns his religion briefly, but he eventually rededicates himself to piety. He later realizes, in the pivotal moment we’ll discuss, that his love and desire of beauty should not be shameful to him. He is forever changed by freeing himself from his religion.
Here’s a brief outline for a sample response to this prompt:
1. Stephen Dedalus’ psychological and moral development throughout James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man directly correlates to the protagonist’s struggle with his faith and his sense of self.
2. The pivotal moment in Stephen’s development and in the story itself takes place when Stephen succeeds in his struggle to no longer be constrained by religion.
1. The truly pivotal moment in Stephen’s development takes place when Stephen decides that his love of and desire for beauty should not be shameful to him.
a. Late in chapter 4, Stephen considers the myth of Daedalus and sees a beautiful girl whom he regards as an angel.
b. Stephen is changed by this experience in that he can grow and become the artist he wishes to be.
2. This moment shapes the meaning of the story itself by illustrating the author’s own struggle to become an artist and possible his own pivotal moment.
a. It is at this point in the story that Joyce’s diction and style become more elevated, reflecting Stephen’s development sans religion.
b. By Chapter 5, Stephen seems well adjusted and as if he is able to embrace adulthood.
1. The moment when Stephen observes the angelic girl in the water and contemplates the myth of Daedalus represents a pivotal moment not only in the story but in Stephen’s psychological and moral development throughout Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
2. This moment shapes the story by, in effect, being one of the main reasons that Joyce wrote it.
3. Joyce himself struggled with his religion, and, once free of it, developed into the artist he was meant to be, much like Stephen.
First, it was established that the literary work chosen was appropriate. The elements chosen, the pivotal moment was also established as appropriate, according to the prompt. Next, an understanding of the concept and of the references made in Paragraph I was demonstrated. Then, I responded to the other portion of the prompt regarding how the pivotal moment shapes the story and demonstrated an understanding of the references made in support of that. Finally, an insight was made regarding Joyce’s reason for writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
This is an O.K. response. It’s nothing special but it gives us an example text to guide our discussion of the strategies you can use to score your own practice essays.
Scoring Practice Essays
The easiest way to score your practice essays is to consider the concrete information that’s known about how the readers will score your essays. The following five questions are useful in scoring your practice essays but also in guiding your preparation for the actual test.
First, pretty obviously, have you actually made an attempt to respond to the prompt precisely and with only relevant material? If so, you’ve at least gotten off to a good start.
Second, analyze your structure and organization. Can you follow the logic in your essay without having to mentally fill in any blanks? If you notice that some part of the logic is unclear and requires you to make some cognitive jump, rest assured your reader will notice this. Good organization and structure of your thoughts is plainly pivotal to upping your essay scores. If you can read through your response comfortably, you’re in good shape.
Third, analyze your diction and rhetorical strategies. Do you use a varied vocabulary? Have you employed any college-level composition strategies such as parallelism or antithesis? If no to either of these, you’re running par for the course. If yes to both, you’re doing pretty well.
Fourth, examine how your references demonstrate your understanding of the prompt, the text, and the elements of the text which you’ve discussed in your essay. Do you make any clever insights? Have you made a unique connection to or inference about the piece? If you’re confident that your response demonstrates your understanding of these key artifacts, then you’re probably looking at a 6 or 7 mark.
Fifth, scrutinize the style of your essay. This is the final part of your self-scoring. If you read over your essay and remark on your own style, even if you’re critical at times, in a positive way, there’s a chance your response may be an 8 or better.
Asking these questions is a quick, easy barometer for gauging the effectiveness of your AP English Literature free response responses.
Effective preparation for the AP English Literature free response section depends on accepting that practice makes perfect. Strive throughout the time you spend studying to practice as perfectly as possible.
With this analysis of the rubric itself and the discussion of the five graduated questions you should ask about your practice essays, you’ve got a few more tools to use in ensuring that your practice is as perfect and precise as possible.
Ensure that your essays cover appropriate material. Analyze your organization. Examine your diction and usage of rhetorical strategies. Criticize your understanding of the prompt, the text, and the elements you’ve called out in the essay. Scrutinize your style.
By performing these five actions, you’re increasing your odds of putting forth a solid performance on test day.
Photo by The Egoist Ltd., London (Immediate image source: , linked at .) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By the way, you should check out Albert.io for your AP English Literature review. We have hundreds of AP English Literature practice questions written just for you!
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